Adoption Stories from Adopted the Movie - A Feature Film by Barb Lee

January 11, 2008

Parted-at-birth twins ‘married’

From the BBC:

A pair of twins who were adopted by separate families as babies got married without knowing they were brother and sister, a peer told the House of Lords.

A court annulled the British couple’s union after they discovered their true relationship, Lord Alton said.

The peer – who was told of the case by a High Court judge involved – said the twins felt an “inevitable attraction”.

He said the case showed how important it was for children to be able to find out about their biological parents.

Details of the identities of the twins involved have been kept secret, but Lord Alton said the pair did not realise they were related until after their marriage.

‘Truth will out’

The former Liberal Democrat MP raised the couple’s case during a House of Lords debate on the Human Fertility and Embryology Bill in December.

“They were never told that they were twins,” he told the Lords.

“They met later in life and felt an inevitable attraction, and the judge had to deal with the consequences of the marriage that they entered into and all the issues of their separation.”

He told the BBC News website that their story raises the wider issue of the importance of strengthening the rights of children to know the identities of their biological parents.

“If you start trying to conceal someone’s identity, sooner or later the truth will out,” he said.

“And if you don’t know you are biologically related to someone, you may become attracted to them and tragedies like this may occur.”

Pam Hodgkins, chief executive officer of the charity Adults Affected by Adoption (NORCAP) said there had been previous cases of separated siblings being attracted to each other.

“We have a resistance, a very strong incest taboo where we are aware that someone is a biological relative,” she said.

“But when we are unaware of that relationship, we are naturally drawn to people who are quite similar to ourselves.

‘Incredibly rare’

“And of course there is unlikely to be anyone more similar to any individual than their sibling.”

Mo O’Reilly, director of child placement for the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, said the situation was traumatic for the people involved, but incredibly rare.

“Thirty or 40 years ago it would have been more likely that twins be separated and, brought up without knowledge of each other,” she said.

Today, however, adopted children grow up with a greater knowledge of their birth families – and organisations try to place brothers and sisters together.

If that were not possible, the siblings would still have some form of contact with each other.

“This sad case illustrates why, over the last 20-30 years, the shift to openness in adoption was so important,” Ms O’Reilly added.

Read the original article here:

January 7, 2008

Stories About Home, by Leonie Simmons

Leonie Simmons was born in Vietnam and adopted to an Australian family. Five years ago she returned to the place of her birth. This thoughtful and carefully written paper describes her journey and her efforts to deconstruct taken-for-granted ideas about culture, identity, family and home. It will be of relevance to anyone interested in ways of making home and making family as well as to those connected to the issue of intercountry adoption.

This is a story about my life. It is a story about identity, culture, belonging and families. To me, for the most part it is a story about Home. Making one, finding more, leaving many and taking them with you when you go.

I was born in Vietnam, during a time of war, and then adopted to an Australian family. Five years ago, I returned to the place of my birth. It has taken until now to be able to find the words, write them down and and speak of the experience. In the intervening years, I decided to hide away the events of my visit to my birth place. I wanted them kept safe from analytical tinkering, uninvited interference, wacky conclusions or undisciplined thoughts. Let the past be done with, I declared. I concluded that there were more important things to attend to, to think and speak about. And I was right.

But during this time, when I was keeping the stories of Vietnam at a distance, I was also experiencing a disconnection in relating with other people. I would have the occasional meetings and I was competent, I thought, at listening, but I could not answer questions. Simple, easy, demographic questions regarding my life began to take avery long time to answer and when I did manage to reply, I stuttered and mumbled incoherently. Questions like: What is your name? Where do you come from? Where do you live? Where is your home? Where were you born? Embedded within these enquiries is a request to disclose what nationality you are, what country is your country, what language do you speak. Other questions would inevitably follow: Who are you parents? How many brothers and sisters do you have? What is your profession? Are you single, married, divorced? These seemingly simple questions are routinely asked in conversation or on forms with little boxes to indicate which simple category you belong within. Those little spaces imply that the answers to those questions are to be easy and brief. But that is not possible for all of us. Anticipating the inevitable sense of awkwardness that would accompany these sorts of questions led me me to avoid talking to people as much as possible.

ed what my Vietnamese family had intended or thought about when choosing this name for me. Feeling that I had been granted a name representative of a particular meaning, image or metaphor, evoked a soft appreciation for the people responsible and a new sense of substance began to surround my anonymous biological parentage. It was around the time I learnt the meaning of my Vietnamese name, that I began a journey on which I would meet the ‘I’ that I may have been, an ‘I’ whom I definitely wasnot, and more importantly the ‘I’ that I could possibly become.

