January 13, 2008
About the time the youngest of the Umatilla couple's three daughters turned 6, the pair decided that adding more kids to the family would be really neat.
They're not people who have expensive play toys or upscale cars. They would rather devote their energies to raising worthwhile youngsters who in turn will contribute to the community. This time, they decided to adopt -- so many children already in the world need parents, they figured, and the family's mother always had tough pregnancies anyway.
That fateful decision would plunge them into torturous emotional suffering, nearly splinter their marriage and family, drain their savings, thrust them unwillingly into an unsympathetic justice system and cause them to rip two boys from their homeland of Russia, only to leave them adrift in Florida's less-than-stellar foster-care operation.
No one wins. And this tale is far from over.
It started nearly two years and $52,000 ago when the couple saw a picture of the 11-year-old boys, their arms slung over each other's shoulders, on a Minnesota adoption agency's Web site. They wanted a home together, and the Umatilla family wanted to adopt more than one child. Bingo. A fit.
The couple sent a scrapbook of their family to the military orphanage school in Bryansk, Russia, about 250 miles southwest of Moscow. Both boys had lived in the orphanage for some years, so the scrapbook was intended to help them see what life in the United States was like.
One of the boys ended up in the orphanage after his mother abandoned him and another sibling in a train station. Police returned them to her, but she left them again, apparently preoccupied with her alcohol troubles, Russian authorities told the family. The father of the second boy hung himself, and three months later, his mother did the same. One of the seven siblings in the family was adopted in Kentucky, and two girls stayed in Russia with an aunt. The others? Russian authorities didn't know.
The first meeting between the couple and the boys, in March 2007, was an overwhelming whirlwind.
The couple traveled to Bryansk, which is roughly the size of Orlando. They were led to a tiny office at the orphanage.
"All of a sudden, they were right there with us, beaming from ear to ear," said the mother, 45, who home-schools her three daughters and planned to do the same with the boys. "They knew sister, sister, Mama, Papa, everybody from the pictures.
"We fell in love with their faces. We would watch them and look at each other, and they looked at us and smiled. They seemed so happy to have someone wanting them," she said.
The meeting was sweet, but the couple, married more than 20 years, had talked with others who had adopted foreign children. They knew that the first year would be hard on everyone. There would be anger, joy, resentment and all manner of highs and lows.
The couple traveled back to Russia in September and brought the boys home.
"We knew it would be a struggle," said the father, 54.
"We said to each other, 'We can get them through it,' " the mother said.
What they didn't expect was the violence. The boys were rough on the girls, so the father showed them a few self-defense moves. The boys had little respect for privacy, often barging into the girls' rooms. The family had talks about each member's rights to space and expectations of privacy.
Still, nobody expected that one of the boys would hold the couple's 7-year-old daughter down in the middle of the night while the other sexually molested her as her sister, 12, slept on the next bed.
The story emerged after the child began having potty "accidents," and her parents began asking questions. They inquired at one point: Why didn't you yell? The chatty little blonde who loves her pink cowboy boots said she was afraid her new brothers would beat her if she woke her older sister.
Hoo boy. Now what?
The family had taken the responsibility to bring two boys to a country where they spoke little of the language. Adopted in Russia, they became instant American citizens. They are the couples' children just as surely as if they had been birthed on the front lawn of Umatilla City Hall.
But ask yourself this: Could you forgive, continue to raise and unreservedly love two boys who had lived with you only two months if you believed they had raped your daughter? Could you sentence your youngest to living with her attackers, regardless of how much supervision you promised?
Within an hour of learning that their daughter had been harmed, the mother and girls had packed and moved temporarily to Grandma's house in Apopka. (The couple knew that the state's policy was usually to remove the victim from the home in cases of molestation, and they did not want their daughter taken away from them.) They called the state Department of Children and Families abuse hotline and made a report. Dad played Mr. Mom and stayed at the house in Umatilla with the boys.
From Nov. 12 until last week, the family was apart, struggling to find a solution that would be in everyone's best interests and trying to begin the healing process for the youngest daughter.
During that time, the couple learned that officials at the military orphanage in Russia hadn't been truthful when asked about psychological and behavioral problems -- one of the boys acknowledged he had a history of "touching" and hurting girls. A psychologist diagnosed them both as having a condition called RAD -- Reactive Attachment Disorder.
Typically, those suffering from this problem never learned to trust anyone as infants or small children. Usually, this appears in children who are institutionalized but also in those shuffled from foster home to foster home or those whose needs just aren't met regularly by anyone. They do not come from a legacy of love.
The result is kids who are aggressive, defiant, manipulating, controlling, ruthless, self-centered and bullying. They lie and steal, hoard and never admit they are wrong. Can they be cured? About 40 percent of the time, the experts say. Even then, it is a long, long road requiring years of consistency and dedication. Another 40 percent make some improvement, but the remaining 20 percent are lost souls.
During the time the family was separated, the mom lost 40 pounds and was in and out of hospitals four times, the victim of a mystery parasite doctors think she picked up in Russia. It resisted certain diagnosis and treatment. Dad worked the phones calling everyone from the U.S. State Department to local elected officials. Everybody was sympathetic. But nobody did anything.
Finally, a lawyer they hired worked out a deal last week with the state to take the two boys into foster care so that the rest of the family could be reunited. In another month, the couple will submit paperwork to the court relinquishing their parental rights to the boys. They will continue as wards of the state -- unless they are adopted again.
The couple knows that some people will consider what they're doing morally repugnant. But they can't find another way out.
"I wanted to love them, and they never gave me a chance to love them," the mother said.
The couple is talking about their experience because they have so often seen sugary little stories in the news about foreign adoptions. Some are, indeed, wonderful. Others, however, are an emotional disaster.
"People need to be aware how bad it can be when it goes wrong," the father said.