Russian adoption leads to struggle for Beach family

Date: 2010-04-22
Source: Hampton Roads

By Bill Sizemore
The Virginian-Pilot
© April 22, 2010
VIRGINIA BEACH

When a Tennessee woman put her adopted Russian child on a plane two weeks ago and sent him back to his homeland, Chip and Julie Harshaw were as astonished as everyone else.

However, they, more than most, understand that mother's desperation.

Torry Hansen's decision to send her 7-year-old son back to Moscow with a note pinned to his jacket, saying she was at the end of her rope and could no longer handle him, stirred outrage in Russia and prompted a freeze on adoptions by American parents.

The incident has shed new light on the sometimes pain-filled world of international adoptions, a world that the Harshaws have inhabited since 2004 when they adopted their Russian-born son Roman, now 8.

In a sense, they dwell at the other end of the spectrum from Hansen, who gave up her son after seven months. For six years, the Harshaws have explored every conceivable option for their profoundly disabled child except one: They have rejected any suggestion that they give him up.

The emotional toll of those six years has been immense.

"It has destroyed our family," Chip Harshaw said in an interview this week.

In 2008, the Harshaws sued Bethany Christian Services, the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based agency that arranged Roman's adoption. Bethany has a branch office in Virginia Beach.

The lawsuit, still under way in a Michigan federal court, accuses Bethany of negligence and fraud, alleging that the agency falsely portrayed Roman as a healthy child with a prognosis for normal development.

Bethany declined to comment on the specifics of the case, citing confidentiality laws.

"It is standard practice that the families receive the same information that we receive about the children," said John VanValkenburg, a spokesman for the agency.

The Harshaws adopted Roman at a time when it seemed a biological sibling for their son Daniel, now 12, wasn't in the cards.

As it turned out, they found out five weeks later that Julie Harshaw was pregnant with their daughter Grace, now 5.

Bethany seemed a logical choice to handle the adoption. According to its website, it is the largest adoption agency in the United States, with more than 75 locations nationwide and a $70 million annual budget. Half of its revenue comes from government contracts, according to its website.

The Harshaws paid a $16,000 fee.

"The fact that they were a Christian-based organization gave us some comfort," Chip Harshaw said. "They certainly portrayed themselves as experts."

The Harshaws made the decision to go ahead with the adoption after a two-day visit to the orphanage in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, where Roman lived. Reassured by Bethany representatives, they concluded that the mop-haired blond with the wide smile would be a good fit for their family.

"We were told they had a Russian physician on the staff who travels to Russia regularly, visits the orphanages, meets the children and determines that they're healthy," Chip Harshaw said. Bethany workers referred to the physician as Dr. D.

"We were told, 'Dr. D has seen him, and he's healthy and on target,' " Harshaw said. "That was a huge relief for us."

Back home in Virginia Beach, Roman seemed at first a typical toddler, if a bit hyperactive. However, it gradually became clear that he wasn't developing normally. He was small for his age. He seemed unable to master language skills. Also, his behavior was becoming increasingly aggressive.

After being referred by his pediatrician to a succession of specialists, in 2006 Roman was diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome, an array of mental, physical and growth problems caused by the mother's consumption of alcohol during pregnancy. It is the leading preventable cause of mental disability.

Life in the Harshaw household became a grim slide from normalcy as his parents and siblings tried to cope with Roman's volatile behavior.

One day, Roman and Grace were playing in the back yard when Grace grew tired of the game and began to walk away. Roman, suddenly enraged, picked up a 2-by-4. Only his mother's scream stopped him from smashing his sister in the head.

"Two minutes later, he had no idea what he'd done," Julie Harshaw said.

Another time, a family friend was watching the children when Roman pulled Grace into the backyard pool and held her underwater until the friend jumped in, fully clothed, and pulled her out.

He has also tried to attack his sister with a steak knife.

Once he tied a kite string around his neck and the top of a slide, then slid down, snapping the string and cutting a bloody ring around his neck.

He has gouged three teeth out of his mouth with items like a spoon and a pen cap.

Trying to correct his behavior is futile, his parents say, because he doesn't understand consequences. Time outs in his room don't work - he escapes through the window. The Harshaws installed an alarm system in their home, not to keep burglars out but to keep Roman in.

His aggression has gotten him booted out of a neighborhood private school and a therapeutic program at a city recreation center.

Two weeks ago, he was admitted to Cumberland Hospital for Children and Adolescents in New Kent County for evaluation. Where he will go after that is unclear. With an IQ of 53, he functions on the level of a 2-year-old. A s he continues to develop physically, his aggression will become harder to control.

"He has a very dismal future," Julie Harshaw said. "He will never live independently. He will have to be in a closely managed group home."

"I feel really helpless," she said. "There's no fit in society for these children."

In a pretrial deposition, Dr. Michael Dubrovskiy, Bethany's Dr. D, acknowledged that - contrary to what the Harshaws say they were told - he has never seen Roman, has never been to the Krasnoyarsk orphanage and has never worked for the agency in a medical capacity.

Chuck Johnson, acting CEO of the Alexandria-based National Council for Adoption, said Bethany has an "excellent reputation." He also said any parents considering a Russian adoption should be warned that there is a high rate of fetal alcohol syndrome among Russian orphans.

The Harshaws say they were given no such warning. In fact, they say, they had never heard of fetal alcohol syndrome until Roman was diagnosed two years later.

As for any characterization of the child as "healthy," Johnson had this to say: "That's a promise that can never be made in inter country adoptions."

Samuel Totaro, an attorney in the Doylestown, Pa., firm that represents the Harshaws, said their case is only "the tip of the iceberg" of problematic foreign adoptions.

"We get at least two to three phone calls a month from clients who are having similar problems," he said.

Unlike the Tennessee mother who sent her child back, Totaro said, "almost every client that we talk to has gone the last mile for their child."

The Harshaws say the objective of their lawsuit is to win compensation that will pay for the lifetime of care that Roman will need.

They say that when they aired their grievances to Bethany, the agency's proposed solution was to dissolve the adoption and take Roman back - an outcome that they say they would never consider.

"This isn't a dog in a kennel," Chip Harshaw said.

"We love him to death," Julie Harshaw said. "He's our son."

Bill Sizemore, (757) 446-2276, bill.sizemore@pilotonline.com

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