Knowledge fuels successful adoptions

Date: 2004-11-15

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)

The case of a Schaumburg mother accused of killing her newly adopted son has cast a shadow over adopting children from Eastern European countries

Author: Eric Peterson Daily Herald Staff Writer

The months, money and mental exercise Amy and Henry Bauer put into their adoption of a Russian child were justified forever the moment they first laid eyes on their 7-month-old son, Dallas.

For the Chicago couple, having a child of their own was their lifelong wish, but adoption had come to seem the only option. And the curious, blond-haired, blue-eyed boy they crossed half a world to meet was the answer to their prayers.

But when the Bauers finally brought Dallas home in December 2003, they were shocked to see local headlines dominated by the story of a Schaumburg woman accused of beating her recently adopted Russian son to death.

As they learned more about the case of Irma Pavlis, though, they became convinced her troubles began even before she met her 6-year- old son, Alex.

The Bauers, along with experts on adopting from Russia, wonder if the 32-year-old Pavlis might have been only dangerously unprepared rather than dangerously unstable.

Pavlis and her husband, Dino, adopted Alex and his 5-year-old sister independently, after finding the boy on a Web site. On the other hand, the Bauers were assisted every step of the way by one of the 13 adoption agencies they'd interviewed for the task.

The merits of using an agency like the Bauers vs. the independent route the Pavlises took are debatable. But industry experts and experienced parents say one thing is not: The more information you have about the child beforehand, the better.

Trish Janosy is Illinois regional director of European Adoption Consultants, the agency the Bauers used to adopt Dallas. Janosy said that only with the right level of preparedness and support should any adoption take place.

In the case of the Pavlises, it doesn't appear either factor was present, she said.

In the spotlight

Pavlis was a journalist in her native Mexico who met her future husband while studying English in Chicago, said her original attorney, Stuart Goldberg. The couple exchanged love letters for a long time before reconnecting and marrying in the mid-1990s.

The decision to adopt came after Pavlis had two miscarriages. Though the couple could have adopted an infant, they thought they could do more good by helping an older child find a home.

Coming across Alex's photo on the Internet, Irma instantly fell in love with him because of his resemblance to her husband, Goldberg said.

The adoption process involved two trips to a Russian orphanage, where they met Alex's biological sister as well. The two children ended up in the facility after being abandoned by their parents when Alex was a year old and his sister only 3 months. The Pavlises decided to adopt them both.

But the hard life the children had led made them uncontrollable. That became apparent to the Pavlises as early as the plane ride home, Goldberg said.

When they arrived in Schaumburg in early November 2003, things with Alex got worse. He died Dec. 19, 2003, a day after his mother called 911 to report he wasn't breathing.

The Cook County medical examiner's office ruled Alex's death a homicide by blunt head trauma. Police said investigators found signs of prior abuse and said Irma Pavlis admitted striking the boy the day before he died and on other occasions.

Attorneys for Pavlis say the head injury that killed Alex was self-inflicted, the result of physical and psychological problems - including fetal alcohol syndrome - that Pavlis and her husband had no way of knowing about before their independently conducted adoption.

Irma Pavlis is being held in Cook County jail on a $3 million bond awaiting trial.

Alex's sister remains in the custody of a Russian-speaking foster family appointed by the Department of Children and Family Services, though Pavlis' husband has very limited visitation rights.

Emotions aside

Though even an agency-guided adoption is no guarantee of avoiding such relatively common problems as fetal alcohol syndrome, most experienced parents say the path the Pavlises took left them the most vulnerable to trouble.

It's unclear why the Pavlises didn't use an agency when going through the adoption process. And, of course, no one knows for sure whether things would have been different if they had.

But Janosy said the path of independent adoption - or any way of streamlining the process - can be dangerous as it cuts out several levels of support.

She admits that cutting out an agency can seem tempting to couples intimidated by the costs. Depending on a variety of factors, Eastern European adoptions through an agency can range from $25,000 to $45,000 and take as long as a year or more to complete, industry experts say.

Cynthia Teeters, president of the not-for-profit Eastern European Adoption Coalition, said the savings of an independent adoption could bring the cost down to about $20,000.

Teeters, however, recommends that at least couples adopting for the first time hire a carefully chosen agency. She believes, too, that post-adoption support is the most necessary step to have in place beforehand, whether from the agency itself or some other source like her not-for-profit.

Among the services the Bauers' agency provided was looking for signs of physical or mental problems in the videos they had of Dallas before going to Russia. The agency also gave the couple practical advice on how to handle the baby during and after the trip.

"We were told to examine the child (before leaving the orphanage), and it's probably something we wouldn't have thought about," Henry Bauer said.

That's advice Dan and Elizabeth Case of upstate New York wish the agency they'd used had given them before they adopted their 7- month-old son, Cyril, from Russia in November 1999.

Though concerned by the listlessness of the baby boy they picked up, it wasn't until he'd been legally made their son and brought back to their hotel room that they began to realize how sick he was.

The first sign came when they changed the boy's diaper. Cyril had the worst diaper rash they'd ever seen - dead, blackened skin that was already flaking off.

Though they tried to alleviate this with ointments, there was an even greater danger hiding inside Cyril's little body. Days later he suddenly stopped breathing and died, before they'd even left Russia. The cause was diagnosed as an acute infection of the gastrointestinal tract.

The Cases were already in the process of adopting a second baby boy, from Bulgaria, when Cyril died. This son, Anguel, was adopted in 2000.

Though Anguel was in better physical shape than Cyril, he was later diagnosed with mild spectrum autism.

