An Adoption Gone Wrong
National Public Radio
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
One day in 1998, David and Desiree Smolin traveled to the airport in Atlanta. They were adopting two adolescent girls, and on that day, the girls got off the plane from India.
"We expected that there would be some shyness at the beginning, but we expected that they would be happy to see us at least after they got over the initial shock of being here," Desiree Smolin says.
"Instead, when we met the girls they were clearly very upset. They were very avoidant of us and then eventually they became very emotionally disturbed .... I've never seen anyone — and I hope to never, ever see anyone again — as upset as those girls were in the first nine months that they were in our home."
In an interview with Steve Inskeep, the Smolins say that an adoption agency described Manjula and Bhagya as two girls who had been waiting a long time for a home. But the girls insisted they had been stolen — kidnapped from their mother.
The Indian mother was poor. She placed the children temporarily in an orphanage, and the orphanage essentially sold them.
"We read about infanticide in India and that got us thinking about whether those children were sometimes adopted out," Desiree Smolin says. With a house full of sons and no daughters, the Smolins sought to adopt girls.
David Smolin says they worked with an experienced U.S. adoption agency and were told that the girls had been waiting a long time and were eager to be adopted.
"We asked that the girls be interviewed to see whether they wanted to be adopted, what was their family background, what was their story," he says. "Unfortunately, almost all of the information that we got back turned out to be false. They had been stolen from their birth family."
"Of course, we didn't know that," Desiree adds.
But within weeks of their arrival, the couple realized something was wrong. The girls, speaking through a translator, angrily denied that they had asked to be adopted.
David says that the girls' birth mother had been told that the girls were going to be placed temporarily in a boarding school. "And she went back for them, and they said to her, 'No, you can look at them through this one-way mirror, but they can't be permitted to see you.' And so she was turned away."
One day in 1998, David and Desiree Smolin traveled to the airport in Atlanta, Georgia. They were adopting two adolescent girls. And on that day, the girls got off the plane from India.
Ms. DESIREE SMOLIN (Adoptive Parent): We expected that there would be some shyness at the beginning, but we expected that they would be happy to see us at least, you know, after they got over the initial shock of being here. Instead, when we met the girls, they were clearly very upset. They were very avoidant of us. And then eventually, they became very emotionally disturbed.
I don’t want to embarrass them with all the details or what that means, but I’ve never seen anyone - and I hope to never, ever see anyone again as upset as those girls were in the first nine months that they were in our home.
INSKEEP: The Smolins say an adoption agency described Manjula and Bhagya as two girls who’d been waiting a long time for a home. But the girls insisted they had been stolen - kidnapped from their mother.
The Indian mother was poor. She placed the kids temporarily in an orphanage, and the orphanage essentially sold them.
This morning, David and Desiree Smolin joined our conversations on adoption. We are listening to personal stories, including the story the girls began telling when they arrived in Atlanta.
Ms. SMOLIN: We knew within three weeks that there was something wrong. Within six weeks, we had the essential story. We didn’t know that it was true, and the people within the adoption community asked us to - thinks that it wasn’t true, basically. They were very doubtful that it could possibly be true. And we were encouraged to reinterpret everything that the girls said to us.
So if the girls said to us, we’ll never accept you as our parents, then we were encouraged to think that that meant that they really wanted us as their parents – so, the opposite of what it is they were actually saying.
INSKEEP: Do you think that people did not want to hear this story?
Mr. DAVID SMOLIN (Adoptive Parent): Yes, and they didn’t want to deal with it. And that was also very odd, because then, another several months after this, the orphanage director who had taken the children was placed in jail in India. And there was a major adoption scandal there about him buying babies.
At that point, we thought surely the agency and the government will want to look into this. But when we told the agency over a number of years how grief stricken the daughters were and how we would lay up at night wondering is there a mom there, they would tell us that they were better off here. And so…
Ms. SMOLIN: The truth didn’t matter. It was basically what they believed was true was the only thing that mattered.
INSKEEP: As you learned their story and learned that there were living parents in India, did you consider sending the children back?
