Fifteen years ago, my wife and I flew to Moscow to adopt our son. It was the best thing we ever have or ever will do, but it was harrowing: we were rushed through the process along with four other couples at fugitive speed, because Boris Yeltsin’s government was about to shut down foreign adoptions any day. The whole experience felt like a spy movie, being pushed into black cars driven by strangers, watching bribes take place, and racing from building to building, from doctors to mysteriously grim bureaucrats. We got our son his passport at the American Embassy just as word arrived that foreign adoptions in Russia would be suspended for months.
Now adoptions by Americans in Russia have been suspended again, not just because, as was the case in 1995, Russia’s inability to find native parents for its own children is a national embarrassment, but because of a horrific act of betrayal by an American family. Justin Hansen, 7-years-old, arrived in Moscow alone, carrying a note from the woman who had adopted him to Russian authorities, reading,
“After giving my best to this child, I am sorry to say that for the safety of my family, friends and myself, I no longer wish to parent this child.”
That was enough for the Russians, and I don’t blame them.
The mother, Torry Ann Hansen, also listed her reasons in the note to the Russian authorities. The boy was violent, she said, and severely disturbed. She was lied to, she protested, by the orphanage workers.
These things may all be true; probably they are. Many Russian orphans have increasingly serious emotional and psychological problems the longer they stay in the institutions. Russian orphanages are sad, heart-breaking places, overcrowded with beautiful children who desperately want to go home with every visitor. The people who run them are heroes, every one: they treat the children lovingly, and will do and say anything—anything—to place as many children as possible in loving homes across the ocean. If you have come for one child, they will produce his brother, or three, and ask if you really, really want to break up a family. Sometimes, it may not even really be a brother, but the kids know how to play along, because they want out. My wife and I were giving a tour of the orphanage, and I had to break it off. “Let’s get our baby out of here now, or I’m going to crack and adopt ten kids,” I said. I was in tears. I still have nightmares about that tour, and guilt that I couldn’t (wouldn’t?) save more children from the miserable existence facing them.
It doesn’t matter if Torry Hanson was lied to, or how difficult her son was. Adoption is a one-way transaction, as much as birth. You can’t ship your child back via stork because she isn’t perfect, and you can’t ship your adopted child back to Russia because he is making your life a living hell. This is your child, completely, and there is no receipt. You have assumed the greatest, most challenging relationship of trust there is, and you are in for the ride of your life. There is no getting off, because your child trusts you absolutely.
Sending an innocent child back to the orphanage, like he was a defective toaster returned to Walmart, is the ultimate betrayal, as unforgivable as treason, and far, far worse than adultery. A child who, in Justin’s case (his Russian name had been Artyom), was neglected by his alcoholic mother and taken by the state, sent to an orphanage and given to an American mother, has been rejected again and abandoned. I cannot imagine what this would do to a child. I cannot imagine allowing anyone’s child to endure this, least of all my own.
Her son was making her life impossible. She couldn’t handle the stress; she looked into the future and saw only problems. Check: I understand. I empathize with Mrs. Hanson completely, for we knew when we adopted our son that this was a possible scenario. Again, it doesn’t matter. Sending an adopted child back to Russia is not an option, because it is absolutely wrong, like murder, like torture, like sacrificing one human being to save another. Never. Absolutely never. Nothing can ever justify treating a child—your own child— like that.
There may be other villains in this story, notably Hanson’s adoption agency, which seemingly did not do a very good job vetting Hanson’s adoption application. Russian authorities also have long-standing problems in their system. When we were in Moscow, the policy was that only “damaged” children could be adopted by foreigners, so the Russian doctors falsely certified that healthy babies had terrible deformities and maladies to get them out of the orphanage. When the policy was changed, healthy children could be adopted (meaning that few parents will accept unhealthy ones), so orphanage staff sometimes try to send the “unadoptable,” unhealthy children to American homes by getting false certifications.
Nevertheless, it should not matter how one’s child arrives, whether from a wild moment in the back of a ’98 Chevy van, a sperm bank donor, or an adoption. Your child, always, no turning back.
The rejection of her son by Hanson and the shockingly cold manner in which she did it, putting a seven-year-old on an international flight alone, also has had predictable consequences that will harm countless others. The New York Times interviewed one devastated couple whose adoption efforts were cut short just as they were on the verge of adopting a Russian child. Hanson’s mistreatment of her son may doom hundreds or even thousands of Russian children to years in orphanages, and block many Americans who could give them love, good homes and a bright future from doing so. More than 50,000 Russian orphans have become American citizens since 1991.
The ethical, moral and primal conclusion here should not be in question. Your child is your child, for good or ill, forever. Those who cannot make that commitment should not reproduce or adopt.
It really is that simple.
Note: The wonderfully named website O Solo Mama currently is featuring a discussion of the many facets of this case, as well as links to useful articles and scholarly works on the problems of international adoption.