The following letter was sent by e-mail to the Russian Child Ombudsman, Pavel Astakhov.
Dear Mr. Astakhov:
Please excuse my writing to you in my own language, but I have neither the vocabulary nor the keyboard to say what I want to say in Russian.
I want to communicate with you about factors affecting Russian adoptees in the United States. Several years ago I was interviewed on this topic by Konstantin Semin, the television anchor, who was at that time working in the United States.
I regret to say that little has changed since my discussion with Mr. Semin. However, the international reaction to Artyom's situation may offer an opportunity to make some changes. Curiously, there seems to be much more concern expressed about the treatment Artyom received than about physical mistreatment and even murder of adopted children.
In my opinion, a major reason for maltreatment of adopted children in the United States is the circulation in the media of misinformation about child mental health and development. Even the New York Times this morning referred to "reactive detachment disorder", a non-existent diagnosis; the reporter presumably meant to say "reactive attachment disorder", although of course there was no evidence that Artyom had received such a diagnosis. Smaller regional newspapers almost daily print mistaken information about "attachment disorders", much of which they draw from popular commercial Internet sites. Similarly, the "Nightline" program last week apparently got its material from such sites.
Among the errors promulgated by popular Internet sites are these: 1. That adopted children are very likely to have Reactive Attachment Disorder, and that it is quite easy to diagnose this even in children of 5 or more. 2.That reactive Attachment Disorder is characterized by violent, hostile behavior toward caregivers, younger children, and animals. 3. That treatment of behavior disorders in adopted children involves removing the child from the adoptive home and sending him or her to a residential treatment center. 4. That conventional psychologists' and psychiatrists' methods exacerbate adopted children's problems, and only unconventional treatments can be helpful. Sources of these mistakes, as well as information about children harmed by misunderstanding of Reactive Attachment Disorder, can be seen at www.childrenintherapy.org.
None of these claims are supported by evidence. But one can easily see how beliefs of this type would cause adoptive parents to focus on the child as the cause of any dissatisfaction or trouble in the home, to be seriously frightened by moods or behaviors that might be within the normal range, and to be prepared to separate from the child as part of the solution to any difficulties. One consequence of the belief that the children are dangerous may be for adoptive parents to respond with force to any minor disobedience or misunderstanding. In addition, adoptive parents who are convinced of these beliefs may be reluctant to seek assistance from professionals who reject the ideas, and this may have been the reason that Ms. Hansen did not ask for help even though she apparently needed it.
Regrettably, even highly-respected adoption agencies have in many cases taken on these mistaken beliefs and encourage them or pass them on to prospective adoptive parents. Some state governments have allowed child protective services to train foster and adoptive parents to use methods based on these misunderstandings.
Obviously, it is not the responsibility of Russia to correct mistaken beliefs in the United States. However, the motivation of Americans to adopt Russian children does provide some leverage that may make possible changes that would be beneficial to adopted children from many backgrounds. If Russia were to withhold permission for adoption to the United States until the mass media and the adoption agencies made some effort to correct the misunderstandings they have created by their acceptance of misinformation, this would be motivating for the adoption groups. If the media and the adoption groups were actually to provide correct information, parents adopting from Russia might be better equipped to behave appropriately toward the children.
I do not, of course, claim that this would solve all the problems, as I believe that for some parents the adoption situation triggers mental health issues that are not easy to predict. However, I think it is possible that changing the stories told by newspapers and television could play a serious role in changing adoptive parents' thinking and behavior.
Thank you for your attention. I would be happy to discuss this further at your convenience.
Jean Mercer, Ph.D.
Professor Emerita of Psychology, Richard Stockton College, Pomona NJ