I have gotten to know another writer and adoptive Mom, Tina Traster. Tina's new articleWho would give up an adopted child? explores the case of a little girl named Galina, whose adoptive parents had to "re-home" her because they simply couldn't handle her issues.
At first blush, as an adoptive parent myself, I want to condemn any parent that would give up a child. It's easy, that emotion. However, I don't know what I would do if faced with that situation. It's completely unfair for any parent to judge another parent, because we cannot know their struggle unless we've had the same struggle.
What would you do if you had a 9 year old who peed her pants and then refused to take off her soiled clothes for hours?
I was contacted by a mom who is pondering adopting a teenager from an Eastern European country. When I hear of cases like that, I am always happy and sad. Happy that a child will have a family, sad that the family is going to go through changes they cannot even imagine yet.
Even in situations where parents have "hosted" a child through a host program, there are no guarantees that the child will adjust easily or quickly.I know of two families who hosted sisters for weeks at a time, then adopted them and got them home and realized one of the sisters was having severe issues. In one case, a very cute 5 year old turned out to have severe Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. In the other case, the older sister had schizophrenia.
The most important thing I tell parents who are about to adopt a child older than an infant is, DO NOT LISTEN TO OTHER PARENTS WHO HAVE NOT ADOPTED. Only an adoptive parent will be able to give you the right advice. A child who has been in an orphanage or foster care, even for just a year, is a game-changer.
One reason I read my friend Cindy's blog, Big Mama Hollers, is because she writes so well about the challenges AND the joys of her 38 adopted children. The title of her blog is a bit misleading, because it sounds pretty redneck-ish. Cindy gave birth to her first child at 19, but she went on to finish college and earn several other degrees and work as a school librarian. She is highly educated and probably as close as one can come to being an expert on adoption, particularly of older children. Her birth child is now almost 40, and her youngest adopted child is 11. She has about a dozen children still living at home, including three children who were birthed by one of Cindy's adopted daughters, but adopted by Cindy.
I read her blog because Cindy writes very honestly about being an adoptive mom. She doesn't sugarcoat anything. She also has a strong faith in God, a belief that it's best to live frugally, and a fervent belief in the positive effects of being a vegetarian or vegan. She's also single, and not looking for a mate.
Cindy has had kids who have done beautifully - graduated college, pursued advanced degrees, had happy families of their own. But some of her adopted children are not allowed on her property any more because they pose a threat to her and the other kids. Some are in mental health facilites. Some are in jail.
Despite my daughter's issues. I think I am very blessed.
I have had more than one person in the past couple of years ask me point blank, "Are you sorry you adopted her?" and the cruelty of that question always floors me. The words are like tiny knives sunk into my heart. The folks who have asked me that are not cruel people and they have no idea how that question hits me.
My daughter's issues were never apparent to me while I was in the adoption process. Never. I wrote my memoir of her adoption, Adopting Alesia: My Crusade for My Russian Daughter, in part because I wanted to encourage the adoption of older children. I also wanted to point out that despite a terribly hard adoption process [in 2003/o4] that I didn't regret adopting my daughter. I still don't regret it.
I was 41 years old when I adopted Alesia. I had never been married. I had never been a mom, or even an aunt. I was faced with a child who was nearly as tall as me and spoke a different language.
I had never intended to adopt anyone. I spent 20 years dating and trying to find "Mr. Right" and it didn't happen. Then I went to Russia to sing Handel's Messiah with a choir, and met a spunky little blonde girl, and felt strongly that God was telling me to adopt her.
What nobody could have told me before I adopted my daughter was that she was a very complicated person. She is quite capable of love and tenderness and attachment. Most of the time she was a sweet child. She desperately wanted a family.
She also was very resistant to being parented.
Everything I ever asked her to do, from a simple "Put on your coat, we've got to go" to "You need to talk to the therapist" was met with some resistance, for the first few years. She would often cooperate, but I got a protest of some kind. Sometimes I had to pull privileges away to get her to cooperate.
