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Torry Hansen should have sought help

By Patricia Cogen, Special to CNN
  • Patricia Cogen says U.S. family returned adopted son to Russia due to a mismatch
  • She says research should have revealed how difficult international adoptions can be
  • It's common for kids in such adoptions to have extreme trouble adjusting, she says
  • Cogen: Therapy, research, patient guidance are crucial to making adoptions work
  • Adoption
  • Torry Hansen
  • Parenting

Editor's note: Patricia Cogen is a child development specialist and family therapist and the author of "Parenting Your Internationally Adopted Child -- From Your First Hours Together Through the Teen Years" (Harvard Common Press, 2008).

Seattle, Washington (CNN) -- By all appearances, Torry Hansen returned her 7-year-old adopted son to Russia like a pair of pants that didn't fit. As a result, Russia is considering closing adoptions to American families.

The parents of internationally adopted children, like myself, and the agencies that work with them are horrified by the family's actions -- Torry Hansen's mother put the boy on a plane with a note -- but also empathetic: We know just how challenging and frustrating raising such a child can be.

But mainly, many are shocked that she apparently did not reach out for the help that is available. Torry Hansen wanted a child to love, her mother, Nancy Hansen, told The Associated Press. Unfortunately her expectations were a mismatch with reality.

Those realities are well known, widely discussed and fully documented in both popular and professional literature. Internationally adopted children follow a unique developmental path, displaying extreme behaviors as a matter of course, and require a unique approach -- a combination of therapy and education, intense patience and guidance -- that goes beyond traditional parenting. Knowing the tools of this trade is the responsibility of every parent who commits to raising an internationally adopted child.

An adoption is a "final sale."

As a child therapist and a parent of two grown children -- one by birth, the other by adoption -- I know how difficult this process can be.

When we first picked up our 3-year-old daughter, she had scars on her body; the orphanage denied knowledge of them. Her early behavior included screaming night terrors and fears of separation from me. She lost basic skills, such as toileting, dressing and feeding herself. She refused to talk -- although she understood everything we told her. She hoarded food, walked up to strangers and took their hand, joined up with Asian families (my husband and I are white), and was so easily overstimulated that even a trip to the grocery store was overwhelming; she apparently was afraid we might hand her off to some stranger.

Adoptive parents on edge as suspension threatened

I quickly learned that I had to anticipate my daughter's reactions and be willing to cut short social visits, park visits, birthday parties and shopping at the first sign that she was beginning to fall apart. I learned to prepare her for separation using a slinky to demonstrate "away" (pulling the slinky apart) and "back" -- pushing it back together to show her that I would come back for her.

When she entered elementary school, the slinky didn't work -- she needed someone other than me to take her to school to reduce the pain of separation. At 17 years old she recalled the tantrums she had refusing to go to school; she admitted that no matter what we told her, she thought we would leave her there, as her birth family had left her at the orphanage.

This is a common scenario in international adoptions, which is why therapy, beginning early on, needs to become an accepted part of life -- a strategy to defuse larger problems down the road.

Internationally adopted children, especially if they are adopted over the age of 1 year, typically reject nurturing. Their development is often atypical: They can appear alternately overly mature or completely infantile. A year-old child will insist on holding her own bottle. A 7-year-old will hit, spit and scream.

The children act this way, usually, because of painful past experiences that always include loss of birth family and -- more likely than not -- various combinations of malnutrition, abuse and neglect. Some, like Hansen's adopted son, had alcoholic parents, and may have fetal alcohol syndrome or other drug related difficulties. They do not magically change once adopted.

In this boy's case, it appears that the child was in a pressure cooker, landing in a rural community with a family that was relatively new to the area and had few community connections.

Imagine how you would feel if suddenly you were dropped in the middle of Russia, given a new set of clothes, a new name, some unfamiliar food, and told -- in Russian, which you don't understand -- "Adjust! You're the luckiest person in the world!"

Most adults would be in shock, confused, disoriented, frightened and angry, not to mention anxious about where the toilet was. With this in mind, Hansen's son's behavior -- even after a few months -- seems neither extreme nor surprising.

It can in fact take years for children like him to adjust to being part of a family and to express affection for parents. Initially adoption agencies and social workers must educate prospective parents, but ultimately parents need to educate themselves.

Google the words "international adoption" or "attachment" and you will find hundreds of sites offering information and support. You can chat with other adoptive parents with similar problems; you can search professional sites to find a local adoption therapist. And of course you can e-mail your adoption agency for help. Some excellent sites with extensive article libraries include, Dr. Boris Gindis' BGCenter,, and my own site.

To be an effective, successful parent for a child like the Russian boy, you have to be willing to grow and change. If you feel the need to be in control of a situation most of the time, international adoption is not for you.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Patricia Cogen.