East Bloc adoptions fuel quiet debate
Author: Daniela Deane
Six years after the fall of the Soviet empire opened the East Bloc to Americans seeking children to adopt, a small but growing number of parents are giving their new children up.
They say their adopted kids have psychological problems too difficult to handle. The children are unable to bond with their new parents and are destructive, even dangerous.
Others say the fault lies with the adoptive mothers and fathers, many of whom are older, first-time parents. They say these new parents have unreal expectations of what their adopted children will be like and haven't given the kids enough time to get used to their new lives in America.
As those two positions indicate, the topic of failed East Bloc adoptions sparks heated passion, and much controversy. Several parents cried when telling their stories to a reporter. And all pleaded that their side be fully, and sympathetically, told.
Most of the troubled children came from warehouse-like orphanages where they rarely were touched or held as infants. As a result, they often suffer from an inability to bond or adapt socially, doctors say. Many were born to alcoholic mothers and are victims of fetal alcohol syndrome, which causes learning disabilities and emotional problems.
About 3,700 children were adopted by Americans from Russia and eastern Europe last year. The number has risen every year since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The best overseas source of white children, Russia surpassed China this year as the leading choice of Americans looking to adopt internationally.
The vast majority of these adoptions end happily. Many parents are so delighted with their first Russian-born child that they return for another.
"My daughter is happy, healthy and active in every way. I know hundreds of others," says Karen Klein, the adoptive mother of a 5-year-old Russian girl in Larchmont, N.Y.
Several doctors who have worked with adopted East Bloc children say that one-third are adjusting well to their new lives in America. Another third have one or two problems, such as learning disabilities or developmental delays, but are progressing. The remaining third, says neonatologist Dana Johnson, have major problems, including retarded IQs, inability to bond or destructive behavior. His clinic at the University of Minnesota has studied and treated more than 1,000 of these children.
Kids with attachment disorders have severe emotional imbalances. They seek love indiscriminately but cannot bond with their new care givers. They will run to hug a bus driver, for example, but cannot show affection toward their parents.
But the growing medical knowledge of what causes the problems faced by these children has not lessened the pain -- or the numbers of people throwing in the towel.
"It's hit us like a ton of bricks," says Barbara Holtan of Tressler Adoption Services of York, Pa., which specializes in finding homes for hard-to-place children. "This is like nothing we have ever seen before in the 25 years of our special-needs adoption program."
Her agency has been asked to find new homes for more and more children over the past three years. All were from the former East Bloc.
Failed adoption is not limited to international adoptions. Holtan, who also finds homes for hard-to-place American children, estimates that about 15% of U.S. adoptions fail.
But among international adoptions, children from the East Bloc stand out.
"We've been adopting Korean kids for 40 years," Holtan says. "But the number of disruptions of Korean kids has been minuscule in comparison. We get a call a week from parents wanting to end these adoptions."
Holtan says she is able to persuade some parents to keep trying or to find therapy. Others insist she find new homes for the children.
Most of the relinquished children are placed with other adoptive parents in the USA. A few are returned to the overseas orphanages where they were found. Some end up in private U.S. residential care facilities or as part of America's child foster care system, their expenses paid by the parents or by taxpayers.
The Parent Network for the Post-Institutionalized Child, a support group, also reports it is getting calls from parents wanting to talk about giving up East Bloc children. Its founder, Thais Tepper, is the Pennsylvania mother of an adopted Romanian boy with emotional and learning disabilities.
She founded the group, which has grown to 2,500 members, to provide referrals and information to parents with problem children.
"You get people from Potato Patch, Idaho, calling, saying their kid is setting the house on fire," Tepper says. "What are these people supposed to do? These problems are adoption's dirty little secret."
Johnson of the University of Minnesota believes that the number of failed adoptions of East Bloc children will continue to increase. But he says the majority of parents are not giving up. Rather, they are making "incredible sacrifices" to raise their adopted children.
The parents contacted by USA TODAY who have given up their children say the adoption agencies never told them of the problems.
And many said they had told the agencies before adopting that they were not willing or prepared, either financially or emotionally, to parent children with special needs.
The agencies respond that many of these couples were naive and that unmet parental expectations, not the behavior of the children, is the number one cause of failed adoptions.
Ronald Federici, a developmental neuropsychologist in Alexandria, Va., who has treated about 1,000 children from the East Bloc, thinks both could be true. "These parents think, and many are told this, `I'll give them a room, new toys, take them to Disney World, and everything will be fine.' That's just baloney," Federici says. "The effects don't just go away with love and a new family. Some of the damage is irreparable. Attachment disorder is very real."
Kathy and Mike Ballou, both in their 40s, were desperate to become parents after struggling with infertility for years. They considered surrogate motherhood and adopting in this country.
Finally, the Kansas City, Mo., couple decided that their best hope lay in the former East Bloc.
They were thrilled when the director of a Missouri adoption agency told them she had found an adorable child in Romania: 2-year-old Stefania, "perfectly healthy, very beautiful and hugs everyone she sees."
The director said she was so charmed by the blue-eyed blonde toddler she was considering adopting her herself.
"We felt pretty safe, because someone had seen her, an American social worker," Kathy Ballou says.