When she first came home from Russia, Alesia had almost no table manners. She didn't know to use a napkin. She had never said a prayer before a meal.
Alesia had almost never been hugged. Nobody had ever said to her "I love you," even though she had lived with her birthmom until she was 6.
She had never been to a movie, or eaten in a restaurant, at the age of 13.
She had almost never ridden in a car. For about the first 6 months after she came home, Alesia would put on the seatbelt (because I insisted) and then push the seat back as far as it would go, and curl into the fetal position. Cars were scary.
I posted, on the fridge, a list of rules for her, in Russian. She could read quite well. Here are some of the rules I later realized that I should have posted but didn't because I had no idea.
Please don't walk on the furniture
Please don't hoard food in your room
Please don't steal my jewelry
Please don't pretend to take a shower but actually pour the shampoo down the drain
Please don't wash out your panties and hang them to dry every night
Please actually USE the deoderant I bought you
She didn't want to eat meat. She didn't want to take vitamins. She would go in stores and run around pushing buttons and touching everything.She didn't want to learn English.
At the age of 13, Alesia played with Barbies. She was emotionally about 9. All children who are institutionalized fall behind their peers in emotional maturity. She continued to play with Barbies until she was about 15, in secret. I never fussed at her about it. She just realized it was not age appropriate and was embarrassed, I think.
By 2007, Alesia had been tested for learning and emotional issues. We had discovered she has a Central Auditory Processing Disorder, and I had gotten her therapy for that. We had a pretty good attachment, I felt. She was always sweet and helpful with my mother, who lived with us. She was good with younger kids. She helped around the house.
I set off for Kazakhstan in March 2007, to adopt my son Michael. I thought I would be gone about 2 weeks, but it ended up I was gone more than three weeks.
I gave Alesia [then 15 years old] my cell phone to use while I was gone but I said to her "This is for emergencies ONLY." She ran up $1,800 in phone charges. She snuck a boy into our house and had sex with him in her room. When I came back I kept getting weird calls on my phone from boys who had heard she was promiscuous.I had to change my phone number.
Despite the fact I called home every day, and tried very hard to stay in touch, Alesia was very unhappy with me so far away.
I later told the therapist about the promiscuous behavior, and how much it freaked me out. She said that Alesia was simply looking for love. A lot of girls in orphanages start having sex at young ages because they think that is how they will get love. They have no idea of the consequences of their actions. Then they get pregnant and either have an abortion, or they have a child who then gets sent to an orphanage. It's very common.
Once I got home, though, her behavior improved.
Alesia bonded with her little brother and became a really loving, terrific Big Sister.
However, I didn't really understand the extent of the emotional issues she had. I had two different therapists tell me that she had normal intelligence, and likely no FAS [Fetal Alcohol Syndrome] or FAE [Fetal Alcohol Effects]. However, they were wrong, I am now convinced.
Alesia revealed a few years after she came home, to the therapist, that she had been molested as a small child. She was also molested in the orphanage. She had been beaten severely in the orphanage, and blocked out the memories of the beatings. She is covered with scars she can't explain. When a child goes through severe trauma their brain will often block off the memory, as a form of self-protection.
I often looked for resources online, to help me figure out her issues and how to deal with them. PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] is hard to imagine in a child, but it's her main diagnosis. I had another parent tell me, scornfully, "That's something only soldiers get!" His own daughter had it but he refused to acknowledge it.
For most of the time she lived with me, I told people that Alesia was a good girl, and she was. She was delightful, much of the time. She was funny, and cute. She helped me around the house. She played with her little brother, and with our dog Coco. She was a joy, most of the time.
For the six years she lived with me, I controlled Alesia's friendships and was very protective of her. She didn't have a cell phone, or unlimited computer access.
However, as she got older, I tried to let her have some more freedom. I got her a cell phone. I let her use the computer. When she turned 18 she still had two years of high school, and she started running around with kids I didn't know. Unknown to me until later, kids offered her alcohol and drugs and she took them.
