Russian officials are threatening to stop allowing its country's children to be adopted by U.S. parents following the actions of an adoptive mother from Shelbyville, Tenn. The single parent disowned her adopted son and sent him back to Russia alone seven months after he arrived in the United States.
Relatives of the adoptive mother, Torry Hansen, said the Russian child had lashed out in several violent episodes and threatened to burn down the family's home.
For a couple from Jefferson City, the tale of a parent adopting an older Russian child, then giving the child up after an inability to cope with behavioral problems, has resurrected many painful memories.
"I have never gone through anything like I did with this adoption," said Barbara Diggs, a licensed social worker who adopted her eight-year-old daughter Elizabeth from Russia in 1999. "We fell in love with her. Here was our opportunity to have a child and give this incredibly intelligent and adorable girl a better life. Both of her parents were alcoholics, her mother neglected her from birth and later abandoned her entirely. Elizabeth was just roaming the streets at three years old."
Diggs and her husband James adopted Elizabeth knowing some of the girl's difficult past. While the couple anticipated some obstacles inherent with many adopted children concerning trust and abandonment, they were not prepared for a much more severe manifestation known as Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD).
"You feel like everything if you love a child enough, eventually they will come around and everything will be fine," said Barbara. "Unfortunately, love is not always enough. Elizabeth had some deep-seeded psychological issues that prevented her from bonding with people in healthy ways based on how she was treated as an infant."
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders says Reactive Attachment Disorder is a complex psychiatric condition that affects a small number of children. It is characterized by problems with the formation of emotional attachments and can be found in children who endured prolonged periods of isolation or neglect.
"RAD is something that can occur in children like Elizabeth who were not held as infants, do not have any nurturing physical encounters, and don't have eye-contact with a caregiver from the time they are born and age-2. She did not know how to trust or bond with people in a healthy way," said Barbara. "She did not have a conscience for right or wrong or cause-and-effect. We did not know what was wrong and did not have any support for a few years. She was abusive and the more love we would share the angrier she would become."
Despite taking parenting courses as well as engaging in years of therapy in an attempt to forge a bond between the neglected child and her caregivers, Barbara said they were unable to effectively treat Elizabeth's RAD. Further complicating the issue was the fact that Elizabeth's behavioral problems at home were not visible in many public settings such as school.
"She was a fantastic student and a model child at school. She is very intelligent, loved to learn, won a lot of awards, and earned scholarships. Her teachers adored her and would not believe that she was manipulative and deceitful," said Barbara.
A child psychologist told 10News that RAD demonstrates the importance of parents having physical contact with children in loving ways during infancy. For children with RAD, behavior can verge on psychopathic conduct void of a conscience. With children who developed while fending for themselves, their primary focus remains their own survival and they do not bond with others.
"A lot of the experts we approached did not have any working knowledge of RAD. We had to train them on the subject. All the while, Elizabeth had problems with compulsive lying, severe disobedience, and an inability to really connect with us in a healthy way," said James, a former pastor. "She [Elizabeth] actually turned us in for child abuse."
"The social worker came out and said, 'This is not anything like what Elizabeth described' and told us we were very good parents and dismissed the case," said Barbara.
Eventually, the Diggs were able to find a nearby specialist who had extensive knowledge of RAD treatments. After many efforts to reshape Elizabeth's behavior, the Diggs said the specialist suggested relinquishing their adoption and allowing their daughter to live with a family that had a background of working with RAD in addition to the resources to continue the extensive and costly treatments.
"It extremely traumatic to give Elizabeth up, but we ultimately decided to let her go. That was almost six years ago. It was something our family, friends, and people in the community could not understand," said Barbara. "We were shunned. They looked at us like, 'How could you get rid of your child?' We kept saying we didn't get rid of our child, we got her help."
The Diggs said they hope their experience will encourage potential adoptive parents to heavily research adoption agencies and potential psychological disorders before going through with the major decision.
"We do not see Elizabeth anymore. We still love her. We did everything we could and it wasn't enough. She was getting to an age where the window was closing for any realistic chance at being treated and healed," said James. "We know how difficult it was to go through this situation where people did not have any knowledge or understanding of RAD. I hope people can learn about Reactive Attachment Disorder because if we were aware and had equipped ourselves going into the adoption, we may have been able to weather through the storm. In the end, we had given all we could offer physically, emotionally, and financially. Giving her up was the right thing to do, but it was like the death of a child."
"I still think people should adopt. I also don't want this to sound like this is something that only happens in Russia or with orphans, because RAD can occur with children who stay with their birth parents. I just hope people will educate themselves before jumping into a situation that can be destructive for everyone involved," said Barbara. "To any adoptive mother out there going through this, you are not alone."