For many couples, adoption is a quest for the perfect child. For Rita, a mother of seven from Pennsylvania, it was a chance to take in a little girl who had tried to set fire to her previous adoptive parents’ house.
“You expect a certain amount of things” when you adopt a child whom another family has been unable to handle, says Rita. “But you never are really totally prepared. You never expect it to be as bad as it is.”
The girl Rita took in was the product of a “disrupted adoption”—an adoptive placement that has failed. Disrupted adoptions made news last month when a woman in Tennessee sent her adopted son back to Russia, stating he was too dangerous to keep. But kids of disrupted adoptions are not usually just put on a plane to a distant country. Most are re-adopted by other families here in the U.S. that are better prepared to meet the child’s special needs—and that are willing to take a chance on a kid that has already driven other parents away.
One mother says that what she considers successful parenting in their cases is that they are “gainfully employed and not in jail.”
Still, disruption remains a taboo topic in the adoption community, and agencies strive to downplay it as a real risk. A study by Dr. Trudy B. Festinger, a professor of social work at New York University, found that the disruption rate for children adopted between the ages of 6 and 10 was about 8 percent, and that it doubled to 16 percent for children 11 and up.
For all parties involved, from the family giving up the child to the new family “re-adopting” him, the process of disruption and re-adoption is emotionally charged. Vanessa, a director of development at a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., gave up her 11-year-old adoptive daughter two years ago. Her voice still breaks when she talks about the decision. “You adopt someone,” she says between long pauses, “because you want the best for them. And this wasn't the best for her.”
Vanessa was in her mid-40s when she decided to adopt. She wanted an older child because she knew older kids have more trouble finding homes and because she thought that, as a single mother, she would be better off having a child who could be at school while she was at work.
After she brought her daughter to the U.S., however, there was a brief honeymoon period followed by concerning behavior: tantrums, acts of defiance. “There was a point when, being playful, she took my hand and put it on her breast,” says Vanessa.
Her daughter’s strange behavior soon turned violent. The girl, who was about five feet tall and weighed 120 pounds, “would scream and she would tell me that she wanted to die.” She would leave the house, and threaten to run away. “If I tried to keep her from leaving,” says Vanessa, “she would start hitting and kicking me.
“The problems became nightly,” she says, “because she would not go to bed and she would go into fits. So neither of us was getting much sleep, and I started to realize, I'm not good for this child, I'm making things worse for this child. She's miserably unhappy and she wants to be dead.”
Then came the turning point that finally led Vanessa to consider finding another family for the girl. “We had this one fight, I guess is the word, when she got really quiet and she went to my kitchen drawer and pulled out a knife. And she just held it. She didn't point it at me and didn't point it at herself. But she very specifically pulled a very large, sharp knife out of my kitchen drawer. And I wasn't really thinking that I had to hide knives from a child her age. People say, well, you adopted a child, why would you have your knives there? And I'm thinking, this is a pre-teen, this is not a 3 year old.”
Not knowing where else to turn, Vanessa sent her daughter to a place called Ranch for Kids, a camp in Montana that seeks to help emotionally damaged adopted children through a program that combines therapy, education, and a strict routine of chores and responsibilities. Children stay at the Ranch for a period of weeks or months, after which they either go back to their families or are re-adopted. The Ranch is run by Joyce Sterkel, a nurse and psychologist who has been nicknamed the Adoption Whisperer.
Sterkel’s manner is blunt, which allows her to really help the families that reach out to her. She says, for example, that one problem leading to disrupted adoptions is that “many times, parents have stars in their eyes. They believe that love will heal and overcome all. We believe when we adopt a child that love heals. But you cannot love away a child's genetic foundation, his pre-verbal memories or his intrauterine exposure to alcohol. These are facts. You have to stop being silly about this. You can't love that stuff away.”
Vanessa says it was hard to hear Sterkel tell her this, but it was exactly what she needed. “Everybody was in agreement that this was not going to work out very well” she says. The stay at the ranch is expensive—approximately $3,000 a month—but Vanessa borrowed money against her retirement so she could find the girl a better family. And eventually, with the help of an agency and the people at the ranch, she did. The girl was re-adopted by a couple who had experience with older adoptive children, and she now seems to be flourishing.
“She has begun a new life, she even changed her first name, so even she recognized somewhere in her heart that this was a chance for a brand new beginning,” says Vanessa, who has kept some contact with the new family. She sends the girl gifts on her birthday and on the anniversary of the day she came to the United States.
Who are these families that adopt kids who were so out-of-control that their previous adoptive parents gave them up? They are, at once, families that are remarkably strong and entirely ordinary. Sterkel herself has re-adopted two boys who were returned by other families. The first one came to live with her when he was 14 after going through two disrupted adoptions. (The second family had placed him up for re-adoption when he tried to poison the mother.) She has raised them into adulthood and, in her candid manner, says that what she considers successful parenting in their cases is that they are “gainfully employed and not in jail.”
Rita, the mother from Pennsylvania, has three children from disrupted adoptions. Their upbringing has not been easy. The girl who tried to set fire to her previous family’s home has been with Rita and her husband for four years now, and “she has become a wonderful teenager,” according to Rita. But the first two years were extremely difficult. “She pulled out every trick in the book to get us to not love her and to get us to throw her out again: lying, stealing, going mute, hiding in closets, doing bizarre things.”
Rita adds that when they sought help, it was nowhere to be found. Because the girl had been prone to setting fires, she was turned away from schools and rehabilitation centers. “So we have just had to work on our own,” she says, “getting her to learn to trust someone and allowing us to love her, but it has been really difficult. Her father was a convicted mass murderer, and she was put in an orphanage when she was 3. She was there until she was 8. She also has siblings who were left in Russia. So she has had a lot of loss in her life.”
The second of Rita’s adoptive children has been even more of a challenge. Now 9 years old, he was born in Siberia and came to live with her when he was 6. At age 3, he was already in a psychiatric hospital for violent behavior. The couple that was raising him before Rita took him in, a psychiatrist and a nurse, nearly saw their marriage disintegrate because of his episodes.
When he got to Rita’s, he was no better. “Within the first week he was here, he threw something at my other daughter and almost broke her nose,” she says. “He would hit, punch, and all that kind of stuff. There were times when I just really didn’t know if it was going to work out. I'd say we've come a long way in three years but he's a very, very difficult child.” They are homeschooling him because he cannot be at a regular school and they don’t have the means to send him to a special institution.
Rita says that she doesn’t think she could ever put her adoptive son on a plane to another country, but the problems she has had with him make her sympathize with the woman from Tennessee who made headlines by doing just that. “I totally understand her desperation and her frustration,” she says, “because you love these kids, you do everything you can, but you have little to no support for what you're doing.”
As Sterkel points out, the families who make the difficult decision to give up an adopted child do not deserve the stigma that has come in the wake of the recent Russian controversy.
“Parents are made to feel badly and they shouldn't because we all have limits to our capabilities,” she says, “and not every parent can do the same thing. I never want to criticize a parent who has felt the need to disrupt.”
Constantino Diaz-Duran has written for the New York Post, the Washington Blade, and the Orange County Register. He lives in Manhattan and is an avid Yankees fan. You'll find him on Twitter as @cddNY.