As a mother of an adopted child and a child advocate, I've received numerous emails and phone calls this week asking me my thoughts about the eight year-old boy, Artyem Saviliev, who was sent back to Russia by his adoptive mother. Many of the inquiries erupt with the accusation, "How could a mother do such a thing," and then refer to the choice I made for my son: "You didn't send Neal back."
The timing of this highly emotional story is ironic as fourteen years ago, in April 1997, I brought my then two year-old son, Neal, home from an orphanage in Russia. My life with my son, diagnosed a year later with severe autism, sensory processing dysfunction, and reactive attachment disorder (RAD), has not been without challenge. Neal banged his head, had severe temper tantrums, breaking everything in sight and tearing pictures off the walls in our home. Well meaning friends and family often counseled me to "send him back," or "put him in an institution." Therapists looked at me with pity and soon, my then husband just, stopped looking. No, I did not send my son back, and in spite of the severe challenges, my relationship with Neal has been my greatest gift and the catalyst for my own spiritual growth. But this was the path I chose.
I think the press, in covering the story of the adopting mom, Torry Hansen, and her choice, weighed in far too heavily on the side of criticism of her, and left compassion only to be felt for the child. This may not be a popular view, but just as we need compassion for Artyem, I feel that we must also let go our judgment and have compassion for Torry. One of the many articles that I've read stated that the boy exhibited frightening behavior in the home of his newly adopted mother, and that she tried to parent him, but he was violent towards her. This same article says that once he was back in Russia, his behavior was normal. This seems counter-intuitive. Why would a child seem to prefer an orphanage to a loving adoptive mother?
I am not an expert by any means, but this sounds similar to how a child may act when suffering from reactive attachment disorder (RAD). What makes this disorder so challenging is that the closer a child who has RAD gets to the person who wants to "love" them, the more aggressive the child can often become. This is not violence - it is fear - core fear: fear of getting close and then being abandoned once again. We went through this with Neal and actually, in varying degrees, continue to do so whenever he begins to get close to someone. Neal and my new husband are doing this love/hate/fear dance now. It's very complex.
Did I know about any of this before I signed the adoption papers? No. Was there a sufficient support system and education easily available to me fourteen years ago, so I might understand why my lovely, newly adopted boy might want to actually physically hurt me when all I am trying to do is love him? No. How narrow might my options feel if I am feeling like a failure as a mom and my own life feels at risk? Instead of being critical of Torry Hansen, I think the press should have looked at how the system of adoption could have helped both this little boy and the mother in providing sufficient education and support. I remember all too well feeling helpless and having to "make it up as I went along." This does not have to happen today. Information about the nuances, difficult behaviors, RAD, etc., associated with adoption is available. Hopefully stories like this will help make this type of preliminary preparation integral to the adoption process.
I do not condone placing an eight year-old boy on an airplane by himself, but it seems to me that Torry Hansen may have done the best she could with the limited options and tools that she had. She went through great hurdles to adopt a boy from Russia. I can't imagine she did this with the intention of bailing. Her intentions were to love and parent a little boy who had no parents. She was just not prepared. In the end it is all about love. No judgment, only love. Perhaps Torry Hansen took the most loving action she knew how.