Aza’s American Journey

By Lydia Denworth | November 2000 | Good Housekeeping | Topics: Parenting and Family

She was an eight-year-old Russian orphan who thought she had finally found a family. But then they changed their minds.

Aza wants to show me her bedroom. Full of pink and purple, it looks like it belongs to a ten-year-old girl, though maybe not this particular one. A slender tomboy with close-cropped dark hair wearing black jeans and sneakers, Aza perches on a trundle bed covered with stuffed animals as she begins to talk: “I remember a boy who lived in Petersburg in Number 31.” She bounces to the floor and just as abruptly changes the subject. “This is mine,” she says, holding up a Furby. “Then she rummages under the bed and pulls out the T-shirt she wears for her soccer team. “Do you have children? What do you do with them?” As she asks this last question, she becomes still, her dark eyes on me. The relationship between parent and child is a puzzle she’s still working on.

My answer must satisfy Aza because she turns to the dresser and the small drawer where she keeps her treasures. Among the Pokemon cards are a few photographs. One shows a slightly younger Aza, with much longer hair, her arm around a baby girl; both of them are wearing red-and-green holiday outfits. “This is my old sister,” she explains. Another picture, a passport-size shot of a kindly looking gray-bearded man, is obviously dear to her. “This is my grandpa.” She doesn’t add “old.” I ask why she came to live in this house in Kansas, where she has new sisters and new parents. “My mom and dad wanted me to have a vacation, and they decided that these people, Tracy and Lee, can adopt me.”

Her remarkable calm belies the turbulence of Aza’s young life. The home of Lee and Tracy Keraly in Winfield, Kansas, is her third in less than three years. Born in Russia to a mother who was unable to care for her, Aza lived in a St. Petersburg orphanage, Detski Dom Number 31, until she was almost eight. She describes her life there in unaccented but imperfect English: “We woke up in the morning, helped little kids make their bed, eat breakfast, go to school, have lunch, play. I don’t want to go back. Some people are mean to me.” That all changed when she and an unrelated baby girl were adopted by a California couple (“My first family—Mom, Dad, and my little sister”) in January 1998. She lived with them for nearly two years. “I would go to school, go to the beach, Disneyland, go shopping with Mom, do homework and watch TV—just for an hour,” she says.

But her American family found Aza difficult. “She did some acting out, some lying or stretching of the truth—which is not that unusual,” says Ron Stoddart, executive director of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, in Fullerton, California. “There were no problems in terms of her harming anyone,” he says. “It was more a problem with her not being obedient. That can make it hard for the family to bond with the child. After 22 months, they’d had it.” The couple (who did not participate in this story) asked Stoddart, who had handled Aza’s adoption, to find another family for her. In adoption terms, Aza’s placement with them “disrupted.” In human terms, it failed.

In many ways, Aza is typical of the rapidly changing face of adoption. During the past decade, the number of foreign-born children adopted by Americans has doubled (to a total of 16,369 in 1999); since Russia and Eastern Europe opened up in the early 1990s, more and more children—just over 600 in 1992 and nearly 6,000 in 1999—have come to the United States from that part of the world. In 1997, Russia replaced China as the country of choice for Americans looking to adopt a child.

Unlike China, Russia provides more older children than infants—nearly all of whom have been living in orphanages. “The chance of these kids arriving  with no problems is zero, because an institution is the worst possible place for children,” says Dana Johnson, M.D., director of the International Adoption Clinic at the University of Minnesota. “Every study I’ve seen shows that the longer in an orphanage, the bigger the problems.” Ramona Hoyle, who conducts parent training sessions as director of adoption services for Tressler Lutheran Services in Baltimore, says, “People think foreign-born orphans are going to be less troubled than children from foster care in the United States, but our contention is that when you get into the older-kid range, whether the child is from Moscow or Cleveland, the problems are the same.”

Some high-profile cases have shown how unprepared parents can be for such problems. In May 1997, Arizona couple Richard and Karen Thorne were charged with assault, harassment, and endangering a child when they slapped and screamed at their two newly adopted four-year old daughters on the flight home from Moscow. The couple later told the judge they’d been at their wit’s end after a ten-hour trip with two sleep-deprived, hysterical children who screamed endlessly. Full custody was eventually restored after they agreed to therapy and parenting classes.

No one is keeping an exact count of how many international adoptions fail, as Aza’s first one did, but experts estimate it could be as high as 5 percent—roughly comparable to the 4 percent to 5 percent failure rate of children adopted within the United States between the ages of three and six, the age range most similar to children adopted from outside the United States.

