'Returned' Russian Adoptee Stirs Debate On International Adoption

The story of a Tennessee woman who adopted a boy from Russia, only to send him back because of behavioral problems has ignited a debate over international adoptions. Since the news broke, Russia has suspended adoptions by American families. Host Michel Martin talks more about the sensitivity of international adoptions with Dr. Jane Aronson, an adoptive parent and founder of the Worldwide Orphans Foundation, Thomas DiFilipo President of the Joint Council on International Children's Service, and James Blue, the father of two adopted children from South Africa.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, my weekly commentary. I'll share my thoughts about the Tea Party movement, and what I think their anger is really all about.

But now it's time to go Behind Closed Doors. That's the part of the program where we talk about things that are often difficult to discuss, often because of stigma or shame. And I'm thinking there are few things that would cause a parent more shame than to admit that you just cannot cope with a child whom you have committed to raise and love forever.

Of course, we're talking about that story out of Tennessee last week, where a woman put her 7-year-old adopted son on a plane back to his native Russia. She says the boy's behavioral problems were too severe for her family to address, and that she had been misled about their severity by the orphanage from which he came.

Russia has since said it will suspend adoptions by American families. But as you can imagine, this has also raised questions and pushed a lot of people's buttons in the U.S. To talk more about this, we called Dr. Jane Aronson. She's the pediatrician specializing in adoption medicine. She's an adoptive parent herself. She's also the founder of the Worldwide Orphans Foundation, and she joins us from Maplewood, New Jersey.

Thomas DiFilipo is the president of the Joint Council on International Children's Services. That's an advocacy organization that works to protect the right of children to live in families around the world. He joined us here in our Washington, D.C., studio.

Also with us, James Blue. He is the father of two adopted children from South Africa. He's also a veteran journalist who's covered much of the world. He is actually en route to South Africa, and he's joining us now from Doha, Qatar. I welcome you all. Thank you all so much for joining us.

Dr. JANE ARONSON (Pediatrician, Adoption Medicine): Thank you.

Mr. THOMAS DIFILIPO (President, Joint Council on International Children's Services): Thank you, Michel.

Mr. JAMES BLUE: Thank you.

MARTIN: So, Dr. Aronson, can we start with you and ask about this specific kind of situation? It's been reported, for example, in a piece that aired earlier on NPR, according to Chuck Johnson, who's the acting CEO of the National Council for Adoption, the number of failed foreign adoption parallels studies of failed domestic adoptions. And it says it's about 15 percent, which I think - is a number that surprises me. Can I just get your perspective on that?

Dr. ARONSON: I'm not surprised at all. In fact, I wasn't surprised by the story because in my 20 years of doing adoption medicine, there have been many stories that have been quite similar. I can tell endless stories about families who were not able to continue parenting their child and abandoned the child, actually, in different settings all around the world because the kids were adopted from different countries. So these are dramatic moments, but there are many stories like this.

MARTIN: Mr. DiFilipo, the focus of this particular case has been Russian adoptions, but children come to the United States from all over the world. Can you just give us a sense of, are there any patterns to where difficulties arise? It makes you wonder whether there's something about the circumstances in some parts of the world versus others that make it particularly challenging.

Mr. DIFILIPO: Well, in this year alone, there'll be about 10,000 children that come into the United States through international adoption. It was a high of 24,000 a few years ago but because of government policies, it's cut, well, more than in half. Most of the children right now are being adopted from China, from Russia, Korea and Ethiopia. That makes up the bulk of the international adoptions.

And whether or not there's a predisposition for one type of a problem in one region, I would say that fetal alcohol syndrome is certainly more prevalent in Southeast Asia and also in Eastern Europe, not so much in Africa or South America. Other than that, it really seems to go towards how long the child's been institutionalized, whether or not there was prenatal care, child's birth weight. And Dr. Aronson can certainly speak to all of this better than I can. But it's really the institutionalization piece, which is universal. Institution in one country is generally the same as another.