Alesia changed as soon as she realized she was, in a legal sense, an "adult." She disappeared with my car, for hours. She cut school. She was very defiant with me, and her grandmother.
She was still emotionally far behind her peers. Physically, she was 18. Emotionally, she was about 13. She didn't show her darker side to others, though. She was well behaved in school. She was polite with everyone outside the family.
Alesia could never understand the concept that Actions have Consequences. She simply wouldn't listen to me when I warned her about drugs, alcohol, the dangers of sex. The therapist told me she simply dumped the memories of things she thought unnecessary or unpleasant.
I caught her one night sitting on the floor of her closet, smoking pot. I warned her that she couldn't continue to do that. She could have set the house on fire, and killed us all. She laughed at me.
She kept saying to me, on many occasions, "I don't want to live in this family! I want to move out!" and I showed her, several times, the math of living on her own. "How will you pay for food? Rent?" I quizzed her. "I will live with my friends!" was her retort.
Finally, I said OK, then. She was stealing money from us. I had to hide my car keys. I kicked her out. I figured she would sleep on someone's couch a few nights and come home, chastened. It didn't work. She came home after a couple of months, but she was very changed. In another 7 months she was arrested, and she disappeared.
Even our therapist, who was Russian and very skilled and experienced with Russian adopted children, finally told me that things were hopeless. "She's in a Using Mode, Dee," she said. "She's not listening to any grownup. She will just continue to party and use others."
The result is that now my daugther lives in a different state, with a much older man who has a criminal history, and I have not seen her in more than 2 years. She dropped out of high school. We are in contact, sporadically. She directs a lot of anger towards me that I don't deserve, but she is being heavily influenced, very negatively influenced.
I get letters from collection agencies because she runs up charges and doesn't pay them. Occasionally, I see one of her friends and they say "I heard from Alesia! She says she's doing GREAT!" [she clearly defines success differently than I do]
Part of the way I have tried to heal my broken heart is that I write. I write articles and poems, and blogs.
I am writing a website for parents whose children have "invisible" disabilities like FAS, PTSD, RAD [Reactive Attachment Disorder] and ODD [Oppositional Defiant Disorder] and the like. These are not limited to only adopted children.
The website is a way for parents to quickly read lists of symptoms, then go on to more thorough and comprehensive resources. Here's an example:
Children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or Fetal Alcohol Effects:
- Sometimes [not always] have these physical features: small eyes, an exceptionally thin upper lip, a short, upturned nose, and a smooth skin surface between the nose and upper lip.
- May appear to be “sneaky”
- They may lie a lot
- Have limited executive functioning [planning, organizing, strategizing]
- Are very “concrete” thinkers, and abstract thinking is very difficult for them
- Can say very rude and ugly things
- Often have poor impulse control
- Often act years younger than their age
- May be violent and/or antisocial [but this is not always the case]
- Cannot comprehend “cause and effect”
- Will usually deny they have a problem
For more information, check out:
When Rain Hurts, by Mary Evelyn Green
The best way I know for parents to handle our adopted children who have these diagnoses is to share information, resources, and stories. Of course I need to know what mental health professionals say, but I feel a great need to hear from other parents.
If you are a parent of an adopted child who has suffered and wrung your hands, and tried desperately to figure out what's wrong and get help for your child, I would like to hear your story. An important part of the website will be testimonials from other parents. The best way to shine a light on the fear and the shame of trying to parent a child like this is to know that other parents have walked the same path.
Leave me a comment or shoot me an email [address at right] and tell me your story. You don't have to give your name or location, unless you want to.
Do I regret adopting my daughter, given the outcome? No. She was, and is, a loving and smart person. She is great at math and problem solving. She has incredible potential.
She has a much better chance here than she did back in Russia.
I pray for my daughter every day. I pray she will mature and one day I will see her again.
I also pray that God will use me to help other parents find the resources they need to help their families.
I pray that one day there will be no more orphans or foster children in the world. I pray that we will come to understand how to heal, and how to help each other.