Reality Disproves the "Heroic Parent" Myth Once Again

Sometimes I tease my wife about the fact that she's got a doctorate in clinical psychology and is widely reputed among her colleagues to be a gifted child psychologist, yet is as much at sea in raising our own little hellions as I am. She tells me that it's actually somewhat a joke in the mental health profession that their kids wind up disturbed. I can live with that, I guess; at least statistically one or two of them will drop out rather than going to an expensive college, and I can buy a cool car.

There's another group widely assumed to be naturally gifted and excellent at parenting: adoptive parents. But we're just not. Adoptive parents are used to people cooing "Oh, that's so WONDERFUL that you adopted a that child," often accompanied by suggestions that the parents are "rescuing" the child, that the child is inherently better off with the adoptive parents, and that the adoptive parents are somehow noble saviors. Well-adjusted and reflective adoptive parents tend to despise this, as I've said before in the course of discussion adoption. Well-adjusted adoptive parents recognize that they are the extraordinarily blessed ones in the relationship, that the adoptive-parent-as-savior concept is poisonous to a child's self-esteem and development, and that it perpetuates a sentiment that justifies trafficking in children from developing countries. Yet people still insist on believing that a family that wanted a child enough to adopt one is somehow naturally better prepared for life's unpleasant surprises. They're not.

That's why this story should horrify us and shock us that people in general, not adoptive parents in particular, could be so inhumane.

Russia threatened to suspend all child adoptions by U.S. families Friday after a 7-year-old boy adopted by a woman from Tennessee was sent alone on a one-way flight back to Moscow with a note saying he was violent and had severe psychological problems.

Nancy Hansen, the grandmother, told The Associated Press that she and the boy flew to Washington and she put the child on the plane with the note from her daughter. She vehemently rejected assertions of child abandonment by Russian authorities, saying he was watched over by a United Airlines stewardess and the family paid a man $200 to pick the boy up at the Moscow airport and take him to the Russian Education and Science Ministry.

It sounds as if the adoptive family was completely unprepared to deal with a child with behavioral issues. Rather than seeking help from private or public resources, the family chose to ship the child back like unceremoniously returning a defective product to the store. I'm not saying that no adoption disruption is never appropriate — sometimes a family, whether adoptive or biological, just isn't capable of addressing a child's needs. But decent people, having made a commitment to a child, ought to make every possible effort to live up to that commitment, and that includes seeking help and disrupting through official channels, not dumping the kid with a one-way ticket.

Irresponsibility is not a zero-sum game: without diminishing the parents' guilt, we can observe that the adoption agency in this case probably did a piss-poor job of vetting the family and making sure that it was capable of dealing with entirely predictable emotional and behavioral issues.

A lot of adoptive parents are quite outraged by this story. That's understandable. But the outrage should be tempered with a bit of mercy, humility (meaning recognition that adoptive parents are just as broken as anyone else), and awareness of the stance we normally take towards the birth parents of our own children. To use the currently correct term, our kids' parents "made an adoption plan"; to use the language people are using about this family, some of them "abandoned" their children. If we rail too hard at the Hansen family, our kids might wonder how we view their parents, and how they should view them. We should criticize the Hansen family and their response to their situation carefully, without dehumanizing parents who decide that they are not capable of raising their children and, out of love, seek to find them another home.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. Just Asking says

    My first thought on reading this was: I've heard that some of the kids placed for adoption under these circumstances turn out to be semi-feral psychopaths-in-training, with little or no hope of ever turning them into well-adjusted, loving kids. Tragedy to follow.

    That sounds cruel when stated so baldly, but is it also accurate? Anyone got any experience by which to confirm this notion and/or disabuse me of it? Are there known percentages of cases where it's true and where it's false? If so, what are they?

  2. Chris Berez says

    Certainly a far-more reasoned response than the internal one I had this morning when I first read the story.

