The Mother Country
After preparing for this day for two years, Peter Thomas leaves Denver on the morning of Monday, January 2, 1999, nearly misses the connection at JFK in New York (runs to make the flight), changes again in Stockholm and then lifts off for St. Petersburg. He has checked through two gigantic suitcases full of clothes and toys. He was so preoccupied packing them the night before, he forgot his overcoat -- not a small detail when you are going to Russia in the middle of winter -- so he buys one at the Stockholm airport during the hour-long layover. He carries $5,000 in stiff new $100 bills in a money belt worn cautiously around his waist. That's what it costs to bring a child back from there, and he's been instructed that they take only cash.
What must it be like? Peter has never been over the Atlantic, never outside the United States except for once so many years ago he barely remembers, when he went to Mexico on vacation. Neither that, nor growing up in California, Oregon and then Colorado, could have possibly prepared him for Russia in January, for the brutal transition from the free wine and gourmet food of Scandinavian Airlines to the cold cement grayness of St. Petersburg. The sky is oppressive, sodden and barely hangs above the square buildings. It is below freezing, and there are four inches of slush on the ground.
The disorientation suddenly makes the whole thing seem impossibly tenuous. Where must he go now, and how will he drag the monstrous suitcases through the forbidding customs station, and then what will the grim bureaucrats think of all that U.S. currency? And how will he ever find his contact -- improbably arranged through a woman in Maryland, who called a woman in Des Moines, who somehow found an orphaned girl in an institution eight hours north of St. Petersburg? When you think about it that way, what are the odds he can ever pull it off?
Here is Denise Thomas, at home in Littleton, knowing that she won't hear from Peter for days because the phone lines are so unpredictable; and anyway, he'll be on the road to St. Petersburg for the next two days straight, then on the overnight train to grimy, depressing, industrial Petrozavodsk, some 300 miles north. Denise doesn't travel well, so she stays home and waits. But she's nervous, too.
She'd met Peter at the insurance company where he worked; his job included dictating memos, and she was the transcriptionist. As she typed his words, she thought his voice sounded nice, so she screwed up her courage and asked him out. At first there was no talk of children, because they both enjoyed just being by themselves and the freedom that brought. But later, when their friends started having kids, well, that changed things, opened up the possibilities, and they agreed to try it, too. Denise had always been close to her mother, Ruth, and hoped she could duplicate that love with her own little girl, but in 1984, Steven was born. He was healthy, beautiful, perfect -- and when Denise got home from the hospital, cradling her son, holding her history and her future, she felt...absolutely nothing.
She didn't sleep. She paced for hours at a time or sat awake and raked her thighs with her fingernails until they bled. At times she'd hear things, babies crying when none were around. She looked at Steven and wondered who he was and why he was there. For four months, she paced and ate antidepressants, and Peter and Ruth raised the baby without her, wondering when Denise would return.
The bottom hit at Christmas that year, amid the forced holiday cheerfulness at a time when Portland's sky is low and stifling and the air is heavy and it feels as though there will never be hard light again. But then, suddenly, just after New Year's, Denise burst out of it, an immediate magical transformation from invalid to mother. Later, she is diagnosed as bipolar, manic depressive -- a relief, really. It explains so much, and the lithium is a godsend. Still, when Peter and Denise decide they want another child, a little girl to complete their family, there is no question that they will adopt.
Here is Elvira Starikova, eight years old, entering a strange apartment to meet her new father, whom she does not know and will not trust. Denise and Peter already have decided to give her the name Elena Star Thomas -- Elena because Elvira has been appropriated by a vampy actress and she'll be starting out with enough strikes; Star because it will be good for her to have some link to her heritage, even if it is only a truncated middle name; and, of course, Thomas, because that is who she must now become.
This is what Elena knows: Her birth father was drowned, most likely as the result of getting mixed up with the wrong crowd and then owing them money and not paying. Her mother (later declared unfit) is a drunk -- irresponsible, unable to grasp that she has two girls at home, or maybe simply forgetting. At one point, the mother lives in a cardboard box. Once, she leaves the girls for five days, and Elena's sister Olga, five years old at the time, somehow manages to care for both of them -- a kindergarten mother, waiting until the real parent shows up. When Elena is three years old, the family is dissolved and the girls are split up -- sent, for reasons unexplained, into two different orphanages miles apart.
Denise and Peter have selected Elena from a video, which they have kept. There she is forever six, performing stiffly for the camera: dark-haired, big-eyed, a red dress and a too-big red bow in her hair, a perfect, beautiful oval face, shy and off-balance in front of the lens. She responds obediently to clipped, military-sounding off-screen instructions: Sing a song, now pick up a doll, now brush the doll's hair, now rock her back and forth like you are the mother and she is the little girl. Now smile; you must smile! (Later they see Olga, too, on another adoption video, and Peter feels a twinge, a visceral connection to the little girl, but he has already committed to her younger sister, and when you adopt, you are always on the thin edge of suspicion -- any sign of wavering is only a step away from being tagged unfit.)
