Reaching Johnny

Adopted from Russia, 6-Year-Old Johnny Wash Had Violent Fits That Pushed Parents Stuart and Denise to the Breaking Point. So They Turned to Joyce Sterkel and Her Special Brand of Tough Love

Holding their blue-eyed baby in a dilapidated orphanage in Fryazino, Russia, in February 2003, Denise and Stuart Wash basked in the moment they'd dreamed about since applying to adopt a year earlier. Gazing at the 13-month-old they'd named Johnny, they noticed "he was sort of expressionless," Denise recalls. But they'd read about adopted kids, how they take time to bond, and didn't worry. "We felt," Stuart recalls, "once we got home, everything would be great."

Only it wasn't. Months after the family returned to Charlotte, N.C., Johnny didn't hug or kiss his parents or brother Sam, the Washes' then 4-year-old biological son. "Once," Denise recalls, "he fell asleep in my arms in the rocking chair. It never happened again." He preferred to rock himself, alone in his crib. He argued with teachers in daycare; at home he had violent tantrums. "Sometimes it took two of us to restrain him," says Stuart, 47, who has a document-destruction company. "It took a toll on the whole family."

But no one more so than Denise, who became the target of Johnny's rages. He called her names, spit at her, hit, kicked and bit so hard he drew blood. "I had scratches and bruises up and down my arms," says Denise, 45. "One time, he head-butted me and almost broke my nose." What hurt most, though, was her heart: After struggling with infertility for years after Sam's birth, she finally had a beautiful son who delighted her when he'd set the table or ask her questions about how boats work. "What I couldn't understand," Denise says, "was how this child that I loved could do this. We had a dream—and it got shattered. It wasn't what we thought it would be."

Nearly all the 20,000 international adoptions each year in the U.S. end happily. In a small number of cases, though, parents discover the child they brought home has severe emotional problems, often a result of prolonged neglect in an orphanage. One woman trying to help is Joyce Sterkel, a horseback-riding, 61-year-old grandmother who keeps her cell phone in a star-studded hip holster. Sterkel's 160-acre Ranch for Kids (www.ranch forkids.org), tucked within the Rocky Mountains in Eureka, Mont., takes in about 25 such youngsters for months at a time; it gives exhausted parents a break and provides troubled kids with a mix of school, chores, horse therapy and old-fashioned tough love. "For these children," Sterkel says, "the world has not been a safe place. They feel they have to be in control all the time. I try to change that." Adoption experts respect her approach. "I'm a supporter," says Dr. Dana Johnson, an adoption medicine specialist at the University of Minnesota.

When the Washes called Sterkel last year, after learning about her ranch on the Internet, they were desperate. Over the years, they'd taken Johnny to a dozen experts and gotten almost as many opinions. What emerged: Johnny had reactive attachment disorder, an inability to form emotional bonds, and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, which had hampered his self-control. Medication and near-daily therapy helped little. So on Aug. 24, 2007, Stuart handed an impassive Johnny over to Sterkel, who brought the boy back to the ranch. "It was," says Denise, tearing up, "the most difficult decision we ever made."

When Sterkel met Johnny that day, "he was like a butterfly, running around and around, talking nonstop like a machine gun," she recalls. Arriving at the ranch, where she has a staff of 14, Sterkel started setting limits immediately. When Johnny would start babbling, stream-of-consciousness style, Sterkel would take him aside and tell him, "'You're gonna sit for a while and not play with your toys'. We'd repeat it over and over, until he got the consequences." At first he got three time-outs a day, once for kicking a teacher; now he can go several days at a stretch without an infraction and enjoys rewards like getting dessert or going on field trips when he follows the rules.

On a recent Thursday, Johnny and 20 other kids hunched over their desks in a one-room schoolhouse, working on age-appropriate lessons while five teachers supervised. For lunch the kids—Johnny was the youngest—gathered at two picnic tables in a common room; outside, wild turkeys strutted about. At 3 p.m. school let out and chores began. Older kids fed horses, gathered eggs, shoveled snow; Johnny did homework and played with Legos. Next up: horse therapy (in which youngsters learn life skills through riding). In the stable, Johnny stroked a pony's white face. "You're so nice," he said.

That sort of kindness is something Sterkel tries to teach—and is a big step for Johnny. Stopping him from tossing his stuffed bear Cuddles up the stairs, she tells Johnny to go sit quietly with his bear. "We're practicing being the daddy," she explains, "and taking care of the baby bear." Johnny would later ask a visitor to watch Cuddles while he went riding.

While kids at the ranch come from all over, most are Russian—and Sterkel has an intimate understanding of them. A former nurse and midwife, she worked in Russia for two years; she and husband Harry Sutley, a nurse and science teacher at the ranch, have six grown kids: two biological, one adopted in the U.S. and three from Russia. Their Russian sons Sasha and Michael both had problems and came to Sterkel after their first adoptions didn't work out. In 1999, getting calls from adoptive parents, Sterkel began offering informal respite care; in January 2004, she opened the nonprofit ranch.

It's not cheap—fees average $3,200 a month—and many parents come with high hopes. Sterkel serves up sobering facts: Of the roughly 180 kids who have stayed at the ranch, about one-third reunite with their parents; another third get adopted by new families; the rest go into vocational programs or stay at the ranch until they turn 18. Even successful kids, Sterkel cautions, may never be the sweet darlings their parents wanted. "I can change their behavior," she says. "I can't put their souls back in their bodies."

