Last-chance ranch

Date: 2008-02-02

Montana outpost takes children whose adoptive parents can't handle them

By Bonnie Miller Rubin

EUREKA, Mont. -- At first glance, the children saddling the horses seem to have been cast by Hollywood to play wholesome, athletic, all-American kids.

Outward appearances, however, don't tell the whole story: One molested a sibling. Another tried to kill a family pet.

Stealing, vandalizing and fire-starting round out the list of transgressions.

Because they couldn't be managed at home, the 24 youngsters -- almost all foreign children adopted by Americans -- have landed on a ranch in a rugged, remote corner of northwestern Montana.

Most have already logged countless hours in psychiatric units, wilderness programs and residential treatment centers, seeking answers to their disturbing behavior.

The goal: Through intense structure and intervention, their conduct will improve enough that they might go home.

A handful will never return, moving on to new families as victims of an expanding phenomenon known as adoption disruption -- the official term for the scenario when parents try to give up their adoptive children.

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

Though still a statistically rare occurrence among the 20,000 foreign-born children adopted by Americans each year, such relinquishment is happening with increasing frequency, according to experts.

One adoption agency in Ohio reports receiving as many as five calls a day from parents about disruptions -- up from just one or two a month as recently as 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 aren't unheard of, it is among the international population where experts are seeing a most troubling spike.

Experts blame the jump on a confluence of factors.

First, as Americans have adopted more children from overseas -- the figures have almost tripled since 1990 -- the numbers with despairing behaviors have also grown, and these children are hitting adolescence, when their rages are more dangerous.

Moreover, many parents were unprepared for the challenges, either because they were so eager to be Mom and Dad or 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 of Chicago, which serves high-risk families.

While some people might have undertaken parenthood with unrealistic expectations, more typically they are deeply committed but ill-equipped to cope with profoundly damaged children. Because of fetal alcohol syndrome, mental illness, attachment disorders or a combination of all three, the youngsters can't function in a family.

"These kids are the victims of every kind of abuse you can imagine -- sexual, physical, emotional," Sterkel said.

Parents receive no hint or preparation for the tumultuous road ahead, she said.

"They thought love was enough."

So, when the nuclear family melts down, parents must grapple with a heartbreaking choice: "Do we remove this child, or do we all go down?"

Sterkel, a nurse and mother of three grown children, knows the struggles personally as well as professionally.

After spending two years in Russia, she adopted Katya, a 10-year-old who suffered from years of neglect. Two years later, in 1998, came a 14-year-old Russian boy, Sasha, who had been sent to juvenile detention after trying to poison his mother.

Today, Sasha helps on the ranch, connecting with angry, hard-to-reach kids like him.

"I still have a lot of trust issues, especially with women," said Sasha, his eyes narrowing. "But life is a lot better now. Of all the families I've had, this one is the best."

Meanwhile, the word ricocheted throughout the country that this Montana woman, who speaks conversational Russian, and her husband, Harry Sutley, could offer a respite to parents in crisis. The phone would ring, and soon the Sterkel/Sutley clan was caring for a dozen or so troubled children.

The wind howls across the craggy landscape, just 5 miles from the Canadian border. There's plenty of physical activity and virtually nowhere to run. In the early days, Sterkel had almost no treatment plan beyond keeping the kids busy and nurtured.

Today, the program employs 15, but the youngsters -- from every continent and mostly ages 12 to 17 but some as young as 4 -- live in the same Spartan dorms.

And the blueprint is unchanged: The route to self-esteem is through teamwork and productivity.

The first half of the day is devoted to academics followed by chores. On a ranch, cows always need milking, ditches dug and fences mended. It's all a bracing change for socially isolated children more accustomed to finding companionship with a television or computer.

The most coveted time, though, is spent with the horses, also known as equine assistance psychotherapy. It's a way to connect with aggressive, angry children and nudge them toward new insights. Traditional counseling is available but only at a parent's request.

The typical stay is six months to a year, although some students stay longer. Tuition costs $2,950 to $3,500 a month, which includes room, board and school.

Since 2004, about 150 kids have cycled through, with only six booted out -- all within the past year.

From here, one-third will return home. Another third -- mostly those 16 and older -- will move on to Job Corps, an education and vocational-training program run by the U.S. Department of Labor.

The remaining third will discover that their parents are relinquishing their rights.

When all efforts have failed, Sterkel starts a new placement process with a call to A Child's Waiting in Akron -- one of the few adoption agencies that work with those they didn't originally place.

The numbers have risen so dramatically, co-director Crissy Kolarik said, that A Child's Waiting plans to build transitional housing in 2008 to accommodate that group.

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