So Elena walks into the small apartment, standing quietly next to the orphanage director. And even though she has seen the pictures the Thomases have sent -- This is Peter, your new father! This is Denise, your mother! This is Steven, your brother! Here are the three cats; here is your bedroom! This is Colorado, your home now -- still she must be wondering: Who will be waiting behind the door? And when Peter finally does walk in -- tall, lanky, hair combed, circles under his eyes from lack of sleep on the long trip, his best suit dangling off his thin flat shoulders like loose clothes on a hanger -- and gazes at his new daughter, she turns to the bureaucrat. And buries her head in the woman's lap and bursts into sobs that will not stop.
And you have to wonder, particularly now, looking back, after the screaming and tantrums, the threats and the tears, after the therapists and the marriage counseling, after the police raid and the feudal-sounding charges (Denise attempting to sell a child?) -- in short, after the near-complete implosion and disintegration of a family -- you have to ask: How could this thing ever have worked?
Despite the exploding number of international adoptions flowing into the United States, most parents start the search for a child at home, where costs are low, everyone at least speaks the same language, and there is a chance the child will look like you. But the numbers here are unfavorable: The wait can be years, and the competition is intense. "They're looking for Barbie-doll types," says Denise. "Wholesome, young, three acres, two dogs."
Arapahoe County holds adoption orientation sessions -- two-hour meetings for prospective parents -- once a month, and in 1995 the Thomases attended one, hoping, like every other person there, that they could somehow beat the odds. "But basically," recalls Pete, "they try to scare the crap out of you. What you learn is that 90 percent of these kids have been sexually abused, physically abused, been in multiple placements. If you're interested in adopting these kids, you're in for quite a ride. They tell you that it's going to be a long time -- years -- before you feel like you're connecting, and maybe it will be never. You have to be very solid yourself, very structured."
That definitely wasn't the Thomases, as they made clear to any adoption agency they contacted. They were willing to tolerate a girl with some physical infirmity, perhaps even an out-and-out handicap; that she'd be needy went without saying. But severe emotional disorders were out of the question. The reason was Denise -- a capable and loving mother to Steven, but herself too emotionally fragile to give what would be required. The Thomases knew this, had talked about it between themselves and accepted it. It was a source of strength, they thought, to recognize their limitations.
Still, they signed up; they thought they had a chance because everyone else seemed to want an infant, tiny and healthy and, preferably, white. But they were looking for an older girl, between five and twelve ("I'm 51 years old now," says Peter, "so we didn't want to start with a baby -- it didn't seem right or fair"), and with all the tragedy in the world, how hard could that be? They submitted to all the tests, the checks, the examinations. There was the home inspection from a social worker to make sure their household was sound, the background assessment from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, the review of their finances. A few months later, a county social worker called with the happy news. She had found a girl for the Thomases.
It was painful, a revelation. Peter remembers: "We went to a facility they used for therapy, and when we got there, we got to listen to the foster mother. She was a big woman, muscular. Attractive, but very large. She told us how sometimes she literally had to sit on this girl for hours at a time, the girl would go into rages, and the mother physically had to restrain her..."
Denise: "Plus she would go with anyone -- the mailman, the neighbor. Classic attachment-disorder symptoms, although we didn't know anything about it at the time."
Peter: "This girl was about six, I think, very large. We saw her, said 'Hi,' looked at her. She seemed normal."
Denise: "Sort of. She had that darty-eyed, running-around, in-limbo sort of look. We later learned that she had seen her father get shot."
Peter: "And after we talked to the foster mother, we thought, 'Why are they even calling us? Why would they think we would even be a match for this girl -- particularly with Denise's history?' That's when we really decided to look internationally."
In 1992, Americans looking to adopt a child from abroad most often went to Korea; after that, their best option was Guatemala, then Colombia, then the Philippines, then India. Only 324 Russian children were adopted that year, the first year the government opened up its vast and overflowing orphanages to adoptive parents from abroad.
The following year, that number doubled, and by 1994, only Korea sent more children here. In 1995 and 1996, Americans adopted about 5,500 Russian children -- second only to the number taken out of China. And from 1997 to the present, Russia has been the single most popular place for U.S. parents to go for adoptions. Last year alone, the State Department issued 4,349 immigrant visas to Russian orphans.