Mr. SMOLIN: Well, what we did, basically, was asked the agency to find out the truth. And we had never been to there. We didn’t speak any of the relevant languages. And we know that the truth can be hard to find. So…
Ms. SMOLIN: And we were also told that we would put the mother in danger by going back, that it was a very delicate thing. That sometimes in India, women got remarried, and if you showed up and you let the new husband know about her past, that you could even cause her to be beat or killed. And…
INSKEEP: But once you got passed those warnings, was there a moment when you seriously said we should send these children back?
Ms. SMOLIN: Yeah. I guess there was. I mean, had we – at that point, in fact, our younger daughter says that had we found their mom in the first year or two, she would have gone back, which makes us feel very badly. But we were so busy trying to keep the girls alive and trying to move them forward to a place where they could function from day to day, you know, we asked the agency to investigate. But it was very hard to get outside of where we were standing.
And beyond that, when we thought about it and when we talked to people about it, they would say there’s no way back for these girls. They’re better off here.
INSKEEP: So how did you ultimately make contact with the biological mother?
Mr. SMOLIN: Well, some years later, when our daughters had calmed down and could face all of this, we found somebody in India who was a social activist. And from our daughters, we had a first and last name of a mom, a dad, a brother. We had a small village name. We had a larger village name. And she went back there to where the mom now was and told her your daughters are looking for you.
INSKEEP: So by the time you found the mother, the children were almost not children anymore. They were in their mid to late teens. Did you arrange a reunion with the mother?
Mr. SMOLIN: Yes. It was really one of the most moving things that I’ve seen. When Manjula returned to India and met her mom, the mom took her in her arms and she wept. And then she started to chant in her own language the whole story of her life. She said that I bore you, I nursed you, I carried you, I raised you and I lost you. And now, you’ve been reborn to me. And she said this in this kind of chanting, weeping way as she held her child.
INSKEEP: You said Manjula. You named one of your daughters.
Mr. SMOLIN: Manjula and Bhagya are the two girls.
INSKEEP: Did both the daughters go to see their mothers?
Mr. SMOLIN: They went one at a time.
INSKEEP: Well, let me ask what was going through your minds in that situation, even though your children were getting older by then. You were going to meet this woman whose children had been snatched from her. Desiree Smolin, did you feel that you could relate to the mother of your adopted daughters - simply because you must have had that fear over the years that something is going to happen. These kids might be sent back to India. There might be any number of things that could happen.
Ms. SMOLIN: Well, yeah. I guess I’d have to say that from the time that we started to realize that there was a problem with our adoption, I thought a lot about Lakshmi. That’s her name. I have biological children, as well as adopted children. And so I felt things were right when she was found.
INSKEEP: So both of your daughters - and you speak of them, by the way. You say our daughters, our girls. They both turned 18.
Mr. SMOLIN: Yes.
Ms. SMOLIN: Yeah.
INSKEEP: Where are they now?
Ms. SMOLIN: Our older daughter is married, and she lives in a different state with her husband. Our younger daughter is with us, since she just graduated from high school.
INSKEEP: Do they both plan to stay in America?
Mr. SMOLIN: Yes.
Ms. SMOLIN: Definitely, yeah.
Mr. SMOLIN: For them, it’s too difficult to go back. To that degree, Lakshmi really did lose her children in a certain kind of way.
Ms. SMOLIN: Yeah. And watching the video of the reunion that’s very striking, Lakshmi asks Manjula please come back and live here. And Manjula has to tell her mother, no, I can’t do that. I want to get a job. And Manjula’s trying to explain to her mom why she just doesn’t feel comfortable anymore in her own village with her own mother, in her own culture with her own language.
INSKEEP: Do you think they’re entirely comfortable in the United States?
Mr. SMOLIN: I think they are children who have still a long way to go. I think that they will do well. But they’re children between two worlds in a certain sense.
INSKEEP: Well, David and Desiree Smolin, thanks very much for sharing your story with us.
Ms. SMOLIN: Sure.
Mr. SMOLIN: Thank you.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: I’ve just started looking at a video here. It shows their younger daughter’s reunion with her birth mother. You can watch them embrace at npr.org. Our conversations continue tomorrow, when a woman reflects on her adoption from Korea more than half a century ago.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: It’s NPR News.