exposing the dark side of adoption
Register Log in

In Tenn., Reminders of a Boy Returned to Russia



SHELBYVILLE, Tenn. — The toys in the backyard suggest generous parenting: a swing set, its green paint shiny and new; a red tetherball covered in cherry-red glitter; even a trampoline.

They sit quiet now behind the simple home where 7-year-old Justin Hansen used to live before being sent back to his native Russia alone, with a note from his adoptive parents describing him as troubled. They are the tiniest of clues in an odd family mystery that has turned into an international dispute, with accusations of abuse tossed across thousands of miles.

No one here seems to have expected such a thing. Shelbyville, an hour south of Nashville, is a quiet, horse-loving town of 20,000 where nearly everyone seems to know a family from church that adopted a little boy or girl from somewhere. Now, an adoptive family not many people knew — Torry Ann Hansen, 33, a registered nurse, and her mother Nancy Hansen — is being visited by the police and Russian reporters in red loafers.

“I didn’t realize it would get to this magnitude,” said Harry Bailey, 64, as he trimmed a damaged tree outside his home two doors down from the Hansens on Saturday. “I guess the Russian people are angry.”

The Russian people are indeed angry — the education ministry has suspended the license of the group involved in the Hansens’ adoption and some officials have called for a halt to all adoptions of Russian children by Americans. The Hansens, meanwhile have also portrayed themselves as victims. In the note sent back to Russia with the boy, Torry Hansen wrote that he “is violent and has severe psychopathic issues.”

On Friday, Nancy Hansen, in an interview with The Associated Press, said that Justin’s problems included hitting, screaming and spitting at his mother and threatening to kill family members. The family said it was told the boy was healthy in September when he was brought to Tennessee from the town of Partizansk in Russia’s Far East. They say they have been lied to and misled.

On Saturday, Torry and Nancy Hansen remained silent. They live side by side here, in modular homes with vinyl siding, connected by a wide white fence. Each had a car in front on Saturday, but neither answered the doors when reporters began knocking at 8:30 a.m. In the late afternoon, the shades were still drawn.

On the stoop of Torry’s home, muddy sandals sat beside a toy missile — perhaps a favorite plaything suddenly left behind.

Messages left for the Hansens’ lawyer were not returned, and the county sheriff’s office said it would have nothing to say until next week.

Their neighbors’ sympathies seemed to be with the boy. Mr. Bailey said he used to see him playing outside, riding a bicycle, running around with another boy around the same age. “It was typical kid stuff,” he said. He added that a wave and a quick hello were as close as he got to knowing the family.

Several other neighbors said the Hansens seemed somewhat disconnected from the community. The boy appeared to be home-schooled and the family did not go to the churches close by. It was hard to relate when so few details were known, they said, but even if Justin threatened violence, as the Hansens claimed, residents said he should have been dealt with here, not shipped home like a faulty product.

Some here said they were glad the Hansens seemed to be outsiders, or at least newer arrivals — it helped some of the longtime residents disconnect from the satellite trucks and reporters, many of them representing foreign media, that had descended on their neighborhood.

It was the details of the boy’s return trip to Russia that sparked the most outrage. According to American and Russian officials, Nancy Hansen said she had accompanied the boy on a flight to Washington and then put him on a direct flight alone to Moscow on Wednesday. She reportedly had found a guide over the Internet whom she paid $200 to pick up the child at the airport in Moscow and to deliver him to the Education Ministry with her note. But for residents here, that was hardly enough.

“It’s shocking the community that he went all alone,” said Cheryl Clark, the owner of a small store walking distance from the Hansens’ home. “The adoption agency didn’t just throw him on a plane. They had someone with him. He’s still a baby.”

Adoption experts generally agreed that an abrupt return was cause for concern. The adoption agency that worked with the Hansens, Wacap, the main office of which is in Renton, Wash., released a statement on Friday that said in the 1 percent of adoptions that do not work out, the agency focused on moving the child to a new family, not returning the child. It was unclear whether the Hansens had asked Wacap for assistance.

But, Adam Pertman, executive director of Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, said the Hansens had a responsibility to seek help. He acknowledged that adoptive parents often have incomplete histories for the children they bring into their homes. And he said that for children like Justin, born Artyom Savelyev and raised in a Russian orphanage for much of his early life, the challenges can be immense.

Institutionalized children in particular tend to act out, he said, with the worst cases involving verbal abuse or children striking parents with heavy objects. “Kids who are beaten and neglected in foster care; kids whose parents drank heavily when they were pregnant; kids with severe disorders — they can cause real disruptions in a family,” Mr. Pertman said.

“You need help if you’re having problems,” he said. “There is this weird lingering myth that love will conquer all. Guess what, it doesn’t in biological families and it doesn’t in adopted families.”

Parents here made a similar connection.

Calvin Cannon, 44, the owner of Torso Shirts for Men in town, said that when he was a foster parent to a teenager a few years back, the two clashed but stuck it out with the help of a social worker. He said the Hansens could have done the same.

“I wish the boy was still here,” Mr. Cannon said, standing outside his store. “It’s bad for the kid, that’s what’s hurtful to me.”

2010 Apr 10