The adoption cost $25,000.
As soon as the Ballous saw their new daughter, they knew something was wrong.
"She was totally mute. She never made eye contact with anyone. She gnawed on everything -- the glass coffee table, the brick fireplace. She would lick the floor, chew on people's shoes. She was in constant motion, spinning in circles, flapping her arms, banging her head," Kathy Ballou says.
Kathy Ballou, a trained nurse, took Stefania to a developmental psychologist in Kansas City. He told them their daughter was profoundly retarded, possibly autistic and suffering from a bad case of fetal alcohol syndrome caused by her mother's drinking during pregnancy.
After some 150 trips to doctors and therapists, a summer leave from work and another $15,000 in medical fees financed by selling their car, spending their savings and taking out loans, the Ballous decided they had no choice but to give up. They relinquished Stefania to another family in September 1996 after six months as her parents.
"I look back on it now, and many times I regret it," Kathy Ballou says, her voice breaking. "I will always believe I was meant to mother her. But I was beyond exhausted, we were completely broke, and nothing had changed. I dream of her at night, that she's talking to me. Her nursery is still there. I couldn't bear to part with any of it."
Ruth Hladyk's story is one of the most emotional. She and her husband, Mark, of Denville, N.J., adopted 31/2-year-old twin boys from St. Petersburg, Russia. The adoption agency said there was no information on the birth mother because the boys had been abandoned at birth.
The trouble started as soon as they got home. Mark, the dominant twin, had 20 to 30 temper tantrums a day and abused his brother. "Mark started to sneakily make attempts at his brother's life," Ruth Hladyk says. "I caught him trying to hold his brother's face down in the wading pool, trying to smother him with a pillow."
The other twin, Martyn, was withdrawn and hardly ever spoke. Together the boys would get violent, slashing the Hladyks' upholstery, scraping their cars with rocks and, in general, wreaking havoc in their once tranquil home.
Ruth Hladyk took them to a local psychiatrist. The boys told the psychiatrist they had been sexually abused in the orphanage. Doctors said the boys also were suffering from severe fetal alcohol syndrome, which can cause attachment disorder, developmental and growth delays, and disfigurement.
During this time, Mark Hladyk developed pancreatic cancer. He died after five months. "He was a big man before he got sick," his wife says. "This big man would sit at the end of the bed, his head in his hands crying, saying `What are we doing wrong, why don't these children love us?' "
After her husband died, Ruth Hladyk contacted the Tressler service and gave up the boys. The agency placed the boys with another family, but that arrangement ended after only 48 hours when Mark assaulted his new mother with a baseball bat. The twins are in separate residential treatment facilities in Pennsylvania.
The Hladyks spent $25,000 to adopt the boys, including an $8,000 check and $2,000 in cash for the Russian who facilitated the adoption, and hundreds of dollars in gifts for officials at the orphanage. After getting home, they spent another $20,000 treating their psychological problems. Ruth Hladyk exhausted her husband's life insurance policy after his death at the age of 43. The state of New Jersey and the U.S. Education Department pay for the boys' treatment.
Ruth Hladyk, now 44, says her husband "died feeling it was our fault. We were told we had been married too long, we didn't understand children, that boys will be boys. After my husband died, I was told that I was an irrational, grief-stricken widow and that once I got therapy, everything would be fine."
Some happy endings
Agencies complain that prospective parents often don't want to hear negative information about the children. They also argue that these kids need time -- and love -- to adjust.
"People need to go into this with their eyes wide open," says Maureen Evans, executive director of the Joint Council on International Children's Services, an umbrella group of adoption agencies. "You can't go into it with a faint heart."
Some parents admit they have unreal expectations of what these children will be like.
"Unmet parental expectations is the number one reason for these adoption disruptions," says Cynthia Teeters, of the Friends for Russian and Ukrainian Adoption. "It has very little to do with the children. After they find replacement families, they tend to do very well."
Karen and Bill Ortman from Baltimore, Md., got their five-year-old Lithuanian boy, A.J., last February. Another Baltimore family relinquished him after only 21/2 months.
"The family that had A.J. was basically unprepared, they didn't have support," Karen Ortman, a legal secretary, says. "They wanted a child so desperately."
She admits A.J. is a difficult child. "He has problems with authority, he's very, very active, he can be disruptive. The first night we had him in the house, we called him the Tasmanian devil. He picked up everything, touched everything, looked under everything. He was very nervous."
But she says he's gotten much better, although he still has difficult periods, especially around holidays. She says she and her 46-year-old husband, a fireman, try not to take anything A.J. does personally.
"Their loss is definitely my gain," Karen Ortman, 38, says of the family that gave up A.J. "They call these kids throw-away children. These people's first inclination is to give these kids away. Two and a half months is not a very long time."
The Parent Network for the Post-Institutionalized Child: 412-222-1766. E-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Box 613, Meadow Lands, Pa. 15347
Friends for Russian and Ukrainian Adoption: 703-560-6184. E-mail address is www.frua.org
Tressler Adoption Services, York, Pa.: 717-845-9113
National Council for Adoption, Washington, D.C.: 202-328-1200
National Resource Center on Special Needs Adoption: Southfield, Mich.: 248-443-7080