Date: 1997-06-29

Charleston Gazette (WV)
Author: Vincent J. Schodolski Chicago Tribune

LOS ANGELES - Last September, Stan and Tricia Powell reached the end of a nerve-racking nine-month saga when they flew to Moscow to pick up the 4-year-old Russian twins they had adopted.

Despite months of preparations, it was a tense time. The days spent working their way through bureaucracies in two countries had been difficult enough. Now, far from home in a strange country, they were about to meet two children who would change their lives forever.

As the Powells and thousands of Americans who adopt children abroad quickly learned, the first days and months of life together can be stressful and even frightening.

According to experts on international adoption, the hardest part of the adjustment for both parents and children comes in those early moments together. Plucked from orphanages by strangers who usually can't speak their language, children often act out their fears and anger.

Very, very scary

"It is very, very scary for them," said Debbie Price, an official at a Virginia-based adoption agency called Children's House. "Their whole life is changing."

While international and domestic adoptions are similar in some respects, adopting a child from another country poses additional challenges. To get to their new homes, the children often endure arduous and lengthy journeys, arriving in a place where the language is different and the people may look strange. The food, which adoption agencies sometime suggest as a way of breaking the ice, may be distasteful to a child who is used to porridge instead of hot dogs.

Even months of preparation can sometimes fail to prepare couples for the emotional reaction children, especially those who have been abused, can have when they are uprooted from their native country.

When the Powells met their new daughter, Kayla, she took to them as if she had known them all her life, clinging to Tricia as they left the orphanage in the Tver region north of Moscow and sternly telling one of the people who had cared for her there, "This is my mother."

But Kayla's brother, Tanner, who had been severely abused by his biological mother, wanted no part of this woman from America.

"He had no trust in women," Tricia Powell, 39, said of Tanner, who had been tied up and beaten by his mother. "He did not relate to me at all."

Left alone with her for a few minutes at the Moscow airport as they prepared to board a flight to New York, Tanner threw a tantrum.

"He went crazy," said Tricia. "He was kicking, screaming and pulling my hair. I held his arms and sat him firmly on the ground. Then I looked around and thought, 'Oh my God, what if someone saw me and reported me right there at the Moscow airport.'"

Nine months later Tanner has become a "momma's boy," according to the Powells. The first-time parents say they have settled peacefully into the routine of their new family life in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Troubling incident

But as the Powells know all too well, the first days after an adoption can push parents and children to the breaking point and test the limits of self-control.

Adoption newsgroups on the Internet have been buzzing with discussion about an incident that took place on a Delta Air Lines flight from Moscow to New York late last month in which a couple reportedly struck and abused the two Russian girls they had just adopted. According to accounts of some of those on the plane, the children were quite unruly and the new parents were unable to control them.

Arrested when they left the plane after the outraged complaints of several passengers, Karen and Richard Thorne were charged with physically and verbally abusing the girls. The 4-year-olds were taken from them and placed in foster homes.

The incident was covered by news organizations in the United States and Russia, as well as in China, South Korea and other countries that regularly send large numbers of children to America for adoption. It has caused Russian authorities to delay some adoptions by American couples and rattled the nerves of already anxious couples who were on the verge of flying abroad to pick up the children for whom they have waited for months, or even years.

"The message we want to get across is that this kind of thing does not happen," said Lee Hobria, a director of Families For Russian and Ukrainian Adoption, a national support group for people seeking to adopt children from Ukraine, Russia and the republics of the former Soviet Union.

The group estimated that there have been about 6,000 adoptions from Russia alone since 1992 and that there have been few problems, but the initial meeting of parents and their adoptive children is often stressful.

"What do you do when one or both of the children reject you?" asked Margot Matthews, a director of Hand In Hand, an Arizona-based adoption agency used by both the Powells and the Thornes. "We try to tell them [parents] not to take it personally. "

Dozens of adoption experts interviewed agreed that cases of abuse by newly adoptive parents are rare and that the case of the Thornes was not representative of the experiences of the estimated 11,000 foreign children adopted by Americans last year.

"This [incident] is not the norm. In fact it is the exact opposite of the norm," said Jane Brown, a social worker who counsels adoptive families in Arizona.

Brown, who worked with the Thornes, said that they had taken the full 35-hour parenting course and weekend sessions and had passed careful screening by both U.S. and Russian social agencies, the police and even the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"I don't know exactly what happened on that plane, and I can't understand it," said Matthews from Hand In Hand. "But we have all forced our children to sit down, and we have all done things we wish we had not done."

Matthews said that the Hand In Hand training includes detailed suggestions about what to do during those initial meetings, the flight home and the first weeks together. The flight home, a 10-hour marathon often on very crowded airplanes, can be especially problematic, she said.

David Lucas, who returned from Russia just last month with two girls, one 2 and the other 10 months, made the journey alone. After three nights spent with the 2-year-old in a decaying hotel in the Russian town of Vologda, Lucas picked up the younger girl and headed to Moscow for health and immigration formalities.

"It was real hard," Lucas said. "I was not as prepared as I could have been."

Lucas' journey ended well as he wound up sitting next to a group of women traveling together. "They were very excited and wanted to help," Lucas said. "I let them."

But not all flights go so well.

After days, or weeks living in poorly maintained hotels, or sharing cramped apartments with Russian families, the tension can build to a fever pitch and the "flight from hell" as Matthews called it can be extremely trying.

She advises new adoptive parents to do their best to "chill out" before the flight and to bring all manner of things along for the ride that can be used to entertain the children. "Act goofy, make them laugh. Even if they don't understand what you are saying you can show that you love them with your eyes."

Some experts said that adoptive parents often fear that if they discuss their true feelings, or talk about the methods they experiment with to control children who are acting out deep-seated fears and anger, they will be accused of child abuse.

Matthews and others urged new adoptive parents to speak openly about their feelings to each other and to relatives, friends and support groups.

"These are not feelings unique to you," Matthews said.


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