Candice Johnson received one for her then one-year-old Russian daughter in 1997. A year and a half ago, she became co-chair of the Colorado chapter of Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoption. She estimates that there are just over 100 families in the state who have adopted from Russia. She says the packed orphanages are the result of a combination of economic and social factors. Parents there often are too poor to raise their children, so they turn them over to the orphanages, where they tend to stay. For cultural reasons too deeply ingrained to change quickly, the Russians themselves are reluctant to adopt.
Still, Denise and Peter were late in settling on Russia. They considered other countries first, but each seemed to have its own set of obstacles, small print designed to frustrate their family's completion. Korea looked promising -- American parents had been adopting babies through Seoul for years without a hitch -- but further investigation showed that the country required both parents to be under 45, which Peter was not. A Chinese orphan seemed appealing, too, particularly if you wanted a girl, until the Thomases learned that the country was more geared toward infants and young children, three at the oldest.
Denise (she was the one who did most of the legwork, cruising the Internet's endless adoption sites) then contemplated Latin America. Peter spoke some decent Spanish, and that might be an advantage in places like Guatemala, Ecuador or Colombia. But the bureaucrats there had so many rules -- both parents had to travel (Denise could not, since poor sleep affected her moods), and the in-country wait could stretch into months -- that it soon became clear that those places, too, would be impossible.
"And that's when we heard that Russia was really opening up, that paperwork could be processed fast, that one parent could travel," says Peter. "The economy was going down the drain, so there were many kids in orphanages. We heard that there were kids who would attach to adoptive families -- and that it could be done for a reasonable cost."
It is crucial to the Thomases' version of this story that, when you are talking about adoption, and especially international adoption, you understand that money plays a key role every step of the way -- that everyone has a title and letterhead that sounds official and virtuous, but also that everyone gets his cut. "It's a business -- supply and demand," says Peter. "You want to talk about child-selling -- that's just what it is."
The National Adoption Information Clearinghouse, a federal agency, calculates that after paying attorneys and physicians and various agencies, adopting a child within the United States can cost prospective parents anywhere from $500 to $5,000. International adoptions are naturally many times more expensive. The bulk of the money goes to private agencies that find the children, shepherd parents through the mountains of paperwork and arrange logistics and travel. The NAIC estimates these fees can range anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000.
The Aurora-based Adoption Alliance, for instance, one such nonprofit adoption agency, charges a standard fee of $4,550 for adoptions in Vietnam, Colombia, Guatemala, Romania and Russia. That doesn't include international fees -- money paid to various in-country agencies -- which range from a low of $3,800 (Colombia) to a high of $14,000 (Guatemala). The fees parents can expect to pay in Russia can climb as high as $12,000. And none of those figures includes other assorted costs, fees, surcharges and add-ons -- airline tickets, accommodations, visas and so on -- which can easily plump the final bill by thousands more dollars.
As Russia has topped the list of places willing and able to do business with American parents, the number of U.S. agencies available to accommodate the demand has more than kept pace. The NAIC, in what it terms an incomplete resource, lists eighty agencies across the country that claim to specialize in Russian adoptions. Naturally, the Internet has facilitated much of the growth, and these days, when you type the word "adoption" into any search engine, you will be overwhelmed by people and Web sites promising connections, support, information and chat.
Obtaining a child from another country is not, and should not be, simple, but the swelling number of people claiming they can help you -- faster, cheaper, healthier kids, fewer hassles -- can make the pipeline for international children seem like a pipeline for drugs. There are contacts, intermediaries, facilitators, middlemen, all taking their share out of the prospective parents' pockets. Many, if not most, are well-meaning, caring and legitimate people and agencies, but inevitably, some are not. In Russia, says Candice Johnson, "some middlemen are people who are trying to help orphans. But some are doing it because they discovered it is a very good way to make a living." (Just three weeks ago, Russia finally passed a law mandating that adoption intermediaries be licensed and approved by the state.)
Denise threw herself into the fray, posting dozens of queries on bulletin boards and cruising endless Web sites listing Russian orphans available for adoption. By then, seven years after they'd first talked about adoption, there was a whiff of desperation about the Thomases' search. "We were getting to the point where we were willing to listen to just about anything," recalls Peter. "I was turning fifty, Steven was fifteen, and at this point, he had begun saying, 'Hey, I've been hearing this for years; this is never going to happen.'"
Eventually, Denise was contacted by a woman named Patricia Stone. Stone, who wrote to Denise after seeing her pleas on a Web site, explained that she worked for a company called Sasha, Inc., which operated through a licensed adoption agency in Maryland called East-West Adoptions. (East-West's director would later tell the Thomases that Stone was not affiliated with her agency at all.) Stone then contracted with a "facilitator" named Alla Lakov, a Russian emigré living in Des Moines, Iowa.
