Until last year, when Russia slipped into second place behind China in terms of international adoptions, Russia exported more children than any other country. Most of these orphans end up in the United States, where many of them happily settle into new families. But hidden in the flood are an unknown number of violently disturbed youngsters.
After hours on the plane, sleepless and senseless, you step haltingly into a warehouse of children. Here, in real-life glory, stands your child. Blond hair. Luminous eyes of crystal blue. Everything you've hoped for, waited for, paid for and good God, what is the matter with him?
He cannot - or will not - stop flipping the television switch. On. Off. On. Off. On-off. On-off. On-off-on-off-on-off-on-off, until annoyance and fear seize your heart.
Then he crawls into your lap and hugs you with over-the-top abandon. You remember to breathe. Maybe it's jet lag. Maybe he's as nervous as you.
Just get him home, get him settled, feed him, give him time. Everything will be fine.
At home, it most definitely is not fine. You discover his fascination with knives. That he fondles little girls and grown women. That he enjoys trying to break the dog's legs.
He is 6 years old.
Three months after he arrives in America, you commit him to a psychiatric hospital, where he is institutionalized for a year. And from there, things get no better. They get worse.
It has taken a decade for Americans to realize that hidden in a deluge of children adopted from Eastern Europe are untold numbers of violently and profoundly disturbed youngsters. Children such as the boy adopted from a bleak Russian orphanage in 1995 by Mike and Sharon Venhaus of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and now lives in his second foster home.
Thousands of U.S. couples desperate for white children have turned to Eastern Europe since the fall of communism. In first Romania, then Russia, the doors to state-run orphanages were flung wide. Behind them were unwanted children with faces so needy it hurt just to look at them.
Since 1990, more than 100,000 foreign children, the majority from those two countries, have been adopted into American families. Most fit fine. The ones who don't seem inhuman, like automatons from "Village of the Damned," the science fiction classic about children lacking empathy or conscience.
No one knows how many of these disturbed youngsters now live in the United States, which adopts more children from overseas than all other countries combined. No central agency monitors them. They were plucked from government institutions where food, electricity and heat can be scarce. Where human touch is a luxury, deprivation the norm. Such conditions can produce children unable to bond with anyone.
Adoption agencies and child psychiatrists have tried to track these nightmarish adoptions, but results are limited and widely varied, depending on who's counting. Studies done in cooperation with agencies show about 2 percent of international adoptions result in "disruption," the legal term for cutting ties with a child and handing him back to the agency, or placing him in state custody if the agency refuses him. But doctors and therapists specializing in treating children adopted from overseas say the figure may be as high as 25 percent.
TWO TRAGIC CASESIn two shocking cases, children with severe behavioral problems adopted from Russia were killed, and their adoptive parents held responsible.
David Alexander Polreis, age 2 years and 10 months, died in a Colorado hospital in February 1996, his body covered in bruises. He had been adopted six months before from an orphanage in Tula, central Russia. Once he was home in America, he urinated on people and threw his feces against walls. He spit in the sleeping face of his brother, Isaac, who had been adopted in Colorado. He bit his new mother's finger to the bone. He was diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder caused by abuse and severe deprivation in infancy. Its symptoms include the absence of conscience, an inability to give or receive love, learning disabilities, self-mutilation, cruelty to siblings and animals, morbid fascinations with fire and violence and overt sexuality.
David's mother, Renee Polreis, used a novel legal defense. She claimed David beat himself to death with a wooden spoon in a fit of rage. The jury didn't believe her, and she was sentenced to 22 years in prison. Last year, Weld County District Judge Roger Klein reduced her sentence to 18 years, saying "any additional time would only be vindictive."
Viktor Alexander Matthey, 7, was adopted from Russia in December 1999 with his 4-year-old twin brothers. He died in New Jersey last Halloween, two days after medics responded to an emergency call that the boy was in cardiac arrest.
Pending completion of a homicide investigation, his adoptive parents, Robert and Brenda Matthey of Union Township, have been charged with endangering the welfare of a child. Their four biological children and Viktor's twin brothers have been placed in state custody.
Doctors noted 40 injuries, including scratches, open wounds and bruises, and measured the boy's body temperature at 29 degrees. Prosecutors say Viktor was forced to sleep in an unheated cellar on nights when temperatures dropped below freezing.
