Russian Adoptive Moms Travel To Russia for Answers

By Liz Collin, WCCO-TV

(WCCO) — A group of Minnesota mothers went all the way to Russia to seek answers on the struggles their adopted children face.

Laurie Jarvis of West St. Paul, Cheri Johnson of Maplewood and Melinda Cathey of Cottage Grove recently returned from a two-week trip to the cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow.

They found the courage to speak up after a Tennessee mother sent her adopted son back to Russia on a plane last spring.

“Our lives and homes don’t make sense to these children, and these children don’t make sense to us,” said Johnson, who has five adopted children from Russia.

Around the same time, Jarvis found her family in the headlines as well. She recently had given up her adopted Russian son after years of psychological trauma and violence. While in foster care, her 14-year-old son brought a gun to Hastings Middle School and threatened classmates. He is now in juvenile detention.

When Jarvis spoke openly about her struggles, other mothers of adopted Russian children came forward with similar stories of challenge – from anger and hostility to detachment issues and often fetal alcohol syndrome.

Melinda Cathey is the Executive Director of program called the Harbor, which helps older, forgotten Russian orphans transition out of the state system. She invited a group of mothers to travel back to the place their children were born in hopes of better understanding their children.

“I wanted to put a human face on these moms before the Russians, because in the Russian media, these moms are demonized, these families are demonized,” said Cathey. “In reality, they’re having the same problems you (Russians) are having but refuse to acknowledge.”

The women met with psychologists and caregivers in St. Petersburg orphanages. The mothers even conducted parenting seminars for young mothers who are orphans themselves, and met with psychologists at St. Petersburg University.

They also traveled to Moscow to meet with the US Embassy and top adoption officials, and found the government listened to their concerns.

“When they heard all of us tell our stories, they reacted by saying, we now know full well Russia has a big problem and we are going to be going into bilateral talks in the coming weeks,” said Jarvis.

“The majority of Russia still believes to this day that orphans are defective,” said Cathey, who says psychology and social work are still in infancy stages there. “Both governments are equally at fault for turning a blind eye to the real issues, there is a small minority of people beginning to speak out.”

  • georgia huling

    I would like to thank these Moms for stepping up and doing somethnig extra to help these children. Only when a problem is acknowledged can any thing be done.

  • Dan

    Why in the world do I care (as an adoptive father of 3 Russian orphans) what the Russians think? IMO the orphans are actually a business to the Russian economy. It is a cousin to the tourist industry. When the mom sent the kid back to Moscow, George Stephanopolis happened to be there and weighed in on the topic on national TV. He noted that president Medvedev (or maybe it was former president Putin) threatened to stop foreign adoptions. I laughed out loud. Lots of jobs and income in Russia depend on US families trying to take on the task of raising these kids. And for his part, Stephanopolis echoed what we adoptive parents run into all the time: disbelief.

    What’s more important is here at home, our families, our neighbors, the police and even inexperienced therapists, demonize the adoptive parents as did Stephanopolis.

    We have child protection complaints against us as well as one of our biological children. When my elder sister who thought we were in her words, child abusers, and causing the kids to behave this way, took on the task of parenting the eldest of the 3 we adopted, she found herself in the same boat and learned firsthand what the disbelief causes. For her good intentions, she got a sexual molestation charge against her husband because the then 16 year old adoptive daughter happened to be using the master bedroom shower and an unfortunate bystander, my brother in law, opened the door thinking it was his wife. The 16 year old used that episode to claim whatever and child protection came down on her side. And this kind man, father of 3 adult successful, professional children, whom I’ve known since I was 13 years old, now has a sexual predator record! Financially, they have been devastated by the therapists, treatments and legal fees totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars.

    Parents of these kids know exactly what I’m talking about. THAT is what drives the fear. Who cares what the Russians think? They’re not going to change a thing. It is truly hopeless there. The orphanages are understaffed, they have no money to feed the kids. They tie the kids in bed at night so the staff can go home and come back in the morning. It is horrid. The remarks of folks in Moscow while this is going on in the backwoods of the nether reaches of the Federation, is purely blowing smoke. It is not possible they don’t know.

    More urgently for adoptive families, it is our friends, family, neighbors, child protection, police, counselors HERE that are causing problems for us. By their lack of support and out and out denial of when we, the parents of these kids, shared with them our authentically painful experiences.

    When we did this we were time and time again, being met with disbelief and worse, threats to report us to child protection (who in my opinion, have little to do with protecting children), an agency which wreaks even more havoc into already war-torn families. Like I noted earlier, even Stephanopolis, a news correspondent, whom I’m pretty sure hasn’t adopted one of these kids himself, weighed in with his opinion. I’ve come to realize, it’s human nature. People simply HAVE to judge the parents because the story simply doesn’t make sense relative to their own past experience with their own kids or other people’s biologic kids.