In 2002, I traveled to Vietnam to visit my country of birth and to see Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, where my life began. I had always presumed that when the time was right, I would one day return. There were times in my life when I did not think much about going back to Vietnam. I had phases when I assumed a revisit would be an exciting adventure to pursue. And then, sometimes exploring the unknown felt a little daunting. For the most part though, there were simply other concerns, projects and life happenings to be focusing on. It was only a matter of when the ‘right time’ would arise, Vietnam wasn’t going anywhere.


January 1, 2008

Giving birth becomes the latest job outsourced to India

Filed under: Adoption,Adoption in Other Countries,Articles,For Parents — Tags: , — Catherine @ 11:29 pm


ANAND, India (AP) — Every night in this quiet western Indian city, 15 pregnant women prepare for sleep in the spacious house they share, ascending the stairs in a procession of ballooned bellies, to bedrooms that become a landscape of soft hills.

A team of maids, cooks and doctors looks after the women, whose pregnancies would be unusual anywhere else but are common here. The young mothers of Anand, a place famous for its milk, are pregnant with the children of infertile couples from around the world.

The small clinic at Kaival Hospital matches infertile couples with local women, cares for the women during pregnancy and delivery, and counsels them afterward. Anand’s surrogate mothers, pioneers in the growing field of outsourced pregnancies, have given birth to roughly 40 babies.

More than 50 women in this city are now pregnant with the children of couples from the United States, Taiwan, Britain and beyond. The women earn more than many would make in 15 years. But the program raises a host of uncomfortable questions that touch on morals and modern science, exploitation and globalization, and that most natural of desires: to have a family.

Dr. Nayna Patel, the woman behind Anand’s baby boom, defends her work as meaningful for everyone involved.

“There is this one woman who desperately needs a baby and cannot have her own child without the help of a surrogate. And at the other end there is this woman who badly wants to help her [own] family,” Patel said. “If this female wants to help the other one … why not allow that? … It’s not for any bad cause. They’re helping one another to have a new life in this world.”

Experts say commercial surrogacy — or what has been called “wombs for rent” — is growing in India. While no reliable numbers track such pregnancies nationwide, doctors work with surrogates in virtually every major city. The women are impregnated in-vitro with the egg and sperm of couples unable to conceive on their own.

Commercial surrogacy has been legal in India since 2002, as it is in many other countries, including the United States. But India is the leader in making it a viable industry rather than a rare fertility treatment. Experts say it could take off for the same reasons outsourcing in other industries has been successful: a wide labor pool working for relatively low rates.

Critics say the couples are exploiting poor women in India — a country with an alarmingly high maternal death rate — by hiring them at a cut-rate cost to undergo the hardship, pain and risks of labor.

“It raises the factor of baby farms in developing countries,” said Dr. John Lantos of the Center for Practical Bioethics in Kansas City, Mo. “It comes down to questions of voluntariness and risk.”

Patel’s surrogates are aware of the risks because they’ve watched others go through them. Many of the mothers know one another, or are even related. Three sisters have all borne strangers’ children, and their sister-in-law is pregnant with a second surrogate baby. Nearly half the babies have been born to foreign couples while the rest have gone to Indians.

Ritu Sodhi, a furniture importer from Los Angeles who was born in India, spent $200,000 trying to get pregnant through in-vitro fertilization, and was considering spending another $80,000 to hire a surrogate mother in the United States.

“We were so desperate,” she said. “It was emotionally and financially exhausting.”

Then, on the Internet, Sodhi found Patel’s clinic.

After spending about $20,000 — more than many couples because it took the surrogate mother several cycles to conceive — Sodhi and her husband are now back home with their 4-month-old baby, Neel. They plan to return to Anand for a second child.

“Even if it cost $1 million, the joy that they had delivered to me is so much more than any money that I have given them,” said Sodhi. “They’re godsends to deliver something so special.”

