Mr. Savelyev, Meet Dr. Laura
An adoption scandal's local aftermath
by Rochel Urist
From the August, 2010 issue
The return of seven-year-old Artyom Savelyev to Russia rocked the international adoption community. Torry Ann Hansen, a single woman from Tennessee, adopted the boy last September from an orphanage in the Russian Far East, renaming him Justin Hansen. But on April 8, overwhelmed by what she called his "violent and severe psychopathic issues," she put him on a plane back to his motherland--alone. She arranged for someone to meet him at the Moscow airport and deliver him to a government office with a note that claimed the orphanage had lied and misled her.
The media pounced on Artyom's sojourn with stories that summoned an array of stereotypes: corrupt bureaucracies; Dickensian orphanages; the self-centered mother with a child whose demands exceeded her capacity to give. Though Artyom's diagnosis, if any, was never revealed, many stories raised the specter of fetal alcohol syndrome, a severe, lifelong disability. In June, radio pundit Laura Schlessinger advised prospective parents to avoid international adoptions altogether.
"Dr. Laura doesn't know what she's talking about," says "Shelly Kazan," a local psychiatrist, adoptive mother of a daughter from Guatemala, and former Dr. Laura fan. "All this negative bullshit is--bullshit. Parents I know who've done international adoptions are 99 percent positive." (Like other local parents who've adopted children from other countries, "Kazan" asked that her real name not be used--most feel that their family adoption stories are the children's to tell.)
"All this Tennessee mother had to do was contact her agency to say 'I'm having problems. I can't do this anymore,'" says Jerri Ann Jenista, an Ann Arbor pediatrician and the adoptive mother of five who has worked in adoption for thirty years. "They would have taken the child and placed him with another family. The agency is committed to the child. All of us with children--especially problem children--know you can't do it yourself."
Anya Abramzon, director of Jewish Family Services, agrees: "The mother who sent back her son was poorly educated and had no support." Russian-born Abramzon co-founded
Stars of David, a support group for adoptive parents, both Jewish and non-Jewish. She has brought in Russian-speaking psychologists to consult with adoptive families, and she points out that other local agencies, including Catholic Social Services, Hands Across the Water, and Michigan Adoption Resource Exchange, offer adoption support and educational programs. For many families, these sessions provide an important social network as they deal with the usual challenges of parenting and the special issues of adoption: children who don't resemble them and who may feel a sense of abandonment and loss.
And that's with a "normal," low-risk child. Jenista sees many families whose adoptive children suffer from severe impairments. So when she meets prospective adoptive parents, "I beat people up. I tell them: you have access to the information, but it's not given to you. You have to ask: How did this child come into the orphanage? What were the parents' circumstances like? Where was the hospital of birth? By the time I'm done, families know the worst things that can happen. And there are horror stories."
Until the mid-nineties, Jenista says, she often met parents who thought they could go abroad and choose their perfect child--often one who resembled themselves. But, she says, "that's like going into a bar in New York City to find someone to marry." Parents still often think they'll be able to assess the health of the child on their own. "We know that's not true. About half the pediatricians--and parents--miss the [developmental] delays." In addition, says Jenista, "medical descriptions are unreliable. The child may be listed as at risk for brain damage. 'Encephalopathy' can mean brain damage, but sometimes not."
Having a biological child, of course, comes with no guarantees, either: parents often have their babies tested in utero for birth defects. They count their newborn's fingers and toes, await Apgar scores, and look for reassurance that their child is healthy.
And despite its uncertainties, international adoption lets childless people have families. While there have been strides in opening up the domestic adoption process, it's still difficult for singles, gays, people over forty, and those with limited means to adopt.
Kazan was forty-seven when she began the adoption process. A single woman, she ruled out domestic adoptions as too difficult. "I was too old for Russia--fifty is often the cutoff." She found her daughter, "Lina," in Guatemala. She was eight months old. "Lina cried and cried the first day, wanting her foster mom," Kazan recalls. "The second day she looked at me. Third day, she called me mama."
Now five, Lina "is outgoing, loving, attached, friendly, bright," Kazan says. "Her big question is: 'Are you going to give me away?' I tell her: No, you have three moms. Your biological mom was poor and wanted the best for you. Your foster mom couldn't keep you indefinitely. I wanted you."
After seven miscarriages and the deaths of both her parents, "Valerie Mays" and her husband, who have two biological children, wanted another child. "We planned to adopt here, but we watched a friend lose her referral," says Mays, a local pediatrician. They were advised by a counselor at Jewish Family Services to look at international adoption and found "Katie" in the Ukraine.
Now eight, Katie began her new life in Ann Arbor with gentle correctives. When she misbehaved, she got "time-ins." She had to sit on a parent's lap for ten minutes, and they talked. By now, Katie has had her share of "time-outs," but in those early years, says Mays, "the last thing she needed was to feel ostracized." Katie likes to say "The other two kids are from Mom's tummy, but I'm from both their hearts." Valerie also notes, with pleasure, that her daughter feels completely comfortable saying "I hate you."
Weighing in on the Artyom scandal, Mays says: "It was neglect and abandonment. This is your child, adopted or biological. You get what you get, and you don't get to give them back. She should be reported for child abuse."
The scandal also left a false impression that all overseas adoptions are difficult. "Our experience of adopting a child from Russia has been joyous," says "Nina Kimmel." "Domestic adoptions take a very long time, and the stipulations rule out great numbers of prospective parents." And, she adds, "Ann Arbor is a town with tremendous support when anything arises."
Despite Dr. Laura, there's a continuing demand for international adoptions from American parents. But it's also controversial in many countries. Kimmel and her husband found their daughter's orphanage warm, caring, and genuine. But she remembers people on the streets, and even in the orphanage, being upset with them: "We were taking one of their children."
Following Artyom's return, the Russian government said it would suspend all adoptions by Americans until safeguards were established. The Russian parliament defeated a proposal to impose a permanent ban, but the United States and Russia are now negotiating an agreement that would provide more oversight and limit Russian adoptions to agencies that comply with the 1993 Hague Convention on International Adoptions.
Where does that leave the estimated 3,000 American families who are in some stage of adopting Russian children? Abramzon worries about the fallout. "When a scandal like this happens, ramifications are horrendous. Adoption processes are interrupted. Children languish in orphanages, knowing their would-be parents can't get them. Would-be parents languish here. Trust between countries breaks down and must be reestablished through advocacy and diplomacy. New policies and procedures must be set up. It takes months to fix up."
Jenista points out that relations with Russia have always been contentious. The recent scandal has had no effect on adoptions she's involved in. "I have lots of families whose processes are ongoing."
The differing reactions may reflect differences within Russia itself. According to Dana Marra of West Bloomfield-based Adoption Options Worldwide, many Russian regions "are still processing adoptions, but only for accredited agencies (of which there are very few).
Jenista's families are among the lucky ones.""There have been no delays in travel or anything," she says. "I don't see any slowdown except for WACAP."
After Artyom himself, the World Association for Children and Parents--the agency that handled Torry Ann Hansen's adoption--is the biggest loser in the scandal: its license to operate in Russia has been suspended.
[Originally published in August, 2010.]