When Adoption Isn't Easy: My Turn

By Josephine A. Ruggiero

When I heard about the adoptive family who sent their 7-year-old boy back to Russia, I was saddened, but I wasn't surprised. They made a drastic decision, but I'm sure other adoptive parents in distress have thought about doing the very same thing.

My husband and I adopted three biological siblings from Russia in 1994—a boy and two girls, all under the age of 5. We saw pictures and were assured they were healthy, but we had to make a quick decision, based on very little information. I'm trained in sociology, but nothing could have prepared me for the challenges we've encountered. The kids had serious medical and emotional issues. Both girls had some level of fetal alcohol syndrome. The youngest needed immediate surgery to repair a traumatic brain injury, and she's had seizures ever since. From the start, they all exhibited defiant behavior. Admittedly, all kids go through that phase, but we didn't expect it to happen so young. Within a week of bringing them home, we contacted our adoption agency and told them our experience was very different from what we had expected. They said something like, "We're sorry to hear that."

My husband and I spent several months with the children at home before I went back to teaching. We played with them and found Russian speakers to talk with them and read stories in Russian. The kids all suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder resulting, we believe, from neglect and both mental and physical abuse. None ever tried to hurt us, but they were unable to control their anger. It was as if they operated solely on a level of basic survival, which never seemed to be replaced by rational thinking. We had to put locks on doors inside the house, because they would take anything they wanted, including money. I'm always trying to teach them—"We don't do this in our family"—but there's no reciprocity. We once found ourselves even charged with neglect—an unsubstantiated charge that was never pursued—when our teenage son decided to live elsewhere. Every kid tries to push the limits. But most kids get it when they've pushed too far and they stop. They care about what their parents think; they love their parents. Even now, I don't see that with my children.

I spent more than a decade researching Russian adoption, and I believe families face three major challenges. First, they are not adequately prepared in the pre-adoption phase for the kinds of emotional struggles their children might face. Second, they often receive incomplete or even false medical and background information. Third, there is a lack of postadoptive services specializing in behavioral issues. Ultimately, I believe everybody would benefit if adoptees were placed in foster care in their home countries before joining families in the United States. Children need a transition period after life in an orphanage; they need to get a sense of what the give-and-take of family life is all about.

Most Russian adoptions are successful. In our case, we kept thinking that our kids' early behavioral issues stemmed from the challenges of adjusting to their new life. But they only got worse. My youngest, who's 17, still gets very defensive and starts screaming. I can't say I have any real relationship with my older daughter, 19, much as I'd like to. My son, 20, lives on his own and doesn't communicate with us. It's awfully hard to take strangers and try to make them into people who love you. There isn't any doubt that we love them, but I think it's hard for them to understand what love means.

My children are a success as far as society goes. My son's in college; my older daughter hopes to go in the fall. They're polite, friendly, and respectful—just not with us. We continue to love our children through all of it. It's like climbing a mountain, but we haven't reached the top, where it gets easier. I'm thinking that may never happen.

Ruggiero is a professor of sociology at Providence College and the author of Eastern European Adoption: Policies, Practice, and Strategies for Change.