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Adoption and Parenting Reactive Attachment Disorder

A picture of perfect loving family harmony, Torry Hansen an American nurse and a 7-year-old Russian boy from a Russian orphanage, bonding as they work on some handicrafts in Moscow before she adopted the poor waif.

The little orphan, Artyom “Justin” Savelyev, turned out to be a not-so-cute “mentally unstable wild child with psychopathic tendencies.”

Hansen then sent her “wild child” flying back to Russia without love, with a one-way ticket back to a Russian orphanage and a letter saying he’s their problem.

The confused little boy was put on a Washington-to-Moscow airline flight by his adoptive grandmother, carrying a note that said, “The child is violent and has severe psychopathic issues.”

This act of emotional child abuse created an international uproar that stopped other Americans from adopting Russian children.

What went wrong? Having had contact with children from orphanages in an eastern European country, I can hazard a guess. This situation should never have happened.

Did Torry Hansen know about the condition known as reactive attachment disorder. Some parents of adopted children, both locally and internationally, have reported difficulty in dealing with symptoms of attachment disorder and being completely unprepared for a child with this condition.

Parenting attachment disorder children means one must be prepared for child anger problems. The adoption agency should have prepared Hansen for what she was getting herself into, even advising her on anger management techniques. They should also have prepared a plan for anger managment counselling, if needed. The descriptions of young Artyom “Justin” Savelyev’s behavior reads like a description of reactive attachment disorder.

Torry Hansen was naïve and most likely had a romanticized idea of what to expect. This was a kid who had been institutionalized in a Russian orphanage.

Hansen says she was lied to by the Russian orphanage authorities. They probably did not see Artyom as much different from the other children. Nearly all the children under their care are emotionally disturbed. How could these children be otherwise?

The staff at the Russian orphanage are also institutionalized. How could the staff be otherwise? The staff are very likely emotionally burned out.

There is a dog-eat-dog, every-child-for-him/herself situation in the average Russian orphanage. Nothing seems to indicate that this particular orphanage was any different. The dynamics of the social interaction between Artyom and the other children would have kept him “off the radar” from the orphanage staff.

Artyom’s mother was an alcoholic. Was she able to bond or “attach” with her young child? Attachment Disorder is a common problem with children in orphanages, many of whom come from dysfunctional families. If Artynom’s mother had been unable to bond with him, it is highly unlikely anyone at the orphanage would have been able to do it.

Bonding with a child or attaching is something any normal parent can do, even an illiterate and uneducated adult. It is intuitive in any adult who was attached by their parents as a child and cannot be learned at University. No therapy can create attachment, it can only take place between two people who have a close, trusting and loving bonding relationship.

To attach with a six or seven year old is difficult, but possible. It requires a quiet, stable home, something a Russian orphanage is not. Some unattached children will go up to any stranger and hug them. There is an extreme need for contact, but they do not know what to do once there. Children with Attachment Disorder, or “unattached children” can be clingy to strangers. Orphanage visitors often perceive this as “cute.” However they reject those who are their closest, their carers, parents and family.

An “unattached” Artynom would have behaved satisfactorily when he met his prospective adoption mother in Moscow. That was the cute clingy phase. Later when they were at home in the States, the rejection part came to the fore. Torry Hansen was, one can reasonably assume, surprised, shocked and confused.

The cute clingy child is easy to treat like a normal child. They are not a problem. Under the surface though is a toxic cocktail of twisted and torn emotions. When these surface, it is like a volcanic eruption. It can come with a bang, taking the poor adoption parent totally by surprise. The inconsistency is difficult to rationalize, especially if the adopting parent has seen and experienced the child as a “normal” child.

Not everyone is cut out to adopt a child from another culture who is carrying emotionally damaged baggage with him or her. It is not like getting an endearing little puppy from a pet shop. It is more like a vocation. It requires a personal sacrifice, but the reward of seeing the child blossom makes the effort worth while.

There is also a cost for society to pay otherwise as they grow up with an emotional attachment problem or with borderline personality disorder. In the United States, about 2% of the adult population are attachment disorder adults. They cause heartbreak in their families and conflicts in their workplaces.

For anyone who has the calling, there are few things in life as worthwhile as parenting an attachment disorder child into a balanced harmonious adult. But it is a calling.

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