Lakov runs her own company, Stork Adoption Agency. According to her Web site, she grew up in St. Petersburg, speaks Russian and maintains contacts with Russian intermediaries and orphanage directors. Her motivation for being in the adoption business, she writes, is intensely personal: "My father lost both of his parents when he was a small child, so I have been raised on his stories about orphanages. I always wished that every child would have a family."
Stone seemed helpful, attentive to the Thomases' needs and special considerations. "She told us all the things we wanted to hear," says Pete. "She knew our history -- the bipolar thing, the postpartum with Steven. And she told us this girl was calm, attachable." The video of Elena arrived by express mail only days after Stone's first contact with Denise. Peter and Denise hurried to their VCR and popped it in. Then and there, they knew that Elena would be their daughter. They called Stone, flooded her with questions: What was Elena's family like, what were her interests, what did she like?
As Elena's background information filtered into the Thomas house, Peter found himself becoming curious about her sister Olga. He had never been close to his own brother; that they were still estranged was a failing that gnawed at him, and his guilt propelled him toward the fractured Starikova family. At first Stone said that Olga had been adopted by a distant aunt. But then, about three months after the video of Elena arrived, she called again and disclosed that Olga was also available for adoption, and a few days later, another video arrived. Perhaps, Stone suggested, the Thomases might want both of the girls instead of just one.
The idea captivated Peter. "When I saw the video, I had feelings about this girl that I didn't get from Elena," Peter remembers. "I got vibes from her..."
But the Thomases were split over Olga. Peter saw adopting the two girls together as the right thing to do -- and, though he didn't say it, as an opportunity to make up for his own flawed family, the act of reconnecting the Starikovas somehow balancing things in the universe. He argued with himself constantly: "Should the family be together? Yes, of course, but did the sisters get along? Can we go from one kid to three? If they have each other, then they can help each other out. But can we handle it?"
Denise, though, was far less certain, and as the weeks passed, she questioned her own ability to handle two girls. At one point, unbeknownst to her husband, she called Stone and discreetly informed her that if the girls really needed to be together, then perhaps it would be best to let some other parents do it; the Thomases would start the process over and wait for another girl who could come alone. Later, as Peter prepared to fly to Russia, Denise privately called Stone again. "I don't want Peter to see Elena and Olga together when he gets to Russia," she told her.
The summer of 1998 dragged. The family was in a strange parental limbo, knowing who their new daughter was -- even able to watch her on a television screen -- but incapable of meeting her, talking to her, touching her. The Immigration and Naturalization Service seemed hopelessly slow and impenetrable, promising their paperwork would be ready first in May, then June, then December. (Eventually, the Thomases wrote a letter to Congressman Dan Schaeffer, who contacted the INS and seemed to goose the agency into action.) Across the ocean, the Russians were also moving at a glacial pace. In the fall, Peter learned that Olga's picture had been placed on an adoption Web site and that a family in Mississippi, Sandra and Keith Phillippi, had agreed to adopt her. The Thomases called them, talked about the upcoming trip, and agreed to travel together and support each other.
Peter passed the time packing ("I'd been told to bring gifts for every level of officials, so I bought boxes of candy, perfume, alcohol") and practicing a few Russian phrases he thought might come in handy, from "Ya ti lublyoo" ("I love you") to "spakoyna" (loosely, "knock it off"). Finally, all of the endless little pieces of the adoption came together, and he received clearance to leave soon after New Year's Day.
The plane touches down in St. Petersburg in the late afternoon. Peter is met by a young man holding a paperback-book-sized sign that says simply "Alla." He is taken to an apartment and permitted to nap for an hour, then picked up again and driven to the train station. There he purchases his overnight tickets to Petrozavodsk, and then is back in the car, on a surreal nighttime tour of St. Petersburg, buildings lit up but closed tight, an empty city of facades. The train leaves at 10 p.m.
At six the next morning, Peter arrives in the city of Petrozavodsk. It is ten below zero, snowing lightly (as it will nearly every day he is there). He is picked up by another driver and taken to a cramped apartment in a square cement building where the walls seem unsteady and the stairwells smell of urine. He showers, puts on his best suit ("Why don't the books and facilitators tell you what to wear when you are greeting your new daughter?" he wonders), and at 7 a.m. he meets Elena and Olga for the first time. As Elena cries convulsively into the orphanage director's dress, Peter tries practicing his Russian: "Ya ti lublyoo" -- I love you, I love you -- but she doesn't seem to notice.
