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Some Adoptive Parents See Hope Turning to Horror

Hidden among the children imported from Eastern Europe are profoundly disturbed youngsters who may be violent. Two families tell their anguished stories.

February 11, 2001|DEBORAH HASTINGS | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Finally, the photograph arrives. And all that longing finds purchase.

Here is your new child, though for now he is two-dimensional, a glossy image that grows soiled from fingertip caresses.

The adoption agency is paid--$10,000, $15,000, $20,000--whatever it takes. The future is an airline ticket to Moscow clasped in your hand.

After 10 hours on the plane, sleepless and senseless, you step haltingly into a warehouse of children. Here, in real-life glory, stands your child. Blond hair. Luminous eyes of crystal blue.

Everything you've hoped for, waited for, paid for. And good God, what is the matter with him?

He cannot--or will not--stop flipping the television switch. On. Off. On. Off. On-off. On-off. On-off-on-off-on-off-on-off, until annoyance and fear seize your heart.

Then he crawls into your lap and hugs you with over-the-top abandon. You remember to breathe. Maybe it's jet lag. Maybe he's as nervous as you are.

Just get him home, get him settled, feed him, give him time. Everything will be fine.

At home, it most definitely is not fine. You discover his fascination with knives. That he fondles little girls and grown women. That he enjoys trying to break the dog's legs.

He is 6 years old.

Three months after he arrives in America, you commit him to a psychiatric hospital, where he is institutionalized for a year.

And from there, things get no better. They get worse.

It has taken a decade for Americans to realize that hidden in a deluge of children adopted from Eastern Europe are untold numbers of violently and profoundly disturbed youngsters.

Children like the boy adopted from a bleak Russian orphanage in 1995 by Mike and Sharon Venhaus of Albuquerque, who now lives in his second foster home.

Thousands of U.S. couples desperate for white children have turned to Eastern Europe since the fall of communism. First in Romania, then in Russia, the doors to state-run orphanages were flung wide. Behind them were unwanted children with faces so needy, it hurt just to look at them.

Since 1990, more than 100,000 foreign children, the majority from those two countries, have been adopted into American families. Most fit fine.

The ones who don't seem inhuman, like automatons from "Village of the Damned," the science fiction classic about children lacking empathy or conscience.

No one knows how many of these disturbed youngsters now live in the United States, which adopts more children from overseas than all other countries combined. No central agency monitors them.

They were plucked from government institutions where food, electricity and heat can be scarce. Where human touch is a luxury, deprivation the norm. Such conditions can produce children unable to bond with anyone.

When American parents give up and relinquish them to foster care or psychiatric hospitals, they burden insurance rolls and the child welfare system in amounts impossible to calculate. So too are the costs borne by schools offering special education and counseling to those able to control themselves enough to sit in class.

Adoption agencies and child psychiatrists have tried to track these nightmarish adoptions, but results are limited and widely varied, depending on who's counting.

Studies done in cooperation with agencies show about 2% of international adoptions result in "disruption," the legal term for cutting ties with a child and handing him back to the agency, or placing him in state custody if the agency refuses him.

But doctors and therapists specializing in treating children adopted from overseas say the figure may be as high as 25%.

Another statistic is especially grim. Two youngsters adopted from Russia have been killed in this country and their adoptive parents held responsible. Both children reportedly had severe behavioral problems.

Sharon Venhaus did not hurt her adopted son, but she admits to understanding how such things happen.

"I'm terrified of him," she says, her voice shaking. "He tried to kill the dog. He tried to kill his sister. Undoubtedly, he will kill someone."

The boy, who is now 11, molested his adopted sister, attacked Sharon's parents and sent her husband packing, she says. The couple, now divorced, are trying to disrupt the adoption.

The boy is temporarily a ward of the state while the Venhauses battle child abandonment charges for putting him in a foster home.

"I would do anything in the world to warn everybody out there about these kind of children," she says.

Sharon Venhaus does not know Priscilla and Neal Whatcott of Washington state. She does, however, know something about their fear and their hurt and their shame.

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