But the fallout of a failed international adoption is in some ways more painful and far-reaching. “Though it may be quite disappointing to families and troubling for kids, when you ‘disrupt’ in the United States, you have a sponsoring agency you can work with to find a solution, and the children can go back into the public system,” says Richard Barth, a professor of social work at the University of North Carolina who has studied domestic disruptions. But when parents can’t handle foreign-born kids, there are limited options. A few have shipped the children back to orphanages in their native countries. Or the kids have been placed indefinitely in full-time care facilities in the United States, at great cost to their adoptive parents. (Since 1998, parents have to assume full financial responsibility for their foreign-adopted children as part of the citizenship process.)

In many cases, thankfully, the adoption agencies find new American homes for stranded kids. “We’ve practically developed a sideline in re-placement,” says Barbara Holtan, executive director of Tressler’s Adoption Program, which specializes in special-needs adoptions. From 1984 to 1994, Tressler fielded 18 requests for re-placement; since 1994, the agency has handled 105, all involving children from Russia and Eastern Europe.

The story Holtan hears from the first set of parents is disturbingly similar. “This nice, unsuspecting family goes over to St. Petersburg and brings back a darling four-year-old–then all hell breaks loose,” she says. “They say: ‘We’ve used up our insurance. He killed our cat. He tried to drown our baby.’ They don’t know where to turn, and all their hopes and dreams are shattered.”

To blame it all on the kids’ psychological problems is too simple, however. “There are cases of extreme problems where the parents manage,” Barth says. “Then there are cases where the kids have modest problems and the parents can’t handle it. It’s not really about behavioral problems, it’s about the discrepancy between what you expect and what you get.”

That’s why, experts say, second adoptions usually succeed. “Second families,” Stoddart says, “have realistic expectations.”

Tracy and Lee Keraly’s yellow house is modest but hardy enough to absorb the chaos of seven children—and five cats—playing inside and out in the hour before dinnertime. A five-gallon pot of borscht simmers on a countertop burner while a pan of macaroni and cheese bubbles in the over. Small and dark-haired, Tracy, 43, darts around the kitchen, dispensing drinks and hugs while preparing supper for nine.

When Lee, 48, gets home from his job as a flight test engineer at Bombardier Aerospace in Wichita, he stoops to greet the kids who swarm over him, then sits down for a chat at the dining room table, removing his baseball cap and stretching his long, jeans-clad legs. “If you’d told me I’d have seven kids, I’d have said you were nuts,” he says with a chuckle. The Keralys first considered adoption during a long struggle with infertility. But even after the birth of three children—Travis, now 11; Becky, nine; and Jesse, six—Tracy’s interest in adoption didn’t fade. “I felt like I had a message from God that I needed to take [a child] who was already here,” she says in her soft-spoken, thoughtful manner. Although he had doubts at first, Lee agreed, calling it “a faith decision.”

Through an advertisement in a church newspaper, they learned of Ron Stoddart and the children he was bringing to the United States from St. Petersburg. They heard about one child, then another, and another. “Once you get caught up in it, you find there are more older kids who need families,” Tracy says. Finally, Lee went to Russia and brought home Svetlana, then 14; Zhenya, 11 (now called Jenna); and Vadim, nine (who quickly became Kevin), on October 19, 1995.

To afford the adoptions, the couple sold their new van and the concert-quality cello that Tracy, a music major in college, had owned for 23 years. “That was like losing your left arm. We’re conservative people, never in debt,” Tracy says. “But we saw it as children who had nothing versus us who had everything.” The Keralys also uprooted themselves, moving from their native California to Kansas, first to tiny Hesston, where their children went to school for a year and a half, then to the larger town of Winfield. Though the move has enabled them to afford a larger home, the Keralys’ financial pinch is still evident. Their house needs paint; their cars are 20 years old—two of their three cars were gifts from Tracy’s parents.

The Keralys have been more than ready to make the necessary financial sacrifices. But what of the emotional challenges? In the early months, with the first three adopted children, Lee says, they kept telling each other to be patient. “We’d been given a rule of thumb: For every year in an orphanage, allow about one month for adjustment.” That meant 18 months for Svetlana (whom they call Sveta, pronounced SVEE-ta), one year for Jenna, and six months for Kevin.

Poring through the research on children raised in foreign orphanages could give some parents pause. Ronald Federici, Psy.D., a developmental neuropsychologist in Alexandria, Virginia, who specializes in international adoption, says that in a recent study he conducted of 1500 international adoptees who were considered healthy at the time of their adoption, more than half had chronic but manageable problems such as attention deficit disorder. Almost one quarter were profoundly impaired.

Dr. Johnson, whose Minnesota clinic screens videotapes of institutionalized children for prospective parents, says learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, and fetal alcohol syndrome are all common. And reactive attachment disorder, an inability to form bonds, is almost a certainty. It develops in children who don’t have a consistent caregiver early in life and, therefore, don’t learn trust. The result? They either lack affection for others or shower it on everyone they meet.

