Twice-abandoned triplets know Russian boy's pain
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Rescued, they are now happy adults
By Jennifer Brooks
December 4, 2011/ The Tennessean
Their mother told them they were going to Disney World.
She bundled the three children on a plane, all alone, and told them there would be someone there to meet them on the other side.
But when the plane landed, they were on the other side of the world. Returned, without explanation, to the Latvian orphanage where she had adopted them less than two years before. And there was no one waiting to meet them.
They were 9 years old.
Evalds, Inga and Ieva.
Blond-haired, big-eyed triplets from Latvia whose world had just come crashing down for the second time in their short lives.
That was almost 20 years ago. There was no international outcry over what had happened to them, none of the shocked news coverage like last year when an adoptive mother from Tennessee returned her 7-year-old son to Russia like a mail-order sweater that didn’t quite fit.
But if the Russian incident was a worst-case scenario for Tennessee international adoptions, Evalds, Inga and Ieva are the other side of the story.
Tennessee is where they finally came home, adopted at age 11 by John and Carole Bratcher of Murfreesboro, who had enough love and patience to convince three angry, wary children that this time they really were home and that this family was theirs forever.
“It is possible for kids to recover from a failed adoption and for them to succeed. We have living proof,” Carole Bratcher said, smiling over at her three grown children curled side by side by side on a couch.
The triplets turned 28 last week. Renamed Brendan, Catherine and Elizabeth, they’ve grown into smart, happy, poised adults who can talk frankly about the trauma they survived. The same trauma a little boy in Russia is living through right now.
“I wanted to reach through the TV and grab hold of him,” Brendan Bratcher said. “I would sit him down and tell him it’s going to be OK.”
There have been a lot of questions in the year and a half since Torry Hansen, a registered nurse from Shelbyville, Tenn., bundled her adopted son on a plane back to Russia all alone, with a note pinned to his coat: “I no longer wish to parent this child.”
People wonder how any mother — how anyone — could do that to a 7-year-old. They wonder what happened in the home beforehand. They wonder what it will mean for international adoptions in the long term. But most of all they wonder about that little boy, named Artyom in Moscow and Justin in Shelbyville.
“We know what he’s going through,” Catherine Bratcher said. “The feeling of not being wanted. It hurts.”
“I remember, we were walking up the walk to go to the orphanage,” said Elizabeth — who now goes by her Latvian name Ieva — hugging her elbows at the memory.
None of them has a very clear memory of the flight back to Riga, Latvia. Brendan joked that he was still looking around for the Disney rides. The driver who’d given them a lift from the airport simply dropped them at the end of the long drive, leaving the children to walk the final mile on their own, dreading what their former caretakers would say when they saw them again.
“They said if we came back, they were going to beat us,” Ieva said. “We were taking little baby steps, wondering how bad we were going to get beaten. … I don’t think they were very surprised to see us.”
A second chance
There were no beatings. Instead, the orphanage launched an international effort to find them a new home. The clock was ticking. In Latvia, children are expected to leave the orphanages at age 16 if they aren’t adopted, and the few families willing to take the children in weren’t willing to take all three.
Two years passed. It was St. Patrick’s Day 1995, and John and Carole Bratcher were just starting to talk about the possibility of adopting a child from overseas. That’s when the agency they’d contacted, Heaven Sent Children, posed the question: “What would you think about 11-year-old Latvian triplets?”
Stunned, the couple asked for some time to think. And they thought about it, as friends came over to watch The Quiet Man and eat the traditional St. Patrick’s Day corned beef and cabbage. They thought about it as they brushed their teeth and got ready for bed that night.
“You still thinking about those kids?” John Bratcher remembers them asking each other, over and over, and getting the same answer each time: “Yeah.”
They talked for hours, prayed about it and talked some more. That Monday, they asked the social worker for the children’s files. Before they even arrived, before they saw the first picture of the children, they’d made their decision.
“They were ours. That was just it,” Bratcher said. “Everything else after that was directed toward bringing them home.”
The adoption moved at light speed, sped by the Latvian authorities’ anxiety to get the children adopted before they aged out of the system. By July of that year, the Bratchers arrived in Latvia to sign the adoption papers and bring their family home.
In some ways, the adoption was the easiest part of the process. Because there was nothing easy about convincing three traumatized 11-year-olds that this new family wasn’t just going to ship them back to the orphanage the first time things got tough.
And things did get tough.