Patel’s center is believed to be unique in offering one-stop service. Other clinics may request that the couple bring in their own surrogate, often a family member or friend, and some place classified ads. But in Anand the couple just provides the egg and sperm and the clinic does the rest, drawing from a waiting list of tested and ready surrogates.

Young women are flocking to the clinic to sign up for the list.

Suman Dodia, a pregnant, baby-faced 26-year-old, said she will buy a house with the $4,500 she receives from the British couple whose child she’s carrying. It would have taken her 15 years to earn that on her maid’s monthly salary of $25.

Dodia’s own three children were delivered at home and she said she never visited a doctor during those pregnancies.

“It’s very different with medicine,” Dodia said, resting her hands on her hugely pregnant belly. “I’m being more careful now than I was with my own pregnancy.”

Patel said she carefully chooses which couples to help and which women to hire as surrogates. She only accepts couples with serious fertility issues, like survivors of uterine cancer. The surrogate mothers have to be between 18 and 45, have at least one child of their own, and be in good medical shape.

Like some fertility reality show, a rotating cast of surrogate mothers live together in a home rented by the clinic and overseen by a former surrogate mother. They receive their children and husbands as visitors during the day, when they’re not busy with English or computer classes.

“They feel like my family,” said Rubina Mandul, 32, the surrogate house’s den mother. “The first 10 days are hard, but then they don’t want to go home.”

Mandul, who has two sons of her own, gave birth to a child for an American couple in February. She said she misses the baby, but she stays in touch with the parents over the Internet. A photo of the American couple with the child hangs over the sofa.

“They need a baby more than me,” she said.

The surrogate mothers and the parents sign a contract that promises the couple will cover all medical expenses in addition to the woman’s payment, and the surrogate mother will hand over the baby after birth. The couples fly to Anand for the in-vitro fertilization and again for the birth. Most couples end up paying the clinic less than $10,000 for the entire procedure, including fertilization, the fee to the mother and medical expenses.

Counseling is a major part of the process and Patel tells the women to think of the pregnancy as “someone’s child comes to stay at your place for nine months.”

Kailas Gheewala, 25, said she doesn’t think of the pregnancy as her own.

“The fetus is theirs, so I’m not sad to give it back,” said Gheewala, who plans to save the $6,250 she’s earning for her two daughters’ education. “The child will go to the U.S. and lead a better life and I’ll be happy.”

Patel said none of the surrogate mothers has had especially difficult births or serious medical problems, but risks are inescapable.

“We have to be very careful,” she said. “We overdo all the health investigations. We do not take any chances.”

Health experts expect to see more Indian commercial surrogacy programs in coming years. Dr. Indira Hinduja, a prominent fertility specialist who was behind India’s first test-tube baby two decades ago, receives several surrogacy inquiries a month from couples overseas.

“People are accepting it,” said Hinduja. “Earlier they used to be ashamed but now they are becoming more broadminded.”

But if commercial surrogacy keeps growing, some fear it could change from a medical necessity for infertile women to a convenience for the rich.

“You can picture the wealthy couples of the West deciding that pregnancy is just not worth the trouble anymore and the whole industry will be farmed out,” said Lantos.

Or, Lantos said, competition among clinics could lead to compromised safety measures and “the clinic across the street offers it for 20 percent less and one in Bangladesh undercuts that and pretty soon conditions get bad.”

The industry is not regulated by the government. Health officials have issued nonbinding ethical guidelines and called for legislation to protect the surrogates and the children.

For now, the surrogate mothers in Anand seem as pleased with the arrangement as the new parents.

“I know this isn’t mine,” said Jagrudi Sharma, 34, pointing to her belly. “But I’m giving happiness to another couple. And it’s great for me.”

Read the full article here:

Foster care better for I.Q. than orphanage, study finds

From the International Herald Tribune:

The results of U.S. research in Romania, being published on Friday in the journal Science, found that toddlers placed in foster families developed significantly higher I.Q.’s by age 4, on average, than peers who spent those years in an orphanage.

Psychologists have long believed that growing up in an institution like an orphanage stunts children’s mental development but have never had direct evidence to back it up.

Now they do, from an experiment in Romania that compared the effects of foster care with those of institutional child-rearing.

The study, being published on Friday in the journal Science, found that toddlers placed in foster families developed significantly higher I.Q.’s by age 4, on average, than peers who spent those years in an orphanage.

