Agony, Not Joy; Greatly torn, some give up adoptees they can't handle
Newsday (Melville, NY)
Series: Second of three parts
Author: Stephanie Saul. STAFF WRITER
THEIR ARRIVAL in the United States was celebrated with parties, banners and balloons. These little orphanage children, rescued from poverty in Eastern Europe, were to become part of American families.
They began arriving in the early 1990s.Then, in 1993, a York, Pa., agency that specializes in finding homes for difficult children began getting phone calls from their adoptive parents. The couples had traveled to remote cities and, in some cases, exhausted their savings to build their families. But now they had made the agonizing decision to give their children away.
"It was frantic. We had calls coming in from all over the country," said Barbara Holtan of Tressler Lutheran Services. "We started getting calls from families we did not know asking us to replace their children."
Their parents had found them too much to handle.
The children who were supposed to be their joy had become their torment. Some would go into rages that lasted for hours, leaving their parents exhausted as they tried mightily to control the violence. Others attacked pets or other members of the family. Some rejected the love of family but lavished affection on strangers.
Years of living in institutions with no love or physical contact had left them permanently damaged. Some of the kids suffered fetal alcohol exposure, autism and other developmental problems.
In the next two years, Tressler was asked to find new homes for 24 children adopted from Eastern Europe, mostly Russia and Romania. The calls represented a shocking spike in such requests. From 1985 to 1995, Tressler had received only 18 such calls.
"We had never before seen this number of children disrupting, and the common theme was that they were from the same part of the world," said Holtan. "Why were we seeing all these cute little blond Russian kids?"
There are no statistics on how many adoptive parents have given up their children. There is no doubt that such cases represent a small minority of the more than 59,000 foreign orphans adopted by American families in the 1990s. Many of the foreign children have adapted quickly to their new families and life in the United States. But disruption is certainly not a rarity.
One New Jersey woman, who relinquished one of her adopted Ukrainian sons after he spiraled out of control, is under a court order not to discuss her case. But she has been contacted by 40 families who either have given up their children or are considering it.
The decision to give up a child, the parents say, is even more painful than divorce. Extended families have been torn apart by the decision. Relatives can't understand because they do not live with the daily pressure of raising the orphanage children. Friends turn their backs, viewing the relinquishment of children as callous and unforgivable.
Bill Morando, a publishing executive who lived in Lloyd Neck until early last year, relinquished his adopted Moldavian daughter Olga to another family. He characterized the decision as the most difficult he's ever made. But it was made more painful when a friend wrote, criticizing his decision, "This is a human life, not a Bic pen."
"Why would anyone in their right mind go through the trauma of this adoption and go across the ocean and bring these kids back to just say on a whim, `I'm relinquishing this child'?" asked Ann Schroeder of Nebraska, who gave up one of the two children she adopted in 1995 from Romania. "I never thought I'd ever have to do that. I was someone who wanted to be a mom, not to give up a child. That was the most painful thing I have ever done."
"It speaks to how very desperate these folks are to come to a decision to disrupt. Never is it done lightly," Holtan said. "They have gone through everything, moved heaven and earth to get this child."
Many parents say their adoption agencies failed to prepare them for the severity of the problems that institutionalized children face. Tressler specializes in placing "special needs" children with parents who receive training in caring for them. The hope is that the children will adapt better with parents who are prepared for their problems.
Holtan began speaking to adoption agency trade groups two years ago about the problems faced by adoptive parents. "The first year I spoke on this, there was a resistant kind of silence. Nobody wanted to hear about these kids having such problems. Last year  when I went, they knew it. The cat was out of the bag," Holtan said.
She believes that agencies have improved their preparation of families. "It's one thing if you go over to Russia knowing there's a strong potential for problems, but you want to do it anyway - God bless you," Holtan said. "But if you go, and you don't have a clue, that's a different matter."
Newsday spoke to more than a half-dozen families who have relinquished or institutionalized their adopted foreign children. All say they were unaware of the problems the adoptions would bring. They started with an intense desire to build their families, paying thousands of dollars to adopt the children. It was to be forever.
Today, some of them are heartbroken over the decision to relinquish their children or place them in residential care facilities. But they believe that it was necessary for self-preservation.
