The case of Torry Hansen – the Tennessee mother who sent her 7-year-old adopted Russian child back to Moscow claiming he had severe psychological problems – is turning into a test for the international adoption vetting process.
Generally speaking, it emphasizes the need to ensure that potential parents are scrutinized thoroughly and understand the system they are adopting from. But specifically, many experts worry about negative fallout from the case, which has led some Russian officials to call for a halt to all US adoptions until new and clearer procedures can be spelled out.
“There is a lot we don’t know about this case,” says Adam Pertman, executive of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. “But I am concerned already that people are going to look at this story and say, ‘Look what happens,’ and strike Russia off their list or choose not to adopt at all."
"One story should not negate the good that happens to tens of thousands of children,” he says.
Number of children adopted from Russia has dropped
About 1,600 Russian children were adopted in the US last year and about 60,000 since 1991 according to Kremlin figures. The number has dwindled in the past decade because of growing programs there to boost foster care and local adoption.
Ms. Hansen wrote a note to the Russian Ministry of Education in which she said, “This child is mentally unstable. He is violent and has severe psychopathic issues/behaviors. I was lied to and misled by the Russian Orphanage workers and director regarding his mental stability and other issues.”
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called the boy’s abrupt return “a monstrous deed” and told ABC News that he had a “special concern” about the recent treatment of Russian children adopted by Americans.
Such words give experts pause.
“Russia and other countries could say, ‘We are not sending children to the US anymore,' ” says Rita Simon, an international adoption expert at American University’s Washington College of Law. “This could be very hurtful to the thousands who will now remain in orphanages and temporary care facilities instead of stable homes.”
Many who have already been through the adoption process with Russia have come forward to give the story context.
“I was amazed that someone could return a human being like they were the latest sales item on Ebay,” says Donna Bergenstock, an economics professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., who adopted a 4-month-old Russian boy in 2004.
Russian regulations 'extremely tough' and getting tougher
She says the Russian regulations were “extremely tough” then and have only tightened since.
A social worker was sent to their home for four hours, examining every room in the house. Dr. Bergenstock and her husband were fingerprinted and submitted to criminal background checks. Then, they went to Russia on two different trips, the latter to spend three weeks with the child to see if they bonded.
“There has to be hundreds or thousands of irate parents whose adoptions have been halted because of this, and that is heartbreaking,” says Bergenstock. “I am now looking over at my 6-year-old who is beautiful and has become the center of our world.”
In the current case, the adoptive boy’s grandmother – who delivered him to his direct flight from Washington to Moscow, handing him over as an unaccompanied minor – told Associated Press: “He drew a picture of our house burning down, and he’ll tell anybody that he’s going to burn our house down with us in it.”
Russian officials have suspended the license of the World Association for Children and Parents (WACAP), the Renton, Wash., agency that facilitated the adoption. WACAP said in a statement that it was "saddened to learn that a child adopted from Russia traveled to Moscow without his parent."
The agency has declined to comment beyond its statement.
Mr. Pertman says that in general, institutionalized children have higher rates of behavioral disorders. There are about 600,000 orphans in Russia right now.
“We have to learn the lesson that this aberration should not drive us, but inform us,” says Pertman. “We must conclude that we adults have to do a better job, not that these kids have to be left in orphanages.”