Tennessee's Adoption Outrage

A local sheriff says it isn't clear that the woman who sent her troubled adopted child back to Russia broke any laws. Catherine Arnst on why that's an insult to parents everywhere.

04.11.10 10:59 PM ET

My 11-year-old daughter has been pretty difficult lately. She throws tantrums, she tells me I’m ruining her life, she doesn’t do her chores, she’s broken three cellphones. Typical pre-teen behavior you say? Well, maybe to you, but evidently I don’t have to put up with it. I can send her back to China, where I got her.

Sounds despicable, right? At least I hope it does. But that is the message relayed by the shocking case of the Tennessee woman who adopted a 7-year-old boy from Russia in September, then shipped him back last Thursday because of his bad behavior. The case of Justin Hansen, born Artyom Savelyem, has justifiably sparked an international incident, with Russia threatening to close off all international adoptions. That’s heartbreaking for the 1,500 Russian children adopted by U.S. parents each year and the families waiting for them. For me, it is also heartbreaking that too many people believe adopted children just aren’t quite the same as biological—i.e. “real”—offspring.

I patiently explain, whenever anyone asks me about my Chinese daughter’s “real” parents, that I am her real parent. As such, I would hope to be prosecuted to the full extent of any law out there if I did anything to harm her.

Any biological parent would be charged with abandonment if he or she put a child on a plane to a foreign country, alone, with a note saying, essentially, “I don’t want him anymore.” But the Tennessee sheriff who has jurisdiction over this case, Randall Boyce, told a news conference that it is “hard to say exactly if a law had been broken.” Since it is not clear that the family ever completed the adoption once they brought Artyom home, they could be free to send him wherever.

Susan Scarf Merrell: Adoption’s Dirty SecretSurely a moral law was broken, at least? Plenty of people don’t think so. Read some of the comments to the popular Motherlode blog by Lisa Belkin on The New York Times and you’ll come across a substantial minority of posters arguing “judge not lest you be judged.” There’s also a lot of grumbling that too many of these international adoptees are nothing but trouble—unlike the biological children who, say, bully their schoolmates to the point where they commit suicide. Motherlode received similar comments last year when it aired the story of Anita Tedaldi, a woman who adopted a 1-year-old boy from South America and then gave him up 18 months later because she failed to emotionally bond with him.

Let’s look at this latest adoption failure and decide if it’s worth judging: Torry-Ann Hansen, single and a registered nurse, traveled to Russia in September with her mother, Nancy Hansen, to bring home Artyom. He had been living in an orphanage in the eastern part of Russia since May 2007, after being removed from his biological mother, an alcoholic. Torry never enrolled Artyom, newly named Jason, in school, possibly choosing to home-school him, although that hasn’t been confirmed. The adoption agency that arranged the placement last spoke to Hansen in January and found nothing amiss.

But Nancy Hansen told the Associated Press that the boy had become abusive, hitting and spitting at his mother, and he drew a picture of the house burning down. The Hansens apparently never sought psychological counseling. Instead, Nancy flew to Washington, DC with Artyom, and put the little boy on a United Airlines flight. He flew alone for 11 hours to Moscow with nothing but a Spider-Man backpack containing some clothes, candy, and a note for Russian authorities. Once in Moscow, he was met by a man that Nancy hired for $200 over the Internet to take him to a Russian ministry. The note said that the boy has “severe psychopathic issues” and Torry no longer wanted him.

As a single mother whose child came to her through international adoption, this story infuriates me. You see, I think my daughter is just as “real” as any child that might have come out of my womb. I would move heaven and earth to help her if she had any mental or physical problems, and have felt that way ever since she was placed in my arms as a screaming baby in China. I patiently explain, whenever anyone asks me about her “real” parents, that I am her real parent. As such, I would hope to be prosecuted to the full extent of any law out there if I did anything to harm her, and judged very harshly by my fellow citizens (making her clean her room doesn’t count, by the way).

There are more than 2 million adopted children 18 and under in the U.S., 13 percent of them foreign born. These children are no less a part of their families than children who were conceived naturally, or through in-vitro fertilization, or born using surrogate mothers. Their parents should be treated, legally and otherwise, just like any parent. So I hope the Hansens are charged with abandonment. But most of all, I hope that Artyom, and all children everywhere, end up in families that believe with all their heart that the kids are really theirs.

Catherine Arnst is an award-winning freelance writer who has covered medicine, health care policy and parenting issues for more than 15 years. She was previously a senior writer for BusinessWeek.