EUREKA, MONT. — At first glance, the children saddling up the horses look like they were cast by Hollywood to play wholesome, athletic all-American kids. But outward appearances don't tell the whole story.
One has molested a sibling. Another has tried to kill the family pet. Lying, stealing, vandalism, fire-setting round out the list of transgressions.
Because their parents can no longer manage them at home, the 24 youngsters -- almost all international adoptees -- have ended up at the Ranch for Kids, a therapeutic boarding school in northwest Montana.
This is the final stop.
Most had already logged countless hours in psychiatric units, wilderness programs and residential treatment centers, searching for answers to their disturbing behaviors. The goal is that, through intense intervention and structure, their conduct will improve enough that they can go home.
But some will never return, moving on to new families. They are part of an expanding phenomenon known as adoption disruption -- the official term for parents attempting to return their adoptive children.
"Some parents just can't do it anymore; they're done," said Joyce Sterkel, who runs the Ranch for Kids. "It's tragic . . . and everyone is a victim."
No one appears to keep data on adoption disruption. Relinquishment is statistically rare among the 20,000 foreign-born children adopted by Americans each year, but experts say it is happening with increasing frequency.
One Ohio adoption agency reports receiving as many as five calls a day from parents about disruptions, up from just one or two a month a couple of years ago.
"No one knew the magnitude of the problem," said Sterkel. "The horror stories just keep on coming."
Though dissolutions of domestic adoptions are not unheard of -- a decade-long study of 5,750 Illinois children adopted from foster care through the mid-1980s found a rate of 6.5% -- it is among the international population where experts are seeing a troubling increase.
Experts blame the jump on several factors.
First, as Americans have adopted more children from overseas -- the number has almost tripled since 1990 -- the number with disturbing behavior has also grown. And these children are now hitting adolescence, when their rages are more dangerous.
Moreover, many parents were unprepared for the challenges. Sometimes agencies glossed over their charges' complex medical histories -- or omitted them altogether. "Now, they're out there all alone . . . living in a constant state of crisis," said therapist Amy Groessl of the Children's Research Triangle in Chicago, which serves high-risk families.
Though some may have undertaken parenthood with unrealistic expectations, it seems more typical that they are deeply committed but ill-equipped to cope with profoundly damaged children. The youngsters may have fetal alcohol syndrome, mental illness, attachment disorders -- perhaps all three -- and can't function in a family, though they show no outward signs of disability.
"These kids are the victims of every kind of abuse you can imagine: sexual, physical, emotional," said Sterkel. Adoptive parents receive no hint of or preparation for the difficult road ahead, she said. "They thought love was enough."
So when the nuclear family melts down, parents must grapple with a heartbreaking choice: "Do we remove this child . . . or do we all go down?"
Sterkel, a nurse and mother of three grown biological children, knows the struggles personally and professionally.
In the early 1990s, she lived in Russia for two years as part of a humanitarian relief effort and saw threadbare orphanages. After Sterkel returned to the United States, she couldn't shake the image of Katya, suffering from years of abandonment and neglect. She adopted the 10-year-old in 1996.
Then she learned of a Russian teen, Sasha, who first had been adopted -- along with his three younger siblings -- by a Colorado family. That arrangement quickly unraveled. Sasha moved on to a second household, also in Colorado, while his two sisters and his brother were split up and placed in several states. Soon after, Sasha tried to poison his new mother. Charged with felony assault, he was sent to juvenile detention.
"My new mother told me that I should forget [my siblings], but I couldn't," the 23-year-old said recently. "I went nuts."
When Sterkel heard his story, she decided to rescue him. The adoption was finalized in 1999. Today, he helps out on the ranch, connecting with other hard-to-reach kids.
"I still have a lot of trust issues . . . especially with women," said Sasha. "But life is a lot better now. Of all the families I've had, this one is the best."
There would be one more son -- Michael, now 20 -- bringing the brood to six.
Meanwhile, word spread that this Montana woman, who speaks conversational Russian, and her husband, Harry Sutley, could offer a respite to parents in crisis.