An hour or so later, everyone -- Peter and the Phillippis, Elena and Olga -- pile into a car and drive to the courthouse to legalize the adoption. They spend the entire day waiting. Peter wanders the halls of the justice center -- they are dark, featureless, decrepit -- until he is called into the courtroom. The judge tells him that his adoption will not be approved -- that despite what all the intermediaries and experts have told him, both parents need to be present to take possession of Elena. "Call your wife," the judge orders him through an interpreter. "Get her on a plane and have her here tomorrow." The two girls play together in the hallway with Barbie dolls that Denise purchased and then packed in Peter's luggage.
Peter breathes deep, tries not to panic, does his best to explain that Denise won't -- can't! -- fly here tomorrow, then paces the halls, waiting on edge to be called back and told that his excuse is inadequate, that Elena will be taken away from him only hours after they have met. (Later, he learns that the judge has asked to see the Phillippis in private, asks them if they'd be willing to take both girls, send Peter home alone. They consider but refuse.) Finally, as the afternoon grows dark, the judge appears to relent, and Peter is called in to defend his adoption. It takes 45 minutes.
But there are still papers to process, signatures to get, medical exams to be performed. Too late, everyone learns that the trip has been planned over the Russian Orthodox Christmas holiday, so Peter and Elena and Olga and the Phillippis pass the time for five entire days with the girl, watching them play (Elena loves pony rides and goes on dozens of them while Peter stands at a distance), enduring the frigid cold in parks and on trips to Stalinist office buildings. At times when they are all together, the girls seem confused: Elena goes to the Phillippis for comfort and Olga dances with Peter.
The two families finally split for good at JFK. "Olga was fine," Peter remembers. "But Elena was inconsolable. And I was very mixed up. I felt terrible about separating them. I couldn't harmonize my feelings about separating them from my vision of our future together. After seeing them together all this time...I was grieving, but it was all already done. I cried and cried."
Peter and Elena arrive in Denver at about midnight, Peter exhausted and dying to catch some sleep, Elena humming and vibrating like a charged wire. As Peter lies down and tries to nap, Elena plays with her new toys. But a few minutes later, as she sits at the kitchen table, she begins wailing, long and loud, like it is the end of the world.
Given the complexity of international adoptions -- the dynamics of an existing family melding with a brand-new, generally traumatized child coming from thousands of miles away -- it's amazing that any are successful. Yet the vast majority are; and, perhaps as a result, most adoptive parents continue to believe that the transaction should go off with barely a hitch. "There is this old cultural view that love conquers all," says Dee Paddock. "We want to believe in all kinds of magical thinking."
A dozen years ago, Paddock adopted three children from Korea, two boys and a girl. The middle child, a boy, proved especially difficult, and in a dark period, when she wondered what she was doing wrong and if she could ever feel anything but exhausted again, Paddock found a counselor who helped. Inspired, she went back to graduate school and earned a master's degree. Today she has her own counseling business in Denver, Families With a Difference. She doesn't advertise or promote it, yet she finds herself turning away clients. Her specialty is advising adoptive parents how to survive.
In Paddock's view, the idea of labeling adopted children with various emotional ailments -- attachment disorder is probably the most common one -- is an outdated notion, because virtually all orphaned children share a common set of behaviors. "These kids have been wounded in ways that people don't want to begin to understand -- beginning with losing their parents," Paddock says.
One result, she continues, is that if you are a newly adopted child, "you are never going to trust grownups in the same way again. They think 'I will never be hurt by adults, so I'm going to control everything.' So there is lying, stealing, hoarding food. The kid believes she is responsible for her own survival." Frustratingly, the child can appear to bond with everyone but the parents -- the reason being, Paddock explains, that the new parents are the people the child is most afraid of losing.
So instead of counseling the adopted child, Paddock focuses her efforts on the parents, who too often are victims of overblown expectations, both of their new child and of themselves. "What we're holding up as a model for adoptive families is the birth-family model," she says. "And that's not what an adoptive family is. So I don't let families play 'Let's Pretend.' I tell parents, 'The first two years are community service -- keep the kid safe, meet her needs, but don't expect much in return.' And then I tell them it can take ten years to begin to expect this attachment stuff."
"I've had adoption agency people tell me, 'If we tell people this, we'll never get any children adopted.' But I prefer that parents know the truth."
From the beginning, it is clear that Elena does not like -- or does not trust, or simply cannot feel comfortable around -- Peter. But she clings to Denise. At first Denise is flattered, pleased that the little girl finds her so indispensable, so easy to love. But then it seems like the attachment is something much more, has a deeper and troubling significance for Elena. At times, Elena literally refuses to let Denise go, has to be physically removed so that she can sleep. (Later, with the help of therapists, the Thomases conclude that she has been sexually abused.)
Everyday life, the nuts and bolts of getting through a day, is a battle. Elena does not change her clothes, brush her teeth, take a bath, sleep in her room, go to school. (It is not uncommon for Peter to physically pick her up and carry her there, still dressed in her pajamas. Her teachers and some Russian children meet him outside the school and take her and change her clothes and install her in the classroom.)