For the Keralys, the first year with the older children was a trial. All three lied and stole. Kevin took Travis’s Matchbox cars and kept them under his pillow. The girls hoarded Becky’s things. They routinely blamed others when caught in the wrong. Although Kevin was affectionate and eager to be part of the family, “the older two would seem so cold, like they could just shut off the world,” Lee says, before heading outside to rescue Becky from a tree. “They were hostile and angry, mostly at me,” Tracy says. The girls created barricades on their beds to prevent her from saying good night. “They didn’t seem to be the people we’d been told they were,” she says.

At first the two girls showed no warmth toward Jesse, then 18 months old. “They had no sense that they, or I, had to treat a baby differently,” Tracy says. Once Sveta smacked Jesse on the head. Her explanation: “He hit me!” When Tracy tried to cut Jenna’s hair, the girl cried hysterically and hid in the bathroom. They thought the rearview mirror in the car was a spying device. “When they were the most against me, I reassured myself that they can’t hate me—they don’t know me well enough,” Tracy recalls. “Now I understand they couldn’t trust me. They had no way to figure out my intentions.” Within the first month, Sveta had a session with a Russian psychologist. “She told him she just didn’t know where she fit in,” Tracy says. “She didn’t seem to have a picture of what a family is supposed to be.”

Even five years later Sveta, 20, finds it difficult to articulate how she feels, but she gives it a try: “At first I wasn’t used to family living: a house, other people. I was lost in school completely. I would be a very bad person. I would kick the kids. Mom would tell me not to do it, and I wouldn’t listen. Once I walked out the door and walked all day and didn’t come back. I was angry at everybody.” Jenna, now 16, is an outgoing teenager who’s popular with her younger siblings, but she remembers being mean to Becky then four, with whom she and Sveta shared a room. “We’d remove the night-light even though she was afraid of the dark.”

The language barrier made everything so much harder. “They would come to me and want food twenty or thirty minutes before dinner was served,” Tracy remembers. “I could say nyet, but I couldn’t say, ‘Honey, we’re going to eat in thirty minutes, and I don’t want you to get filled up on cookies.’ I felt cruel, like I was denying them food.” (Another adoptive mother eventually taught her the full Russian phrase for We’re having dinner soon.)

The kids didn’t have the social skills American children their age possessed. “In a shoe store once, Kevin went up to the cash register and started pushing all the buttons. The lady said angrily, ‘Is this your boy?’” Tracy says.

Of course, adoptees have expectations too. “I would imagine seeing big buildings lie in New York,” Sveta says. “That didn’t happen.” Says Tracy: “The kids thought everyone had big houses and swimming pools. We don’t want to give the impression that life is this heaven streaming with ice cream cones, Disneyland, and no school. These kids almost act like they value things more than you. They’d say ‘Where’s my room, my Barbie?’ It’s too hard to say, ‘Where’s my love?’”

It’s understandable that foreign children don’t know what to expect of America and their new families, but it certainly doesn’t have to be that way for adults. Federici estimates that less than 10 percent of adoptive parents get adequate preparation. He says, “One agency director told me, ‘If I told all my families the research, I’d be out of business.’”

Thais Tepper, mother of an adopted Romanian boy and co-founder of the Parent Network for the Post-Institutionalized Child, accuses the agencies of putting on “dog and pony shows” that leave out crucial facts. She sympathizes with overwhelmed parents who are driven to consider giving back their adopted children. “You can judge them, but until you’re in that position, you don’t know what you’d do,” Tepper says.

Not that all adoption agencies should be tarred with the same brush. At Tressler, the parents go through 20 hours of training. “We teach about fetal alcohol syndrome and attachment disorder,” Holtan says. “We say it’s a lifetime commitment with no guarantees.”

Still, some parents simply don’t want to ponder complex questions. “They’re in a hurry,” Stoddard says. “They say, ‘We’ve seen this child’s picture. She’s wonderful.’ All they’re interested in is getting the documents together as fast as possible so they can go get the child.” He adds that some parents become defensive when agencies tell them to take a class or read a book. “Folks put their blinders on,” Hoyle of Tressler says. “We see bright, professional people who don’t go into adopting with the ‘I’m going to learn everything about it’ mentality they use with other major choices in their lives.”

The Keralys relied on Stoddart and his information—including psychological evaluations—about their three children. Moreover, they knew they were in it for the long haul. Things slowly improved. “Day to day it seemed like it would never end,” Lee recalls, “but we would get to where we’d say ‘Wow, these kids would have acted totally differently before. It’s getting better.’” Tracy says she felt it simply had to work. “Once you’ve done all the research on them, all you can do is ride the bucking bronco and hope it tames up.”

