The toll of Russian vodka on American families

American parents often don't know they're adopting kids with special needs

By Nicholas Nehamas

Danny and Christy Cameron stand with their three children Jesse, Tyler and Anna. (Courtesy: Christy Cameron)

Editor’s Note: This story was suggested to us by one of our readers, Christy Cameron.

When Christy Cameron first cradled her adopted son in her arms in an impoverished orphanage in the Russian city of Astrakhan, she suspected he might be developmentally disabled.

His ears didn’t look quite right and the boy, whom she named Jesse, was small for seventeen months — nine-month baby clothes didn’t yet fit him. But officials at the orphanage told her Jesse had been born full term weighing over six pounds, and they produced the records to prove it.

Christy and her husband, Danny, didn’t ask too many questions. Growth deficiency is to be expected, Christy says, “when you’re neglected like that. They had so many children there. So malnourished and so poor. Jesse was a loving child and we wanted to take him home and take care of him because he wasn’t getting good care where he was.”

The orphanage was so underfunded that its director asked Christy if she would leave behind the clothes Jesse was wearing, including his diaper, for the other kids.

She did and in 2002 the Camerons took Jesse and an older child, Tyler, back to the family farm in central Illinois.

The boys had trouble adjusting to their new home.

In an interview with Latitude News, Christy describes how Jesse, now 11, would run around his classroom shouting and clapping his hands as his teacher looked on helplessly. He couldn’t stop chewing on electrical cords. He had to line up his toy tractors just so every night before he could fall asleep.

“He has no impulse control,” Christy says. “He doesn’t think should I touch this or not? He touches first and thinks later. “

It took seven years of visits to doctors and psychologists before a physician in Virginia diagnosed Jesse with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), a poorly understood condition caused by mothers who drink during pregnancy.

Jesse’s case isn’t an isolated incident among adopted children from the former Soviet Union.

From Russia with little love

A 2005 study by the University of Minnesota’s International Adoption Center found that of 222 kids adopted from Eastern Europe nearly 12 percent suffered from full or partial FASD.

“Vodka is a way of life in Eastern Europe,” explains Dr. Ronald Federici, the FASD specialist who diagnosed Jesse.

The most severe cases of FASD can make children extremely difficult to raise, especially when combined with a behavioral problem known as Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). Neglect or abuse at a young age — things not uncommon in Russian orphanages — can cause RAD in children, leaving them unable to bond with parents and their peers.

Pavel Astakhov, Russia’s ombudsman for children’s rights, speaks at a press conference. (Reuters)

In 2010, a Tennessee woman, Torry Hansen, put her adopted Russian son, Artyom, on a plane back to Moscow, saying he was psychotic. Her actions caused an international uproar and excited anti-American sentiment in Russia.

Reacting to that and other cases, Russia’s ombudsman for children’s rights, Pavel Astakhov, told the Moscow Times he believes as many as 28,000 Russian children are abused by their adoptive parents in the U.S., though it’s not clear how he arrived at this figure.

Americans have adopted more than 45,000 Russian children since 1999, but that number has slowed to a trickle in recent years as tensions over adoption between the two countries increase.

Astakhov has also criticized the Ranch for Kids, a private facility in Montana that cares for adopted foreign kids with serious behavioral problems, calling it abusive and a “trash can for unwanted children.”

Last week, the Russian Foreign Ministry again called for the ranch to close.

Mr. Astakhov declined to comment for this story but in an e-mail to Latitude News, Yevgeniy Khorishko, press secretary for the Russian Embassy in Washington D.C., said his government “consider[s] conditions at the Ranch for Kids as a juvenile prison.”

Latitude News’ coverage of Astakhov’s battle with the Ranch for Kids led Christy Cameron to comment on our website:

I believe that for each case of abuse, there are thousands of loving U.S. families doing our best to give our special needs Russian children the best possible life they can have. Does Mr. Astakhov ever visit any of us?

A poorly understood problem

It’s clear that adopting from Russia comes with a lot of risks. But not everyone realizes that.

“There are parents who go into it not understanding the challenges,” says Christy Cameron. “Any child — even one from the U.S. — that gets adopted is coming from a bad situation. The vast majority of these [Russian] kids are going to have some sort of special needs. People need to know that going in.”

And yet not much is known about fetal alcohol syndrome.

The Ranch for Kids outside of Eureka, Montana. (Courtesy: Joyce Sterkel, Ranch for Kids)

“There are no large studies and few hard statistics on FASD,” Dr. Judith Eckerle, a pediatrician and assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, tells Latitude News.