Elena leaves when she wants to, comes home when she feels like it. She fights Denise and -- especially -- Peter at every turn. Her fits of rage, which never diminish in number or intensity, send Barbie dolls flying down the stairs.
There are thrilling moments of triumph and happiness, and Elena seems gifted in many ways: She quickly memorizes a computer keyboard, even though she has no idea what the letters mean, and she begins to do well in school, picking up English with ease. In mid-March, Denise writes to an Internet pen pal: Tonight Elena voluntarily took a bath (I can't believe how happy I would ever be about a bath!) and cleaned her room, brushed her teeth...To make a long story short, we are seeing a beautiful, very bright child emerge; like a baby being born or maybe a toddler after some fits. Just when we were at our lowest, something clicked and perhaps she sensed it too...
But despite such moments, it never really gets easier, and as the weeks and months drag on, the parts that feel good and right are harder and harder to attain, farther and farther apart.
The tension begins to fray the Thomases' own relationship. Denise, emotionally brittle to begin with, starts to feel constantly exhausted; Peter is expected to pick up the slack but can't, because Elena will not have him. "I was losing the will to love this new girl, who was rejecting me unconditionally," he says. They enter marriage counseling, talk about taking vacations alone.
They grasp at anything that promises results. One night, after reading an article about hugging therapy, Peter, with Denise watching, approaches Elena and wraps her in his arms and holds her tightly, rocking her back and forth, murmuring "I love you I love you I love you" again and again in English and his lousy Russian. "I just wanted to hold her long enough to show it was safe -- that nothing was going to happen to her," he says. But she fights for longer than seems possible for a thin eight-year-old, screaming and scratching, so he lets her go, and she bolts to her room and slams the door.
Making matter worse is that the Thomases have kept in touch with the Phillippis in Mississippi. When they call, Olga (renamed Lauren by her new family) always seems to be happy, calmly sewing or coloring or helping cook a meal. Yet it isn't just the contrast between the two girls that bothers Peter. It's that something is wrong, has been broken, and he's had a part in it. "I couldn't shake the feeling that if we'd gotten them both, things would have worked out," he says. "Elena would have had Olga, and it would've been so much easier..." Although he claims not to harbor resentment of Denise for balking at taking both girls, at times it rises up in him unexpectedly. One day, when Elena is pestering Denise to take her out and Denise is deflecting the confrontation to Peter, he snaps at his wife: "That's what you get for only taking one!"
So Peter insists that they keep the contact. At first the phone calls to the Phillippis are so that Elena can talk to her sister, remember a little more of who she is. But after three months or so, a new theme begins creeping into the calls. "In the beginning, it was going to be a visit, with Denise taking Elena to Mississippi to see her sister. Maybe it would calm her down," Peter recalls.
As time passes, however, the idea grows, begins insinuating itself into their thoughts, like water seeping under a door: Just suppose, Peter thinks, if everything goes well during a visit, if the girls really get along, then maybe -- possibly -- the Phillippis will adopt Elena, too.
By mid-March, it has become more than just an idea to Peter, and he writes a letter to Keith and Sandra Phillippi. After telling them how Elena and the Thomas family are doing, he gets to the point:
Will you take Elena? We think she will fit well into your family, and will be a different kid there. I think she and Lauren will both be much happier together than apart, and I think that with Lauren's leadership by example, that Elena's behavior problems will disappear before too long, and when she sees Lauren attaching to you, she will too. I think this is meant to be, that God wants these children to be together. We don't want Elena to go to another strange family.
I know you will need to think about this, and look for guidance. Please give this request your deepest consideration. You know how heartbroken I am, but knowing these girls are together will at least let me sleep at night, and let me believe it has all been for a purpose.
"In my mind, she was either going to stay with us or go with her sister," Peter says.
"For the thousands of adoptions that result in successful, happy families, there are some adoptions which do not continue, resulting in the separation of the child from the family," writes the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse. When this happens before the adoption is fully legalized, it is known as a "disruption." When it occurs after finalization, it is a "dissolution." (Often, however, the terms are confused and used interchangeably.)
Although there are no firm rules that predetermine which adoptions will work and which will not, researchers have identified certain risk factors. Older children are far more likely to have their adoptions disrupted, a statistic that increases exponentially as the child's age goes up. Girls adopted by non-foster parents and children placed in homes where there is already another child -- biological or adopted -- have higher rates of disruption and dissolution. Parents with higher incomes and better educations also disrupt adoptions at a greater rate -- "possibly related to higher academic and social expectations for their children," the NAIC theorizes.