    Going from what I've read from various sources and the discussion I've seen online, it sounds like there are some pretty major issues with Russian adoption services and that many institutions in Russia are… well. let's just say "not nice places". It's quite possible this family was not vetted at all and the agency saw an opportunity to ship off a child and did so.

    So basically, there are potentially a lot of people coming out of this not looking too nice– not just the Hansens.

    Really a disturbing story by any means, though. I feel awful for that kid.

  3. says

    Just Asking, there are kids who have severe attachment disorders that makes it incredibly difficult to integrate them into family life. But it's not as common, or as severe, as the horror-story-peddlers would suggest. No, I don't believe there are statistics. It's certainly worse with countries where children are kept in orphanages in bad conditions.

  4. Mohamed says

    If this were done by a guy, he would have lost his job, he would have been jailed for child endangerment and if he had kids of his own, they would have been taken away from him and given to some relative or ex relative of his and he would have been barred from ever having any contact with them.

  5. says

    I've acquaintances who adopted a Russian brother and sister, aged 10 and 9. Both children, it was discovered post-adoption, had been brutalized and raped repeatedly in the orphanage. Both presented rather serious 'behavior issues' once in their new home. The adoptive parents believed they had done due diligence prior to the adoption, but they were lied to.

    The boy managed to work his way through his issues, after considerable psychotherapy and bouncing through a dozen schools. Now, eight years later, the girl, is still in dire straits. She's been in and out of schools, hospitals, institutions, police stations, and is currently being considered for life-long commitment as criminally insane.

    Luckily, the adoptive parents can afford the hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills their good intentions generated.

    I do understand that this is only one (or two) data points, but it'd be enough to keep me away from Russian adoptions.

  6. Sparkylong says

    Two sets of dear friends adopted Russian children (the children were no more than 3 or 4 at the time). 'Best, most grounded families one could ever meet–& all of their own biological children emerged from their 18 year chrysalese stable, cheerful, hard-working & college-bound.

    The 2 Russian adopted children (gorgeous, by the way), did, indeed, have profound attachment disorder, acted out constantly–& dangerously–& were also bounced around from school to school. Same story as above, in that the dedicated parents could both afford & chose to shell out the hundreds of thousands to wrap the two boys in as much solid therapy (admixed with love) that they could.

    For the record, it never, ever would have occurred to either family to summarily send the boys back with a note pinned onto their respective jackets & $200 for cab fare…to nowhere.

  7. Rich Rostrom says

    AFAICT, Russian adoption agencies, like nearly everything else there, are thoroughly corrupt. Many Russian children are born with serious disorders due to prenatal abuse – that is, mothers who are alcoholics or drug users, malnourished, or otherwise unfit. Others are neglected or abused in childhood.

    There are of course many people who think they want to adopt a child, are unfit to do so, but have money.

    These Russian agencies are happy to make a quick dollar by unloading damaged children on incompetent parents.

    Incidentally, what is this "heroic parent" myth? Does anyone actually claim that all parents are completely devoted to their children? Or that adoption never goes bad?

  8. Doug says

    Here is the secret. My wife and I did not adopt our son to "rescue" a child. We wanted a 3rd child and having natural kids was expensive and iffy. We got lucky once, did not think it would happen again. We got lucky and were matched with a boy. He has been a handful, but in a good boy way. Full of energy and normal acting out. It is my daughters and my wife and I who have been blessed. We think he has some memory of his past life (we do show him pictures sometimes), and he always says he loves living here. But, the real winners have been his slightly older sisters, once with severe speech and fine motor deficits and her twin sister. He constantly pushes them to try learn more and to keep up with them. I can't imagine life without our little man.

  9. Sparkylong says

    Rich, whereas your questions are both rhetorical to say nothing of baited, neither allows the adoptive parent leave to return the 'damaged goods.'

    It's simply too late. This is now your child. No deposit, no return. You made your bed, now sleep in it.

