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What Families Need to Know When Considering Adoption of a Child from the Former Soviet Union

August 17, 2006, 0:00 6886 Author: Kristina Diatchenko, kdiatchenko [at] yahoo.com www.deti.zp.ua

Research paper 3rd draft

"Nearly one million US families desire to grow through adoption but only an estimated 25,000 healthy infants are available annually in the US" (cited in McGuinness, 2000, 457). Before 1990 there was not a single child adopted from the USSR, now "Russia is the world's largest supplier of orphans to parents in the United States, satisfying about 40 percent of total demand" (Kapstein, 2003, 115). As in the United States the infertility rate has increased (Masson, 2001, 143), and in the former USSR the number of orphans has been growing rapidly, it seems like both countries could perfectly benefit from adoption. However, it might not be such an easy solution, as there are various pros and cons to consider.

One of the most important reasons for adopting internationally is that it is a way "to reach out to children in need" (Hollingsworth, 2003, 210). As noted in the study "Competence of Children Adopted from the Former Soviet Union" by Teena McGuinness, there were already 600,000 orphans in Russia alone in 1998. Currently, all over the former USSR, orphanages have to exceed the limits of admittance, thus placing dozens of children in the same room. Very often the personal space is limited to the point, that it is hardly possible to walk in between children's beds. Furthermore, orphans do not have adequate clothing, in some extreme cases they have to walk barefooted through early fall. And finally, orphanages have very limited opportunities for providing food to their children. Such a poor condition of children's institutions arouses a lot of sympathy in people, and it makes them (sometimes for the first time in their lives) consider adopting a child (www.deti.zp.ua).

Another important reason for families to consider is that adoption from the former Soviet block gives opportunities to children, who would otherwise be neglected, to grow up in a "nurturing environment" (Hollingsworth, 2003, 210). This specifically concerns children with physical or mental disabilities. The disabled have almost no way to succeed in life in the region because they cannot even live on their own. There are no handicapped entrances, or elevators in many buildings, very few people know sign language and there is no support for vision or hearing impaired; what is worse, people in general look down on them. All these factors plus lack of financing make most families give up their disabled children and place them in institutions, where they are supposed to be professionally taken care of. In fact, most of the time, their lives are supported, but there is little done for their development or social integration. Children with different kinds of medical conditions are often placed together, no matter whether they have mental or physical disabilities. Very often parents give up babies with very minor physical defects, which can be corrected via a simple surgery, but as it is too expensive, the children end up in institutions. Therefore, adopting children with disabilities is a very respectful step to take. Giving them a chance to grow into successful persons, adoptive parents perform "an act of social justice" (Hollingsworth, 2003, 210), and thus make the world a better place.

And still another issue in favor of adoption from the former USSR is that it can solve "the problem of institutionalization" for many children (Hollingsworth, 2003, 210). As orphanages in the region are usually "closed facilities" (Kuznetsova, 2005, 28), children get no social interaction with the rest of the world. They grow up having no simplest life experiences, and as not much is expected of them, they do not aspire for too much either. Very few of them continue education after middle or high school, and their dreams are limited to getting vocational training and just leaving the orphanage. Furthermore, there is a social stigma on children's institutions graduates. According to a research by Kuznetsova, when asked what comes into mind thinking about an orphan, people named negative characteristics such as: "rude", "dirty", "insolent", "having mental or psychological problems", "smelling bad", etc. When asked about associations with an orphanage, people called it "a prison," "a nightmare for children", or "a horror." This kind of perception is so strong, that children try to avoid getting into a facility as long as they can, and when placed there, often try to escape. They prefer living in basements, subways and train stations, or with abusive families, - risking their lives - to becoming orphanage children (S., 2005, www.deti.zp.ua). Even if the facilities do their best and provide good care of the children, orphanage graduates "are not likely to adapt successfully", because of the overall negative perception of them in their home countries (Kuznetsova, 2005, 20). Therefore, being adopted by US families, orphans from the former Soviet Republics get their first chance to integrate into society and to get rid of the psychological problems connected with having a stigma.

It is hard to remain indifferent after learning about the destitute condition of orphanages in poorer countries, so it seems obvious that the children should be given preference when families consider adoption. All in all, the decision to adopt initially involves only the best motives. However, some families can be disappointed after all, and there are even a few known cases of domestic violence towards children adopted from the former USSR, including those when children were killed (http://www.deti.zp.ua/show_article.php?a_id=57). So, how is it possible that after a long, hard and costly process of adoption some people regret they did it, and some others do horrible things they would have never done before?