    I’ve invested hours and hours trying to help my own elder siblings understand until I surrendered the battle due to inability to apportion the energy for that AND deal with the daily challenges the kids presented AND keep my marriage together AND protect and counsel our biologic children who, through no fault of their own, found themselves in the middle of FAS and RAD chaos and the potential destruction of our family. We felt we were being beaten up by everyone from family members to business friends, to our neighbors. Ultimately, we found it easier to retreat rather than seek any help and support. Which of course, doesn’t help the adopted children. So, that becomes part of the problem itself.

    God bless the parents and the families of these kids who are put through hell.
    For our part, after 10 years, we reluctantly placed the last of our 3 adopted children in a group home.

    I’ve often asked myself, what the heck was I thinking when we did this? We started out to do this because we were blessed with a happy family of then 8 and 9 year old children, middle class, no money problems to speak of, and we thought we were really pretty good parents and could help out. We could’ve had our own children at that time, but honestly though we could help these kids. It virtually destroyed our family and has moved what was a reasonable start on retirement accounts to deeply in debt and 4 years 3 months to go on the payments for what rehabilitation can be accomplished.

    Despite this, or because of it, thankfully, our biologic children have done well. They are in college and successful athletes, (US national track cycling, speedskating champion) and wonderful young adults. I console myself with that outcome and I’m not ashamed to say it feels like vindication as well.

    LIke I mentioned earlier, two months ago we, after painful soul searching concluded that we couldn”t help anymore, and we placed the last of the adoptees at 13 years old, into a group home out of state. We are now starting heal and feel we are starting to recall that long lost experience of happy family. Though, it seems to us, a decade has been lost and it has caused a deep and painful rift in my own family. Reparations do not appear to be possible due to the extreme difference in vantage points.

    Thanks WCCO for sharing these stories. If nothing else, it helps to lighten the load for adoptive parents, with what they are dealing with. I recall saying in the throes of this process, I didn’t need a pat on the back, but I REALLY didn’t need to be kicked in the pants. THAT’s what support looks like. Which, is why I contribute here today. To help the parents who are still ‘in the trenches’. I really DO understand and I get it that no one else does.

  • Cheri Johnson

    Wow, Dan! Awesome! Thank you for sharing so vulnerably and courageously.

    I’m one of the moms in the report above. I couldn’t agree with you more. The lack of support and thus the way parents like us suffer in silence is one reason I traveled to Russia.

    Just to clarify what a short news story is unable to do, we did not meet with any Russian government officials. We tried but were unable. We did meet with US officials, for one hour only, in hopes of adding our personal stories to that of the Tennessee woman’s. We need key members of the US government, who are making decisions concerning adoptions, to hear our voices. As moms, we are not the ones with mere opinions or who conduct research from the outside; we know what it is like to live with children who have suffered loss and trauma in their beginnings in Russia. We are the ones on the front lines battling RAD and FAS, among other things. Our voices need to be heard.

    I am so glad you’ve added your voice and your story to those of thousands of others. These stories need to be heard in order to help bring light to the true issues. These children can not be helped if the parents don’t have the needed support and resources. Criticism and disbelief of the parents only make it worse for these children.

    Personally, my journey to Russia was to learn what I could of what life was like for my children in their early years. I wanted to see the orphanages, talk to graduates from the orphanages, learn about normal Russian family life and the average Russian’s view of children, family life and orphans. I took this journey In hopes of better understanding my children — what forces, ideologies and experiences shaped their behavioral choices. What could I learn of the Russian culture and orphanage subculture to better explain how my children view life, how they view parents and families, how they view themselves, what has shaped their hopes (if they have any), and what has shaped their lifestyle choices. This is only one element to attempt to unravel the complexities of my children’s lives. However, I do believe it is an important element.

    I also hope what I have learned in Russia, as well as from my 13 years of parenting children five from Russia, can offer insight and encouragement to others who are feeling beat up and hopeless. I am grateful to WCCO for helping in this venture.

    • Dan

      Cheri, I spent quite a bit of time in Russia in the early 90s and knew that these kids needed help. That’s why we adopted. I didn’t imagine that the wounds could be so deep as to be unreachable. I never could’ve conceived it.

