Adoptive Parents Win Battle for Russian Girls

Date: 1998-02-24

Adoptive Parents Win Battle for Russian Girls


An Arizona couple found guilty of slapping and verbally abusing their newly adopted Russian children on a plane trip home from Moscow last May were granted full custody of the children yesterday.

The two girls, now 5 years old, have bounced around for the last nine months in five different foster homes in the United States while charges were pending against the parents, Richard and Karen Thorne.

Today's ruling means that the girls will have the permanent home they were promised when the Thornes removed them from their orphanage in the rural village of Voronezh, about 290 miles southeast of Moscow.

One girl had lived in the orphanage since she was found as a baby on a village street. The other had been there since her mother, an alcoholic, abandoned her when the girl was 18 months old. The mother later hanged herself.

Today's ruling closes a chapter in adoption history that had far-reaching consequences, both in the United States and abroad. The Thornes drew sympathy from other adoptive parents and some agencies, who began to speak more openly about the stresses inherent in the adoption process. At the same time, the incident alarmed some officials in Russia, who had threatened to restrict adoptions by outsiders.

The case came under the jurisdiction of New York City's Administration for Children's Services, which took custody of the girls after the plane landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Today's ruling, by a judge in Family Court in Queens, came after city officials assured the court that the Thornes had cooperated in their parent training classes and with therapists.

As a condition of regaining custody, Judge Joseph M. Lauria ruled that the Thornes would be subject to unannounced visits by Arizona child welfare officials, and would be required to submit monthly reports and continue therapy. ''Your journey from Moscow ends today,'' he told the Thornes from the bench. ''Your journey as parents begins.''

After the hearing, the Thornes expressed relief. ''We're looking forward to what we have to share with them,'' Mrs. Thorne, 43, said as she and Mr. Thorne, 49, embraced.

The Thorne case -- with its vivid testimony from flight attendants and other passengers that the Thornes smacked and screamed at the girls on the flight home -- prompted the Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament, to consider restricting or even ending out-of-country adoptions from Russia.

Russia, which offers prospective parents white children in a relatively short period of time for fees as high as $20,000 a child, has become the biggest source of out-of-country adoptions since the collapse of Communism, providing Americans with 3,800 children in the last fiscal year. This surpassed China, which provided 3,500 children.

The numbers continue to climb, despite initial fears by some American adoption agencies that the Thorne case would deter others from adopting Russian children. The Thornes had openly described the girls as badly behaved.

The threat of limits on adoptions from Russia caused deep consternation among adoption agencies and prompted members of Congress -- from Speaker Newt Gingrich on the right to Senator Edward M. Kennedy on the left -- to implore Russian authorities to reconsider.

Adoption experts here say they hope today's court-approved reunion of the Thornes with the girls will help calm the Russians. But regardless of the effect on the Russians, they say, the case has made clear the need for prospective parents to be prepared for dealing with the problems of institutionalized children.

Since the Thorne case began, many adoptive parents and agencies have been more open about the stresses that parents and their newly adopted children undergo in their first days together and on the flight home -- a trip that in adoption circles is known as the flight from hell.

Some of the stress comes from the clash between the expectations of parents and the culture shock for children, especially toddlers, at leaving the only caregivers they have known. The parents are often filled with idealistic fantasies, and they are vexed when the children do not seem grateful for their rescue.

Dr. Ronald S. Federici, a developmental neuropsychologist based in Alexandria, Va., who has extensive experience with adopted children from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, said parents should spend more time at their children's orphanage before taking them away. ''The agencies rush them in and rush them out,'' he said. ''Most parents need to spend a couple of weeks there and gradually detoxify the children off the orphanage.''

Jean Christiansen, a newly adoptive mother, was traveling back from Russia to Washington a few days after the Thornes with her new 4-year-old daughter who, she said, was flailing around and screaming.

The only way to control her, Ms. Christiansen said, was to follow the flight attendant's advice and pin the girl's legs beneath her own and restrain her in a bear hug.

Said Dr. Federici: ''People have learned from the Thorne case that the transition period really needs to be focused on. You have to understand institutional ideology, that the children are deprived and insecure, and just walking out the door of the orphanage will overstimulate them.''


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