MARTIN: Dr. Aronson, can I pick up on a point that you started our conversation with, which is to say the idea that a parent saying, well, this child is too difficult for me, therefore I can't cope - do you think that within the context of adoption, people feel more free to say that than they might if they had given birth to the child? Because, I mean, in this country, it seems to me the result would probably be the same, would probably be foster care, whatever it is. But I do wonder what you think in terms of what's going on with the families and how they process whatever it is they're dealing with.

Dr. ARONSON: Birth parents and parents through adoption have a hard time expressing any feeling of disappoint in their role as a parent and in their child. I think it just goes with the territory. You've been waiting a long time. You put a lot of energy and hope. Your dreams are about being a parent and then you have a baby, either by birth or adoption, and youre supposed to be happy. And so it becomes exceedingly difficult to express those feelings.

Frequently, people have postpartum depression after birth. There's something called post-adoption depression, and it's a very common feeling that people have but people dont feel free to discuss it. And they should feel free to discuss those feelings because if you do express them, then you get help.

MARTIN: Have you noticed any difference between people who adopt domestically and people who adopt internationally? Because one of the things I've heard from people who have international experience - international adoption - is that sometimes, people feel free to challenge them about it. They feel free to say well, why did you choose a child from there when there are many children here?

Dr. ARONSON: I think that's a very - I mean, I think all of us agree, that's a very unfair comment.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Dr. ARONSON: I think there are children available all over the world. They're all equally in need, and there are many reasons that...

Mr. BLUE: Why is that an unfair comment?

Dr. ARONSON: There are many, many reasons why people choose to adopt.

MARTIN: Well no, but that's my point. My question is...

Mr. BLUE: I mean that's a perfectly reasonable question.

MARTIN: ...that people sometimes feel free to say things that they wouldnt feel free to say in other contexts. And that's why I was just wondering, was there any additional element to it.

James, do you want to speak to that?

Mr. BLUE: I disagree with Dr. Aronson. I think that's a perfectly reasonable question. I do wonder why people go to such great lengths to adopt foreign kids when there are so many available in the U.S. And I dont believe I'm a hypocrite. I have adopted children internationally but at the time we did the adoption, we weren't able to adopt in the U.S. So I do think that's a valid question.

MARTIN: Do you think though that people challenge you on that?

Dr. ARONSON: No, but it's usually a criticism, James.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Dr. ARONSON: That's the problem, is that people often, you know, take people to task. They get angry at them. Why are you going to China when you could adopt in New York City? And there are really very important reasons why people may go to a country. And they may not be satisfying to someone else but if you have an interest in your roots, for instance, in Eastern Europe or South America, Central America, that can drive people.

Mr. BLUE: Sure it can drive people, but as the other guest just said, the leading countries where we're getting kids from are China, Russia, Ethiopia and Korea. And I can guarantee you, most of the people adopting there dont have attachments or roots in those countries.

MARTIN: James, can I ask you as a - both as a journalist who's traveled widely and as an adoptive parent yourself, we talked about the role of institutionalization there and whether agencies in orphanages overseas disclose a lot about the children and their circumstances and the kind of care they receive. Can I just ask what your experience was?

Mr. BLUE: Well, you know, I think it's a really good question, and I think it has a lot to do with the sort of pre-adoptive services that are available. In our example, we were living in London and you know, this agency said OKy, we have a kid available for you in Johannesburg. And you know, we were thinking, oh my gosh, this is great because the U.S. requires several medical measures and all sorts of medical records.

And so we got all of his medical records, gave it to an independent doctor, our physician in London, and said would you look at this? What do you think the issue is? But we were very, very impressed with the orphanage that we worked with because when we asked for additional testing that we paid for ourselves, they were more than willing to take them to - sort of local experts in Johannesburg. They were really able to get to the bottom of some of the outstanding questions that we had. And you know, hats off to them for providing those services.

MARTIN: Can I ask you how youre reacting to this story?

Mr. BLUE: I'm reacting to this story in two ways because in addition to being an adoptive parent, I'm also an adoptee. And the thing that I find so tragic, I mean it's so extreme to put a child on a plane and send them back, sight unseen. And what I dont understand is how she didnt have the tools to sort of work through. But it just seems to me there has to be some interim step between things aren't working out at home and putting him on a plane back to Russia.