Sterkel worries that Denise, especially, may hope for more affection than Johnny is able to give. Still, when Stuart visited his son earlier this month, Johnny seemed calmer and, somehow, more genuine. "When we first saw each other, we hugged for what seemed like 10 hours," Stuart says. "There was more feeling." With Sterkel's approval, Johnny will return home to Virginia, where the family now lives, next month. "I'm excited, I'm nervous," says Denise, who has been attending seminars on caring for post-institutionalized children and plans to sign Johnny up for riding lessons. "I just want him back." Johnny, perhaps for the first time, shares the sentiment. "I miss my mom," he says. "I want to go home."

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Priorities in Placement

I was reading a previously posted post that includes the article, Ranch for Troubled Teens, and how being shipped-off and out to yet another place can be very disruptive.

Because their parents no longer can manage them at home, the 24 youngsters—almost all international adoptees—have ended up on a special ranch in this remote, rugged corner of northwest Montana.

This is the final stop. Most already have logged countless hours in psychiatric units, wilderness programs and residential treatment
centers, searching for answers to their disturbing behaviors. The goal is that through intense intervention and structure, their conduct will improve sufficiently so they can go home.

But a handful will never return, moving on to new families. They are victims of an expanding phenomenon known as adoption disruption—the official term for when parents attempt to return their adopted children.

“Some parents just can’t do it anymore; they’re done,” said Joyce Sterkel, who runs the Ranch for Kids, a therapeutic boarding
school. “It’s tragic … and everyone is a victim.”

No one appears to keep data on adoption disruption. While still a statistically rare occurrence among the approximately 20,000 foreign-born children adopted by Americans each year, such relinquishment is happening with increasing frequency, experts said.

One Ohio adoption agency reports receiving as many as five calls a day from parents about disruptions, up from just one or two a month a couple of years ago.

“No one knew the magnitude of the problem,” said Sterkel, 60. “The horror stories just keep on coming.”

While dissolutions of domestic adoptions are not unheard of (a decade-long study of 5,750 Illinois children adopted from foster care
through the mid-1980s found a rate of 6.5 percent), it is among the international population where experts are seeing a troubling spike.

Experts blame the jump on a confluence of factors.

First, as Americans adopted more children from overseas—the figures have almost tripled since 1990—the number of children with despairing behaviors grew, and these children are now hitting adolescence, when their rages are more dangerous.

Moreover, many parents were unprepared for the challenges, in part because agencies glossed over their charges’ complex medical histories—or omitted them altogether. “Now, they’re out there all alone … living in a constant state of crisis,” said Amy Groessl, a therapist with the Children’s Research Triangle in Chicago, which serves high-risk families.

Problems lurk beneath surface While some adoptive parents may undertake parenthood with unrealistic expectations, more typically they are merely ill-equipped to cope with profoundly damaged children. Due to one or more of a variety of reasons—among them fetal alcohol syndrome, mental illness, abuse, attachment disorders—the youngsters can’t function in a family, though they show no outward signs of disability.

“These kids are the victims of every kind of abuse you can imagine— sexual, physical, emotional,” said Sterkel, who runs what may be the only therapeutic school exclusively for adopted children.

Parents receive no hint or preparation for the tumultuous road ahead, she said: “They thought love was enough.”

And in another recently posted piece, For troubled teens, a last stop, it states:

To prevent future disruptions, agencies are emphasizing more pre-adoption training and post-adoption support. Some are telling prospective parents they should assume that their children were exposed to drugs and alcohol in utero, unless documentation indicates otherwise.

I would like to add that given the many times and ways children are being abused "in-care" (whether it be in a foster/adoptive home, residential treatment centers, or an orphange) I honetly think all PAP's should heed the advice I offered the other day: Frankly, I think it should be ASSUMED all 200-300,000 children placed in care each year (in the US)* are being badly treated.  If not by the first parents, then by those associated or related to social services, itself.  I think it's far better to assume the absolute worst than presume all is fine and dandy (and in good working order) once a child in taken into the system.  ( From: "Money, money, money")  With that in mind, I cannot help but believe better care given in the early years should be a priority, whether that child will ever be adopted, or not.

agree!!!!!

I think it's far better to assume the absolute worst than presume all is fine and dandy (and in good working order)

With that in mind, I cannot help but believe better care given in the early years should be a priority, whether that child will ever be adopted, or not.

VERY much agree!

priorities...

RIght now I am receiving help inside the home, which does put the kids first.  Every problem, I run it past the woman who visits each week.  I'm not so overwhelmed thinking I have to go it alone.  I asked for this help to continue even after everything was resolved.  There are always problems and even the best of parents should have the privilege knowing there is help available when needed.  But I feel the problem is that most families think they are supposed to be almost perfect on their own, and to own that there are problems hurts their ego.  I've learned that humbling myself and asking for help with whatever I'm struggling with is the best and easiest way to keep the priority on the kids' needs.

What did I ever do to deserve this... Teddy

Accepting help

I think for many, especially those who were told to keep family secrets, accepting help from others is VERY difficult to do.

I know I still have difficulty admitting I need help with certain things.  (Both pride AND shame tend to get in the way because I was taught not to depend on anyone but myself.)  Back when I really needed a few extra-hands (with the newborn twins and older two starting school), I was completely overwhelmed but knew if I didn't keep control, all hell would break loose.   There were neighbors who tried to come to my house and help, but because I was so used to doing everything myself, I didn't know HOW to accept the help being offered me.  I look back and see how my own fears contributed to my very deep long-lasting misery.

Over the years, I have learned to let go of small pieces of my stubborn pride, but I know I still have a way to go before I can openly ask for help, and not feel ashamed or bad about myself for doing so.  (It's a warped control-issue, I know....)

My point is this, it's very sad (and lonely) when new-parents don't have extended family members to help with difficult home-situations, and it's very difficult to reach out for help when you're too caught-up in your own ground zero, and afraid any call for SOS will result in the removal of your kids... so for those who DON'T have a church or an adoption-support network, what are they supposed to do when they need help but don't know where to get it? 

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