      One thing I regret failing to mention in my comment is that the brunt of the kids’ anger and frustration is directed at their adoptive moms. Likely, a result of their biologic moms’ failure to protect and love them. But, that’s just a guess. My wife feels the orphanages aren’t to blame, the kids are harmed by the time they get there. I agree. But, tied in bed all night likely adds to the trauma.
      I think they post my email here. You are welcome to contact us if you like.
      Best wishes.

      • masha

        It’s not the parent’s fault either. As a child i watched my birth mother struggle to keep a job and an apartment and 2 young children. One of the issues is the alcoholism in the Russian society. I for one, knew that my mother would have died for me, and that is the reason she gave me up. I knew she loved me and I love her back, no amount of neglect could separate a child from their birth mother.

    • Roman Johnson

      I love you Mom and thank you for everything You and Dad done for me i can’t Imagen being with out you guys ! Love You

  • Evelyn

    Thank you everyone for sharing your experiences.

    What would you say to potential first time parents about to adopt a 5 year old girl from Russia?

    Our family is trying to be supportive. However, despite being in their late 40s – early 50s they haven’t spent much time around ANY kids, let alone being parents to a child with an unknown background.

    • Dan

      The challenge here is childless parents are less likely to listen than I was. And I was not able to hear that these kids would have problems that could not be overcome. Being successful in other areas of my life, I figured I couldn’t fail. Just take ’em home and love ’em and it’ll all be alright. How bad could it be? What? diabetes or something?
      If only it was as simple as a physical challenge. It would be plain, its limits known, the challenges planned for and accounted for.
      What you can’t plan for is how these children develop and the havoc it wreaks across your family, friends, work, the community (oh, yes, when the cops call you at work, now you’ve got a full understanding of what havoc means) and the first “end”, 18 years old, is still years away. You will have forgotten why you started out in the first place.
      Feel free to forward my comments or contact info to your family. My guess is it won’t matter.

  • Jennifer

    Wow, Dan, I think you said it perfectly. I haven’t adopted kids from Russia, but I have adopted 2 of my foster kids, have 2 bio kids, and currently have 4 other foster kids. My adopted kids have FASD and drug exposure. They can be quite the handful to say the least. My foster kids also have similar issues.
    The thing we have going for us that those that adopt internationally don’t is that we get the medical assistance and adoption assistance that will help with all of the medical issues and expenses. It’s still just as hard to be a parent though and I think our own government needs to be better at being honest with adoptive parents. Back in the day you could adopt an infant and life would usually be just peachy. Now that’s usually not the case. Most of these kids have been exposed to so many things during the pregnancy that we can only imagine how they’re going to turn out. My younger son came to us when he was 5 months old. Seemed perfectly “normal” until he turned 14 months and he started having learning and behavioral issues. Kids that have been exposed to meth have some terrible communication and behavioral issues, and we only know so much as to how that’s going to affect them in the future. They’re like little science experiments where you aren’t sure of the outcome. Each time it’s a little different.
    I second you on the money making in adoptions part too. I almost died when I looked into how much it costs to adopt internationally!
    I do think that all governments need to get serious about punishing these parents who are doing this to their children though, starting with the US. Until we start putting women in prison for doing drugs and drinking while pregnant, the problem is never going to improve. However there will be more kids left in foster care because with better knowledge and those of us that are willing to talk about it there will be fewer people out there willing to sign up for this. I belong to several adoption groups online and I hear these horrible stories of families being torn apart because of the things these kids do. We are not equipped to deal with the issues that many of these kids have. I only wonder how my adopted boys will turn out. They are only 7 and 4 right now.
    My advice to parents that are thinking about adopting. Do foster care for the 10-15 year old age group for a year first. Then you’ll know what you’re signing up for and will be able to decide if you are up for it.

  • Bonnie St. James

    As a reporter, I covered the story of one of the moms in the article. Even as a writer, I can’t find adequate words to describe how much her story moved me. I was in awe of her love for her son despite the horrific things he has put his family through. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she talked, and I was moved to tears also.
    Later, I was outside the middle school as her son terrorized his fellow students with a gun. I was with the parents as they received text messages from their children who were hiding behind desks for safety, even as the son walked into the room and brandished the gun. I wrote three full pages for the newspaper that day.
    But all that I wrote was no more eloquent than the comments posted here. Bless these mothers for telling the stories. Bless the people who read, understood and commented with such support.
    It’s the telling of these stories that makes positive change possible.
    This is what good journalism is about, and in your support and your sharing, you are all great journalists