-- -- -- Last year was supposed to be a happy one for Kathryn Ballou of Roeland Park, Kan. In April, she and her husband went to Bucharest, Romania, to pick up their new daughter after years of unsuccessful infertility treatments. Ballou's adoption agency had shown her pictures of a beautiful little girl, 2.
" `Her only problem is that she rocks from side to side in her crib, and they all do that,' " she said the adoption agency told her. It was a firsthand assessment. Someone from the agency had spent more than an hour with the girl. But the agency said medical records on the child, named Stephania, were scanty.
"We had implicit faith," said Ballou, a nursing instructor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. "We wanted our kid that we had pinned our hopes on. All our hopes and dreams were riding on this child."
The dreams were quickly dashed when Ballou and her husband arrived at the orphanage.
"We got our daughter, and within the hour I knew there was something very, very wrong with this child. You can't miss it. They don't look at you in the eyes. They don't interact. In many ways they don't even act human. She was gnawing on everything - brick, glass and metal. She would get down on the floor and lick the floor. She didn't speak a word, and she acted autistic. They told us she was talking, but she was totally mute."
But the adoption agency said, " `Just wait, just give her some time and a little love, and she'll be fine,' " Ballou said.
What's more, Stephania suffered from physical abnormalities that Ballou believes should have been readily apparent to the adoption agency
- a hip disorder, severely crossed eyes, chronic ear infections and tooth decay.
Multiple evaluations performed after Stephania reached the United States revealed severe developmental delays in almost every area. She was vocalizing at a 2-month-old level, even though she was almost 3. She was below zero percent on the growth chart, meaning that she was smaller than any normal child her age. And she suffered from sensory disorders.
"These kids are so sensorily deprived, they literally get hard-wired wrong," Ballou said. "If you touched her lightly on the skin, she would scream. If you put food in her mouth, she'd gag and spit it out. She had no sense of balance. When she would fall down, which was frequent, she would hit her head and laugh. These kids do not experience pain. Most painful for us was the lack of bonding. She rejected us."
Finally, Ballou and her husband learned that Stephania had fetal alcohol syndrome. Experts estimated her IQ at 50.
But when Ballou called her adoption agency to complain, she said, a woman at the agency said, " `What did you expect? Albert Einstein?' "
In September, the Ballous gave up their child to another family.
"It has been like a pipe bomb thrown into our family," Ballou said. "It's all-consuming, and it was just chronic grief. We wanted a second child, but honestly, we're so broke, we can't afford it. And I'm so hurt and so devastated by this, I'm gun-shy. I don't know how much more loss I can take. We're just trying to pick up the pieces and live again." The Ballous are still repaying $300 monthly on loans taken out to adopt the child.
-- -- -- The photographs in Ruth Hladyk's Denville, N.J., living room suggest a thriving, happy family. One is of Ruth; her husband, Mark; and their two toddlers, Mark and Cole. But the happy family doesn't really exist.
The elder Mark died almost two years ago of pancreatic cancer at age 43. His son Mark, now 7, is in a state-run institution for troubled children.
In early December, Mark's twin brother, Cole, was placed in a psychiatric hospital after his mother found four steak knives under his bed. Cole said he planned to hurt his mother and himself.
Ruth Hladyk is estranged from her sister, who can't understand how she could have placed Mark in an institution, and her father-in-law, who says she and her husband never loved the boys.
"There is just too much pain here," Hladyk said. "It's a hell of a way to have to live. Seven-year-olds are supposed to be in Little League."
Their story began in 1991, when the couple decided to adopt after struggling for years with Mark's fertility problems and unsuccessful treatments, including surgery.
Mark was adamant that he couldn't raise a retarded child, having witnessed the struggles of his aunt and uncle as they raised a retarded cousin, Hladyk remembers.
"We didn't want a sick child," Hladyk said. "Didn't we have the same right to a healthy child as everyone else?"
The Hladyks, working through two separate adoption agencies, were told that twin boys were available in a St. Petersburg, Russia, orphanage.
The children were physically healthy, the agencies said, except for one small abnormality - Cole was pigeon-toed. The Hladyks were sent medical reports saying the children were behind in psychomotor development and speech. No detailed information was available on the mother, the agencies told them.
