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The Road to Hell…

by Lisa R. Cohen on April 21st, 2010

by Lisa R. Cohen

Between 1,500 and 1,800 children left orphanages in Russia last year, striking out to find real homes in America. But now, because of the chilling new case of seven-year-old Artyom Savelyev, next year there may be none.

Yesterday, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman announced an immediate suspension of U.S. adoptions in Russia, pending an upcoming visit from a U.S. delegation to resolve the issue. It should be noted that other Russian officials disputed this ban, and the State Department says that for the moment it can’t figure out who to believe.

Artyom, also known by his American name Justin Hansen, got off a plane from Washington, D.C., in Moscow last week, all by himself, carrying nothing but a backpack with some toys, one pair of outsized underwear, and a letter from his adoptive mother, Torry Hansen.

Did I mention he is SEVEN YEARS OLD?

In the letter Artyom clutched when he got off the plane, where he was met by a driver Hansen hired off the internet to deliver the boy to the Russian Education Ministry, his 26-year-old single mom justified her actions. She said she’d been misled by the Russian adoption agency to believe Artyom was mentally healthy, when, she claimed, he was in fact emotionally disturbed.

“He is violent,” she wrote in the letter above, “and has severe psychopathic issues/behaviors.” Hansen’s mother, Nancy, told reporters later that Artyom grew increasingly  disturbed during the six months he lived in their small-town Tennessee home, and at one point threatened to burn it down.

This might be the most glaring headline to come out of the sad story of Russian adoptions gone awry, but it’s only the latest in a string of incidents involving these children, abandoned in orphanages, who languish there for several years before seemingly well-intentioned adoptive parents come forward. But during that time unclaimed, in group homes with inadequate attention, the damage is being done.

“Reactive Attachment Disorder” is often used to describe such lost souls, who missed out on the critical bonds formed in early years with a loving parent or adult. They may never have been held, cuddled, hugged. That yawning developmental hole results in a spectrum of behavioral problems, up to and including extreme violence. Was Artyom about to burn down the house? We’ll never know. But there have been cases where the other children in the house, even the adults, were at physical risk.

In fact, in the years since Russia opened its borders to allow these kids out in search of new life with a real family, the number of willing families has slowed. The 1,500 figure of last year is much lower than the 5,800 Russian orphans adopted just six years ago. Taking these kids out of moldering group institutions and resettling them into the arms of strangers is no quick fix.

It’s a tough and complicated problem. Hansen says the Russian adoption officials knew of Artyom’s problems and lied to her about them. She said she was blindsided and eventually  had no choice but to do what she did. Here are a few choices she did have, however:

She apparently consulted with psychologists, but never took the boy to see one. She’s a nurse. She should know better. She didn’t seem to contact anyone back in Russia about the problem, and didn’t even seem to think her son should be returned personally. One of her critics referred to her act as ‘taking out the garbage.’ How much preparation and forethought did she put into her choice to adopt this child in the first place?

Artyom, his Russian driver reported, seemed a likeable and unfazed seven-year-old. He gave away his toys to the people around him, pulling them out of his backpack ‘like a magician.’ He spoke only English in response to Russian questions, and talked about wanting to go back to his home in the U.S.

He won’t be going back. And now many others like him, and even in much better shape than he is, won’t be going anywhere either. They’ve lost that choice too.

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