    Adults have internal resources that children don't. Some of these Russian children are, indeed, all but feral. To somehow have the wool pulled over your eyes by a thoroughly corrupt Russian adoption agency (some of which are little more than lacquered-up human trafficking cartels) & end up realizing that your little cherub was replaced by an incubus…well too bad.

    Abandoning the child that you legally adopted (however loosely the term ultimately is used) is not an option. Could the child be so 'far gone' that returning him for a partial or no refund will likely cause no further harm to him? 'Possible, I suppose.

    Yet entirely irrelevant. To claim that you were hoodwinked & that to somehow spare both your sanity & the well-being & general welfare of your family, that you had to return "it," makes you part & parcel of human trafficking yourself.

    No, I don't want details & I don't want explanations.

    None could ever be satisfactory.

  10. Mike says

    Some children are broken beyond repair. Not amount of sentimentality or superstition about the innocence of children will change that.

    Sad story; but what happens when the kid starts torturing the family dog and raping neighbors?

    Suddenly that child has not just become the adoptive parent's problem – but instead has been made everyone else's problem.

    Not sure what the answer is. I am sure that a high level of moral certainty and outraged is unwarranted.

    There is no good answer about the problem of broken humans. When animals act out and viciously attack others, they are put down. Yet because of our superstitions about souls, there exists a belief in redemption.

    Sort of weird. A guy who is born without an arm cannot be redeemed into having two arms. Yet when the piece of meat inside our heads is deformed, we pretend as if the damage is reversible – since, after all, we're talking about redeemable souls rather than mere biological parts.

  11. Sparkylong says


    Interesting posit.

    Your worldview obliquely suggests that there is little difference between a savage beast & an equally savage, feral child.

    You hesitate to proffer what you term "a good answer," yet on the surface it appears that your solution to both of these unrepairable creatures is the same, i.e., to be "put down."

    No, I do not think for a moment that this is what you are suggesting, but please flesh out for the readers how you do, indeed, differentiate between these two destructive beings. Therein may lie your own 'answer,' that is, at least, no worse than that of anyone else.

  12. Mike says

    Your worldview obliquely suggests that there is little difference between a savage beast & an equally savage, feral child.

    Yours, too – and pretty much everyone else's. At least if you're honest.

    Society exists to tame. Those who cannot be tamed are put into prison or mental institutions. We wait until some magical number – 18, usually, although 14 is old enough if the crime is bad enough.

    People are given a chance to recover from their feral state. If they can't, we lock them in boxes.

    Under some theory of utilitarianism, probably that's the right thing to do. You don't let a wolf run loose in a school yard. One might ask: Doesn't the wolf have rights, too? To answer that, we'll just talk about a wolf's rights ending at the bridge of our noses – as if that is anything other than an unsatisfactory tautology.

    These are very complicated issues. Problem is….Folks live in a fantasy world, and do not understand why society exists, or how and for what reason society was organized.

    yet on the surface it appears that your solution to both of these unrepairable creatures is the same, i.e., to be “put down.”

    You can call putting people into prison whatever you want to call it. Don't pretend that your solution is somehow more humane than mine.

    The only reason – in reality – I oppose putting people down is due to flawed human institutions. If I had God's-eye knowledge about stuff, I'd be in favor of it. Putting down permanently damages would spare the damaged person continued suffering. It would also prevent the damaged person from harming others. Human suffering would substantially decrease.

    Instead, we allow damaged humans to live; harm others; reproduce (like rabbits); thus brining even more damaged people into the world. So don't act like my ideas are the frightful ones.

    Of course, such a solution can't work given humanity's unwise nature. If we were more logical, then, yes, I'd be in favor of ending the cycle of sociopathy and destruction before it begins.

  13. says

    Great article, Madrocketscientist. Thanks for linking it. This is perfect:

    Meanwhile, I've figured out what I'll say the next time someone tells me that adopting my daughter was an "act of mercy." Yes, I'll reply, it was, and it is we — my wife and I — who are the recipients of that mercy.