When the Hladyks picked up the boys in St. Petersburg, they found Mark charming and entertaining but uncontrollable, and he would not sleep. Cole seemed "spacy" and nonverbal. But they hoped that things would be better at home, where they had arranged to enroll the boys in fall preschool.
When the Hladyks returned, they threw two parties. "Everyone was so happy for us," said Hladyk. Finally, the hard-working couple had completed their family.
But it became obvious that the children would have difficulty adjusting. Although their preschool worked to help them adapt, "it was clear by Christmas that it was not working," said Hladyk. She enrolled them in a special preschool program for developmentally delayed children.
And as details of their background began to emerge - details that Ruth believes should have been provided by her adoption agencies - it became evident that there was going to be no easy fix.
A "termination of parental rights" by the boys' birth mother, handed to the Hladyks as they were leaving Russia and later translated into English, revealed that she was an alcoholic vagrant who abandoned the children in the hospital where they were born. The orphanage they were in was designated for retarded children, Hladyk learned.
The children's behavior did not improve.
Mark, who seemed bright and engaging, had violent temper tantrums, sometimes 20 or 30 a day. "He bit us; he bit himself," Hladyk said. Cole, less intelligent, screamed and arched his back when touched.
The Hladyks arranged for psychiatric therapy in New York. On the psychiatrist's advice, Ruth gave up her graphic photography business, and the family began living on Mark's earnings of $33,000 a year. He installed and serviced graphics art equipment.
Among the doctor's recommendations: After a bath, rub the children with baby lotion to establish an emotional and physical connection.
"After a bath I was rubbing Mark with lotion, and I said, `You've never been rubbed; you've never been touched.' Mark responded by saying, `Yes, I've been touched.' " Then he pulled down his pajama bottoms and described how he had been sodomized in the orphanage by someone named Sasha, Hladyk said. "I started crying, and Mark apologized." After questioning it became clear that Cole, too, had been sexually abused.
"I walked around for months so medicated I was beside myself," Hladyk said. "My husband was terribly depressed."
After disclosing the sexual abuse, Mark became more violent. "The two kids were in the wading pool, and I saw Mark pushing Cole's face down in the pool. I saw him push Cole off the top of the slide, not down the slide. He put a pillow over his face at night. He put his hands around his neck to choke him. We also found Mark hiding bottles of mouthwash behind the toilet," Hladyk said. He admitted that he was drinking the alcohol-laced mouthwash because " `it makes me feel good when I'm bad,' " Hladyk said.
Stress, the Hladyks surmised, was the cause of the elder Mark's diarrhea, first diagnosed as colitis. By November, 1994, he learned that it was incurable pancreatic cancer. Mark lived for five more months. "I remember him saying to me, `You're never going to be able to do this yourself,' " Hladyk said.
Following Mark's death, Hladyk placed both boys in a private temporary residential treatment facility in Colorado that treats children with attachment disorder, a syndrome suffered by many institutionalized children. Such children fail to bond with their adoptive parents while acting affectionate and charming toward outsiders. Many are prone to violent tantrums and rages.
Hladyk loved the boys and felt responsible for them but did not believe that she could continue to raise them by herself. She contacted Tressler Lutheran Services, which found a family that expressed interest in the boys. After several visits, the couple said they wanted to adopt them.
"I packed everything in the van and took the kids to Pennsylvania," Hladyk said. "I asked the family to meet me in a restaurant so the boys wouldn't remember me leaving them. I told them I loved them, twice in Russian and twice in English. Nobody said, `I love you.' "
The last thing she heard was Mark asking his new parents if they would buy him some bubble gum.
Hladyk was left crying in a diner.
Two days later she received a call from the boys' new mother. "Mark started to pound and swing a baseball bat in the kitchen. She told him to go to his room. He took the bat and swung it at her. They ended up wrestling on the floor."
The new placement, which had not been legally finalized, was not working out. The new parents asked that she come get the boys.
Hladyk picked up the boys and took Mark straight to the children's psychiatric ward of a New Jersey hospital.
