Russian Orphans Present Unique Challenges: One Family’s Story

WASHINGTON, December 13 (By Maria Young for RIA Novosti) – Back in 2007, when US educator Shelly Haser and her husband adopted three Russian sisters from an orphanage in the Northwestern city of Arkhangelsk, about 684 miles (1100 km) north of Moscow, she thought she knew what she was getting into.

“It was so much harder than I thought it would be,” she said Thursday in an interview with RIA Novosti. “I’m trying to work as hard as I can and give them everything they need but it is absolutely exhausting being a parent of children who have so many needs.”

All Russian orphans are housed in orphanages, according to Larissa Mason, who specializes in Russian adoptions as a board member with the non-profit adoption advocacy group National Council for Adoption (NCA).

Haser’s daughters were housed in one of those orphanages, a facility she said was “pretty decent,” compared to some.

The girls had been removed from a Russian home where they were apparently loved, but not fed or supervised enough. Their home also had no running water, and there may have been other issues, according to Haser.

She added that after five years in the orphanage, the girls were well-nourished and had comprehensive medical records.

“But it was still an orphanage,” said Haser. And right away, the girls, who were 5, 7 and 8 years old, began to exhibit troubling behavior that was “really overwhelming” at times.

At their new home in Pennsylvania, Haser’s middle daughter withdrew and shut down. The oldest girl lashed out in fits of fury, much of it directed at her adoptive mother.

“There was a lot of anger, maybe at her Russian mother, maybe at her caregivers, but it was directed at me. She would throw things,” said Haser. “It’s hard when she’s trying to go to the airport to get on a plane to go back to Russia.”

The five-year-old, still an infant when the sisters were removed from their Russian home, had never experienced life as a family unit and did not understand the concept of coming back home after spending the day at school.

“My youngest would cry and cry, and we couldn’t understand what was wrong,” Haser said. Finally, they brought in a translator.

“It turned out, she thought all the other children were sleeping at the school. It hit me, she had no way of knowing that school in the US is not an orphanage.”

All three girls had reactive attachment disorder, marked by negative behaviors common to children who are institutionalized, and show signs of post-traumatic stress.

They got therapy, academic help, and slowly began to flourish, said Haser.

Today, like the vast majority of the 60,000 Russian orphans who’ve been adopted by American parents since the early 1990’s, the story of the Haser girls is a success despite the bumps along the way, according to adoption experts.

But it is also a cautionary tale about the unexpected challenges many adoptive parents face with children from Russia.

“Almost 100 percent of the time you can expect developmental delays,” said Chuck Johnson, president and CEO of NCA, in an interview with RIA Novosti.

“They have difficulty connecting and bonding, you see a lot of self-soothing behavior, like rocking back and forth, which is troubling to parents,” he added.

Adoption experts say Russian orphans are more likely to exhibit such behaviors because they are generally kept in state care for longer periods of time than children in some other countries.

They also are institutionalized, rather than being housed in smaller, foster care homes where they might get more personal attention, and are more often removed from their homes by authorities rather than being abandoned at birth because they are female or have special needs, as is often the case in other countries, Johnson said.

“In Russia they have been victims of abuse or neglect,” added Johnson , “so there is a higher incidence in Russia of things like exposure to drugs, abuse, neglect, and fetal alcohol syndrome.”

In most – but not all – cases, the children will catch up over time. But some children have been so abused or neglected, they never catch up, he said.

Even in the best of cases, “it’s not like these children are just going to run and jump in your arms,” said Haser. “I think with some parents they have this vision of perfectness.”

US and Russian officials have made significant changes to the adoption process this year, requiring more training for prospective parents and more resources and greater oversight after the children arrive in their new homes.

They are changes both countries hope will help prevent tragic abuses like those that have occurred against a relatively small number of Russian children at the hands of adoptive US parents – including more than a dozen cases where adopted Russian children have died since the early 1990’s.

But there is still frustration among many in the Russian Federation about what they see as a double standard that allows adoptive US parents who harm their Russian children to dodge the harsher penalties many Russian officials feel they deserve.

The positive rapport took a nosedive this week when the Russian parliament introduced a bill that targets Americans for alleged human rights violations.

Similar in some ways to a measure punishing Russian human rights abusers passed by the US Senate last week, the Russian version includes penalties against anyone implicated in the abuse of adopted Russian children.

The Russian Foreign Ministry criticized courts in the United States on Thursday for applying what it says are “double standards” in dealing with Russian child abuse cases.

“You can’t lose sight of the many more cases of successful adoptions” that don’t make media headlines, Johnson said, but added, “I think Americans would be indignant, too, if Russians were adopting American kids and having similar outcomes.”

“In some cases the adoptive parents are getting a lot of money spent on their defense and the defense is usually, ‘Well the child is from Russia and that’s why they’re not doing well here,’ or some absurd statement like the child hurt themselves,” said Mason in an interview with RIA Novosti.

“There are obviously children in Russia who are taken from the home due to termination of parental rights, and you have to read between the lines and realize what that means and not be somewhere in the clouds thinking, ‘oh, with love it will all work out.’ This child requires much attention,” she said.

In the thousands of US-Russian adoptions she has been involved with, Mason said, “Many, many of these are excellent, wonderful children, they are good students, they are good athletes, they always hold Russia in their hearts, and they are good ambassadors for Russia.”

With oversight, she said, and enough accountability on the part of American courts, the problems that remain can be addressed.

For Haser, the journey has been more challenging than she ever imagined that it would be. And she is realistic: the challenges may never completely disappear.

“You can take the child out of the orphanage but it takes maybe a lifetime to take the orphanage out of the child,” she said.

One daughter is now a cheerleader. Another loves horses. And the youngest is a rambunctious tomboy. A proud mother described them as happy and thriving.

“If someone had told me how much work was involved, I would never have believed them,” she said. “But now, I feel so attached to them. I mean, they’re my kids.”


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