Judy Stigger, director of international adoption at the Cradle in Evanston,… (Chris Walker / Chicago Tribune )
Reporting from Chicago — To many, the act seemed callous, even abusive: A Tennessee woman sent her 7-year-old adoptive son home to Russia alone last week, with a note that she no longer wanted him.
Although the episode has been roundly condemned and authorities are investigating whether any laws were broken, adoptive parents of troubled children are speaking out.
Rather than condemn Torry Hansen, 33, they castigate the adoption agencies that do not always accurately describe a child's troubled past, leaving families to cope with extreme behavioral problems without training or options.
"There are days when we've all felt like that Tennessee mom," said Linda McBride of Chicago, who adopted three boys -- now 19, 14 and 13 -- from Russia in 2002.
Thousands of overseas adoptees flourish in the U.S., but others face numerous health risks, such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, attachment disorders, mental health issues and other disabilities that will last a lifetime.
"I never understood the importance of those early years," McBride said. "I was just excited about being a mom."
No one condones Hansen's action, but many can sympathize.
Hansen, a registered nurse, brought her son home eight months ago from an orphanage near Vladivostok. When she sent him back, she said the boy was violent and threatened to burn down her home with her inside. The boy's birth mother reportedly was an alcoholic.
Linda Baker of suburban St. Louis can understand -- at least a little.
"It's been a living hell for the last eight years," said Baker, who adopted two children from Bulgaria. "I want to ask these people passing judgment: 'What would you do if your child threatened to kill you every day?' "
Baker, like many other parents, has tales that are way beyond normal child-rearing: lying, stealing, fire-setting, and violent and self-harming behavior that puts younger siblings and family pets in danger.
Support groups are filled with parents who are living in lockdown conditions to keep everyone safe.
"I have heard stories of . . . explosive anger or long, out-of-control rages precipitated by a minor change in routine . . . or simply being told 'no,' " said Nancy Petersen of Roselle, Ill., who adopted two Russian children in 1997 and is a member of the Illinois chapter of Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoption.
Since 1991, more than 50,000 Russian children have been adopted by U.S. citizens, according to the State Department.
Add the former Soviet bloc countries, and the region is second only to China as a source of international adoptions for Americans, who are often drawn overseas by the difficulty of adopting domestically.
But prospective parents can be unprepared for the behavioral and emotional challenges that sometimes await them, said Judy Stigger, an adoption therapist in Evanston, Ill.
"Parents -- especially of older children -- need to presume there will be ongoing difficulties . . . but preparing for that is often complicated because there are just so many unknowns," Stigger said.
Because children can be superficially charming and their disabilities invisible, their problems often get blamed on "bad parenting." And the right kind of intervention can be scarce, expensive and not covered by insurance.
Joan O'Neill of Wilmette, Ill., thought she was going into the adoption with her eyes open. When she brought 6-year-old Alexi home from a Moscow orphanage in 1994, it was to a loving, supportive family and a team of professionals that included neurologists, psychiatrists and therapists.
"But at the end of the day, as parents, we were left alone with a young boy with unexplained outbursts who could not fall asleep without us," she said.
At the time, the O'Neills thought Alexi was simply a traumatized child, frustrated and confused by the move.
She estimates they spent $100,000 over the years on tutoring and support programs to help the boy, who suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome.
Still, the quest for the right kind of treatment is well worth it, said McBride, the mother of three.
"I was fortunate . . . but it took eight years to get here. My sadness for the Tennessee woman is that she didn't get help. She didn't know that if you work really, really hard, you can have hope."