When the news broke that a mom in Tennessee had put her recently adopted son on a plane, alone, with a one-way ticket to Moscow, the media reaction, the public reaction was immediate and unforgiving.
The mother said the 7-year-old boy – his Russian name is Artyom Savelyev – was “mentally unstable” and that Russian adoption officials had misled her about his background and condition. She expressed fear for her safety and that of her family. She said she’d done all that she could to make things right. And then she called an end to it.
This does not jibe with our views of being a mother, a father, being a family, of adoption where love makes all things right. Of course, our broad societal views on parenthood are mainly hooey, a repository of myths that never were. On the ground, in the kitchen, we all understand that for all its wonders, being a parent is frequently hard, often confounding and that we would not want to reveal, let alone be judged by, our worst moments with our kids.
And, still, in extreme situations like that of Artyom and his mom, we find comfort, reassurance somehow, in harsh judgment, rather than the more appropriate conclusion, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
I’m blessed to be the adoptive dad of two children. And I’m here to tell you that adoption is different, often harder, for both the kids and the parents. Whether it is separation and attachment, or, in some cases, an issue at birth that brought a child into foster care, the challenges are real and complex.
The motivations are pure. The motivation of a family to foster or adopt. The desire of a child to belong. The loss, the generosity felt by a birth mother. But the forces at work are powerful. And while love is essential, it most certainly is not enough.
On Friday afternoon, I sat with Mary Anne Brown, the head of Hephzibah Children’s Association, to talk about failed adoptions, harsh judgments and harsh realities. Mary Anne has headed Hephzibah for 35 years. Hephzibah itself goes back over a century and is, to my mind, Oak Park’s most vital and hopeful place. Twenty-five kids call the North Boulevard headquarters their home. But Hephzibah’s reach is wide and deep. It includes the before- and after-school programs in Oak Park’s schools and extensive foster care and adoption programs.
Mary Anne Brown starts by saying there aren’t records of failed adoptions. Parents don’t want to talk about it, to acknowledge it. She also notes that failed adoptions are, mostly, a white, middle-class issue. “That’s why it isn’t talked about,” she says. Based on the intense reaction to the recent case of Artyom, society doesn’t want to hear about failed adoptions either. Over time, we’ve come to understand child abuse, foul-ups in the foster care system. But we’re not ready to grasp failed adoptions, she says. Its most visible manifestation, says Brown, are 14- and 15-year-old runaways. But the instances with younger kids are still shocking and shake peoples’ assumptions about parenting, adoption and love.
Brown’s views have tempered and evolved over the decades on failed adoptions and other issues, too. “The first time I did this, I knew the answer. Now I don’t know. I have no theories now.” And yet she does.
Here it is:
“Don’t judge. We have to stop judging people. Particularly, the stuff in the media. I’m sick of the Russian thing. We don’t know what happened in that family.”
Brown does, though, know what happened after news of Artyom broke in the media. Her phone started to ring. In one week, she had four calls from adoptive parents at the breaking point. The kids involved ranged from 2 to 9 and came from a variety of circumstances. She says the publicity about Artyom gave parents “permission” to face the fix their families were in. “You mean you can give them back?” she says is a realization some parents have come to.
What does she say to these parents?
“I say, ‘That must feel terrible. Let’s talk.'” Hephzibah can offer respite services, a break of a week or two for both parents and child to assess and breathe deep. But with all four calls, a child has now left an adoptive home.
“People come for help. Everyone thinks we are going to blame the parents or the kids. The kids come and feel it is about them, that it is their fault. That they’re bad. They’ve heard their parents say, ‘I don’t know what got into you.’ The kids take it literally. They think there is something bad inside them. Parents try to work it out. Most families have been to therapy. But don’t blame parents. There aren’t enough services to support these families.
“Everyone believes there is something magical that can be fixed. That love will make them better. Love is not enough. Very few people will change. We all need to accept the challenges and move forward.”
At Hephzibah on Friday, I met two young fellows. One 4, one 9. Both are living at Hephzibah, having come from tough circumstances. The older boy, lanky and sweet, passed through 13 foster placements and an adoption that didn’t take. He’s lived at Hephzibah for three years – a long time for Hephzibah – and says the place and the people there make him feel “safe and secure.” Mary Anne, as always tough and encouraging to her kids, tells him they’re going to find him a home. He offers he’d like to be the only child.
At Hephzibah, it’s about moving forward, regardless of the current circumstances. “We don’t spend a lot of time looking back. I say to the parents (giving up a child), ‘This is your chance. Get on with your life.’ It is OK to break up. It is not like the child has died. They’ve done what they can do. Focus on what did you learn when you were together.
“The parents aren’t bad. They just can’t do it. This is never done casually. It is hard and it is painful. This is never about minor issues. And it gives the kids the chance to start over. We tell them to believe in life. You can move forward. You’re going to make it.”
Making it, though, would be easier without the too-easy judgments, the assumptions. Life is complicated. Good people fail at hard jobs. For those of us thankfully on the outside looking in, some humility, some grace, a prayer would be a worthy response.