A mom who returned her adopted seven-year-old boy to Russia hasn't yet been charged — except in the court of public opinion. But does she deserve to be demonized?
This child is mentally unstable. He is violent and has severe psychopathic issues … I was lied to and misled by the Russian Orphanage workers and director regarding his mental stability and other issues ... After giving my best to this child, I am sorry to say that for the safety of my family, friends, and myself, I no longer wish to parent this child.
Hansen's mother says Artyom threatened to burn his adoptive parents' house down, and that their extreme step was a response to outright terror. Whether said response was a crime seems to be an open question. Hansen has said she won't answer authorities' questions unless she's charged, and though the case has apparently been referred to prosecutors in Virginia (where Artyom boarded the plane), Slate's K. J. Dell'Antonia writes,
Humans seem to have an overwhelming need for a tidy narrative, which in adoption almost always butts up against the uglier reality. The law understands that, which is why, however wrong Hansen's actions seem to us, putting her adopted son on a plane back to Russia does not appear to have been illegal.
In fact, the case seems to have inspired equal measures of backlash against international adoptions and defense by adoptive families themselves. Russia has threatened to freeze all adoptions from the US, which last year adopted 1,600 Russian children. And on Broadsheet, Martha Nichols quotes outraged Times commenters saying things like "This woman's (I cannot say 'mother's,' for she doesn't deserve such a title) behaviour is despicable," and "Where did this woman not understand the commitment to a young, troubled child that she adopted into her family?" But Nichols herself points out that although we don't know the extent of Artyom's "psychopathic issues," he's a victim not just of Hansen's poor judgment but also of the economic realities that landed him in an orphanage in the first place, and of "social welfare systems that simply are ill-equipped and far too under-funded to support the rolls of abandoned children." Poor families worldwide (the US included) cannot always afford to care for their children, and the systems in place to parent in their stead aren't always doing a good job. Writes Nichols, "maybe we should blame global capitalism and every one of us [...] who participates."
Nichols is the parent of an adopted child, as is Dell'Antonia, who calls for a greater understanding of the challenges inherent in adopting older children. She doesn't excuse Hansen's response, but she does note that prospective parents of adopted children are often given an unrealistically rosy view of what it looks like to suddenly change a child's whole life: "The stories adoption agencies include in their material, the books, the blogs-even the very signatures of the parents on adoption forums ("mom to DD Mei Mei, joyfully home since 2007") all speak of an experience that's supposed to be wonderful. Your child is "home," his or her orphaned life has ended, your respective travels are over, and you have been united into one big forever-family." Dell'Antonia argues that we need to be more open about the problems adopted children and their new families can face:
As long as we keep insisting that the typical adoption narrative is one in which a family comes home to joy and laughter and a happily-ever-after, cases like Hansen's will give fuel to the alarmists who insist that all adoptive parents are naïve and unprepared. Russia will seem measured rather than vengeful when it threatens to temporarily suspend all U.S. adoptions-a knee-jerk reaction that will leave hundreds of children, many of whom have already met the families who plan to take them in, waiting in institutions for months or even years while "additional safeguards" (which will probably affect only a very few adoptions) are put in place. [...] Hansen's actions-or rather, Russia's overreaction-might make their adoptions, if and when they happen, even more likely to fail: The longer a child is institutionalized, or the older she is when adopted and the more difficult the adjustment for both child and family will be.
International adoption will likely always be a thorny issue — and as activists in Haiti have argued, it's often better to give families a means to care for their own children than to send the children abroad. But efforts to do this are currently nascent at best, and will always have some gaps — Artyom was reportedly sent to an orphanage because of his mother's alcoholism, and while addiction and poverty can be linked, the former can exist in the absence of the latter. Just as there will always be people who want a child but can't conceive their own, there will always be parents who, for a variety of reasons, cannot or choose not to raise their children. Connecting these groups through adoption can keep kids out of group homes, which many experts agree aren't an ideal place to grow up. And so even though we need to address some of the troubling economic inequalities behind international adoption, we should also understand that adoption can be both the best choice for some children and a difficult adjustment for many of them, and that these two don't necessarily cancel each other out.