When Children Adopted Abroad Come With Too Many Troubles
By SARAH JAY
In June 1994, Steve and Polly Taber, moved by stories about bleak conditions in Russian orphanages, decided to adopt Alina, an 18-month-old from St. Petersburg. Alina warmed to her American parents, and six months later, Mrs. Taber returned to Russia for a son, Alex, who was almost 4. For a few days, they felt like a fairy-tale family.
But their illusions faded rapidly when Alex failed to adjust. He refused to eat so much as a bowl of soup. He folded himself into a ball and rocked as though he were autistic. He was hyperactive, confrontational and aggressive toward his younger sister.
He kicked her and pushed her," said Mrs. Taber, a piano teacher in Wheaton, Ill. "He tried to stab her with scissors and me with a knife. He screamed at Steve that he hated him and wished he were dead. He told us he'd burn the house down, he'd kill us. All this from a 4-year-old."
Two years later, the Tabers have despaired of ever having a functional family. They describe life with Alex as a nightmare of psychological counseling and constant care that has strained their finances, their marriage and the mental health of their daughter.
"You begin to wonder if you're just a bad parent or you're failing him," said Mrs. Taber, 31. "We thought it was just us, that somehow Alex's problems were our fault."
The Tabers are part of a wave of Americans who have adopted about 9,000 children from orphanages in Eastern Europe and Russia since the collapse of Communism in 1990, when the news organizations began to report on the deplorable conditions in these institutions, particularly in Romania.
Most of these adoptions have gone well, and the children have recovered admirably even after years of deprivation or abuse, say the adoption agencies as well as the parents. But, like the Tabers, a growing number of the parents say their children have serious problems that do not naturally evaporate under the love and care of doting families.
There are no firm statistics on how many such families exist, but doctors and therapists specializing in treating adoptees say their caseloads are increasing. Agencies say requests for replacement families to take the children have been rising, and several parent support groups have formed, one with 900 families.
The dozens of agencies that handle foreign adoptions say their ability to thoroughly document a child's history varies widely, as does their understanding of adjustment problems after adoption. A few families, saying they were misled or misinformed, are suing agencies for negligence.
Child-development specialists say they could have predicted such a fallout, citing the many studies that link an impoverished early environment with later social and emotional problems. Whether they were not given complete information or overestimated their ability to cope, many couples went ahead with foreign adoptions.
Some of the adoptive families have accommodated the children's special needs, which can involve years of therapy and special education. But for others, like the Tabers, a solution could involve a family breakup.
The Tabers say that they are ill-equipped to raise Alex and that they have all but decided to find another home for him. Mr. Taber said he took some responsibility for not having Russian documents translated that would have told him Alex was physically abused as a toddler, information he said his agency did not provide.
"I feel sort of stupid," said Mr. Taber, 36, explaining that as an environmental lawyer, he had neglected to take the advice he often gives his clients: "Check evidence, look at dates. The answer was sitting in front of us for over a year, and we never bothered to look at it."
In the last two years, Tressler Lutheran Services in York, Pa., known for placing children with special needs, said the agency had taken calls from parents desperate to find new homes for 23 adopted Soviet-bloc children, far more than typical.
"It is sad and disturbing because it means adoption agencies are still not telling people what they need to know," said Barbara Holtan, director of adoption services for Tressler. The adoption agencies generally say they tell prospective families that institutionalized children are likely to have suffered some trauma.
But often the conversation ends there. Only later do some parents come face to face with that reality. A child could be hyperactive or aggressive, refuse to make eye contact and have temper tantrums, speech and language problems, attention deficits, extreme sensitivities to touch or an inability to form emotional bonds.
"We had to teach her how to laugh, how to cry," said Barbara Canale, of Jamesville, N.Y., talking of her daughter, Andrea, now 3. Andrea was adopted from Romania in 1993. Mrs. Canale said she was totally unresponsive at first. Only after intensive behavioral therapy has she begun to act like a child her age, Mrs. Canale said.
