The returned Russian boy and casting stones
posted by: Lori Holden
Said by me in utter hubris, pre-2001.
- No child of mine will ever go up the down escalator or inconvenience others by playing with the elevator buttons.
- No child of mine will ever make too much noise on an airplane.
- No child of mine will ever run wild in a sit-down restaurant.
- No child of mine will ever sass back to me like that.
These were just some of the judgmental thoughts I once had. Before I became a mom (via adoption, incidentally). But actually being faced with the challenges of raising normal, even spirited children — well THAT has been a humbling experience. I try now to not judge other people — parents in particular — because I really have no idea what it’s like to walk in another parent’s shoes.
Which is why I’ve had very few opinions on the tragic situation involving Justin Hansen, nee Artyom Salivyev, and his adoptive mother, Torry Hansen. Countless electrons have already been devoted to analyzing this story.
It’s very easy to cast blame on Ms Hansen, indeed many have. Did she not love the boy as if he were born to her, as an adoptive mother is supposed to do? Couldn’t she come up with any better options that a plane ticket and a pinned note? Did she just quit when the going got tough? I wonder these things, too.
RAD arises from a failure to form normal attachments to primary caregivers in early childhood. Such a failure could result from severe early experiences of neglect, abuse, abrupt separation from caregivers between the ages of six months and three years, frequent change of caregivers, or a lack of caregiver responsiveness to a child’s communicative efforts.
RAD is one of the least researched and most poorly understood disorders.
The prevalence of RAD is unclear but it is probably quite rare, other than in populations of children being reared in the most extreme, deprived settings such as some orphanages.
Admittedly, it is not known if Artyom suffered from this disorder. Diagnosis is difficult, even in children who are screened. Treatment for the resulting early trauma and non-attachment is even more difficult.
What is it like to parent a RAD child? It can mean violence toward the parents, torture of family pets, molestation of nearby children, and other behaviors that parents report as unmanageable. This boy’s talk of burning down the family home and drawing a picture of people burning in it should not be discounted. Such a constellation of behaviors would likely send any parent into a tailspin. “If you see a serial killer, chances are very strong they were a RAD kid,” says Jay Pullen, Executive Director of The Attachment Healing Center in Albuquerque (source).
It’s easy to cast blame on the adoptive mother for not parenting well, for not honoring her lifelong commitment. Or on one of the involved adoption agencies for not adequately preparing the adoptive parents for the realities that come with adopting older children. Or adopting trans-culturally.
But it’s more complex than this. Here are some possible factors in this systemic breakdown, as we seek to understand rather than to localize the blame:
- There are the boy’s biological parents. We do not know their circumstances, other than that the biological mother was an alcoholic. Why were they not able to care for him? How did they treat him while (and if) he was under their care? Was Artyom exposed to any damaging substances in utero?
- What was life like for him in the orphanage? Was he responded to? Were his physical and emotional needs met? Was he hurt? How forthcoming was the orphanage in revealing what they knew about Artyom to the adoption agency, WACAP (World Association for Children and Parents)?
- How well did the WACAP and its Tennessee-based partner, Adoption Assistance, Inc prepare Ms Hansen for parenting this particular boy? Did the agency do its due diligence regarding both Mr Hansen AND Artyom?
- And what did Ms Hansen do to facilitate attachment with her new son? What resources from her community were available to her once she realized that she was in crisis?
Even if we can pinpoint the problems, solutions don’t automatically follow. Perhaps the biological parents lacked the emotional or financial resources to parent. The orphanage likely lacked resources to care adequately for all its charges. Where could Ms Hansen go for help once she realized she was in over her head?
Clearly, at the center of this breakdown is a young boy who has experienced a series of devastating losses and letdowns in his short life. Any energy put into blaming others could instead go to healing him. Sadly, if RAD is involved, the path before him looks a lot like the one behind him.
I have no idea what it would be like to become a mom to a child I feared. I’m not sure what I would do. Remember me? I’m the mom who loses my cool when my kids play on an elevator or run up the down escalator.
The only thing I do know is that I’m unqualified to judge Torry Hansen.