Yet those factors are not the best predictors of risk. By far, according to the agency, "behavioral problems...more than any demographic or disability, more accurately distinguish children in danger of disrupting." Worse, "large gaps have been found between the information that social workers stated that they gave and the information that parents stated they received. The surprises that parents experience in learning or realizing their child's history or current behavior are often directly associated with the disruption of the placement."
In short, the Thomases were at as high a risk as anyone for an adoption gone wrong. They just didn't know it.
In retrospect, it becomes easy to see why the Thomases aren't communicating, helping each other out more, working for the common good of the family. The realization that they were entirely unprepared for an adoption with any complexity is beginning to sink in. Not only are their nerves on edge, but they have also begun to respond to the household tension in their own separate ways, searching for solutions by themselves. Peter swings back and forth in his feelings, at times resolving to mine himself for more inner strength, grit it out. At other times he concludes the only answer is to step aside and reunite the two girls, somehow re-create their lost family.
On May 10, 1999, he writes another letter to the Phillippis. After explaining, in great detail, the family's troubles handling Elena ("If our own family falls apart, which looks like a real possibility right now, that won't help anyone"), Peter repeats his plea:
We are not asking you to make a decision or a commitment right now. We are basically broke, but thanks to the plastic in our wallets, we are prepared to send Denise and Elena down to visit you. I would come, but I have to stay with Steven, and besides, to tell you the truth, seeing Lauren again (who was open with me from the first) and the two together would just break my heart. All we ask is that you agree to keep an open mind as you get re-acquainted with Elena and see how the girls do together. Who knows, with Lauren losing her Russian and with the other changes in her life, it may not work out between them. I just don't know. However, I have to tell you that unless we at least try this, I won't sleep at night. I don't always think in black and white terms of right and wrong, but on this one, I feel that it is just wrong for these sisters to be apart. I won't know if that belief is correct unless we try this.
At least the girls will have a chance to see each other again, and I think we owe them that. Again, sorry about all this -- we know you did not ask for this. Neither did we ask to have our dreams shattered. Life sometimes deals you unexpected hands and you just have to play the cards.
Denise, meanwhile, finds solace by returning to the Internet. Initially she seeks commiseration, strength through common stories of pain, failure -- and, ultimately, triumph -- on adoption bulletin boards. So she simply listens in. But as the days pass, the idea of failure -- a disruption, giving up Elena -- begins to flow over her.
Denise soon finds a sympathetic pen pal she knows as DedeVZ (later identified as Dee Dee VanZant, of North Carolina) and pours out her story. Dede is understanding, and one day not long after they first establish contact, she writes Denise and tells her that she has some friends in Texas who are looking to adopt a little girl. Why not just e-mail them, feel them out?
"In some ways, it was all still hypothetical," Denise remembers. "But everybody was worn out. Everything from dawn to dark was stress for all of us."
On May 13, 1999, without telling Peter, who is away on a business trip to Connecticut, Denise writes her first e-mail to VanZant's acquaintance, a woman named Kathy Waltenbaugh, of Burleson, Texas:
About us: We have a 14 year old son (biological) and I am 42, my husband 51. We are not super-energetic and it has been awhile since our son was 8. These children are quite different in many ways. Our son has been an only child and has resented [Elena] big time, but can be a big brother when we motivate him. I guess it is natural for him to be jealous, but we didn't expect him to be so needy. I am sure this would change with time. However, the sibling rivalry (which is new to us) has sometimes been borderline battlezones.
About Elena: She is 8 years old, gorgeous (I mean she could be a model), very smart and artistically gifted. She is also strong-willed and probably suffers from post-traumatic stress due to past abuse. She has been here 4 months and has progressed quite a bit. She has attached to me but has been slow to attach to hubby and son. I think it all makes sense now, as far as the sexual abuse. I feel like if we had more family here (we have none) and were more involved in church, etc. she would be better off. She LOVES dogs and we have 3 cats. Getting a dog is not an option now and she carps on that issue. She has been sleeping in our room every night in the daybed but we haven't pushed it. She loves action and just learned to ride a bike. She is fearless! She loves swimming but has not taken formal lessons, so needs to wear floaters. (Her father drowned in Russia). I think she has mixed emotions about water. She goes to school, although it is hard to get her up in the morning. She rides the bus home and immediately wants to play. Kids are very important to her. She loves dance and is a natural at gymnastics. She knows her Russian and speaks very good English (almost fluent already). We have kept her Russian by making friends with other Russians in our community. Her sister lives in Mississippi, so that's closer to you than us. They are very different girls, sister being older and much more self-assured, mature. She was "mom" to Elena.
