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A boy they couldn't raise

After he assaulted siblings, his family decided they had no choice but to give him up for another adoption

Sunday, August 13, 2000

By Cindi Lash, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The shoes got her.

The first time Melissa saw a photograph of the skinny, blond Russian boy who would become her fourth son, her eyes skimmed downward from his solemn, almost fearful gaze and ragged haircut.

Her gaze dropped to his feet, shoved into grimy canvas slippers that clearly were meant for a girl. Melissa later learned that the slippers weren't even his. He and the other kids in the orphanage where he'd spent most of his life swapped footwear when their turns came to play outdoors.

"He looked so pathetic," Melissa said. "I was afraid he would die if we left him there. I wanted to save him."

After days of fervent prayer, soul- searching and pleas from her three biological sons, Melissa and her husband, Gerry, welcomed the 3-year-old boy to their suburban Western Pennsylvania home.

Since then, their happy-ever-after hopes have eroded and disappeared. In November, after the boy had repeatedly assaulted pets, siblings and another child at a community event, Melissa and Gerry made the agonizing decision to remove him from their home and to sever their ties to him.

Melissa, 36, and Gerry, 49, are among a small but growing number of parents who have opted to disrupt -- or dissolve -- adoptions because they could not provide the care their children required. Experiences like theirs prompted the Russian government this year to suspend international adoptions while it overhauls its adoption system.

Melissa, who asked that her last name and details about her adopted son be withheld, said she told her family's story in an effort to prompt adoption agencies to be more accountable and forthcoming with other families. She and Gerry requested anonymity in order to protect the identity of the boy, who now lives in another community in Western Pennsylvania.

Unlike many couples who consider adoption, Melissa and Gerry had no infertility problems that prevented them from conceiving another child. But Melissa and Gerry share a strong Christian faith, and they felt obliged to share their blessings with others less fortunate.

With Gerry's Russian heritage in mind, they decided in 1996 to adopt from Russia. A college-educated health-care professional, Melissa said she and Gerry knew that children from Russian orphanages hadn't had the best start in life and were likely to have health or emotional problems, but that they believed they could cope.

"We're not stupid people," she said. "We did the research, all the ins and outs."

They chose a local adoption agency after hearing positive things about it. She won't name the agency, but it has since gone out of business.

Melissa said she and Gerry told workers at the agency that because they already had three children, they did not want to adopt a child with severe handicaps, health problems or fetal alcohol syndrome.

In January 1997, the agency sent them a photograph and medical information about a reportedly healthy 2-year-old girl.

Just before they left for Russia to fetch that girl, the agency sent them another snapshot -- the pitiful boy in borrowed slippers. Could Melissa and Gerry make room for another, older child as well?

Agency officials said they had only scant information about the boy, indicating he had mild developmental delays. But Melissa said agency officials assured the couple that "once he learned English, he'd soar."

"We prayed and prayed over it," Melissa said. "We had fears about having five in college at one time. Then [one of their sons] volunteered to share his bedroom. [Another son] asked if [the boy] would find another family who'd love him like we could."

So Melissa and Gerry decided to open their hearts and stretch their pocketbooks to include the boy as well as the girl. They arrived at the boy's orphanage June 15, 1997, and spent a weekend visiting him.

Only then, she said, did they receive a translated copy of the boy's medical records. It contained no alarming information that might have changed their minds about adopting him the next week.

Melissa and Gerry retrieved their new daughter from another orphanage. Almost immediately, they suspected things weren't right.

The boy was noticeably hyperactive. He wouldn't let his new parents touch him.

His new sister was lethargic until the family boarded the plane for home. Then she arched her back, went rigid and screamed for the next 14 hours.

At home, the girl continued to scream for days, weeks and then months. She rocked incessantly and banged her head -- typical of children who've spent long periods without affection or stimulation and resort to those behaviors to soothe themselves.

The boy woke screaming from night terrors. He scratched himself until he bled, then picked the sores open for months. He gnawed the insides of his cheeks and lips and spat out bloody bits of flesh, but never gave a sign that he felt pain.

"I'd had three kids," Melissa said. "I knew this wasn't right."

But her agency assured her that the children needed time to adjust and suggested that her parenting skills were lacking. Later, she said, officials blamed her older children for teaching the adopted boy and girl bad behavior.

"You have a hard time admitting, 'I spent all this time and money and it's not right,' " she said. "We thought love would fix it."

By fall, the girl was calmer as she grew accustomed to her new family and began occupational, speech and physical therapy. The boy was worse.

At school, teachers noted he had no attention span. He snatched toys from other kids and pulled out his hair.

Trips to the pediatrician led to a session with a behaviorist, who prescribed Ritalin for hyperactivity and Klonadine for his night terrors. The drugs did little, however, to curb his increasing aversion to others in his family.

The boy resisted joining in sports or any activity that involved groups or sharing. If Melissa chided the boy for misbehaving, he'd make sure she was looking and then repeat what he'd done.

