Children Don't Come with Return Policies

Close your eyes and imagine this -- you are seven-years-old. Your mother, one you have only known six months, puts you on a 15-hour flight by yourself with a bunch of strangers whose language you barely understand. You fly all day to get to a place where no one is waiting for you because no one knows you are coming. And you probably don't know this yet, but you're not even a citizen of that country anymore. You get off the plane and have to explain to yet another stranger what's just happened. You probably start to cry.

Most of us don't have too many vivid memories from when we were seven-years-old, but I have a feeling that young Artyom, aka Justin Hansen, will relive that memory for the rest of his life.

I am a mother by adoption, so you can probably guess that I have a LOT to say about Artyom, the Russian adoptee who his mother claims was threatening to burn down her house and was becoming violent.


I don't doubt any of that. All children have issues of one  kind or another -- some mild, some extremely serious. And there are some that come up more often in adopted children, like attachment issues, than in our children who come to us the "old-fashioned" way. But as I like to say, there are no "give backs" when it comes to children, no matter how they become part of our families.

My husband and I adopted our daughter from China nine years ago (yes, that's her in the photo!).  She was 12 months old at the time, and we knew there was a possibility that we would have to deal with attachment or emotional issues because she lived in an orphanage for a year. The orphanage caregivers we met seemed like nice women who genuinely cared about the babies, but there were eight of them and 100 babies to take care of everyday. With that kind of ratio, it's no surprise that some children who come out of that experience have a tough time building trust in their new parents and believing that these new people will love them and care for them and never leave them.

We hoped that wouldn't be the case but, as it turned out, we spent a long time working on attachment, bonding and trust issues with our daughter. As a somewhat typical fourth-grader today, PunditGirl is doing well now, but it never crossed our minds to put her on a plane back to China when the going got rough.

I wrote about this a few months ago when another mother, who had five biological children, adopted a sixth and then gave him up because of emotional issues and bonding problems.  I wrote then about our own experience:

We thought we were prepared. We dealt with a fabulous agency who made sure we knew that a good number of children adopted from institutions often have attachment and other emotional issues. We read. We listened. We talked. MY husband already had experience as a dad to two biological daughters. We thought we were ready.

We so weren’t.

But the thing is this -- no one is EVER ready for the parenting experience they get, whether their children are biological, adopted, foster or the result of today's myriad fertility options that may or may not result in a child that's biologically related to the ultimate parents. No one is ever really ready for a child with autism, Down syndrome, cancer, diabetes, ADHD -- no child is perfect and every parenting experience is different, yet most of us find ways to rise to the occasion and help our children the best we can.

Given what I know about international adoption, I have no doubt that young Artyom had serious emotional issues -- he was a seven-year-old living in an institution and had been placed there by an alcoholic mother. He told stories of being beaten with a broom in the orphanage (a story apparently other children from Russian orphanages have told, as well). I have no doubt that he threatened to set the family home on fire or threatened other violence, because I have heard that story before in connection with older institutionalized children who were later adopted. I have no doubt that the whole truth wasn't told by the orphanage. And I have no doubt that perhaps the family didn't get or hear the whole message from the adoption agency they used about the potential serious emotional and behavior issues a child like Artyom might have.

But there are resources. And there is help. That's what all the follow-up placement services are there for. No matter what the real situation was -- and who knows how much of the actual story we will ever know -- give-backs aren't an option.

I am sad for the other families who are waiting to adopt their children from Russia who are now in indefinite limbo as a result of this. And I'm sad for all adoptive families, including mine, who get painted with the broad brush of media judgment because families by adoption are still considered second-best in our country and scrutinized in ways that other families aren't. But most of all, I'm sad for Artyom and hope that something in his life will start to go right very soon.

Joanne Bamberger also writes the political blog, PunditMom, and is at work on a book about the increasing involvement of mothers in politics, due out this fall.

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