The difference was large – eight I.Q. points – and the study found that the earlier children joined a foster family, the better they did. Children who moved from institutional care to families after age 2 made few gains on average, though the experience varied from child to child. Both groups, however, had significantly lower I.Q.’s than a comparison group of children raised by their biological families.

Some developmental psychologists had sharply criticized the study and its sponsor, the MacArthur Foundation, for researching a question whose answer seemed obvious. But previous attempts to compare institutional and foster care suffered from serious flaws, mainly because no one knew whether children who landed in orphanages were different in unknown ways from those in foster care.

Experts said the new study should put to rest any doubts about the harmful effects of institutionalization – and might help speed up adoptions from countries that still allow them.

“Most of us take it as almost intuitive that being in a family is better for humans than being in an orphanage,” said Seth Pollak, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, who was not involved in the research. “But other governments don’t like to be told how to handle policy issues based on intuition.

“What makes this study important is that it gives objective data to say that if you’re going to allow international adoptions, then it’s a good idea to speed things up and get kids into families quickly.”

In recent years many countries, including Romania, have banned or sharply restricted adoptions of local children. In other countries, adoption procedures can drag on for many months.

The authors of the new paper, led by Dr. Charles Zeanah of Tulane University and Charles Nelson of Harvard and Children’s Hospital in Boston, approached Romanian officials in the late 1990s about conducting the study. The country had been working to improve conditions at its orphanages, which became infamous in the early 1990s as Dickensian warehouses for abandoned children.

After gaining clearance from the government, the researchers began to track 136 children who had been abandoned at birth. They administered developmental tests to the children and then randomly assigned them to continue at one of Bucharest’s six large orphanages, or join an adoptive family. The foster families were carefully screened and provided “very high-quality care,” Nelson said.

On I.Q. tests taken at 54 months, the foster children scored an average of 81, compared with 73 among the children who continued in an institution. The children who moved into foster care at the youngest ages tended to show the most improvement, the researchers found.

The comparison group of youngsters who grew up in their biological families had an average I.Q. of 109 at the same age, found the researchers, who announced their preliminary findings as soon as they were known.

“Institutions and environments vary enormously across the world and within countries,” Nelson said, “but I think these findings generalize to many situations, from kids in institutions to those in abusive households and even bad foster care arrangements.” The study’s message, he said, is that children should be moved into more caring environments, ideally before age 2.

In setting up the study, the researchers directly addressed the ethical issue of assigning children to institutional care, which was suspected to be harmful.

“If a government is to consider alternatives to institutional care for abandoned children, it must know how the alternative compares to the standard care it provides,” they wrote. “In Romania, this meant comparing the standard of care to a new and alternative form of care.”

Any number of factors common to institutions could work to delay or blunt intellectual development, experts say: the regimentation, the indifference to individual differences in children’s habits and needs and, most of all, the limited access to caregivers, who in some institutions can be responsible for more than 20 children at a time.

“The evidence seems to say,” said Pollak, “that for humans, we need a lot of responsive care giving, an adult who recognizes your distinct cry, knows when you’re hungry or in pain and gives you the opportunity to crawl around and handle different things, safely, when you’re ready.”

Read full article here:

December 21, 2007

‘I was made to give up my daughter’ – Guatemalan teen tells her story

Filed under: Adoption,Adoption in Other Countries — Tags: , — Catherine @ 12:19 pm

From BBC News:

Luisa*, 16, is living with her one-year-old daughter in a home for young mothers in Guatemala City run by Casa Alianza, a non-profit organisation which helps children living on the streets and vulnerable teenagers.

I was in a relationship with a guy and I got pregnant. My mother was really angry about it. She banned me from seeing him and we took the decision to have an abortion.

I went with this lady to have injections to induce an abortion but it didn’t work.

Then my aunt found an ad in the paper that offered help to pregnant teenagers.

My aunt and I went to the city to see the people and soon afterwards they called to say they had a place for me in a home already. I stayed with them until I had the baby.

I wasn’t the only one there. There were six, seven, eight girls in the pregnancy home, some older and some younger than me.

We didn’t really talk – we were kept in our rooms almost all the time. Our families would come to visit once a week.

The people at the home didn’t say anything about adoption for a while. Then, when the baby was born, they asked me if I wanted to give her up for adoption or if I wanted to keep her.

