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Overseas adoptions have a somber side

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Danielle Alexander thought she had adopted a happy, healthy son. He sure seemed that way in pictures and in her visits to his squalid orphanage in Russia.

It didn't take long to discover how wrong she was.

Within weeks of arriving in early 2004, the 3-year-old started crying uncontrollably, striking his older sister, breaking furniture and deliberately urinating around the house.

Months into his adoption, the boy seemed unwilling or unable to learn even a small amount of English.

"We knew it would be challenging, and certainly we knew he might have some physical problems because he was so underweight, but we were totally unprepared for something like this," says Alexander, a former third-grade teacher in the Los Angeles area. "I found myself doing things I never thought I'd do, like spanking him. I cannot describe how depressing and frustrating the experience was."

What happened should not have been a complete surprise. The child's behavior problems are startlingly common, to varying degrees, among children adopted from Eastern Europe. A succession of doctor appointments, therapies and Internet searches for information linked the child's troubles to his history of being institutionalized and possible alcohol use by his biological mother, Alexander says. She says her son is doing much better now. He's picking up English but continues to have outbursts.

Dark side of story

A recent spate of highly publicized cases of U.S. parents charged with or convicted of killing their children adopted out of Russia cast a disturbing light on what has long been a problem downplayed by the adoption industry: Many children brought to the USA from abroad have physical and emotional problems that can't be forecast from photos or brief visits in orphanages.

Russia has long been a top nation for Americans who adopt abroad. Last year, American parents brought home 5,865 Russian children, about 25% of all children adopted abroad.

In all, 14 Russian children have died in these cases. That number has spurred outraged Russian politicians to push for reforms and even a moratorium on foreign adoptions.

In each of the criminal cases, the parents' lawyers have argued that the defendants lost control as they tried to cope with unruly children who are beset by hard-to-fathom troubles. No one is arguing that the deaths are excusable, but Victor Groza, a social work professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, says the cases do point to questions of whether adoption agencies are so eager to close the deals that they fail to warn parents of the potential problems.

Some need lifelong help

"We say there are three groups of children: about 20% whom we call the 'resilient rascals' because they come over and thrive right away, about 60% who we call 'wounded warriors' because they have serious problems but they get better after the first year or so, and another 20% who are challenged children who may require lifelong help," he says.

Groza founded an experimental program paid for by the U.S. Department of Education in which master's degree students visit newly adoptive families weekly to help with post-adoption problems.

Groza notes that his statistics, which are based on anecdotal experience, can be seen by optimists as indicating that 80% of the kids turn out OK. They also can be seen by pessimists as saying the same amount have problems. Yet, he says, either way parents need better information and more help.

"These are all special-needs kids in some sense," says Gay Ketterer of Eagle Lake, Wis., who adopted a 4-year-old daughter from Russia in 1994 and found the impulsive, disobedient child difficult to control. "It took years for me to understand and realize what's going on with my daughter. It's lonely because you can't talk to your mother or your neighbor about it, because they don't understand."

Many of the problems arise because the children have spent long periods of time in miserly orphanages without much attention, education or proper nourishment, says Thais Tepper, co-founder of the Parents Network for the Post-Institutionalized Child. Tepper, who had similar challenges with her own adopted child from Romania a decade ago, says such experience often leads to "reactive attachment disorder," the child's inability to bond with the new parents. Tepper adds that Eastern European children frequently have developmental delays consistent with fetal alcohol syndrome.

"Agencies do a lot to sell that the kids are perfectly normal," Tepper says. "They just tell these parents to just give it a little time. Then, months go by and then they are told: 'Just give them a little love and food. That'll take care of it.'"

For their part, many agencies say they have learned to offer more help and warning, but parents often are so blinded by their desire for a child that they don't listen.

"The problem sometimes can be that families believe what they want to believe and think that a lot of love and just bringing this child home will work a miracle," says Ron Stoddard, executive director of Nightlight Christian Adoptions in Fullerton, Calif. "We now tell our families that unless there is definitive information to the contrary, you have to assume the parents (in Russia) abused alcohol."

New standards stalled

Few U.S. laws govern international adoptions other than those relating to immigration. And there are no federal standards to require any form of services after adoption. Congress passed a law in 2000 to ratify an international agreement known as The Hague Treaty, which would mandate standards for adoption agencies. The standards would require more rigorous disclosures of the children's conditions and more careful monitoring of families before and after the adoption. But the treaty requires specific rules to be drawn up by the State Department, a process that has stalled since 2003 when a proposed draft copy was issued for public comment.

The delay frustrates Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., co-chair of the Congressional Council on Adoption. She worries that a Russian moratorium would leave in limbo the fate of an estimated 700,000 orphans in Russia. Landrieu had written to Russian politicians more than a year ago, promising the Hague rules would be in effect "by fall" -- meaning autumn of last year.

"Many members of Congress are very displeased with this very slow pace," Landrieu says. "The new rules are purposely drafted to close loopholes that currently exist."

State Department spokeswoman Angela Aggeler said in an e-mail that it is unclear when the rules would be made final. The process has taken a long time because the department was overwhelmed with public comments on the draft issued in 2003, she said.

Beyond this, the only accreditation process for adoption agencies is voluntary and pursued by a small minority of agencies. Russia now allows adoptions only through agencies the Russian government accredits. But unaccredited agencies can ally themselves with accredited ones and continue to process adoptions. And the Joint Council on International Adoption, a national organization of adoption agencies, has operational standards that its members must adhere to, but it has never thrown out an agency for violations.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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