If she punished him further, he retaliated by urinating on her chair or her seat in the car.

"It was a control thing," she said. "He's peed in every vehicle we've owned."

Melissa and Gerry later learned that such behavior signaled oppositional defiant disorder, common among once-institutionalized children.

The boy choked the cat or pummeled his brothers and sister. He was charming and affectionate with teachers and people he barely knew, yet would refuse to hug his mother or relatives.

Once, before a car trip, Melissa heard her daughter scream and found her bleeding on the ground. The boy had knocked her down, stomped her face into the mud and climbed over her into the car, yelling with glee, "I got in first."

Therapists diagnosed that behavior as reactive attachment disorder, another syndrome found in institutionalized children who received too little attention during crucial periods of their development. They fail to develop bonds with caregivers or regard for relationships.

The family tried doctor after doctor, therapist after therapist. For a time, the boy made progress under the care of a therapist in Shadyside, but regressed when that therapist moved to another state. Other doctors had never heard of reactive attachment disorder or had never treated a post-institutionalized child.

Melissa and Gerry's marriage frayed, stressed by Melissa spending hours with the boy at therapy sessions or on behavioral exercises while Gerry worked overtime to pay for his treatment. Their friends fell away.

Their other children grew depressed, resenting the amount of time their parents devoted to the boy and his attacks on them. One of his brothers grew so terrified of the boy that he could sleep only when sandwiched between Melissa and Gerry in their bed.

Conventional forms of discipline had no effect on the boy, who'd been neglected and abused before he was removed from his birth mother's care and placed in the orphanage.

Every now and then, the boy would emit a flash of affection, just enough to give them hope. Thinking about the rare, quiet moment when he told her, "Mommy, I don't mean to be bad. I just can't help it," makes Melissa bury her face in her hands and sob.

"I would ask, "Why, God? Am I a bad mom?' I would think, 'If I just hugged him more, or loved him more, or [put] more notes in his backpack.' You'll do so much for a cure for your child."

Twice, Melissa and Gerry admitted the boy to Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Oakland. Each time, she said, doctors would conclude that the boy wasn't a danger to himself and would discharge him.

They looked into having him admitted to residential treatment programs, but their health insurance wouldn't cover it and their finances were exhausted. So were their nerves and their health.

In an effort to glean some helpful bit of information they might have missed, Melissa and Gerry had their adopted children's medical records translated again in 1998 by a university educator with no ties to the adoption agency. The records showed that both the boy and his adopted sister were a year younger than the agency had represented them to be.

The records also showed that five Russian families already had tried to adopt the boy but returned him to the orphanage because he was so psychologically disturbed.

That infuriated Melissa, who believed that information had been deliberately withheld from her and her husband so they wouldn't decide against adopting the boy. She and Gerry sued their agency, charging that it had failed to disclose the information.

Last summer, the boy attacked another child while the family attended a community ball game. That incident, followed by continued cruelty to his siblings, prompted Melissa and Gerry in October to admit him for a third time to Western Psych.

Husband and wife finally admitted what they'd each been afraid to say aloud: They couldn't risk their other children's safety by bringing the boy home. Melissa made the telephone call to tell her county's Children and Youth Services agency that she and Gerry no longer could care for their son.

Their last visit at Western Psych was excruciating.

They gave the boy a family photo and pictures their other children had made for him. They sobbed as they explained that they would always love him but lacked the resources or ability to help him get better.

The boy played with toy cars on the floor and calmly replied, "OK." He never cried.

They never saw him again. Two weeks later, he left the hospital for a foster home chosen with the help of Every Child Inc., a Pittsburgh agency that tries to place children with special needs or problems.

"There are still days where you're really angry, with an enormous amount of guilt. I don't think I would be a fit mother if I could give this child up and feel nothing," Melissa said. "But I have to believe we gave him an opportunity by bringing him here.

"I loved this boy. I taught this boy to say grace, to wipe his butt. Hopefully, we provided a basis [for his new placement] to build on."

Today, the boy is being adopted for the seventh time, this time by the foster family. He is the only child in that home and, without other siblings to bully or hurt, he has made progress with his behavior.

Melissa and Gerry are surrendering their parental rights to the boy, but they'll pay child support until he is adopted or turns 18.

They've spent more than $100,000 on medical treatment for the boy in addition to more than $40,000 in fees and adoption costs. But they withdrew the lawsuit against their adoption agency earlier this year, saying no amount of money they might have been awarded would compensate for their ordeal.

With difficulty, they have shrugged off snubs and exclamations of horror from neighbors and former friends who can't understand how they gave up their child. Those people didn't live their life, Melissa said, or carry her responsibility to her other four children.

"We used to live day to day, sometimes hour to hour," she said, clasping her hands. "The other kids do miss him. He's still their brother. [But] they are changed kids now. They're laughing more, their grades are improving. There's no fear now.

"I still have five children, but one just doesn't live with me. Somewhere, I have a son that I'll never raise, and I'll love him till I die. At least I know I saved his life. I can always say that."

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