Lawyers for the parents say the boy's injuries were self-inflicted. Viktor exhibited RAD-like symptoms, but it is unclear if he had been diagnosed. He suffered sleep disorders, threw himself down stairs and banged his head against walls, the lawyers said.
There are other criminal cases. Last August, 43-year-old Denise Kaye Thomas of Littleton, Colorado, was sentenced to a year of unsupervised probation after being arrested for trying to sell her Russian daughter on the Internet. Thomas said she was trying to find a new home for the 8-year-old, diagnosed with RAD, and to recoup some of the $15,000 she and her husband spent adopting her. The child has been placed in foster care.
In a telephone interview, Thomas said she and her husband tried everything - discipline, therapists, Russian translators. Nothing worked. The girl grew more volatile and sexually provocative.
Thomas said no one really knew what to do, short of committing the girl to a mental institution. There were times, the mother said, when she wondered who should check in, her daughter or herself. "It's very hard not to react. It's very hard not to lash out ... ," she said. "But I've never seen behavior like this. I raised my biological son and this is just so far from normal behavior."
The girl she adopted, Thomas said, is lucky. "She found another family to live with. But if they're really, really bad, no will take them. No one wants that in their home."
PARENTS LIVING IN FEARSharon Venhaus did not hurt her adopted son, but she admits to understanding how such things happen. "I'm terrified of him," she says, her voice shaking. "He tried to kill the dog. He tried to kill his sister. Undoubtedly, he will kill someone."
The boy, who is now 11, molested his adopted sister, attacked Sharon's parents and sent her husband packing, she says. The couple, now divorced, are trying to disrupt the adoption.
The boy is temporarily a ward of the state while the Venhauses battle child abandonment charges for putting him in a foster home. "I would do anything in the world to warn everybody out there about these kind of children," she says.
Venhaus does not know Priscilla and Neal Whatcott of Washington state. She does, however, know something about their fear and their hurt and their shame.
Members of the Whatcott family, from left, Max, 13, Lily, 5, and Gus, 9, watching their mother make gingerbread men.
The Whatcotts have a 15-year-old daughter, a beautiful girl with lustrous black hair and the sensuality of a grown woman. She is locked in a Michigan mental ward. In the last three years, she has sexually assaulted adults and children, repeatedly run away and tried to set fire to her bedroom, the Whatcotts say.
The Whatcotts, too, face child abandonment charges for giving their adopted child to a foster family, who in this case lived in Michigan and was skilled in dealing with special-needs children.
Not long after bringing her daughter home, Priscilla Whatcott began writing things down. The girl, then 12, crawled to the back of a closet, huddled under a blanket and sobbed inconsolably. She frequently erupted in frightening and baffling fits of rage that included kicking and clawing her new mother.
On Jan. 2, 1998, little more than a month after her arrival, Whatcott typed an e-mail to a friend. "Things are awful this morning," she began. The child would not speak or get out of bed. After hours of cajoling, Whatcott's patience ran dry. She lifted the girl, carried her to the bathtub and turned on the cold water. She sputtered, but still would not talk.
At night, while the rest of the family slept, the girl roamed the house, Whatcott wrote. A 15-centimeter kitchen knife was missing and Whatcott was convinced she was hiding it. "Quite frankly, we are terrified," Whatcott typed. "She's an angry kid. A 5-year-old inside a 12-year-old body, trying to act like an 18-year-old."
The Whatcotts were not novices at foreign adoptions. In 1988, they adopted a 4-month-old boy from Taiwan. In 1996, they brought home a baby girl from China. Max, now 13, and Lily, 5, suffered some developmental delays caused by neglect in infancy, but both have improved greatly. The couple also have a biological son, Gus, 9.
But nothing prepared them for their Russian daughter.
"We thought we would have adjustment problems, not life-threatening problems," Whatcott says.
That is exactly what the Venhauses thought. They, too, had already adopted from abroad.
David, 10, came from India as an infant. Amiee, 6, was adopted shortly after birth in New Mexico. Because they were so happy with David and Amiee, the Venhauses again used Rainbow House International, based in their home state, to find a boy close to David's age.
