The Incredible Sabrina Caldwell Ethics Train Wreck, Part I

At the end of last year, CBS’s “48 Hours” broadcast an update of a horrifying episode from two decades ago. I missed both programs, but I stumbled upon a rerun of the December 2021 follow-up last night. The tale is a true ethics train wreck that, incredibly, had a happy ending, making it also an abject lesson in moral luck.

The story had special resonance for me because it involved the aftermath of an American couple adopting of a Russian orphan, a process my wife and I went through as well.  In 1997, Crystal and Jesse were a young married couple who had tried and failed to conceive. They fund Russian adoption agency’s website and were smitten by a photo of a beautiful 9-year-old girl. The couple began the adoption process.  The child’s medical records from the adoption agency, were concerning, though: they described developmental problems.

CBS made a big deal about this, but essentially all older Russian orphans have developmental issues. Crystal told CBS that the “were assured that this child was healthy and that in a good home … with the best doctors in America helping her with the developmental issues, that she should be fine.” That was accurate advice (and she and her husband should have known that by doing responsible research before deciding to adopt a Russian orphan). I should also mention here that Russian medical records regarding orphans are notoriously unreliable. Our son, who has been freakishly healthy, came with ten pages of supposedly serious medical problems. Our pediatrician literally laughed at the document.In July 1997, Crystal and Jesse traveled to a Russian orphanage and adopted the  girl, whom they named  Caralee.  They adopted a son in Russia as well,  a 3-year-old boy they named Joshua. The Russian orphanages are desperate to place as many of their charges as possible: the places are over-crowded, underfunded, and grim. Grace and I came about one second from adopting a second child as well. The orphanages display the 3-6 year olds like puppies in a window. It’s heartbreaking.

But adopting one child from Russia is hard enough. Taking on two at once is asking for trouble…as Crystal and Jesse found out the hard way.

After the now doubled family returned to the United States and settled into a new home in Georgia, Caralee began showing the typical signs of the adjustment problems associated with older adoptees from foreign countries.  Crystal quit her job to spend more time with Caralee, but issues persisted, especially what the couple saw as tension between their daughter and Joshua. In a much disputed episode, Crystal claimed that Caralee attempted to kill her brother, and eventually admitted that she had.  Caralee also told her parents she was hearing voices and hallucinating, and the couple reacted by committing her to a psychiatric hospital for several months. The adoptive parents told CBS that they did more research, and discovered that aspects of Carlalee’s background and behavior at the orphanage has been witheld from them. Nina Kostina, who helped arrange Caralee’s adoption in 1997, categorically denied hiding any information from Crystal and Jesse. Again, incomplete and unreliable information about Russian adoptees is the norm, not the exception. CBS did not clarify this (the parents’ discovery of “troubling new information” made a better story).

Caralee was in the hospital for almost four months until Crystal and Jesse had to bring  her home because their insurance was running out. It sure had been nice, thought, to have only one child to care for during the interim. They had convinced themselves that still their daughter  posed a danger to their sweet young son. They had the opinion of a psychiatrist, Dr. Brian Kennedy, who told them that Caralee suffered from “attachment disorder,” which was, he said, incurable and made her potentially dangerous to others. (Another doctor who observed the girl disagreed, and told CBS that he found Crystal and Jesse to be cold and distant when interacting with their daughter.) The 10-year-old was Prescribed heavy medication, but her parents told CBS they “weren’t working.”

So they packed Joshua up and sent him 600 miles away to live at his grandmother’s home in Texas, making it clear to Caralee that she was the reason.

Finally, they decided to solve the problem of their potentially homicidal daughter by taking her back to Russia and leaving her there. I wrote about such adoptive parents back in 2010, and concluded in part,

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 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 [the adoptive mother’s] life impossible. She couldn’t handle the stress; she looked into the future and saw only problems. Check: I understand. I empathize …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.

I wouldn’t change a word of that if I were writing about Caralee’s fate.

The parents’ plan to leave their daughter in Russia is how they came to be profiled on “48 Hours;” their motive was apparently to make their decision seem justifiable, and perhaps to warn potential adoptive parents about the perils of Russian adoptions. Deposited in a Russian psychiatric hospital and knowing that her parents would leave Russia without her, Caralee told “48 Hours”‘ Troy Roberts, “I did not try to kill my brother. I just tried … to pick him up … because he was too heavy … I love him. Mom and Daddy just don’t understand it.” He says now that he believed her, and that he wept when he said goodbye to the girl. The parents annulled the adoption.

The rest of the story will follow in Part 2.

3 thoughts on “The Incredible Sabrina Caldwell Ethics Train Wreck, Part I

  1. It behooves anyone traveling to a foreign country to make sure that sufficient research has been done so that one doesn’t inadvertently break its laws or get snookered into biting off more than one can chew.

  2. The interesting conundrum is that some couples that aren’t able to conceive is occasionally providential.

    The note that the adoptive parents seemed cool and distant would certainly be fresh hell to the adopted girl.

    We knew some people that adopted 2 children domestically, as infants, and they had some pretty serious issues that seem attributable to the parents. The parents always put their particular agenda ahead of all and didn’t seem to understand how to respond to kids needs. If you didn’t know better, you’d think they were the ideal Ken and Barbie family.

    Now, the ex and I certainly screwed up our kids too, but mine knew they were loved. Neither one of them had any trepidation about leaving at 18 (one came back for a bit, then began a great life adventure a year or so later).

    Kids can survive a lot and still thrive if they know they’re loved.

    If instead you ship them off or, in the case of the neighbor kid, put them on drugs (I submit 99% of kids don’t need them, and given side effects worse than the problem, shouldn’t otherwise be given them), God help everyone.

    Kids are the greatest thing ever. Hardest thing you’ll ever do is be a parent, but God, the reward is like nothing else.

    Examine your motives for adopting, I think, if you’re unable to conceive.

    Looking forward to part 2.

  3. This is also an example of Ethics Zugzwang… All participants in the story are unreliable narrators, but they all agree that there was a threat to the life of the second adopted son.

    The parents keeping both children in the same household could easily have contributed to the death of the son.

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