The explanation is simple but sad: people are not prepared to adopting internationally; they believe in myths about adoption, which are very far from reality. Even if they remain confident about the decision, their unawareness stands in the way of providing better care for their adopted children.

According to Christine Narad and Patrick Mason's research, there are five common myths that adoptive families believe in before they adopt a child from the former USSR. The first one is that children's needs are satisfied in the Soviet institutions, just like they would be in US foster families. This belief is wrong from the ground up: most orphans have "high risk" backgrounds even at birth, because they did not receive proper prenatal care, which means that their mothers were getting poor nutrition, were in poor health or had a history of alcohol or drug use. Additionally, children often suffer from neglect and abuse, or become witnesses of their mother's or father's murder, before they get into institutions. Later in orphanages, because of the lack of financial resources in the former USSR Republics, children have to face hunger, destitute living conditions and physical and sexual abuse. Oftentimes, minor medical conditions are ignored and thus become chronic diseases. Moreover, most children are developmentally delayed because of malnutrition and lack of consistency in the care provided to them. Many of them acquire psychological disorders, which seem to be inappropriate behavior later, once the children are introduced into society. The examples of these might be "rocking, head banging, and hand flapping," which children "develop as adaptive survival skills in the institutional setting" (Narad, 2004, 483).

The second myth that adoptive parents believe in is that they get all the information about children's medical conditions before they adopt. Unfortunately, it is hardly ever true. In many cases, it is actually impossible to find any information about a child's background and life before orphanage, and some private adoption agencies falsify documentation, including immunization records, seeking financial gain from the process. Most children have a history of infectious diseases, and many of them have fetal alcohol syndrome which leads to life-long implications. Luckily, a lot of conditions can be improved or even corrected with the help of proper nutrition. However, feeding will be quite a challenge for the family at first, because orphans from the former USSR have unpleasant feeding experiences. They do not know that meal times can be social or enjoyable, as food consumption is just a necessity of survival in orphanages. "The child is usually positioned facing away from the caregiver and the food … is "shoveled" into the child's mouth using a large serving spoon" (Narad, 2004, 483). Orphans are used to eating very quickly without proper chewing, because otherwise they will not be fed. They also are used to eating all the food that there is available without feeling satiation, and if they are stopped, they get very frustrated to the point of hysterical crying. These habits are very hard to get rid of, so adoptive parents need a lot of patience and determination to survive embarrassing episodes with their adopted children. Even feeding a baby might be a challenge, because orphanage babies are used to quick sucking of all milk from the bottle at a time, so if the bottle is removed for burping, they do not know that they will get it back and are then very hard to calm down.

Myth number three is that developmental delays will go away after children receive proper care and nutrition. This is true in part, but on the whole many children will experience various types of difficulties in life. Language and speech development will be the most obvious, because orphans in the former USSR, having very limited personnel to take care of them, have no opportunity to learn speaking like a regular child would. Babies learn to articulate sounds looking at adults when they speak, but orphanage children are rarely attended to, to say nothing of being spoken to. Consequently, their vocabulary is very limited, and having poor native language skills, children progress very slowly in learning English when they come to US. Furthermore, even motor skills will need a lot of attention. Orphanage babies spend whole days in cribs, often with several other children in the same crib. After they learn to crawl, they get tied to the cribs or furniture, so they do not get any opportunity to explore, and thus do not acquire perception of space. When adoptive parents bring them home and put in a whole room of their own, the children face a real challenge. "They may lack understanding of where their body is in space and may not understand that their limbs are able to help them get from one place to another" (Narad, 2004, 483). Such children get very upset when they are carried around, or when they see quick movement or changes around them, and as adoptive parents do not understand the reason for their child's crying, the first period of adoption becomes really frustrating. Professional advice is very helpful in this situation, because parents can learn what activities will help their children improve, or acquire for the first time, some motor skills, such as for example holding an object in their hands.

