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Adoption Blog: Be Bold or Go Home

Reacting to the Russian Adoption Crisis

The sad story of seven-year-old Artyem Savelyev, whose mother returned him to Russia within six months of adopting him, has been haunting me ever since it first grabbed the headlines. The seemingly rash decision of single mother Torry Hansen to send back the boy she called Justin with only a note stating that she “no longer wished to parent this child,” sparked an international incident, unleashed a Pandora’s box of emotions in the adoption community, and initiated a polarized public conversation about international adoption that leaves me dismayed.

The Hansen case prompted me to reflect on those first months my husband and I spent getting to know each of our children, particularly the early days with our oldest daughter, Didi. She was nearly six when we brought her to the U.S. from India. Though she said goodbye to her friends and caregivers at the orphanage with a smile, the charm of having a new family evaporated within a week. As the gravity of her situation sunk in—no one around who could speak or understand her language, no familiar sights, sounds, smells or faces, and no idea what it meant to be part of a family—our tiny girl transformed into an emotional, combative whirlwind. Slammed doors, broken toys, tantrums, and Hindi curse words marked our daily routine. The turmoil exhausted us all, but Didi’s outbursts made perfect sense. She was scared, and rightfully so. Her life experience had taught her to be wary, and we had not had sufficient time to earn her trust. 

I will always be grateful to Dr. Nancy Curtis,  of the International Adoption Clinic at Oakland Children’s Hospital, for she said long before my children arrived. “You will feel incredibly stressed at first, and then after about six months, you’ll all start to feel like a family.” Those simple words kept me going on the hardest days.

In time and with effort, we did start to feel like a family. After about six months at home, my daughter Didi had learned enough English and developed enough trust in us to be able to start to verbalize her concerns. One of the revelations was this: Mealtimes were difficult because she felt nervous sitting next to my husband at the dinner table. John and I were shocked by our own stupidity;  prior to joining our family, Didi had had practically no interactions with adult men. Of course she was nervous! We rearranged the seating, and mealtimes settled down. After one year at home, Didi asked to change seats again, and returned to her original spot next to Daddy.

Thanks to my children, I’ve become an advocate for older child adoption, yet when the Joint Council on International Children’s Services (JCICS) responded to the Hansen case by launching the “We Are the Truth” campaign, urging happy adoptive families like mine to publicly share the “truth” about international adoption,  I winced.  Thousands of families stepped forward to reassure the general public and media that the Hansen case is an anomaly, but I chose not to participate. Although the campaign was well-intentioned, for me, claiming possession of the truth felt awkward—forced. Physicist Niels Bohr’s, “the opposite of one profound truth may well be another profound truth,” came to mind.

It is true that most adoptions are successful, but hang around the adoption community long enough and you will eventually hear disruption stories—raw, heartbreaking stories that never make the news. As this site’s editor, Susan L. Caughman, who is also editor and publisher of the magazine Adoptive Families, said in a New York Times interview, “Disruption should come out of the closet ... It’s a horrible decision to have to make. But if you can’t parent a child, if you’re not prepared to do all these things that have to be done, don’t struggle in silence.” Straightforward statistics are hard to come by, but various studies reveal that approximately ten to twenty-five percent of adoptions disrupt;  placements of children over the age of two tend to be the most vulnerable.

On the other hand, the flood of “adoption gone wrong” stories that ran after the Hansen case broke were also troubling. Most of these reports focused exclusively on the struggles of the adoptive parents, many of whom recounted their children’s challenging behaviors and diagnoses of the cause in painful detail. As tragic and true as these individual stories may be, the media often packages them in ways that perpetuate the older-child-as-damaged-goods stereotype; many reports seemed designed to encourage sympathy for Hansen’s shocking act of child abandonmentUsing that damaged-goods stereotype as a springboard, comedian Bill Maher went so far as to praise Hansen on his T.V. show for "sending back a defective product.” (I honestly could not tell if Maher truly thought she’d done the right thing, or if he was mocking her, and by extension, mocking the whole international adoption community. It was almost a little of both. Take a look at the clip and see what you think.)

While it’s good to shine a light on international adoption’s very real challenges, I worry about inadvertently reinforcing the perception that all the responsibility lies with the children.  Sometimes, we parents are the ones who have the hardest time adjusting. In her essay “Post-Adoption Panic” from the anthology A Love Like No Other: Stories from Adoptive Parents, journalist Melissa Fay Greene describes the arrival of her four-year-old son Jesse from Bulgaria with refreshing honesty. A sweet and cooperative boy, Jesse adjusts easily to his new home, but Greene freaks out, and is surprised to learn that she needs time to grow into the role of affectionate adoptive mom. It’s an illuminating story that every adoptive parent—or prospective adoptive parent—should read.

The extreme public reactions to the Hansen case, which pit the adoption-as-fairytale stance against the adoption-as-nightmare scenario, and by extension place adoptive parents against one other, don’t have much value. I suspect that most adopted families live somewhere in between: enriched by our struggles, grateful for our luck, and committed to working it out.

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Meet the Author

Sharon Van Epps

Sharon Van Epps


I have recently adopted or am adopting from...
Ethiopia, India

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