Lee admits to moments when he felt that he couldn’t bear one more crisis. “I give all the credit to Tracy,” he says. “It’s not like she hasn’t been frustrated, but she’s a person who gives love all the time.” Tracy went to great lengths to gain the children’s trust. “Once Sveta got detention for being late, but it was really the fault of the little kids, who couldn’t get ready in time,” she says. “I called her school and offered to serve the detention for her.”

Although Kevin, now 14, was initially easier to handle than the girls, he has more long-term difficulties, perhaps because of his birth mother’s alcoholism. “He’s a challenged kid in many ways,” Tracy says. When they adopted him, the Keralys were warned that Kevin probably had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. That didn’t scare them, because their son Travis has the same problem. Kevin showed signs of learning disabilities early on. His American teachers waited to test him because English was his second language. Then, when he reached sixth grade last year and was reading at only a second-grade level, they tested him and are now certain Kevin has learning disabilities.

Still, the boy is progressing in other ways—his play is more creative and joy-filled. “To see Kevin building forts and saying ‘Mom, look what we built’ is so satisfying,” Tracy says. “I think: Finally, you’ve got an imagination.”

            As we talk, we can hear the kids calling to one another from their bikes. Jenna is sitting on the porch step with Jesse; Sveta is talking to a friend on the kitchen phone. Tracy watches her kids with pride. “It’s like being an antiques lover—you know you have a prime piece, but it’s covered in grime. Now we can see it.” Lee struggles to pinpoint the moment he felt the children’s true personalities were emerging. “I could see them starting to help more around the house,” he says. “Sveta would sit down and pick up a book with Jesse, or Jenna would play with him. When I’d say good night to the big girls, I’d always given them a hug and tell them ‘I love you.’ Finally they would say, ‘I love you too.’” He stops, and takes off his glasses, and wipes his eyes. “Shoot, I promised myself I wouldn’t cry.”

With everything calming down, Tracy began to think of adding another child. “When Ron [Stoddart] described what was supposed to be going on with Aza, I thought it wasn’t nearly as bad as what we’d already been through” Tracy says. They took the girl into their home the day after Thanksgiving last year and hope her adoption will be complete next month. Aza displays insecurity, social awkwardness, and concern with material goods. She overwhelmed strangers with hugs, a sign of attachment disorder, which was familiar territory to the Keralys.

In the early months with Aza, Tracy says, “We’d look at each other and say, ‘OK, she’s going through this stage.’” Right away, Lee, whose own sentences are punctuated with chuckles, adored Aza’s laugh. “I love it—it’s from her stomach,” he says. And Tracy and Lee are now beginning to understand some of her first American parents’ complaints, such as the one about Aza wetting on the floor a few times. “The other night she said out of nowhere that when she first got adopted and her dad showed her to her room, she couldn’t remember where the bathroom was,” Tracy says. “She had to go so badly she went on the floor.”

Once they had decided to disrupt, the first family wanted Aza out quickly, so the Keralys were technically a foster placement. The little girl thought she was coming on an extended vacation. If Tracy wanted to cut Aza’s hair, she would say: “Did you ask my mom?”

When Tracy and Lee finally told her three months later that they wanted to adopt her themselves, Tracy says, “I was never so nervous. How do you explain that the other family doesn’t mind if she stays?” Alone with the little girl in her bedroom, Tracy and Lee helped her read through a letter from her former parents explaining why they thought she would be better off in her new home. Although some disrupted children have developed serious anxieties, Aza took the news with aplomb and has yet to show psychological scars. Nearly a year later, though, she still mentions her baby sister, grandpa, and friends in California.

For the other kids, Aza’s uninhibited affection required some adjustment, although Jesse latched on to her right away. During her first months in Kansas, Aza was very sensitive to teasing or annoyed remarks from the other kids. “She’s say, ‘He won’t play with me,’ or ‘He yelled at me,’ but she would have no sense that maybe something she did caused that,” Tracy says. “It’s really that the other children didn’t want to play her particular game at that particular moment. She felt rejected.” But Aza’s finding her place. “Sveta has surprised me by showing some nurturing qualities toward Aza,” says Tracy. Jenna does Aza’s hair. And Becky and Aza are inseparable—“a pair of fireballs,” Tracy says. They’re in the same class at school and on the same soccer team; the two laugh and bicker like any pair of sisters. Far from feeling displaced by the new addition, Becky says proudly, “I’m the one who chose Aza. I wanted another sister about my age.”

It took six months for Aza to begin to call Tracy Mom and Lee Dad with any consistency. “Now our battle is to prove that we’re not going to get rid of her,” Tracy says. “I don’t think she fears that, but to develop real trust and love is going to take awhile.

“It does help that we have the other kids. One of them went to her and said, ‘When you get adopted by our family, you never leave.’”