The next myth that needs to be discussed is that children can quickly integrate into their adoptive families. First of all, absence of experience of living in a normal family makes the very fact of acquiring it overwhelming (Narad, 2004, 483). All adoptive parents have to go through a period of extreme difficulties during the adjustment process of their adopted children. The very first stage is usually very pleasant, because the children feel happy after being adopted, and the parents feel happy after getting a child in the family. This stage has a special term in the former USSR; it is called a "honey moon". The length of a "honey moon" varies significantly: sometimes it is over a year; sometimes it is only a few hours. Once it is over, there is hardly anything impossible to expect from the child. Many of the adopted children become aggressive and violent towards other people. This happens even to older children who are expected to understand consequences of their behavior, but the younger the child, the more inadequate the behavior can be. Nina, an adoptive mother describes her three-year-old daughter's behavior as follows: "She crawled on the floor, climbed the furniture, picked up different objects and threw them around, knocked down everything she could, turned TV and lights on and off, tore off the curtains… She did not hear anything I tried to tell her…" Another parent who adopted a nine-year-old boy wrote: "He broke everything he could get hold of and after doing it laughed demonically, like a monster from a horror movie. He got special pleasure knocking down my younger daughter. It was heart-breaking…" (http://www.deti.zp.ua/show_article.php?a_id=1079). Psychologists say that this type of behavior is a natural adaptation: children are not used to being in a family and do not know what appropriate behavior is. In this way they explore the limits. At this point it is very easy to lose control, so people who know that they have short temper are advised to take extended preparatory classes before they make a decision to adopt. Otherwise, they are at risk of doing things that they will later regret of, especially when they see their newly adopted child physically abusing their biological children. Unfortunately, before adoption processes became regulated by international laws, families were not required to attend classes before adoption, and this is a major reason for all the tragedies that happened to some of them (http://detizp.fastbb.ru/?1-0-0-00000026-000-0-0-1154527529).

The last myth this study will cover is that "all the child needs is love" (Narad, 2004, 486). As seen from the myths described above, children adopted from the former USSR need a lot of special care and professional help. They do not know almost any of seemingly obvious things. These children even need to be shown how to play with toys, because they have never done this before. As one of the former orphans explained, they had toys only for decoration. Most of them they could not touch. When one of the social workers let them do that, the children did not know what to do with the toys. They all sat in front of the toy that they got, and looked at it silently. After a few minutes, the adult switched the toys, and the children just looked listlessly at the new ones they got (Gezalov, 2003, http://www.deti.zp.ua/show_article.php?a_id=1018). What might be even more disappointing for adoptive parents is that children seem not to appreciate anything that their new families do for them. At first they cannot even discriminate parents from strangers. Some children, who are obsessively afraid to be abandoned again, cling to their new mothers and fathers all the time, thus being unable to concentrate and learn anything. The problem in this situation is, that they do not quite understand what a parent is, and do that to any adults around them, therefore it is not hard to imagine, that many parents feel embarrassed and even offended by this behavior. The process of forming the attachment between parents and children might take months and even years, during which families should remind themselves all the time that they might not receive any gratitude from the child for even longer periods. Children will gradually learn how to love, and parents will see that what they did was not in vain.

These are the main challenges that families have to prepare for before they even make up their mind to adopt from the former Soviet Republic. They should get as much information as possible about the whole process and about the orphanage children in the region; they should not think that being good parents to their biological children they will be successful adoptive parents. If after a long and careful studying of all implications they still decide to adopt, they will have a very good chance of growing into a happy and loving family. "Despite challenges that may have been encountered, most families are happy that they adopted." They say that "it is one of the most difficult AND rewarding decisions you will ever make in your life", you just have to know "what you are looking for" (McGuinness, 2000, 457).


" Narad, C., Mason, P. (2004). International Adoptions: Myths and Realities. Pediatric Nursing, 483-487.

" Hollingsworth, L. (2003). International Adoption among Families in the United States: Considerations of Social Justice. Social Work. Vol. 48. 209-217.

" Masson, J. (2001). Intercountry Adoption: A Global Problem or a Global solution. International Affairs. Vol. 55. 141-167.

" McGuinness, T., Pallansch, L. (2000). Competence of Children Adopted from the Former Soviet Union. Family Relations. Vol. 49. 457-464.

" Kapstein, E. (2003). The Baby Trade. Foreign Affairs. Vol. 82. 125-136.

" Kuznetsova, T. (2005). Social Stereotypes of the Perception of Graduates of Children's Homes. Russian Education and Society. Vol. 47. 19-30.

" Gezalov, A. (2003). Salty Childhood. http://www.deti.zp.ua/show_article.php?a_id=1018

" S., S. (2006). My Childhood. http://www.deti.zp.ua/show_article.php?a_id=1074

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