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The returned Russian boy and casting stones

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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.

But I have read many stories by mothers who have adopted children with Reactive Attachment Disorder. Excerpted from Wikipedia:

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.


Lori Holden
Author: Lori Holden

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  • comment avatar CanCan April 17, 2010

    I was talking about this with some adoptive-parent friends of mine last night. Obviously an act of despiration, and like you say, there are many other safeties that should have been in place that failed both Terry AND Justin. I feel for both of them.
    I have tough days with my bio kids; and I’m not a single mom struggling with attachment issues. I can not imagine what they have both been through.

  • comment avatar Amber Johnson April 17, 2010

    “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.”

    Well thought-out and your examples REALLY hit home.

  • comment avatar Rachel April 17, 2010

    I’ve been wondering your take on the situation and no surprise that it is much like mine. Thank you.

  • comment avatar Robin April 17, 2010

    I’ve actually been thinking about you a lot this week … every time I’ve seen an update to this story. I know you are so loving and have such a wonderful, mindful relationship with your children.
    I thought that what Torry Hansen did would be something you couldn’t even imagine. But of course it’s not as simple as that.
    Thanks. I always love your perspective.

  • comment avatar Hannah April 17, 2010


  • Pingback:Weebles Wobblog - The Tennessee woman and the Russian boy

  • comment avatar JoAnn April 17, 2010

    What a messy situation!

    Having worked in the social work industry for years, I would hope that if ANYONE is feeling like they have no other options that they CAN find solutions. There are ways to deal with violent children. There are ways to help protect your family from a threat, even if that threat comes from within. There are people to call to find out all your options.

    I hope they BOTH get the help they obviously desperately need.

  • comment avatar Mel April 17, 2010

    A fantastic, level-headed response. I especially love: “Even if we can pinpoint the problems, solutions don’t automatically follow.”

    I think it’s very easy to make suggestions from outside the situation, from the comfort of our home. It is a very different thing to be in the middle of that storm and make great choices.

  • comment avatar luna April 17, 2010

    You make some very well-reasoned points. And the point about not judging others unless we have walked in their shoes is well taken.

    However, even if she could not care for this child, even if there were no support systems or services available to her (as there should have been), I think her obligation as an adoptive parent at a bare minimum requires that she make every effort to ensure the child’s safety, which would have included following international law and proper procedures to disrupt the adoption so he could be placed in another home.

    regardless whether we agree with her decision to disrupt the adoption, I think the way she handled this untenable situation was unconscionable.

  • comment avatar Lavender Luz April 17, 2010

    Agreed, Luna. I addressed only WHAT she did and not HOW she did it.

    I have read varying reports of what she did to ensure the boy’s safety, but I don’t feel as if I had enough facts to comment.

  • comment avatar Melissa @ Full Circle April 18, 2010

    I have been asked to comment on the “Russian Issue” on AA but have been so out of the loop here lately I had no idea what happened. I’m glad I read about it first here.. Lori, you are so mindful and kind.

    I am horrified, to say the least. That poor boy has gotten a double dose of abandonment and loss. Her actions were unfathomable but we weren’t there and will probably never know the full story. That’s between her and God.

    Being on the fost/adopt end, I’m not well versed on the ins and outs of international adoption. However, I agree with Lori that I cannot cast stones, either.

  • comment avatar battynurse April 18, 2010

    I think it’s incredibly sad. I also think it probably could have been handled better. I truly believe that my little brother suffered from RAD and while my parents struggled with parenting him for years and gave him multiple “do overs” he still struggles with all relationships. I know it’s hard and sometimes some people just can’t do it. I honestly don’t know if I could which is why I have sort of ruled out the foreign adoption path as a path I could maybe take. But to just put a child on a plain with a note attached is handling things very poorly no matter how you look at it.

  • comment avatar a April 19, 2010

    This matches my view – I don’t know exactly what happened. I can’t like this woman for her actions, but I can’t hate her either. I would think it would require some serious desperation to do what she did. It’s completely unfortunate all around.

  • comment avatar excavator April 20, 2010

    Well said, Lori

  • comment avatar Sheri April 20, 2010

    Thanks for responding so thoughtfully about this situation.

    Life is messy, isn’t it? When I was growing up, I thought parents just KNEW what was the right answer — as though life was clearly black or white.

    But life is messy, isn’t it? And just like you said, “Even if we can pinpoint the problems, solutions don’t automatically follow.” Sometimes there just isn’t a good answer.

    And I’m with you. I try NOT to judge other people because I have NO idea what’s happening in their world…just as they have NO idea what’s happening in mine.

    Thanks for your insights!

  • comment avatar lou May 7, 2010

    bottom-line any parent (bio or adoptive) that would take such an action would be charged with child-neglict and that is exactly what should happen here —- not to mention looking into the mom’s professional license as an RN.

  • comment avatar Lori Lavender Luz May 7, 2010

    Lou, I disagree that it’s that black and white, and I also hope that you are never in a position to have to discern so for yourself.