My parents and I decided that we would give her up, although from the start I didn’t really want to.

The adoption lawyer made me sign some documents and some blank papers. I asked why I had to sign these blank papers and she said it was for the adoption process.

My baby was born on 21 November 2006 and they took her away from me on 7 December.

The lawyer told me she would give me money for the baby but I said I didn’t want anything.

Lawyer’s threat

So why did I agree? Well, my parents didn’t have very much money and these people told me that the baby would have a home and education.

But at the same time I didn’t feel good about giving her up. From the day I did, I cried all day every day, and when I saw people with their babies I felt I was a really bad mother.

After that, I got together with the guy again and he asked me about the girl. He knew I was giving her up but he didn’t agree with it.

We decided to go to the adoption lawyer’s office and ask her if I could have my baby back. She said no.

The lawyer gave me two options. She said I had to give my baby up, or my boyfriend.

She told me that if I didn’t give up my baby, she would have an arrest warrant issued for him because I was under-age and he was 20, so he’d had sex with a minor.

She also said I would have to repay everything she had spent on me – for the Caesarean section, the medical bills, the costs for my time in the pregnancy home.

At that point, I decided to leave things the way they were. We had no money to pay.

‘Amazing love’

A while later I received a call from the lawyer, saying my parents and I had to go to the PGN (Solicitor General’s Office) to sign the adoption papers.

The lawyer there asked if I wanted to give my baby up. This was my chance to say no – which I did.

My parents got very angry and left me in the street outside the office. But with my sister’s support, I signed the papers to say I’d changed my mind – and now here I am with my baby.

I talked to my mother for the first time today [since it happened] and she said she wants me back in the family home with the baby.

But I’d rather live with my boyfriend. He can offer me everything I need for the baby because he’s working here in the city, and I want to go with him and have my own life.

I’m really happy to have my daughter back. She’s just had her first birthday.

I’d tell girls in the same situation as I was to keep their babies, to keep fighting because they are worth it and the love you have for them is amazing.

Original article is here:

December 19, 2007

“When Adoption Goes Wrong”: Newsweek article on Peggy Hilt

From Newsweek:

When Adoption Goes Wrong; Most Americans who adopt children from
other countries find joy. But others aren’t prepared for the
risks-and may find themselves overwhelmed.

Peggy Hilt wanted to be a good mother. But day after day, she got out
of bed feeling like a failure. No matter what she tried, she couldn’t
connect with Nina, the 2-year old girl she’d adopted from Russia as
an infant. The preschooler pulled away whenever Hilt tried to hug or
kiss her. Nina was physically aggressive with her 4-year-old sister,
who had been adopted from Ukraine, and had violent tantrums. Whenever
Hilt wasn’t watching, she destroyed the family’s furniture and
possessions. “Every day with Nina had become a struggle,” she recalls now.

As the girl grew older, things got worse. Hilt fell into a deep
depression. She started drinking heavily, something she’d never done
before. Ashamed, she hid her problem from everyone, including her husband.

On the morning of July 1, 2005, Hilt was packing for a family
vacation, all the while downing one beer after another and growing
increasingly aggravated and impatient with Nina’s antics. “Everything
she did just got to me,” Hilt said. When Hilt caught her reaching
into her diaper and smearing feces on the walls and furniture, “a
year and a half of frustration came to a head,” Hilt says. “I
snapped. I felt this uncontrollable rage.”

Then Hilt did something unthinkable. She grabbed Nina around the
neck, shook her and then dropped her to the floor, where she kicked
her repeatedly before dragging her up to her room, punching her as
they went. “I had never hit a child before,” she says. “I felt
horrible and promised myself that this would never happen again.” But
it was too late for that. Nina woke up with a fever, and then started
vomiting. The next day she stopped breathing. By the time the
ambulance got the child to the hospital, she was dead.

Hilt is now serving a 19-year sentence for second-degree murder in a
Virginia maximum-security prison. She and her husband divorced, and
he is raising their other daughter. She realizes the horror of her
crime and says she isn’t looking for sympathy. “There is no
punishment severe enough for what I did,” she told NEWSWEEK in an
interview at the prison.