  • Masha

    Speaking as a Russian Orphan and being adopted into this highly complex society is not only traumatizing but psychologically impairing. I for one throughout my life have struggled to fit into this American society. Even when I am 20years old. My younger biological brother has suffered the most from this out come. You might ask why? Well it’s not your parenting skills, it’s the lack a childhood and the lack of a stable parents. Being adopted into a whole new family breaks all trust and wholesome feelings. I for one, can imagine what kind of feeling stir in these children’s minds. They are horrified and broken to shreds. They are coming from an orphanage that may seem to be a highly stable and a great environment. But I can argue that no matter what orphanage you’re taking your child from they are not the best. I remember when I was a child I did not have tooth brush or toothpaste unless it was donated. Showering was once a week, and school harshly preparing you to go out in the real world through trade. Once children are old enough to live on their own most girls become a sex object living on the street and pregnant. Imagine for once being a child of this kind of culture, it is grousome. And you wonder why we cannot calmly and gracefully join your society.

  • Joan

    Thank-you to all of you brought some light to this situation.

    Dan, your comments are so articulate, clear and poignant that for the first time in three years I feel like I am not alone. I experienced most of the things you wrote about. I went from being considered an angel for adopting am older, waiting child to a monster when her behavior was impossible. I wasn’t interested in being either, I just wanted to add a child to my family.

    I was a single parent of a bright and delightful 6 year old. I decided to take a waiting child from China. For reasons that now seem naive, I thought China was safer for older kids.

    It isn’t just Russian kids who come with serious problems. The common denominator is older kids who have been abandoned and institutionalized. I didn’t know her birth date, or anything about her previous life. She was abandoned as a toddler. There could have been violence, exposure to drugs, alcohol or predators. All I knew was that from the beginning her behavior was unlike any child I had ever known.

    The problems started immediately; defiance, tantrums, lying, destruction…and inappropriate behavior with men. I tried for years to reach her, but in the end I failed.

    When I finally called her in as a runaway for failing to come home on a weekend (she started that in 7th grade), she retaliated by going to school social workers with charges of abuse. The social workers never returned my calls or tried to work with me. What followed is a long, painful story of a family torn apart by some people who were probably well meaning, and others who are self-absorbed and judgemental. As Dan said, they could only judge me because they have no context for understanding the child.

    I made mistakes, because I was alone and trying to figure out how to handle this difficult situation from one day to the next. The mistakes were never made out of malice. No one except my older daughter and one counselor had any idea of what we were going through because my adopted daughter could change her behavior in an instant. Her public face was very different than her home face. She was always secretive, and made people promise to not tell me what she said. It was absolutely Orwellian.

    There are three losers in this story, both of my daughters and myself. Despite the problems, we bonded and I love that girl….her sister does too. We had difficult times, but we also laughed and played a lot. We are her family. But now there is a whole web of lies she needs to maintain in order to maintain her credibility. It is all very sad.

    I am interested in knowing if there is a support group for people like us in Minnesota. I know it is exhausting to parent a child with these problems, but a good support group would have helped me. A group could also make the school and child protection system more accountable for fair treatment of the parents. This problem is too big for individuals to face alone, there should be an advocacy group.

    I know that even though my daughter is gone from my life, the issues remain and there will be more that come up. Those of us who adopted troubled kids are like pioneers who can help those who come behind us, and in that way work through our pain.

    If there is no group, is anyone interested in meeting to start one? Dan, your email is not on the page…at least I cannot find it.

    Last, Masha, thank you for your comments and insights. Open communication with input from both parents and kids will help change lives.

    • dan

      email is, though I don’t know how you can reach people in that critical 2-3 year point when SHTF. They, if like us, have already retreated in self preservation.

    • Andrea CK

      Joan, check out the Attachment and Trauma Network ( for an internet support group. We need to connect and help each other!

      Andrea (board member of ATN and foster mom to traumatized niece)

  • Andrea CK

    Are you all aware of the Attachment and Trauma Network? This is a group of parents (foster, adopt, step and biological) whose kids have attachment and trauma issues. We are an internet support group. I wish more folks knew about us – I think our collective voice can go a long way towards articulating what types of supports we need!!

    Andrea (bio mom to 4 and adoptive mom to one)

  • Tired Chloe

    This exchange is a revelation to me. I am the demonized single mom of a kid I adopted at six months from one of the former USSR republics searching for a way to understand this. We’ve had constant problems though not as extreme as some you describe. She’s now supposedly an adult, is very much at risk but has a deceptively sunny public face. She’s self-destructive but very adept at finding rescuers and making it all look like my fault. I found “Orwellian” an apt description. Even though she left home, I feel no relief. Instead, I wallow in a tarpit of guilt, anger and emotional exhaustion. Parents who “rescue” her don’t answer my calls, some of my family blame me… so I’m looking for mental health strategies that work…

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