Donna Clauss, the adoption agency's executive director, declined to comment on the Venhauses, citing confidentiality laws. Rainbow House, she says, does provide training and information about behavioral difficulties with overseas children.
"We try to make families familiar with all of the issues they may face," Clauss says. In 17 years of doing business, she says, less than 1 percent of adopting parents have asked to dissolve their adoptions.
Mike Venhaus says he specifically told the agency the family could not take a child with psychological problems. Soon, the agency found the boy who was placed with them. "But they didn't tell us he had RAD," he says.
"If he was an adult, he would be considered a sociopath," Venhaus says. "He knew how to push my buttons. He pushed them to the point where I wanted to hurt him. So I packed a bag one night and I left because I couldn't take it anymore."
THE STIGMA OF FAILUREBeing pushed to that limit is terrifying. The Whatcotts and the Venhauses are among few parents willing to talk about it. In the last decade, some couples trying to sever overseas adoptions have given interviews. The recoil knocked the wind out of others like them.
Children cannot be returned like ill-fitting shoes, declared adoption agencies, child psychologists and parents around the world who wrote letters to newspaper editors and flooded the Internet.
"These parents get a lot of grief from people who say 'Oh, how can you do this?"' says Barbara Holtan, adoption director for Tressler Lutheran Services in Baltimore, Maryland. "But they're literally beside themselves, sobbing into the phone."
Priscilla Whatcott showing family photographs of their adopted Russian daughter, now locked in a mental ward.
Orphanages in Russia operate "like hospitals in this country used to be many, many years ago," says Holtan. "Bottles are propped in beds. These kids aren't picked up. They aren't talked to. And the effect is deadly."
The deadline for helping these kids is puberty, experts say. But Holtan is losing faith. "We've always believed that," she says. "I don't know if I still do, though, because of these children I've seen."
The stories she hears are depressingly similar. Children who cannot sleep, who tell of being raped at age 5 or 6 by outsiders who bribed Russian orphanage staff. Children whose behaviors now include molesting others and attempted murder.
"For years we've been placing kids who have been sexually abused, but some of the things these parents describe to me on the phone ... ," Holtan stops. The sentence is left hanging, as if finishing it would be too brutal.
She waits a moment and starts again.
Worse, she says, "has been the repetitive theme of the Russian or Romanian child trying to kill the younger child in the house."
There is nothing new about abused children becoming abusers. But when that transformation occurs, the child is usually older than 6.
Despairing and isolated, most adoptive parents of severely disturbed children speak candidly only to others like themselves. In recent years, on web sites and in advocacy groups, they have pleaded with the U.S. Congress to enact the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoptions, an international treaty that would give the United States its first ground rules for overseas adoptions.
After six years of bickering in Congress, President Bill Clinton signed a bill last October enacting the treaty. It brings national rules and accountability to a system that has little of either. But several years may pass until all of them take effect.
Under the current system, there are no federal records concerning foreign adoptions in the United States. But under the Hague Convention legislation, the State Department will accredit agencies and track children adopted abroad. In cases of disruption, agencies will be obligated to find new homes for the youngsters.
Many adoption advocates are relieved to have any kind of federal rules. But just as many question whether the regulations are enough.
"Reality is different from legislation," says attorney Leslie Scherr of Bethesda, Maryland, who specializes in adoption cases. "These children have fetal alcohol syndrome, attachment disorders, low IQs - every kind of problem you can think of. The orphanages are deplorable. The people who are adopting have to be notified as to the real health and mental health status of these children."
For the Venhauses and the Whatcotts, the new rules will little change life as they know it - a cycle of court dates, foster care payments and judges asked to decide the fates of children who inflict suffering.
"He doesn't play. He plays like he's training to kill somebody," says Sharon Venhaus, who says she will never again let her troubled adoptive son near her family. "I am dead serious. They cannot tell us to take these children home so they can hurt other children."
Some 2,250 kilometers north, Priscilla Whatcott speaks in a voice so soft it is barely audible, as if she can't bear to hear her own words.
She wonders if her adoptive daughter would be better off dead.
"Some days I think that the very best answer is for God to take her. Release her and be done with it. There is no happy ending here."