Hilt’s story is awful-and rare-but sadly it is not unique. Adopting a
child from another country is usually a positive, enriching
experience for both the child and the parent. Over the last 20 years,
foreign adoption has become more popular, and Americans now adopt
about 20,000 children from Guatemala, China, Russia and other nations
each year. (In the last few years, as restrictions and red tape have
increased in some countries, the number of overseas adoptions has
begun to drop.) Longitudinal studies show that most of these kids do
quite well, but in a small but significant number of cases, things go
very badly. Since the early 1990s, the deaths of 14 Russian children
killed by their adoptive parents have been documented. (That
disclosure was partly responsible for Russia’s decision in 2006 to
suspend its intercountry adoption program while it underwent review.)

Cases like those are extreme, but clinicians who specialize in
treating foreign orphans say they are seeing more parents who are
overwhelmed by their adopted children’s unexpected emotional and
behavioral problems. And though reputable agencies try to warn
parents of the risks, not all succeed. “In the past, agencies were a
bit naive,” says Chuck Johnson of the National Council For Adoption,
which is responding to the problem with a massive education
initiative. “Now we’re urging them to give parents a more realistic
message.” Some parents struggle to find effective treatment for their
kids. Others seek to give them up. Reports that a growing number of
foreign adoptees were being turned over to the U.S. foster-care
system recently prompted the Department of Health and Human Services
to order its first national count: 81 children adopted overseas were
relinquished to officials in 14 states in 2006.

Why do some adoptions go so wrong? Clearly, it’s not the kids’ fault.
Their behavior is usually the result of trauma, mistreatment,
malnutrition or institutionalization in their home countries-problems
more common in places like Eastern Europe. But “the country of origin
doesn’t matter so much as the child’s experience,” says Dr. Dana
Johnson, director of the University of Minnesota’s International
Adoption Clinic. Some are found to suffer from fetal alcohol
syndrome, mental illness or reactive attachment disorder, an
inability to bond with a parent. Prospective families undergo an
arduous screening process, including home visits, and specify how
much disability they can handle. But even families who specifically
request a “healthy” child sometimes go home with a troubled one. In
some cases, the mismatch is inadvertent. But in others, orphanages or
adoption agencies overseas-eager to find homes for difficult children
in their care-mislead prospective parents or fail to disclose the
full extent of a child’s problems or personal history.

Emotional and even physical problems can be difficult to detect at
the time of adoption, especially in infants, and often aren’t
diagnosed until months or years later. Hilt says that’s what happened
to her. She and her husband decided to adopt after being told she’d
probably never conceive. After passing their agency’s screening, they
brought home their first daughter from Ukraine in 2001, and that went
so well they decided to adopt two Russian sisters. But when they flew
to Siberia to meet them in May 2003, they were told the sisters were
no longer available. Instead, they were told, they could adopt
Tatiana, a lively 18-month-old, and Nina, a quiet, withdrawn
9-month-old. They visited Tatiana every day for a week, but officials
never let them see Nina again. “They said she had a bad cold,” Hilt
said. Nonetheless, they signed adoption papers for both girls. But
when they returned to finalize the adoption in January 2004, they
were told that only Nina was still available. The Hilts hesitated.
They suspected a bait-and-switch, especially when officials insisted
they sign papers testifying they’d spent many more hours with the
baby than they had. “The whole process didn’t feel right,” Hilt said.
“But we figured we could love any child. You convince yourself that
everything will turn out OK.”

But from the start, Nina “literally pushed me away,” Hilt said. Over
time, Hilt found herself resenting the little girl. “We’d been such a
happy family, and then Nina came and everything changed,” Hilt says.
“I began to realize that we had made such a big mistake.” (Tatyana
Kharchendo, the doctor in charge of the Little Sun Child Home #1 in
Irkutsk, where the Hilts adopted Nina, did not directly answer Hilt’s
charges, but insisted the child “was absolutely healthy and beautiful.”)

No one is exonerating Hilt or others like her. But Joyce Sterkel, who
runs the Ranch for Kids, a Montana boarding school for disturbed
international adoptees, says she’s come to see the parents as well as
the kids as victims in these tragic cases. “It’s a horrible thing,
but I understand how some people end up killing these kids,” she
says. “They have no empathy, no affection, no love. My heart goes out
to these parents because they don’t know what to do.”

