Going Back To Mrągowo

For years we’d dreamed of taking Casey to Europe to show her the sights. The high point – revisiting Poland, where she was born and where Erika’s family is from; a number of Erika’s cousins still live there. Unfortunately Casey had zero interest in her birth mother, her birthplace or Poland in general (unless of course Casey had found that she was descended from King Casimir himself.) So Erika and I made that journey without her.

Though writing a book helped enormously in learning about the attachment issues that could’ve led to Casey’s demise, it didn’t dispel our obsession with learning everything we could about the first year of her life that predated us, including her daily care in the orphanage, the community she was born into and her biological family. Unfortunately, like so many adoption records, these are under lock and key, virtually impossible to access, but we had to try. I’d obsessed over her mother, “Katarina”, her siblings, family and the town they lived in, imagining an impoverished, backward village (see photo below.)

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Actually a photo I took in Yugoslavia ca. 1976

I was fixated on where Casey slept in the orphanage. For lack of any reference, I pictured her in something like a sterile hospital ward (see photo below.)

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Source: sjog.org.au

We made email contact with the director of the orphanage in Mrągowo, in Poland’s Lake District, and were stunned to learn that the director, Jolanta, actually remembered Casey from years before!

Landing at Warsaw Chopin International Airport on May 3rd – Casey’s birthday – we drove north to Mrągowo, marveling at how much Poland had transformed from 50 years of Communism, and how much stayed the same. Town centers had been spruced up, the lakes and yellow rapeseed fields were inviting, and Polish drivers were as impatient and aggressive as always (Photos below L-R Mragowo, rapeseed; below center, Warsaw traffic.)

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Driving through Sulimy, where Casey’s birth mother and family lived, we discovered a place quite different from my images of poverty. It was a pleasant hamlet of small farms and Alpine style houses with well-tended gardens and nice cars parked outside. We might’ve driven right past Katarina’s home.

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We met Jolanta at the orphanage, since re-purposed and renovated as a home for the disabled. (Photos below L-R orphanage in 1991 and 2018.)

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She took us on a short tour, showing us the room where Casey slept with the other babies. Unlike my Dickensian image, it was a warm, cozy room. A large window opened to a courtyard outside. Erika and I just stood and drank in the surroundings, imagining Casey sleeping there peacefully with several other babies. IMG_1073

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We followed Jolanta back to her office where she showed us a photo on her phone that she had downloaded from our remembrance website. It was a picture of her, as a young aide, holding Casey in 1991, just months before we arrived to receive her. That was mind blowing. The photo of them together was our first image of Casey!

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She still had the handwritten notes of Casey’s intake from years before. There were a couple of big reveals even in the limited data that was provided by the state. In 1991 we understood that Katarina had 2 other children before Casey, when in fact she had 3. What happened to the other children and had Jadwiga had other pregnancies afterwards? Jolanta read another notation that described Katarina as an “invalid of the second group.” She apparently had a mental disability that made it impossible for her to live alone or hold a job. This was mind blowing because we thought that Jadwiga was just a simple country girl. There was much more to the story. Knowing this, Jolanta said that she was amazed that Casey had advanced as far as she had because she likely inherited at least some of Katarina’s ailments. If she did they never showed.

So we left the orphanage with more fragments of Casey’s infancy, but even more questions and regrets. If we’d known years ago what was now revealed, would we have followed a different course of action that could’ve saved her? Was there any way to pierce that veil of secrecy in the Polish family services system to learn more about Katarina and her other children? Did we even want to know? And if we ever made contact with them, what would we say?

“I Heart Casey” Video By Aaron Duffy

 

Aaron Duffy is a friend of Casey’s who studied media arts at the prestigious New York University Tisch School of the Arts. I share videos and slideshows I’ve done on iMovie but Aaron’s work is on an entirely different plateau (as well it should be; NYU is to media what Julliard is to music.)

His Youtube video, I Heart Casey, is a powerful and moving tribute to Casey as told through her Marin friends’ Facebook posts.

Aaron has given me permission to share this.

Erika and I have had the pleasure and privilege of getting to know Casey’s friends, and I can’t think of a more talented, compassionate and inclusive crew. Aaron’s video shows how young people mourn the disappearance of their dear friend from the Golden Gate Bridge.

I invite you to click the link above and check out Aaron’s other Youtube videos.

They are hilarious.

And Now For Some Good News

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A great report I saw yesterday in my San Francisco ChronicleGlobal effort to get kids out of orphanages gains momentum. Essentially, worldwide countries are moving from an orphanage to a group home/foster care type system. This is what the U.S. did after WWII and, to my knowledge, what Poland began in the early 2000’s. Group and foster homes are far from perfect but they are a vast improvement over orphanages. I estimate that the caregiver-to-child ratio in Casey’s Polish orphanage was roughly 10:1 which seems consistent with other reports. But that assumes each caregiver gives each of these 10 children equal time. Casey may have gotten less than her 1/10th of a caregiver’s time because most of the kids in the orphanage were severely mentally or physically disabled and at risk for self harm. Still this is an improvement over the system in place in the early 90’s.

 

A Shocking and Sickening Adoption Story

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Photo credit: San Francisco Chronicle

I was stunned to read in my local paper, The San Francisco Chronicle, this morning about a story titled “Son gives emotional sex-abuse testimony” about a 24 year old young man named Denis Flynn, adopted from Russia, who was routinely sexually abused by his adoptive parents, Ralph and Carolyn Flynn. They are described as “two high level marketing executives” living in the wealthy Silicon Valley neighborhood of Los Gatos. Suffice to say that justice was served to Mr. and Mrs. Flynn.

This is nauseating on so many levels. Of course sex abuse occurs in biological and adoptive families; all it takes is two sub-human parents. I hate to stereotype, but this isn’t the kind of behavior I’d associate with an area I consider educated, evolved and compassionate. Strike that one too. Finally, you can be sure that it will be a front page story in Russian state media, playing right into Vladimir Putin’s cruel hands. Putin of course used Russian orphans as geopolitical pawns courtesy of the Magnitsky Act.

At the very least, I’m relieved that Denis Flynn got justice from his adoptive parents, and hopefully he can drive off into the sunset with a big settlement and their Rolls Royce while Ralph and Carolyn rot in prison.

Looks Like GOP Tax Plan Will Hurt Adoptive Parents

imrs.phpThough I’m hesitant to inject politics into this blog, I couldn’t help but shake my head over the GOP tax bill written by adoptive parent, Kevin Brady (R-TX), which does away with the adoption tax credit capped at $13,460 as reported here in the Washington Post.

When my wife Erika and I adopted our daughter Casey in 1991, we paid about $15,000 in legal fees, all cash, plus travel costs. At that time we were a few years shy of the Adoption and Safe Families Act which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1997. It would’ve been nice to have had that around in 1991.

It’s Hard To Find Help When You’re Adopted

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One thing that became painfully clear to me in researching and writing The Girl Behind The Door is how much emotional baggage many (but not all) adopted people have, given their early separation. That trauma can sap ones coping skills, ability to self regulate, connection with others and sense of self, to name a few. Our 17-year-old daughter Casey, adopted at 14 months from a Polish orphanage, suffered from all of these before she took her life almost ten years ago, and yet my wife and I were utterly oblivious to the root cause – her infancy.

We tried therapist after therapist to get help with her emotions and extreme behaviors, but to the professionals she was like any other Marin County teenager acting out: annoying but not necessarily alarming. So they tried treating her behavior (just be tougher with her and she’ll straighten out) without ever getting at the root of the problem that now seems obvious. They all knew about her infancy but no one ever connected the dots. The result was tragic. To make matters worse, when we confronted the so-called professionals post mortem, they seemed more intent on protecting themselves from a malpractice suit than offering any solace.

“It was drugs!” her therapist insisted. She impressed upon us that in her 40+ years in practice she’d never had a problem with a “troubled girl” as she put it. So the message was: not my fault, she was a bad girl and you were lousy parents. Same message from a Polish adoption facilitator back east: I’ve had no problems with Polish adoptees, go away.

Since my book was published a few years ago I’ve heard from a great many in the adoption community. We were hardly alone in our desperate, and disastrous, attempts to get Casey help. I’ve heard from as far away as Warsaw, Poland and as near as my Bay Area home way too many stories of desperate, lonely people in that triad in crisis. Like us, they couldn’t find the help they needed, but unlike us they knew that their challenges were rooted in the attachment issues that arose from their children’s separation at birth. Some parents have lost their children to suicide as we did; others live in fear of their children’s self-destructive impulses that put them at high risk of harm or worse.

They’ve reported to me about their inability to find adoption/attachment professionals, failures of therapy, problems at school where teachers and administrators discipline out of ignorance, even when presented with the facts. In my short experience with my local school district, I’m not surprised at the small-mindedness and lack of creative thinking in high school administrators.

Even if an adoptive family finds a qualified adoption specialist, there are additional hurdles. Is that specialist taking new patients? Is it covered under their insurance plan or do they need to shell out hundreds of dollars an hour out of pocket? Will their child connect with that person? If not, are there other alternatives?

I wish I had an answer for these desperate families. I don’t. But let me offer this in the hope that it leads a family to the help they need, as imperfect as it is.

  • Check out the Resources page on this blog where I’ve posted every data source I came across in my research and writing.
  • Reach out to adoption groups like the American Adoption Congress and Families For Russian and Ukrainian Adoption. They could be valuable tools for networking.
  • There are a good number of adoption groups on social media (including AAC and FRUA) where you can connect with other parents, swap tips and hopefully make a valuable contact.
  • There are more adoption-oriented podcasts and programs online such as Adoption On that may provide more networking opportunities.
  • Search online in your community and state for any adoption resources.
  • Check out adoption books, as more of them are coming out.

Many of these sources either didn’t exist or were unknown to us when Casey was alive, when we could’ve been more effective. It’s understandable to sometimes want to give up from exhaustion and constant dead ends. But I can say from experience that once your child is gone, there’s no hope.

P.S. – Sorry I haven’t posted in awhile but after over 100 posts, one tends to run thin on material!