This type of autism often isn't diagnosed until a child is in school - sometimes several years into school - when higher social and reasoning skills should be developing.

Thais Tepper is a Pittsburgh woman who co-founded the Parent Network for the Post-Institutionalized Child and shares the Cases' skepticism of Eastern European adoption.

Tepper's adopted son is now 14 years old and developmentally disabled. Yet when she went to Romania to adopt him in 1991, she was told she was getting a healthy 18-month-old.

What she found was an 18-month-old who weighed only 18 pounds and had no motor skills. Tepper said she later learned that by the definition in use at the time, "a healthy child in Romania is one breathing in and out when you arrive."

The best thing adoptive parents today can do for themselves is to be aggressive and never take "no" for an answer in their pursuit of information about a child, Tepper said.

"You have to do your homework," she said. "You have to tell them, 'I want original medical records and I want them translated myself.' Medical records already translated into English by the agency should be considered suspect."

As reasonable as that advice can seem in a calm moment, it can easily be allowed to slip by when overwhelmed by Russian officialdom in the final stages of an adoption, she said.

Both Janosy and Teeters said parents need an objective force to guide them through an emotional process.

Despite the difficulty of putting protective instincts aside, prospective parents are right to weigh their ability to care for a child with a behavioral problem before making any commitment, Janosy said.

"This process is not about saving a child," Janosy said. "This is about building a family. It's not fair to the child to put expectations on him or her."

Just as Irma Pavlis had chosen her son by his resemblance to her husband, Elizabeth Case selected Anguel for his likeness to her own father as a child.

Case said she and her husband learned the hard way that even in making as emotional a life choice as adoption, the role of the intellect mustn't be overlooked.

"Don't believe the hype that God will make it better," she said. "Go with a hard heart, and you'd better be prepared to say no."

The root cause

Dr. Ira Chasnoff is president of Children's Research Triangle, a Chicago-based research and clinical program focused on childhood medical issues. He and other experts agree that prospective parents must be ready to deal with issues including fetal alcohol syndrome and emotional problems when considering an Eastern European adoption.

But those problems can be overcome, he says.

A high rate of alcohol use among pregnant women remains a problem in Eastern Europe, Chasnoff says. Both the syndrome itself and neglect - the kind that would almost certainly be felt by children in an orphanage or similar facility - tend to compound one another in the psychological makeup of children.

And when both factors are at work, it's hard to say which is the more prevalent, he said.

"It's a double whammy on them," Chasnoff said. "There's no way you can differentiate."

Though neither problem is more "curable" than the other, both are treatable. Such treatments differ from one child to another, Chasnoff said.

Doctors skilled in such behaviors are often employed by adoption agencies to look for physical signs of fetal alcohol syndrome in videos and photos, Chasnoff said.

Regardless, Chasnoff said, parents of children adopted from overseas should have them tested as soon as they're back. The sooner a problem is detected, the earlier and more effective the treatment can be, Chasnoff said.

Change on the way?

Case said her own hard-won opinion is that Eastern European adoption is not worth the risk and is only kept alive amid all the other foreign adoption options by the promise of "white skin."

Though Tepper wouldn't go so far as to say Eastern European adoptions should never be done, she believes only a small percentage of couples can handle doing it right.

"No one can tell you how many successful adoptions there have been," she said. "But how many families' lives are expendable for a few families to be happy? Of course, my vision is skewed. No one calls the Parent Network to tell happy stories."

Teeters said there are still too many bad agencies operating but hopes such tragic stories are becoming fewer as the Eastern European adoption system born less than 15 years ago continues to mature.

According to her agency's estimates, the number of Eastern European children adopted by Americans has risen to more than 6,000 per year.

That's why she and others hope long-anticipated international regulations will finally be realized within the next couple of years. Then, even independent adopters like the Pavlises can rely on a stronger safety net.

"As long as this remains unregulated, there will always be a potential for abuse," Teeters said.

The Bauers believe Eastern European adoptions, if approached cautiously, can work for both parents and children.

Though little Dallas will continue to be monitored for signs of potential problems, his American life so far has been perfect, his father said.

"He's always been a smiling, happy child," Henry Bauer said. "We have been very fortunate. We haven't had problem one with this child. I wanted to experience all the fun stuff of this child growing up. It's such a beautiful experience to have a child, adopted or not adopted. We've had this child 7 1/2 months now and I can't imagine life without him. This is my son."

GRAPHIC: How to pick an adoption agency

Without endorsing any agency, the nonprofit Eastern European Adoption Coalition offers these guidelines for selecting an agency:

Be wary: The most common abuses are obtaining advance payment for a nonexistent or ineligible child, and presenting a seriously ill child as a healthy one.

What to ask: An ethical agency should be able to easily answer such questions as its past number of adoptions, whether its fees match the services provided, how much educational and support service they provide, and how responsive they are to phone calls and messages.

Annual report: The nonprofit International Concerns for Children organization publishes a Report on Intercountry Adoption every year for $20. Call the Colorado-based agency at (303) 494-8333.

On the Web: A list of parent support groups and 210 international adoption agencies are available on the Eastern European Adoption Coalition Web site.

Source: www.eeadopt.org

Caption:
Irma Pavlis is accused of beating her adopted Russian son, Alex, to death. Henry and Amy Bauer adopted their son, Dallas, from Russia last December. Joe Lewnard/Daily Herald Dallas Bauer, now 14 months old, was adopted from Russia at 7 months. Joe Lewnard/Daily Herald GRAPHIC: (text at bottom of article)

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