Ranch for Troubled Adoptees
Ranch raises hopes for adoptees
Youths who are so troubled that parents weigh giving up find friend in remote haven
By Bonnie Miller Rubin | Tribune staff reporter
EUREKA, Mont. — At first glance, the children saddling up the horses look like they were cast by Hollywood to play wholesome, athletic, all-American kids. But outward appearances don’t tell the whole story.
For adoptive parents, options are limited One has molested a sibling. Another has tried to kill the family pet. Lying, stealing, vandalism and fire-setting round out the list of transgressions.
Because their parents no longer can manage them at home, the 24 youngsters—almost all international adoptees—have ended up on a special ranch in this remote, rugged corner of northwest Montana.
This is the final stop. Most already have logged countless hours in psychiatric units, wilderness programs and residential treatment
centers, searching for answers to their disturbing behaviors. The goal is that through intense intervention and structure, their conduct will improve sufficiently so they can go home.
But a handful will never return, moving on to new families. They are victims of an expanding phenomenon known as adoption disruption—the official term for when parents attempt to return their adopted children.
“Some parents just can’t do it anymore; they’re done,” said Joyce Sterkel, who runs the Ranch for Kids, a therapeutic boarding
school. “It’s tragic … and everyone is a victim.”
No one appears to keep data on adoption disruption. While still a statistically rare occurrence among the approximately 20,000 foreign-born children adopted by Americans each year, such relinquishment is happening with increasing frequency, experts said.
One Ohio adoption agency reports receiving as many as five calls a day from parents about disruptions, up from just one or two a month 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 are not unheard of (a decade-long study of 5,750 Illinois children adopted from foster care
through the mid-1980s found a rate of 6.5 percent), it is among the international population where experts are seeing a troubling spike.
Experts blame the jump on a confluence of factors.
First, as Americans adopted more children from overseas—the figures have almost tripled since 1990—the number of children with despairing behaviors grew, and these children are now hitting adolescence, when their rages are more dangerous.
Moreover, many parents were unprepared for the challenges, in part 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 in Chicago, which serves high-risk families.
Problems lurk beneath surface While some adoptive parents may undertake parenthood with unrealistic expectations, more typically they are merely ill-equipped to cope with profoundly damaged children. Due to one or more of a variety of reasons—among them fetal alcohol syndrome, mental illness, abuse, attachment disorders—the youngsters can’t function in a family, though they show no outward signs of disability.
“These kids are the victims of every kind of abuse you can imagine— sexual, physical, emotional,” said Sterkel, who runs what may be the only therapeutic school exclusively for adopted children.
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.
She witnessed threadbare orphanages when she lived in Russia for two years in the early 1990s as part of a humanitarian relief effort.
After returning to the U.S., Sterkel couldn’t shake the image of Katya, suffering from years of abandonment and neglect. She adopted
her in 1996 at age 10. Two years later came a 14-year-old Russian boy, Sasha.
The oldest of four, Sasha and his siblings were first adopted by a Colorado family, an arrangement that quickly unraveled. Sasha moved on to a second household, also in Colorado, while his two sisters and a brother were split up and placed in several other states.
Soon after, Sasha tried to poison his new mother—slipping crushed pills into her sandwich. Charged with felony assault, he was sent to juvenile detention.
“My new mother told me that I should forget them [his siblings], but I couldn’t,” the 23-year-old said recently, sitting in the ranch’s
cozy kitchen. “I went nuts.”
When Sterkel heard his story, she decided to rescue him. The adoption was finalized in 1999. Today he helps out on the ranch, connecting with angry, hard-to-reach kids like he was.
“I still have a lot of trust issues … especially with women,” said Sasha, his blue-green eyes narrowing. “But life is a lot better now.
Of all the families I’ve had, this one is the best.”
There would be one more son—Michael, now 20—bringing the brood to six.
Ranch built on word of mouth Meanwhile, the word ricocheted around 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 before you knew it, the Sterkel-Sutley clan was caring for a dozen or so troubled children.
The wind howls across the craggy landscape here, 5 miles from the Canadian border. There’s plenty of physical activity and virtually
nowhere to run. In the early days, Sterkel didn’t have much of a treatment plan beyond keeping the kids busy and nurtured.
Today the program employs 15, but the youngsters—most between the ages of 12 and 17 but some as young as 4—live in the same Spartan dorms, with their meticulously made beds and family photos on their nightstands.
The blueprint is unchanged: The route to self-esteem is through teamwork and productivity.
The first half of the day is devoted to academics (a former convenience store serves as a one-room schoolhouse), followed by
chores. On a ranch, cows always need milking, ditches digging and fences mending. It’s a bracing change for socially isolated children more accustomed to finding companionship with a TV or computer.
The most coveted time, though, is spent with the horses—also known as equine-assisted psychotherapy. Push a horse and he’ll push back, while hefty doses of kindness, patience and respect will usually yield results. It’s a way to connect with aggressive, angry children and nudge them toward new insights.
Traditional counseling, meanwhile, is available, but only at a parent’s request.
“Here, everyday life is therapy,” said Bill Sutley, Sterkel’s 35-year-old son, an electrical engineer by training and an affable wearer of
numerous hats, from ranch manager to math teacher. His Soviet-born wife, Elena, also works with the children.
The typical stay is 6 months to a year, although some students stay longer. Tuition ranges from $2,950 to $3,500 a month, for room, board and school.
Since 2004, about 150 kids have cycled through, with only six booted out—all within the past year. One severely ill girl lasted just four
days, after swallowing a fistful of batteries. Her parents and insurance already had spent more than $900,000 on treatment, with no
end in sight. (Unlike special-needs kids adopted from the U.S. foster care system, no federal subsidies exist for children from overseas.)
“It takes a lot before Bill and I will cry ‘uncle,’ ” Sterkel said. “But we have the staff to think about.”
From here, about one-third will return home, while 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.
Sometimes the task of telling a child that he or she will be joining a new family falls to Bill Sutley.
“I just say: ‘This is not your fault. You have a screwed-up brain.’And then I do my best to explain why the current situation isn’t
working. I tell them, ‘Take something from this. Learn from your experiences.’ “
For adoptive parents, options are limited He rarely judges those adoptive parents who arrive at this painful conclusion. Sure, one couple sent a one-paragraph e-mail (”just incredibly lame,” Sutley said). But for the most part, such families are held hostage—especially when adoptees act out sexually or falsely allege abuse by their adoptive parents.
“Sometimes, parents have no choice … otherwise they risk losing the rest of their family.”
When all efforts have failed, Sterkel starts a new placement process with a call to A Child’s Waiting in Akron, Ohio—one of the few
adoption agencies that works with youths they did not originally place.
Children are listed as green, yellow and red, based on the difficulty of finding replacement families for each.
Their numbers have risen so dramatically that A Child’s Waiting plans to build transitional housing specifically to accommodate that group, said Crissy Kolarik, co-director. “The red kids have the most significant issues, such as sexual predators,” she said.
To help prevent future disruptions, agencies are emphasizing more preadoption training and postadoption support for international
adoptions. Some are telling prospective parents they should assume their children were exposed to drugs and alcohol in utero.
For one north suburban Chicago mom whose foreign-born daughter is at the ranch, the warnings came too late.
Often accused of abuse, she said police and DCFS knocking on her door have no framework for dealing with such an impaired girl. Her short-term solution? To never be alone with the child. She is still undecided about the long term.
“All I can tell you is that we grieve for what might have been.”