Newspapers, radio chat shows and the blogosphere have been abuzz for the past week or so with heated discussions of the recent “disrupted” adoption of a 7-year-old Russian boy, who was sent back to Moscow by his adopted mother. I confess I’ve been “glued to the screen” reading about what happened and the outpouring of commentary that has followed. It’s like a car wreck; you don’t want to see it but you can’t look away.
Candidly, stories like this make me uncomfortable because they draw attention to the dark underbelly of adoption whether it’s abuse or abandonment, trafficking or travesties of justice. These are not the “and they lived happily ever after” stories that people (particularly prospective adoptive moms, like me) want to hear.
I debated whether or not to blog about this, partially because there’s plenty of press, both fact-based and personal opinion already out there, and also because I feel hesitant to cast my vote on whether I think the Torry Hansen, the adoptive mother in this case, made the “right” or “wrong” decision.
I don’t believe it’s my place to judge Torry. I don’t know what resources were available to her and whether or not she took advantage of those that were. I don’t know the complete reality of her circumstances. I wasn’t in her shoes.
But ultimately what spurred me on to write is that the story I find most compelling isn’t solely Torry’s story at all. It’s a complex intermingling of stories: Artem (aka Justin), her adopted son and other adopted children; Russian orphanages along with foster care institutions the world over; governments – ours and theirs and the agreements arranged and regulations required; the birth moms we rarely hear about; and, adoptive parents – some faced with enormous challenges, like Torry, and many others who are not.
As an adoptive-mom-wanna-be myself, I know what Torry went through in the first place to adopt her child. I know there were many classes she needed to take. I know there were stacks of forms to be completed. I know there was a home study by a licensed social worker. I know that she was required to provide several references. I know that all her forms were notarized and then apostilled; every little piece of paper was verified at least twice. I know there were criminal clearances, child abuse checks and federal fingerprints. I know there was great financial burden. I know she planned and waited and then waited some more for the day when she became a mom. Adopting internationally, particularly from Russia, is not a fly by night process. So, no matter how I feel about what ultimately happened, I can’t imagine that the decision to undo all of this was undertaken lightly.
What truly breaks my heart is the fallout from her actions and the subsequent reaction of the Russian government which resulted in a temporary suspension of U.S. adoptions from Russia. I feel for adoptive parents-to-be who, like Big Papa and me, have poured their hearts, souls, time and money towards creating a family and yet could now find themselves in limbo indefinitely.
I feel, too, for the 740,000 orphans in Russia alone who, like Artem, remain without families. In the end, that’s who this really hurts. Suspending adoptions isn’t a solution. It’s not even an effective Band-Aid. There are countless international adoptions from Russia and elsewhere around the world that have been a resounding success, for the adoptee and their adoptive family. Stories like this sadden me, because it leaves a picture in the public mind that is so far from the truth. It taints and distorts the image of forming a family through adoption.
According to the Department of Social and Human Services, disruptions (both domestic and international) represent 10%-25% of completed adoptions, with the higher rates rising with the age of the child at adoption. Adoption dissolutions (legal rights between adoptive parent and child terminated) are between 1%-10%, with the higher percentages being related to adoptions that have involved special needs children and children from a foster care system. Torry Hansen isn’t the first, and certainly won’t be the last, to have her adoption dissolved even if, admittedly, her story was staggeringly dramatic.
Foster care, both in the U.S. and around the world, is in a woeful state. In Russia, there have been many reports of children being abused in orphanages. Once kids leave their system, they end up on the streets leading a life of crime or prostitution. Russia is hardly alone in claims of abuse. Many countries have been cited for a range of physical, sexual and emotional abuses of children under government care. And the U.S. certainly can’t be the one pointing a finger, with our own foster care system dreadfully broken.
But what is the alternative? People have babies they aren’t equipped to care for. Women drink alcohol or take drugs during their pregnancies resulting in permanently damaged children. Disease, economic failure, wars, natural disasters and genocides plague our planet leaving countless children without parents or a home.
When all is said and done, adoption is anything but smooth and straight-forward. It is an unpredictable journey from day one and, continuing on, for the lifetimes of all those involved. Adopting is not a goal that, once “achieved,” fades into a haze of rainbow colored flowers and ‘forever families.’ Just like families formed any other way, adoptive families are a crazy-quilt mix of wildly successful happy endings, abysmal failures and every permutation in between that you can possibly imagine.
We can vilify Torry Hansen all we want. We can rail against the injustices of Russian orphanages until the cows come home. We can bury prospective adoptive parents under mountains of paperwork and regulations. We can suspend adoptions when abuses (in the country or with adoptive parents) are suspect. In the end, what have we accomplished?
I want to be clear that I’m not trying to make excuses for a woman who put her adopted son on a plane and sent him packing. I’m not looking the other way at the systemic abuses in orphanages and foster care both domestically and globally. I’m not pretending that there aren’t horrific stories of adoptions that go south. I’m not writing any of this off.
But as an adoptive mom-to-be and a writer, what I do want to draw attention to is the fact that no matter how thorough the background checks, no matter how strict the guidelines, there will be always be instances of abuse on all sides – by adoptive parents, by governments and by orphanages. There will always be “matches” of children to parents that seem ‘meant to be’ and others that are, at best, oil and water.
What this story, and stories like it that periodically circulate in the media, should be is a call to action. We need to commit to offering more comprehensive and holistic support to kids who are struggling, whether in birth, foster or adoptive homes. We need to find ways to help birth moms make choices that are in the best interests of their children, whether they find it within themselves to parent this child or place this child in the arms of someone who can. And even knowing sometimes things will go terribly wrong, we’ve got to find our way through the maze and keep moving forward to create ways to sustain those who have room in their hearts and space under their roof for children not born to them. Because no matter what, there will always be children who need someone to love them and a place to call home.
Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.