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

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.

Original article is here: