Dear Friends and Neighbors – The San Rafael Public Library – Downtown Branch – has been kind enough to invite me to speak and read from my book on Wed Dec 17 from 6:30P-7:30P. My first event went super well and I have more planned and hoped for in Tiburon (Mar 2) and Mill Valley and San Francisco (TBD).
International adoptions have made headlines over the last few months with the cruel political gamesmanship going on in Russia right now. It’s nothing more than using orphaned children as pawns in a high stakes poker game with the United States.
A fellow adoption blogger in New York, Tina Traster, writes more extensively about the Russian ban on her blog, www.juliaandme.com. She and her husband adopted their daughter, Julia, from Siberia about a decade ago. If you are interested in this subject I urge you to visit her site.
I’d like to talk about Poland because that’s where we received Casey.
Our international adoption journey began in 1990 when there were relatively few channels available – Latin America, South Korea and then Romania. Erika and I believed at the time that our adopted child would have a hard enough time with her identity and self-image – the standing in the checkout line at the Safeway test – so we figured Romania, a European country.
It was only by chance that we learned through the adoption grapevine that a couple in nearby New Haven, CT. (we were living outside of Hartford at the time) had adopted a 2-year-old girl from Poland. That seemed like nothing less than a moonshot to us. Erika was of Polish decent and still had family there. Thus became our journey to Poland, and the rest as they say is history.
International adoptions from Poland are very rare. During the first decade of this century, roughly 45,000 children were adopted from Russia and 69,000 from China. There were only about 1,000 from Poland. There are many reasons for this. First, by comparison to Russia or China, Poland’s population (some 30 million or so) is relatively small, about the size of Canada. It’s a deeply Catholic country with strict abortion laws. Children end up in the orphanage system for a variety of reasons – unwanted pregnancies, shame, a perceived handicap, family dysfunction, substance abuse, or even temporary room and board for some families financially strapped. Poland has worked very hard to find homes for children where they believe they belong – in Poland. Otherwise, they look beyond their borders. It was only through this loophole that we found Casey. She was perceived “special needs” because she was a weak preemie, but there was no data to back that up.
International adoptions have become a political hot potato with accusations of Westerners “stealing” children, bribing local officials with money. That wasn’t the case for us in Poland and for many, many other adoptive parents. But to be fair to all sides, these concerns are legitimate. After all, we’re supposed to be looking out for the best interest of the children. But that doesn’t sit well with an adoptive parent who’s bonded with nothing more than a photo of their (hopeful) child to be. Trust me, we’d been there. Midway through our process with Casey, we’d heard grumblings through our attorney in Warsaw that the Polish Parliament was considering putting the brakes on all foreign adoptions of Polish children. Erika and I went into an emotional meltdown, having bonded with Casey through just a photo and some fragments we’d heard about her. So I truly empathize with those adoptive parents of Russian children now caught in limbo. It’s a terrible place to be, as though your child and your hopes have died.
In Part 2 I’ll talk about what Poland is doing for its orphans.
Before I get into this I want to emphasize two things: 1) I’m not a professional but a reasonably well educated layman and 2) I don’t paint all adoptees or other children who’ve suffered abuse or neglect with the same brush. I deal in degrees, nuance and probabilities.
There are many children who’ve overcome early deprivation to go on to lead very happy and productive lives. They have a healthy self-image and relationship with their families. But I do believe that their early experience leaves them more vulnerable to attachment related disorders and behaviors that can haunt them for years and rob them of the kind of fulfilling life they deserve. One professional I quote in my book believes that ALL adoptees should be treated as at-risk for attachment disorder and, at the very least, be evaluated by a trained professional early.
While writing this book, I’d been continually frustrated in my efforts to shed a spotlight on attachment disorders with groups that would seem to be most interested – adoption groups. One foreign adoption coordinator essentially slammed the door in my face.
“I’ve facilitated many adoptions from foreign orphanages,” she wrote, “and I never had a problem with these children.” So either Erika and I were either unusually incompetent parents or we picked the rare short straw. Every other adoptee was well adjusted, happy and healthy. This opinion was echoed by one of this woman’s clients, whose adopted son had a similar early life to Casey’s. “So sorry for your loss,” his father wrote. “Our son is doing just fine.”
Could we really be that incompetent?
Then we connected with other adoptive parents whose stories mirrored ours and, I dare say, made our challenges with Casey seem like child’s play.
One mother wrote about her son delivered to an orphanage at five months old; he lived there for two years. His adoptive mother had unusual access to the orphanage, describing a clean, production line existence of almost ruthless efficiency. Bath time was like a car wash. Boys and girls – all under age five, lined up naked and crying – stepped into a tub where one caregiver soaped them up, one rinsed them down, one dried them off and another dressed them in pajamas. Potty training was a group activity with half nakedchildren learning the ropes while seated in a half circle on their potty seats. At mealtime, there weren’t enough hands to go around, so the kids learned to feed themselves. Though her son ate everything in front of him, he was nutritionally starved. When she offered him an apple, he ate everything, including the core, seeds and stem. At the time of her writing to me, he was an eight-year-old at the emotional level of a five-year-old. Though he had recovered from early developmental delays, he was still prone to meltdowns, anxiety attacks and struggles with self-esteem.
A twenty-one year old girl I met with spoke about her birth to a prostitute; she believed her father was a client. She’d spent two and a half years in an orphanage before she was adopted. She was very close to her adoptive mother until middle school when she began to pull away, avoiding any kind of intimacy. In high school, their relationship deteriorated into screaming matches, power struggles and defiance. She remained externally stoic but admitted to low self-esteem that had led her to cutting, eating disorders, drugs and destructive relationships.
Another mother shared that her daughter was born to alcoholic parents, unschooled and neglected until she was placed for adoption at age seven. Her mother received her at age eleven with a range of challenges from growth deficiencies to language delays and learning disabilities. At the age of eighteen, she had the emotional maturity of a nine year old. Though delightful most of the time, her mother reported that the slightest provocation could send her daughter into a rage or sobbing fit. She could be sweet and charming to others but defiant and hateful to her mother. Left unsupervised, she was prone to risky behavior. She couldn’t be trusted on her own.
Yet another mother wrote that her son was given up shortly after birth, landing in a shabby orphanage that housed about two hundred fifty children. He was adopted at three and a half. There was no play area outside so the children remained indoors virtually twenty four-seven. With coal for heating expensive and scarce, it wasn’t unusual in the winter for the younger children to be confined to their cribs. Their diets consisted of lukewarm teas, soups, watery juice drinks, canned fruits and breads. Potty breaks amounted to sitting on chamber pots out in the open; diapers were non-existent. Years later at twenty-one, he was emotionally immature, prone to violent temper tantrums, depression and learning disabilities.
More stories emerged of teens and young adults suffering from early neglect. Depression, moodiness, self-mutilation, screaming fits, defiance and academic struggles were part of life. They left home and broke contact with their adoptive families. Job instability, unplanned pregnancies, suicide attempts and stints in disciplinary, rehab and psychiatric programs weren’t unusual.
The point of these vignettes is not to demonize foreign orphanages. Most do the best they can with woefully limited resources. Oftentimes their policies are well intentioned but misguided.
Despite the hardships of raising these children, their parents were clearly devoted to them. Through the chaos they’d found support. In numerous cases their children had been able to forge a life path with career aspirations, attending college and trade schools.
Most importantly, I never detected a sense of “buyer’s remorse,” although on extremely rare occasions there are “failed” adoptions. These parents had hope for their future. One mother, speaking about her troubled teenage daughter, echoed my own thoughts about Casey. “She has brought more love into my life than I ever thought possible. She’s everything to me and I’ll do anything to protect her.”