“They were worried we’d want to send them back,” said John Bratcher, who serves as clerk and master of the Rutherford County Chancery Court. “But when we decided (to go ahead with the adoption), a little switch went off in our heads that they were ours, and that wasn’t going to change.”
A forever home is a tough concept for children who’ve been abandoned again and again — first by their alcoholic parents, then by the family that adopted them and raised them in Boston for almost two years.
“When we misbehaved, we used to try to guess, to rate what the consequences would be,” Brendan Bratcher said. “If it was a little thing, we’d guess maybe a timeout. If we couldn’t guess, we’d say they were probably going to send us back.”
Catherine and Ieva laughed, but nodded in agreement.
“I was scared to get adopted. I was afraid we’d just get sent back again,” said Catherine, who remembers crying herself to sleep over that thought, night after night.
But that never happened. Not when they pouted or fought or spit or threw rocks. Not when they poured an entire bottle of bubble bath into the hot tub. Not when one of them accidentally set the backyard playhouse on fire.
There was nothing they could do that could make their parents give up on them, or give them up.
Again and again, Carole Bratcher said, she showed them their adoption certificates: “This makes it like you were born to us. This is how it’s different this time. We couldn’t have sent you back even if we wanted to.”
A counselor once told Carole that she’d given up trying to convince adoptive parents that things might not go smoothly once their child came home. Every prospective parent, the counselor said, was convinced that the power of love could overcome anything — post-traumatic stress, language barriers, culture shock.
“People think, it’s going to be so wonderful, they believe their love will fix it all. Believe me, that’s not enough,” she said.
Yes, you need boundless love. But you also need support and you need a quality Carole Bratcher — raised in a family of 10 on a farm in Iowa — had in abundance, a quality her husband shared: a work ethic that just wouldn’t quit. Together, they worked on the kids’ behavioral problems, their post-traumatic stress, their separation anxiety and their trust issues.
“We worked at it like it was our job,” John Bratcher said. The new parents lined up a vast support network of counselors and teachers and church youth ministers and friends and family. They went to every game, every Boy Scout meeting, every parent-teacher conference. They sat up for hours with a Latvian-English dictionary, helping the children puzzle their way through homework.
They knew that behind every tantrum was a child who desperately wanted the home and love they were offering.
The orphanage shot video of 11-year-old Brendan tearing through his closet, looking for his “good” shirt, wanting to look his best for the photos they were sending to an unknown couple in Tennessee. When the Bratchers sent a book of photos of themselves and their home in Murfreesboro, the children carried it around with them everywhere. On their first morning together as a family, the children scrambled to make all the beds, eager to impress their new parents.
A few years after they came home to Murfreesboro, Ieva dialed a Boston number from memory.
“Why did you do it?” she asked the woman who answered the phone. Their first adoptive mother burst into tears. “She apologized and apologized.”
The woman in Boston had her reasons. Problems in her marriage. A 13-year-old daughter who didn’t take kindly to close-knit triplets invading her home.
The triplets were a handful.
“We were 8-year-olds being 8-year-olds,” said Brendan, who remembers sliding down the laundry chute in the three-story house in Boston, going to Red Sox games and golfing with their adoptive father.
And even at the first adoption, the children were suffering the effects of early childhood trauma and their abandonment in the orphanage.
“When you adopt a child, they may act calm at first … but you’re going to see what they went through,” Catherine said. “What I knew was somebody not liking me. What I knew was being hit with a belt. I didn’t know how to process” being treated with love and understanding.
“They’re going to scream and kick and show you absolute hate and tell you ‘I hate you,’ ” Ieva said. “But it’s a defense mechanism. It’s too scary to get too close to you. It’s safer to say ‘I hate you,’ to throw rocks at you.”
The Bratchers went into the adoption well prepared for the troubles they’d face. They agreed to be interviewed for this story in the hope that other adoptive parents would get the help and support if they start to feel overwhelmed. Because things can get better.
It took years, they said, for the children to finally relax, to feel safe and secure. They started bringing home academic awards and sports trophies. Brendan became an Eagle Scout and bought his own home at age 22. The good days started to outnumber the bad.
Bratcher leafs through photo albums chronicling years of family vacations, three-cake birthday parties, holidays, horseplay in the backyard, prom night, graduations, hugs for Mom and Dad.
“That right there,” Bratcher said, tapping an early photo of one of his daughters hugging him tightly around the neck, burying her head in his shoulder. “That hug right there. Every bit of it was worth it.”