I'm just saddened by the fact that she didnt have support services, information or know-how to figure some other route because, you know, regardless of her sending her kid back to Russia, it still is her kid.

Mr. DIFILIPO: It actually gets a little more complicated than that...

MARTIN: Tom. Go ahead. Mm-hmm.

Mr. DIFILIPO: ...as well. This child's a U.S. citizen. Our understanding, in looking at the situation, is that the agency she used has a history of placing children with special needs or older, so she had developed a plan so if this happens, if this type of behavior happens, what do you do? If the child becomes violent, what do you do? And that plan had to be submitted and approved by the placing agency.

MARTIN: So what do you think this is about, Dr. Aronson? Do you think this is about adoption, or do you think this is more about parenting and the isolation that some parents feel?

Dr. ARONSON: As a pediatrician, again, I take care of both children who are from birth and from adoption. And I find that parenting is really what we're looking at here. It's a reflection of parenting and how we look at the responsibility as parents, what we do to prepare for it, how we learn to be better parents.

Most important to me at this point is that in my work as the CEO of Worldwide Orphans Foundation, we're in many different countries providing services for orphans in their communities. And I do believe that this is a point for us to look at how children are living in the world.

Youve got kids with no prenatal care, as already been noted, exposure to alcohol, malnutrition, etc., etc., exposure to toxins, smoking, drugs, and I think we have an obligation now to look at what do orphanages look like. That's what I do in my other, you know, hat - is try to help orphans be the best people they can be, to get a good education, good medical care and good mental health care.

MARTIN: Charles, lets hear from you. What do you think we should learn from this?

Mr. DIFILIPO: Well, I think it is an issue of parenting and not just international adoption, because take a look at the United States. We have 500,000 children at any given time in U.S. foster care system, and the majority of them are there because of abuse or neglect. And our goal is to protect children from any type of abuse or neglect, but it happens. And it happens whether the child is born into the family or adopted into the family.

So I think one of the most important things that we can learn, and that families can learn from this, is that there is help available. There are alternatives to hurting your child, to neglecting your child, or to putting them on a plane. I mean, whether it's your local church community or your extended family - starting there, or going to mental health professionals. So there are options.

MARTIN: Are you worried that this will give adoption a bad name, as it were? Or perhaps, is it appropriate for people to stop and think about whether they are really emotionally prepared to address whatever challenges come down the line?

Mr. DIFILIPO: I think it's very important for families to stop and think before they charge ahead with an adoption. Make sure they have the capacity and that they're willing to get help if they need it, and that's a sign of good parenting. Reaching out to get help is what is normal. You know, when people come back and they say, we just want to live a normal life. Well, if your child has problems, that's normal for you.

Mr. BLUE: Right, I mean, I also think...

MARTIN: James, final thought from you?

Mr. BLUE: Yeah, I think we're right to focus on, you know, this is a parenting problem. And you know, in some ways, putting the kid on a plane is a symptom of her inability to cope. And sure, the kid has issues. But I think its right that we shouldnt blame the kid for her shortcomings.

MARTIN: Dr. Aronson, do you want to give us a final thought about what we should learn from this going forward?

Dr. ARONSON: Yeah, I think what James just said just now is very critical, and that is to not blame the child - when you asked, will adoption be hurt. I think a lot of times people do, you know, look at adopted children in a very negative way and we really, just in general, should learn all the victims of adult decisions - government decisions, parent decisions, community decisions. And I think that that's a really important thing, for us to take responsibility as a world community. Weve got to be better caretakers of our children around the world.

MARTIN: Dr. Jane Aronson is a pediatrician specializing in adoption medicine. She's an adoptive parent and founder of the Worldwide Orphans Foundation. Thomas DiFilipo is the president of the Joint Council on International Children's Services. That's an advocacy organization that works to protect the right of children to live in families around the world. And James Blue is the father of two adopted children from South Africa, a veteran journalist - and I should disclose, also a friend.

And I thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BLUE: Thank you, Michel.

Mr. DIFILIPO: Thank you.

Dr. ARONSON: Thanks, Michel.

Mr. BLUE: Thanks.

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