Dr. Victor Groze, an associate dean at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University, who has studied 399 families with Romanian adoptees, estimated that a fifth of the children are what he calls "resilient rascals," who are thriving; three-fifths are what he calls "wounded wonders," who have made vast strides but continue to lag behind their peers, and another fifth are "challenge children," who are almost unmanageable.
There is no foolproof formula to predict a child's resilience, Dr. Groze said, although factors like length of time spent in an institution, seem to correlate with later impairments.
Gay Ketterer had spent a year with her Russian daughter, Marina, before she realized that Marina's tendency to open doors directly into her face, or fall while running up a hill, was more than clumsiness. Mrs. Ketterer has noticed other unusual behavior: Marina, now 5, will walk off with a stranger as willingly as she will her own mother.
Martha Prokop of Fairfax, Va., said she was told by the adoption agency, Welcome House Social Services in Perkasie, Pa., that her son Remus, from Romania, was healthy and happy.
But the day after the adoption, Mrs. Prokop said, she was told that Remus, 6, carried a rare and lethal type of hepatitis and that she must protect her older adopted daughter.
"We're not sorry that we adopted," said Mrs. Prokop, who is suing her agency for negligence. "We're angry that we were not given the proper information to make an informed decision."
Welcome House, of the Pearl S. Buck Foundation, would not comment on Mrs. Prokop's adoption. The director of social services, Kelly Harris, said that prospective families sign a form acknowledging the risks of adopting, but that some parents may not truly absorb the information.
"Sometimes people's anxieties and desire to get something that they worked so hard for kind of cloud things," Ms. Harris said.
At Family Resource Center, the Chicago adoption agency that helped the Tabers adopt Alex, families are told that 18 months may elapse before an adopted child catches up to his peers. After the adoption, the agency leaves the parents on their own and assures them that "what cures a child is love and understanding and affection," said Richard Pearlman, the executive director.
That kind of advice is precisely the opposite of what parents say they need. After discovering a dozen families who had impaired children like her own, Thais Tepper formed the Parent Network for the Post-Institutionalized Child of Meadow Lands, Pa. In three years, its membership has ballooned to 900 families.
"My agency said I was the only person to have problems or complaints about my children, that they had placed 200 and it was just me," said Mrs. Tepper, who adopted an 18-month-old boy from Romania. "What we found out was that there were a lot of 'me's,' and a lot of 'me's' from the same agency."
Ruth Hladyk said she also felt deceived by her agency, through which she adopted Mark and Cole, twin boys from Russia. Mrs. Hladyk, of Parsippany, N.J., said she was told that the boys, who had been removed from their alcoholic mother, were healthy except for some relatively minor developmental delays.
"Mark acts out, is aggressive, is very verbal," she said. "Cole is extremely withdrawn, makes no attempt to socialize."
Since the adoption, Mrs. Hladyk has lost her husband to cancer and spent $100,000 on adoption fees and therapists. Her days are long and exhausting, as she cares for her elderly parents while monitoring the boys' whereabouts. Mark has tried to smother, drown and strangle Cole on several occasions, she said.
For Mrs. Hladyk, 43, the last two years have been a bitter emotional journey of anger, depression and resignation, leading to a regrettable end: a search for a new family for the boys.
"We wanted those children," she said, "but this was a heartache from the beginning."
Photo: Polly Taber, left, and Steve Taber, with Alina, the daughter they adopted from Russia in 1994, when she was 18 months old. (Lloyd DeGrane for The New York Times) (pg. 24)
Correction: July 4, 1996, Thursday A front-page article on June 23 about adjustment problems of Eastern European and Russian children adopted by Americans referred imprecisely to the role of the Family Resource Center in the adoption of a young boy, Alex, by Steve and Polly Taber in Wheaton, Ill. The center, an agency in Chicago, did an addendum to a home study for Alex's adoption by the Tabers. It did not place Alex with the Tabers for adoption, and it did not provide them information about him. Another agency placed Alex with the Tabers for adoption.