A few weeks ago, Olga Loginova, a filmmaker for Radio Free Europe, spent the day with my family at our home in upstate New York documenting our “ordinary” moments. She was working on a six-minute documentary that she said was urgent. She wanted to show the world, and particularly people back home in Russia, that there are “successful Russian adoptions.”
The issue of Russian orphans—and whether American adoptive families are successfully parenting them—has become a flashpoint in a complicated political struggle. It began when the U.S. government passed The Magnitsky Act, which took aim at Russia’s handling of human rights cases. The conflict escalated after Russia retaliated by shutting down adoptions to Americans after more than two decades. The Russian propagandists are using a small number of notorious cases gone bad to vilify American adoptive parents as a group, and to perpetuate the notion that Americans are monsters.
Scores of adoptive parents are now in limbo, as are the young babies languishing in Russian orphanages. Jan Wondra, vice chair for Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoption (FRUA), says that 700 American families have filed paperwork with the Russian government for adoptions now in limbo, with an estimated 230 of those families already having met their children. Many organizations and activists are fighting publicly and behind the scenes to reverse the ban, both here and abroad. But Russian advocates who want to keep the ban in place have a powerful sound bite fueling their fight: “Twenty adopted Russian children have died at the hands of their American parents.”
Look world, they are saying, there is something inherently wrong with how Americans are parenting our children. Our children are not safe. The ban makes sense. It must be upheld. Just last month, less than 60 days after the ban took effect, Max Shatto, a 3-year-old Russian boy who was adopted last October, was found dead in the street outside his Texas home. The Russians screamed murder. The news reinforced the notion that Americans are unfit parents. The autopsy said the toddler died of self-inflicted wounds. The Russians didn't buy it.
No one denies that 20 deaths of Russian-adopted children is a disturbing statistic. Even in context—20 out of 60,000 adoptions—something is not right. It isn't. I know this because I adopted a child from Russia and because I speak to other adoptive parents of Russian children all the time.
There is a nearly universal experience among American parents who are raising Russian-adopted children. These children arrive in our arms with emotional and/or physical issues. Some of us are prepared—or at least made aware of disabilities before the adoption is completed. But most are caught off-guard when children won't attach. This condition is called Reactive Attachment Disorder. It is caused by early separation from a birth mother. Babies don't get the nurture and love they deserve. Their needs are barely met in the orphanages. They learn, subconsciously, it's dangerous to attach.
Because of this, many Russian adoptees are detached, controlling, oppositional. They are hyper, demanding, insatiable, and difficult to manage. Some, still in diapers, are violent to others and to themselves. They are physically powerful. The 20 deaths we know about are the tip of the iceberg of abuse and neglect. I don't have hard numbers, but from what I hear, more adopted Russian children have serious behavioral issues than those that don't. There are scores of adoptive parents who are suffering silently, wallowing in shame as they try to make sense of having gone across the world, at least twice, to take in a child that rejects love.
Nothing is more mind-boggling than trying to rock and cuddle an 8-month-old who pushes you away. I can tell you how hurtful it is when you're trying to attach to a child who won't let you. The truth is you live in denial for a long time. You believe something's wrong with you. You tell yourself, I will heal this child with love. Then one day it occurs to you that love may not be enough. It becomes incumbent upon you to understand how children who begin their lives in orphanages think. You realize it's your life's work, not only to parent them, but to heal them.
A decade ago, my husband Rick and I brought our baby home from a Siberian orphanage. We had some dark years but when our daughter was 3 we began working with her after we schooled ourselves in Reactive Attachment Disorder. We responded with a litany of parenting techniques that slowly took hold and over time, Julia became completely attached to my husband and me, and we to her.
What the Russian government doesn’t want to acknowledge is its hand in this problem. Julia lived in a gray grim building that reeked of ammonia. She was one of 10 babies in a room, one in 100 in Orphanage Number 2. When we took her home in February 2003, her skin was pure as alabaster because she'd never, never been outside and seen the light of day. I can only imagine how many times she had cried and been ignored, and how badly she wanted to be held but wasn't. After time, she must have learned it's futile to expect nurturing. She taught herself to expect less. It will take a lifetime to undo these harsh early lessons. As Julia's mother, I understand her fight is my fight.
Which brings me back to the ban on adoptions. Yes, there have been 20 deaths, and this is horrific. Yes, there are thousands of American families doing their best to raise children who are badly damaged. Most of these parents are spending their emotional and financial treasure to give these children a real chance in life.
Our family is considered an example of a “successful Russian adoption” because Julia is attached and thriving. We understand how lucky we are. We also know how fragile it all is. In too many cases, more than anyone would imagine, the children are too far gone. They end up in foster care or in group house or in prison.
International adoption is not a perfect formula but the alternative is for Russian children to grow up and age out in orphanages. We're talking about 700,000 children living in Russian institutions. Russian advocates of the ban might want to continue using Russian orphans as political pawns but they should stop vilifying American parents in a vacuum. In fact, Russians are fortunate to have American families who are willing to pick up the pieces of what is left of Russian children whose lives begin in orphanages.
Tina Traster is writing a memoir, due out next year from Chicago Review Press, on her Russian-adopted daughter. Visit her web site www.juliaandme.com.