Monday, April 19, 2010

a rambling response/analysis of the "Russian Adoption Scandal"

I know there has been much said, and much written in the blogosphere about the disrupted adoption of Artyem Saviliev, the 7 year old Russian boy who was adopted by a United States citizen last September and then "returned." She put him on a plane back to Russia with a note in his hand explaining that she could no longer parent him.

If you're looking for background on the story, just go to google.com/news and search "Russian Adoption Scandal" or "Russian Adoption" or "Russian Adoption Return." There is plenty of coverage.

There has also been plenty of response. I have received emails from friends, other adoptive parents, and our adoption agency looking for opinions, reactions, or statements of support. There are those who are outraged by the actions of the adoptive mother. There are those who decry the supposed lack of preparation adoptive parents receive prior to placement of an older internationally adopted child. There are those who are in the process of adopting children from Russia now wondering whether their adoptions will ever go through. There are those who see this as another example of why international adoption (or adoption in general) is not a positive thing. There are those who see this whole discussion - the adoption, the "returning" of the child - as an example of the ways in which children are com-modified through international adoption. There are those who have parented or attempted to parent formerly institutionalized or traumatized children who speak with some empathy for the adoptive mother. I haven't seen it yet, but I expect there will (or should) be some examination of the racial implications of Russian adoptions to the USA. (For example, is there a mistaken expectation that these children will "fit" better, or suffer less culture/language shock because their adoptions are trans-ethnic but not trans-racial?)

I had a number of initial reactions to this story as it broke, and as I continued to be inundated with commentary in my email, through facebook links shared, and all over my google reader. All my reactions boiled down to an acknowledgement that this whole situation is deeply disturbing to me - more than I would have expected, given that I've seen a lot. I have a special connection to adoption, obviously. I also have a special connection to Russia, and Russian orphans in particular. At one point in my life I very much wanted to be more involved in Russian-American adoptions, even to the point of considering moving to Russia to be actively involved in the life of orphans and institutionalized children there in some way.

My history with Russia as a country started in 1995, when I participated in a high school foreign exchange program. I lived with a Russian family in the town of Armavir for a semester and it was one of the most formative experiences of my life. That being said, my host family was incredibly wealthy and I didn't exactly experience what life was like for "typical" Russian families. One of the things I learned about Russia, starting then, was that it is a nation that tends towards extremes. There has always been a small extremely wealthy upper class and a large, mostly quite poor, underclass. I went to college the year after this experience and chose to study Russian language and history. While I changed my major a couple of years in Russia continued to haunt me. So I went back - twice during college and again after I graduated in 2000. During my college trips I led a team of students from my school and part of what we did was provide relief work for an orphanage in northern central Russia, a completely different area than where I had lived before. This was a completely different experience for me. It was enlightening and heartbreaking all at once.

So, when Andrew and I decided to adopt Russia was one of the first places we considered adopting from. We decided not to. By this time I had not only my experiences in and with Russian orphanages behind me but also six years of research work with children in the foster care system here in the US. I had a very clear idea of what sort of commitment it takes to adopt from foster care and it seemed to me that adopting an older child internationally was sort of like adopting from US foster care plus a traumatic culture and language shock for the child and minus the support structure of social workers, therapists, and medical aid that our government system provides for children coming from its care. Even with my knowledge of Russian language and culture I knew we weren't prepared for that.

Interestingly enough, Russia's children in orphanage care have a lot in common with our kids in foster care. The reasons they end up in that system are not that different than the reasons kids here end up in our system: physical abuse, neglect, drug issues, alcoholism. This is different, perhaps, from the reasons children end up in orphanage care in say, Ethiopia. Ironically, I think there are adoptive parents who choose international adoption over foster care adoption because they think they can avoid dealing with some of those problems. Even more ironically, Russia is one of the most expensive countries to adopt from internationally. And I have always wondered how much that had to do with the race of the children available there - usually white. And what, precisely, it would mean to make a choice to pay upwards of 45 grand to adopt a Russian child, over all the other options out there. I am not saying it is a wrong or bad choice for everyone. Just that these are dynamics that are important to examine, as we examine the ways in which that system has succeeded and failed the children involved in it.

Since the 1990's fifteen Russian adoptees have been killed by their adoptive parents. Now one has been sent back, returned in a seemingly cruel and public way despite what had to be a number of other options available for dealing with what had evidently become a untenable situation. This doesn't mean that all families who adopt from Russia, or who adopt internationally, or who adopt period, are bad. I would hazard a guess that far more children have been killed or abandoned by their biological parents in that space of time. It also doesn't mean that all children who are adopted from Russia are bad or dangerous, another narrative that seems to be surfacing around this case. (I would of course argue that children aren't "bad" though I know that kids who are severely traumatized can absolutely be dangerous to other kids and to parents.) Look here (scroll down a bit) for a pretty inspiring story of an older child adopted from Russia.

In my "about us" entry, made over a year ago as the first entry in this blog, I said:
Maybe people who have a biological child can harbor fantasies about a perfect family and perfect home life. Adoption by definition starts with a loss - someone loses a child, and someone loses a biological parent, and someone loses the experience of having a biological connection the child they raise. Since we know from the start that our family won't fit in to a lot of the models out there for the "perfect" family, we can work on being the family that we are, instead.

Looking back, that was pretty naive. I have since learned that there is a "perfect family" expectation for adoptive families. These expectations weigh heavily on all members of the triad. The adoptive parents are expected to be perfect at parenting - after all look at all the training and work they did to become parents! We are expected to bond instantly with our children, to know just what to do for them at all times and in all situations, to be an inspiring example of unconditional love to all. We are expected to be even better than the best biological parent, or risk being judged for the choices we have made to bring a child not born to us into our home.

Adopted children are also expected to be perfect. After all, they have been saved from poverty/abuse/unspeakable things! Plus they have been given these perfect saints for parents who will never mess up and never let them down! They have been brought to the United States, some of them, the land of promise! They have been given everything...right?

And first parents suffer from it too - the expectation to be the long suffering angel who never regrets your choice, who always meekly submits to the "real" parents, who remains quiet and emotionally one-dimensional.

But, of course, there is no such thing as a perfect adoptive family. It is an even bigger lie than the myth of the perfect biological family. Sometimes people adopt for the wrong reasons, or with the wrong expectations, or with all good intentions and still they screw it up. No child should be expected to be happy to be an adoptee, or to love her adoptive parents more because they adopted her. And no first parent goes through life feeling free and grateful that they made a choice to relinquish a son or daughter.

That being said - we can do better. No child should be sent anywhere on a plane bearing his own rejection note. And no current adopted child should have to live with the fear that this could happen to him or her, either. Nobody is perfect, but if there is someone in the triad who bears the burden of responsibility it is the adoptive parent. And, perhaps, the agency who facilitates the placement.

I'm full of opinions, feelings and not many answers. I would just urge that we let this situation and the controversy and conversation that it starts around these issues be as complicated and messy as they are, without simplification or reduction. This story should make us uncomfortable. It should spark some sort of change.

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