What do you do when an adoption doesn't work out?
It wasn’t until a summer afternoon in August 2008, four years after the adoption, that I found the courage to begin to write the “un-writable:” a chronicle of my family’s fall into, and struggle to climb out of, the abyss of a failed adoption.
That afternoon, our small-but-smart book club was holding its semi-monthly meeting in the cozy living room of a friend’s 1950s-style cottage. My book club friends knew that I had been trying to write a book about what it was like for me and my husband, John, to raise two siblings, adopted from Ukraine in 2004 when they were five and seven years old.
Everyone present was all too familiar with just how tough the last few years had been. They knew that the previous eight months had been especially rough. At that time, all we knew was that our son, Dmitri, had suffered severe neglect during the first six years of his life and had developmental stagnation at the preschool age, despite a high IQ. In short, he was brilliant but emotionally stuck as a toddler.
Despite therapy, medication, hospitalization and assistance from the police, courts, school district, Child Protective Services, Catholic Community Services, and multiple therapists, Dmitri’s problems continued to escalate. Dmitri’s sister, Anna, also suffered neglect. But unlike Dmitri, Anna had someone to care for her during her prime developmental years. She had Dmitri. The result was that their brains developed differently. Anna was able to attach to John and me, but Dmitri never could. Years of the unrelenting hour-to-hour stress of living with Dmitri’s unpredictable behavior had taken financial, psychological, and physical tolls on John and me.
Our friends had become adept at sensing when we were going through a rougher patch than normal. They saw it in my eyes, posture, and skin. They heard it in my voice. Our friend, Mattie, asked about my writing project. Where do I begin? The question, asked through choked-back tears, hung in the air. No one knew what to say, but it is easy to imagine that a different story came to mind for each person.
By August 2008, there were already a fair number of documented accounts of Dmitri’s extreme behavior–tales so unbelievable that one was reported by the local papers, prompting an online chat board response tantamount to a lynch mob. Do I start with one of Dmitri’s post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) incidents, an episode of running away, or one of the many suspensions from school? Should I begin with a story about his compulsive theft or the scam he orchestrated to steal money from our neighbors? Perhaps the book should begin when Dmitri was caught leading a secret double life, including liaisons with a schizophrenic homeless man.
Then again, I could always start on a positive note–the day Dmitri’s quick thinking saved the life of a neighbor’s child or how fantastic he is with the handicapped kids at school or how good he is with plants and animals. A description of Dmitri’s natural charisma and charm could be a starting point– how his teachers loved him despite his behaviors, and how the other kids at school would fall all over themselves to say hi to him in the hallways.
And what about Anna? Should our story begin with her and what she has come to mean to John and me? How grateful we are to Dmitri for having made the choice to care for her and keep her alive? When I was through listing the myriad possibilities, Mattie spoke up. “That’s where you begin,” she said. “You start with the questions.”
John and I are members of a small and largely silent group: parents of a failed adoption (“failed” meaning the adoptive child and parents do not attach and the parents seek another placement for the child.) When an adoption fails, it usually represents the very darkest period in the lives of everyone involved. If the parents are lucky enough to survive intact emotionally, maritally, and financially, the last thing they want to do is rehash the experience by putting pen to paper.
Society-at-large wants adoptions to work. They want to put adoptive parents on pedestals. So when an adoptive parent suddenly steps outside the bounds of what is socially or morally acceptable and does something as extreme as sending an adopted child back to Russia, a vast majority of people are going to be outraged. Only other parents of failed adoptions and their therapists will instantly recognize the tremendous psychological stress the adoptive parent was under and that she must have been desperate to remove the child from her home.
The idea that a child can pose a threat to an adult seems improbable, but it’s not impossible. In addition to our own frightening experiences with Dmitri, we know other families who have had young adopted children who were obsessed with killing their parents or harming the biological children.
According to a report published in 2004 by the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse, the rate of “disruption” (when an adoption fails before it is legally finalized) ranged from 10-25 percent, and the rate of “dissolution” (when an adoption fails after it is legally finalized) was 1 to 10 percent. Rates of failure are at the high end for adoptions of older children.
Prior to traveling to Ukraine, John and I made every effort to ensure that we didn’t end up a statistic. We hired an adoption agency with a solid reputation. We attended educational seminars provided by our adoption agency and Child Protective Services (CPS). We attended international adoption expos. We networked with other adoptive parents and were active in the Dallas chapter of Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoption (FRUA), a national non-profit support group. We attended a full-day lecture on Reactive Attachment Disorders (RAD) and seminars on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome/Effects (FAS/E). We read books on adoption, including books on adopting older children. We even created our own educational manual for other family members and friends, entitled “Hearts & Eyes Wide Open.” We met with pediatricians who specialized in working with children adopted from Eastern Europe, and when we traveled to Ukraine, we took a three-ring binder of checklists that described the tell-tale signs of RAD and FAS/E. John and I believed that the joys of parenting were worth the risks, but we also knew that we were not up to raising a child with RAD or FAS/E.
On March 4, 2009, after Dmitri was especially violent at home, John and I requested that he be taken into emergency respite care. Since then he has been in foster care, often times spending weeks in juvenile detention for, among other crimes, felony car and gun theft. Dmitri’s diagnosis has changed over the years. The only consistent part of his diagnosis has been Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The triggers for his PTSD episodes are difficult to pin down, but when he lived with us, the most consistent trigger involved food or smell. One afternoon, while sitting at the kitchen table, Dmitri suddenly slumped down to the ground, and behaved as if he was being attacked and the table was his place of safety. Trying to comfort him, I could only watch as he crawled on his belly– as if he was avoiding gun fire or barbed wire– to his bedroom, where he climbed into his bed, rolled up into a ball, and cried like an infant.
In 2009, Dmitri was also diagnosed with Provisional Dysthymic Disorder, Anxiety Disorder NOS, and Impulse Control Disorder NOS. His therapist wrote, “Without significant supervision, Dmitri is at risk for running away from school and for theft with increasing sophistication. In addition, Dmitri requires intensive behavior modification to be able to handle adult authority and adaptive peer relationships.”
In June 2010, at the behest of Dmitri’s new therapist and social worker, John and I paid for a clinical diagnostic neuropsychological evaluation. The results were very clear–Dmitri shows all the signs of having brain damage in the dorsolateral prefrontal region. This is the part of the brain that controls executive functions: inhibition, semantic fluency, problem solving, organization and planning. While Dmitri can explain why he shouldn’t steal or runaway, he is completely unable to suppress his impulses to do so whenever there is an environmental cue or trigger.
Dmitri’s test results were consistent with a child who has FAE. In other words, Dmitri’s birth mother, an alcoholic, very likely consumed alcohol when she was pregnant with Dmitri. Her actions damaged his brain in a very specific way, and current medical research knows no way to heal the damage. This means that Dmitri requires stability and external structure, like a lock-down treatment facility. A traditional family home, even a specialized therapeutic foster home, will never be able to contain him or keep him safe from himself.
Do John and I regret the adoption? No, because the opportunity to parent Anna is one of the central experiences of our lives. We do, however, recognize the burden we have put on our local community because we can’t keep Dmitri safe by ourselves. We continue to pay child support, and our attorney attends court appointments on our behalf. So far, the Court has not allowed us to relinquish custody of Dimitri and probably never will. As of March 2012, Dimitri is serving a 9-month sentence for repeatedly violating his parole in a high security facility for the state’s worst juvenile offenders. When he is released, he will most likely return to a group home run by the state. It is our hope that one day Dmitri’s tremendous intellect and personality will become a gift, rather than a burden, to himself and society.