When Sterkel, a nurse, first started working with international
adoptees in the early ’90s, she didn’t see many deeply troubled
children. But 10 years ago she adopted two Russian boys whose
American parents had given up on them. One of them, a 14-year-old
boy, had just been released from a juvenile-detention center after
trying to poison his mother. Over time, Sterkel was approached so
often about adopting other children that she decided to open her
camp. Today it houses 25 to 30 kids from all over the country, and
has a waiting list. The overwhelming majority are from Russia,
Romania and Bulgaria, but she also has had children from South Korea
and Colombia. Some were bullied or raped while institutionalized or
were the children of prostitutes, drug addicts or alcoholics. “I have
gotten calls from parents who say the child they adopted has killed
the family dog, threatened to kill them, and no one will help them,” she says.

Emotional, behavioral and physical problems are not unique to adopted
children. Biological children can have the same range of issues. But
adoptive parents often assume they know what they’re getting into
because they get the chance to meet their child in advance. That was
the case when Kimble and Shellie Elmore of Los Angeles met a
10-year-old Russian child named Tania in 2005. The director of the
orphanage proudly described her as an “angel.”

But as soon as they took custody of their new daughter, her behavior
changed dramatically. “She was completely out of control,” Kimble
says. Tania would scream for hours at a time, then fall into deep
sullen silence. After signing Tania over to the Elmores, the Russian
court handed them her file. They were stunned to find that she had a
history of violence and had been transferred from one orphanage to
another. They called their adoption agency back home, but were
mistakenly told that there was nothing that could be done, that Tania
was now their legal daughter. (The American Embassy could have
helped, if they’d known.) Seeing no alternative, they boarded a plane
and brought Tania back to California. By the end of the first week,
she was admitted to a hospital psychiatric unit. She came home a few
days later, but things grew worse. She tried to stab her father with
a spike and attacked a police officer who came to the house in
response to a 911 call.

Doctors diagnosed Tania with bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress
disorder and attachment disorder, and suggested she be sent to
Sterkel’s camp. In the past year the Elmores have exhausted their
savings and retirement funds trying to pay for private residential
treatment. “We know she’s just a child and we want what’s best for
her,” says Kimble. “But we don’t know how to help her. Adoption is
supposed to be a touchy-feely thing surrounded with the glow of new
parenthood. But no one says, ‘What if the worst happens?’ ”

Psychologist Karyn Purvis of Texas Christian University, who has done
extensive research on troubled adopted children, says many of these
kids simply don’t respond to stern lectures and timeouts. Lab workups
of her patients often reveal extremely high levels of cortisol, the
stress hormone. “The children, for the most part, were in safe homes
living with safe people,” Purvis says, “but those cortisol levels
told us that their children did not feel safe with them, even if
they’d been living safely with them for years.” Children like them
are almost constantly in a hypervigilant state, she says. They don’t
let their guard down long enough to forge affectionate relationships.

Over the past several years Purvis has developed new methods to
restore a sense of security and trust to traumatized kids. If a child
becomes violent, for instance, Purvis often responds with a “basket
hold.” She cradles the kids firmly but gently in her lap, facing
outward, with their arms crossed in front of their chests. She rocks
and quietly soothes until they calm down, then asks them to look her
in the eye and tell her what they want. Purvis’s assistants have
taken to calling her the “Child Whisperer.”

Sometimes techniques like these result in dramatic turnarounds. The
family of a 5-year-old adopted from Russia thought they had no choice
but to seek psychiatric hospitalization after she threw her baby
sister down the stairs. But after the parents adopted Purvis’s
methods, the little girl finally started talking about the serious
abuse she’d experienced. The child’s behavior changed markedly. But
her mother “changed even more,” Purvis says, “because now she has hope.”

Purvis is quick to say that her techniques don’t work with every
child, and older kids can take much longer than younger ones. “They
have to unlearn what they’ve learned,” she said. The next step, she
says, is for prospective adoptive parents to get more training before
and after they adopt. “Very few agencies are training parents to deal
with brain damage, sensory deprivation, aggression,” Purvis says. “A
lot of these parents are smitten with the hope that they’ll make a
difference in a child’s life, but they need very practical tools. I
consider myself very pro-adoption. But I’m also very pro informed adoption. ”

Peggy Hilt wishes she’d heard this message years ago. “If I knew then
what I know now,” she says, “I would have gotten help for Nina and
for me.” The best she can hope for now, she says, is that her story
will prompt others to seek that help before it’s too late.

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