I first met Josephine Ruggiero 13 years ago when I was reporting a story about international adoption, "Bringing Kids All the Way Home." Ruggiero and her husband had adopted three young biological siblings from Russia in 1994 and they invited me into their home, where they talked openly about how difficult adoption can turn out to be—for parents and children alike. The couple had high hopes that their son and two daughters would adjust to family life in the U.S., but there were physical and behavioral issues from the start, including fetal-alcohol syndrome and posttraumatic stress disorder—information that was not shared by the Russian orphanage directors or their adoption agency.
Ruggiero, a sociology professor at Providence College in Rhode Island, has updated me on both her kids and her research into international adoption over the years. From the start, I kept hoping things would get better—for her and her husband's sake and for the sake of their children. But last week, after the Tennessee case broke, Ruggiero filled me in on the ongoing challenges her family has endured and she agreed to write a first-person account of her experience. In it, she documents how difficult it has been to teach her children, to parent them, and to establish loving relationships. "It's awfully hard to take strangers and try to make them into people who love you," she writes.
Ruggiero says most Russian adoptions are successful—she knows this from talking to adoptive families for her book, Eastern European Adoption: Policies, Practice, and Strategies for Change. But her situation is not unique, as a piece in the Sunday Styles section of The New York Times makes clear. "When it boils down to it, I'm really similar to the woman in Tennessee," Kelly Lytle Baehr told the Times. "We've all been there." The story chronicles the experiences of other families who have struggled to understand their children, to love them, and to create functioning families. In the most extreme case, Ellen McDaniels terminated her parental rights after what she said was a "life of hell" trying to help a sexually abused girl she adopted from Russia at the age of 8. McDaniels told the Times she was filled with shame and guilt, but she could no longer handle the stress and fear of living with a child who hid knives in her bed and threatened to burn the house down.
Ruggiero and the families profiled in the Times do not represent the norm. But the norm doesn't matter when your family is in distress. Their stories need to be told. Adoption can be the most wonderful gift, for mothers, fathers and their children. But prospective parents need to understand that severe stress in young children's lives can affect them for the rest of their lives—and they must be aggressive about getting as much information as possible about the children before they bring them home. Adoption agencies, orphanages and foster homes, for their part, need to be honest and open about the health of adoptive kids. And support services back home need to guide parents in how to handle not just medical problems, but complex behavioral challenges, too. Ruggiero writes in her piece: "It's like climbing a mountain, but we haven't reached the top, where it gets easier. I'm thinking that may never happen." The Times headline says it all: IN SOME ADOPTIONS, LOVE DOESN'T CONQUER ALL.