Hladyk is now seeking either a permanent institutional placement for both boys, or state-funded assistance to care for them at home. But she said the state of New Jersey is instead fighting her requests for assistance. She fears that Cole, now in a psychiatric hospital, will seriously harm himself if released to her home and that Mark might harm someone else.
"Where do we put these kids? Nobody wants to accept that little children can be so damaged that they perhaps cannot live with Mommy and Daddy. How do we help these kids?" Hladyk asked.
No one has been able to give her an acceptable answer, said Hladyk. Now, she is considering lawsuits against her adoption agencies and New Jersey. On Dec. 10, the Manhattan psychiatrist who treated Mark and Cole told Hladyk that she will probably have to abandon the boys to get services for them.
-- -- -- It was a sense of altruism that led Bill Morando, a Lloyd Neck publishing executive, to adopt.
The decision followed a December, 1991, charity dinner he and his wife, Mary Ann, attended, sponsored by the Jesuit Seminary Mission. "The head of worldwide missions said there are 24 million orphan children worldwide. My wife and I decided that if we adopt one child, it would make a contribution. It's a measurable thing we can do," he said.
Morando had himself been adopted as a child.
Within a couple of months, the Morandos found themselves dealing with a private attorney who offered them twin Moldavian girls, age 4 1/2.
"We said, `Okay, we'll adopt twin girls if there is no unusual physical or emotional scarring,' " Morando said. The Morandos had a total of five children between them, including three teenagers. "I still have elderly parents and a business to run. We knew that if there were unusual problems, we just would not be able to deal with it," he said.
The attorney said the kids were "apparently fine; `They've passed the AIDS test,' " Morando said.
"He sent us photos of two cute little girls. When you see pictures of children, you identify and empathize with their plight in life," Morando said.
When the Morandos went to get their children at an orphanage in Kishinev, they found that one was a head taller than the other, even though they were supposed to be twins. The taller one was named Irina; the little one, Olga.
They visited the children for about a week while they went through bureaucratic red tape. Even though it was June, the girls were dressed head-to-toe in heavy garb.
The city was breaking out in gunfire as Moldavia was erupting into civil war. The Morandos feared that they would not be able to get out of the country safely. When the paperwork was finally completed, they returned to the orphanage for their children.
"At that point, the day we were ready to leave, my wife changed the children to put them in western-type clothes. When she changed Olga, Mary Ann noticed that Olga's buttocks were misshapen and scarred," Morando said.
"It had no contour shape," said Morando. "It was more like a shriveled prune."
But the adoption was already completed. It was too late to ask more questions about Olga's condition.
"We figured, `Let's get out of here. We'll get home to our family, and we'll solve the problem then,' " Morando said.
They believed that the American medical system could cure just about anything. But back on Long Island, the Morandos found that Olga's problems were more difficult than they'd expected. While Irina seemed healthy, Olga had constant diarrhea.
Medical testing at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset revealed that Olga had celiac disease and an allergy to glutens and suffered from malabsorption and malnutrition as a result. Further workups revealed bouts with two forms of hepatitis, B and C. She required expensive drugs and constant monitoring.
But it was Olga's behavioral problems that really proved taxing. "She was highly manipulative," Morando said. "She'd sneak things under the bed and not tell you. Lie, lie, lie, all the time.
"This is a child that would walk out in the morning if the bus is there, never say goodbye. Get off the bus, walk right by you like you're not even there, like you're a ghost. Yet she'll see another person and say, `Hi.' "
A friend told Morando, " `It's really tough to help a child that's tough to love,' " he said.
"That's almost an enigma," Morando said. "How could you not love a child? That was the nut of the problem. You could not be motivated with this child. You try, you try, you try."
In April the Morandos took Olga to another family. It was arranged through Tressler Lutheran Services. "I found breaking the news to this child that she would be put in another home, I found that the most gut-wrenching decision of my entire life," Morando said. Irina remained with the Morandos.
When the Morandos took Olga to her new home in upstate Pennsylvania, Barbara Holtan of Tressler noticed Morando's distress. "Holtan said, `Don't feel guilty. You've done your job. You've done as much as you can do,' " Morando recalled. "I hope someday we'll look back on this and realize that we saved her life, and we got her a home that will give her the attention she needs."