Eckerle works at the university’s International Adoption Clinic (IAC), where she diagnoses and helps treat children with alcohol-related disorders.

“The symptoms of FASD can be hard to recognize,” says Eckerle. “A lot of times they can look like other well-known disorders like ADHD.”

Eckerle says that children with FASD often have trouble determining the relationship between cause and effect.

“They can also be very literal minded,” she explains. “It’s a little like the children’s book ‘Amelia Bedelia.’ When you say, ‘draw the blinds,’ they might sit down and draw a picture of the blinds.”

Eckerle stresses that the earlier the diagnosis, the better the outcome for the child.

What happened to the records?

But an early diagnosis for Jesse proved difficult to obtain, as his records said he had been born healthy and full term.

As it turns out, those records were fake, according to a private investigator later hired by the Camerons. Jesse was probably born severely premature.

Sam Totaro, a former president of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys, says the forging of children’s documents is a widespread problem in Russia. Few parents would willingly accept a child with FASD, and that can lead to a chain of corruption, from Russian doctors to orphanages to the local agents that American agencies hire to facilitate their adoptions.

Totaro lays the responsibility on American agencies, which he says aren’t doing their due diligence. He’s led a number of lawsuits against such outfits, including several against European Adoption Consultants, which helped the Camerons find Tyler and Jesse. Christy Cameron considered filing a suit against EAC but ultimately thought it would be too much of a distraction from raising her boys.

A Russian child sits on the floor of a state orphanage in Moscow. (Reuters)

“Adoption agencies who do foreign adoption,” claims Totaro, “they don’t do the necessary background. They rely upon independent contractors or employees over in foreign countries. As long as you pay, the adoption goes forward. So there’s an incentive for them to go forward, no matter what the actual condition of the child is.”

Totaro added that while some adoption agencies are reliable, many others are not because the industry as a whole is so lightly and haphazardly regulated.

EAC did not return telephone calls asking for comment.

Joan Heifetz Hollinger teaches family law at Boalt Hall, the UC Berkeley School of Law. She specializes in adoption issues, and agrees parents can often be taken advantage of. She also testified as an expert witness in a lawsuit Totaro brought against a different adoption agency.

“Prospective parents have tremendous difficulty in getting someone who has accurate information and figuring out who all the players are,” Hollinger says. “To whom do they owe money? If they pay money are they breaking some law? Who can be trusted and for what purposes?”

Hollinger points out that Russia and the U.S. recently signed a bilateral agreement on adoption, though its protocols have yet to be implemented. Even when they are, she’s not necessarily optimistic that it will succeed in regulating what is essentially a “wild west” environment of shady operators.

“Yes, this agreement is intended to allay these concerns,” says Hollinger. “But will it? I honestly have no idea.”

Ultimately, it might be up to the agencies to reform themselves.

“It’s bad for profit but if some of these agencies don’t act with more integrity and honesty it’s going to come around and haunt them on the other end,” Hollinger argues. “Even though the biggest players are still in business and doing a lot of it, a great many of these smaller agencies are done with because they’ve failed to be honest and up front with parents.”

Home on the farm

The fake records didn’t just mislead the Camerons about the true state of Jesse’s health: they also made it hard for him to get the care he needed in America.

His school in Illinois, relying on the forged papers from Russia, refused to allow Jesse access to special education, saying he was perfectly healthy according to his documentation.

That changed once he was diagnosed with FASD. Jesse now has a tutor, attends a private school and takes attention-deficit medication.

He can focus better on his work but is still learning to deal with severe dyslexia, as well as speech and hearing problems. Playstation’s introduction of wireless video gaming controllers means Christy doesn’t have to worry about him biting through the cords and getting hurt. His older brother, Tyler, does not have FASD but suffers from learning and other disabilities. The Camerons believe his documents were inaccurate as well.

“Jesse understands he’s different and can’t do some of the things the other children do,” Christy says, “and that’s frustrating for him. But he’s an intelligent boy. He scored well on his visual learning tests. His teachers and the other kids love him. He’s a sweet child with a wonderful sense of humor.”

“We know people who adopted children from Russia with much worse problems,” Christy continues. “Jesse’s outcome is really a good one because he’s ended up in a place where when he gets older we don’t have to worry about whether he can hold down a job, since he can work on our farm.”

Even so, dealing with her sons’ disabilities has been a challenge for Christy, who suffered several miscarriages before adopting Tyler and Jesse. To her surprise, Christy got pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, Anna, in 2006 — after adopting her two sons.

But that doesn’t mean she loves Tyler and Jesse any less.

“We have faith that we were meant to have these boys for a reason.” she says. “And that they were meant to be with us for a reason too.”