Adoptive Parents Take On More Than A Child

The recent case of a 7-year-old Russian boy being sent back to Moscow by his American adoptive mother has drawn attention to the issues facing parents who adopt. Guest host Jacki Lyden speaks with Dr. Dana E. Johnson, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota and founder of the International Adoption Clinic, and Judy Stigger, a social worker and adoption therapist at The Cradle in Evanston, Ill.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This coming week, a delegation from the U.S. State Department is expected to travel to Moscow in hopes of resolving a freeze on American adoptions imposed by Russia. The country suspended them after a Tennessee woman sent a 7-year-old boy she'd adopted back to Moscow alone on an international flight. In a note, she wrote that the boy had been violent and had psychiatric issues.

The incident brings to light some of the difficulties adoptive parents face when children come from orphanages abroad. We're joined now by two experts on adoption. Dr. Dana Johnson is a professor of pediatrics and founder of the International Adoption Clinic. He's in the studios of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Hello there. Good morning.

Dr. DANA JOHNSON (Pediatrics, Founder, International Adoption Clinic): Good morning, Jacki.

LYDEN: And Judy Stigger is a social worker and adoption therapist with the Cradle. That's an adoption agency long based in Evanston, Illinois, and she joins us from the studios of WBEZ Chicago. Welcome, Judy.

Ms. JUDY STIGGER (Social Worker, Adoption Therapist, The Cradle): Good morning, Jacki.

LYDEN: So, Judy Stigger, please let me begin with you. You used to run the Russian program for the Cradle, your organization. It's been there since the '30s. What do parents need to know when they adopt from other countries?

Ms. STIGGER: I think they need to know how different it is when you adopt an infant or give birth to a child. You know, your child's there sort of from the first credits of the movie. When you adopt a child internationally, often the child is a little older. They sort of come in in the middle of the movie. Because you have a child who at that point, has lost a lot of his first language, really struggling even to be able to think inside his own head about the things we routinely think about when we're going to walk into a new situation.

LYDEN: Dr. Dana Johnson, as a professor of pediatrics and adoption, you specialize in neonatology. Fetal alcohol syndrome is also something that has been a problem sometimes in adoptions, and not just in other countries.

Dr. JOHNSON: It certainly can be. You know, we talk about the environment that a child is in prior to adoption, and we have to include the prenatal environment. Many women who relinquish their children for adoption have not had good prenatal care; they've had very poor nutrition or may suffer from chronic diseases. And on top of that, we see women who do use alcohol and do use other substances during their pregnancy, and expose their children to that toxic environment.

LYDEN: So we don't know the full story of exactly what happened with the mother in Tennessee. But what we've heard so far, I mean, what issues sprang to mind? You are an adoptive mother, Judy Stigger.

Ms. STIGGER: I am an adoptive mother, and with my daughter's permission - she was prenatal alcohol exposed.

LYDEN: You mean, she's given you permission to talk about it.

Ms. STIGGER: She's given me permission to say that on air, yeah. The first thing I had to do is shift my expectations, and I found that much harder than I had anticipated. I had to figure out the difference between can't and won't. Is she doing what she's doing because she's being defiant, or is she doing that because she can't figure out what the alternative is?

As I understood it to be partly neurological - from doctors like Dana Johnson, as they have presented to the international adoption community - and began understanding how much of this was neurological, then I could say, you know, not her fault; not my fault, either. It's not I'm a terrible parent, but it is our problem. We've got to figure out how to work with the school when she can't keep up with the homework.

The other thing I learned was to get a really good diagnostic work-up done -usually done by a psychologist and maybe in a teaching hospital situation, if you can get there - that really says the child can do this but can't do that; they work visually better than they work auditorily; and to really have a sense of how this child learns, and how you can get information into this child most efficiently so you can work on this together.

LYDEN: Dr. Johnson, when the reality is not what had been expected, when it is challenging and for all the fantastic things that happen when adoptions go right - and we're not talking about those - when they go wrong, I mean, how can parents get help?

Dr. JOHNSON: Well, I think whenever families reach the point where they recognize that their expectations of what the adoption was going to be like do not match the reality of their situation, then I think they do have to go and try and find appropriate services within the community. And there are a number of different sources you could go to.

Theoretically, you could go to your pediatrician or family practitioner to ask for help. Hopefully, there are mental health professionals in the community that are aware of these issues and can help them. Going back to their agencies and asking for referrals, or perhaps help through the agencies, may be helpful as well. But I think so many families find themselves in situations where they're afraid to go to get additional help because they're going to be judged, in their minds, that their child is not doing very well. Or they may live in rural areas where these services are just not able to be provided.

LYDEN: This was a very shocking situation to a lot of adoptive parents, sending this child back. Surely that is not the last resort that most people would choose. But, Dr. Johnson, are children ever re-placed with other families?

Dr. JOHNSON: Oh, quite frequently they are. What you want is a family whose expectations are appropriate for the reality that they're going to experience. And I think going to families who are motivated to take children who are being placed for the second time, they at least know what the score is, and what they're in for, when they have this child in their family.

LYDEN: Judy Stigger is an adoption therapist with the Cradle in Evanston, Illinois, and she joined us from the studios of WBEZ Chicago. Dr. Dana Johnson is a professor of pediatrics and founder of the International Adoption Clinic, and he joined us from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Thank you both very much.

Dr. JOHNSON: Thank you.

Ms. STIGGER: My pleasure.

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