If we decide to disrupt, it will be hard on everyone, as you can imagine. I don't want to sound materialistic, but we would want some reimbursement for our costs. I can tell you we have spent close to $12,500 adopting her, but of course, would never ask that much from a family. We could feel a little better if we got back around $4,000 plus her trip down there. Considering what you have to do to adopt in Russia, this is a bargain. You would never find a foster child in the US like her either. We looked and that is why we went to Russia. (Thinking these kids would have fewer issues than foster kids here which is not true obviously). The world is probably the same everywhere concerning human nature, but I honestly believe Elena has great potential for people with patience and energy. She definitely needs siblings that would love her and model for her.
Waltenbaugh is interested, but the part about the money troubles her. Soon after receiving Denise's letter, Waltenbaugh calls a friend of the family, a lawyer named David Whitten, who, through his contacts with VanZant, had originally helped put the two women in touch.
A devout Christian and, with his wife, Cheryl, parent to seventeen adopted children, Whitten is incensed. He advises Waltenbaugh to write back to Denise and tell her that collecting money for a child is illegal in Texas. Then Whitten himself sits down and writes a letter to the local police:
A Littleton mother contacted a friend of mine in Johnson County (just south of Ft. Worth) Texas, offering to sell her 8 year old for $4,000.
The Littleton couple traveled to Russia and adopted the girl. Upon returning to the US the girl showed a strong fear of men. I do not know how much professional help they have sought, if any. However, they have decided she was sexually abused in Russia, and that they cannot handle this. So they contacted an adoption board on America Online, saying that after FOUR MONTHS with this child they have given up, and asking for somebody else to adopt her.
My friends sent the Littleton woman email offering to help with the child. The woman wrote my friends back telling all of the good qualities of the child (ie pretty, artistic, etc.). Then she said that the adoption had cost $12,500, and that paying $4,000 for the child would be a "bargain."
My wife and I have adopted children locally and through Russia. We believe that giving up after 4 months shows such poor parental skills that the child must be at risk. Offering to sell the child shows such poor judgment that the child must be at risk. Of course there is the matter that offering to sell the child is a felony in the state of Texas. Does it violate the law in Colorado?
I am concerned for the child, and am concerned that having knowledge of a crime about to occur I need to tell you.
On Friday, May 21, Denise, Elena and Ruth are sitting in the living room. Peter, who has been in Connecticut for the entire week, is due back any minute. Steven is rollerblading in the remaining light of a warm spring evening. He walks in the house at about 8:30 p.m., casually notes that he just passed a police cruiser up the block, then collapses next to Ruth and begins to play cards. Not more than a minute later, four police cars pull up fast. A policeman bangs on the door; when Denise answers, he informs her that he has a warrant to confiscate all of the family's computers and electronic files.
When Peter arrives home just after nine, Denise is throwing up in the bathroom. Steven is in a room alone with a police officer. Elena is with a female cop, who is packing a suitcase for her. (Later, the officer will report that Denise showed little affection toward Elena during the episode: "As Elena and I were leaving, her father asked where she would be, but Denise did not seemed concerned at all about where I was taking her," investigator Ann Smith wrote in her report.)
The night is a mess -- frightening and surreal. Peter tries to process all of it: the cops at his suburban door, Elena being led away, Denise's and the cops' explanation of the e-mails to Texas that have led the police to their house. Still, it is hard to get his mind around it: Denise tried to sell Elena?
Even though it is getting late, Denise and Peter agree to go to the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Department headquarters. After all, Peter thinks, once he tells their story -- explains everything -- the whole matter can be cleared up. They talk to the investigators; once or twice, Peter catches sight of Elena across the station. It is the last time he will see her. (Later, he learns that she declined to go home with them.) They arrive back home at 1 a.m. but do not sleep.
The next day is a nightmare. The story -- Littleton woman tries to sell her child! -- hits the papers, and by afternoon, there is an army of reporters outside the house. Denise tries to talk to them, be reasonable, but comes off looking unsympathetic -- adoptive parents are supposed to keep their children, not sell them -- and so eventually she stops. Even though Denise has not formally been charged with anything and Elena is only in temporary custody, the newspapers print a phone number that people interested in adopting her can call. On Monday, the Arapahoe County sheriff, Patrick Sullivan, holds a press conference to explain the case. The following day, Tuesday, Denise is finally charged with attempted trafficking of a child.
The Thomases find themselves in a world they don't understand. Detectives begin showing up around the neighborhood, questioning the neighbors about them -- what kind of parents are they? Social services also investigates (they will find no abuse, no neglect).
When she is not simply afraid, Denise finds herself seesawing between guilt and relief. "When Elena left, I can honestly say I didn't miss her," she says. "I cried, but I didn't miss her. I felt so guilty, like I had destroyed everything -- our marriage, our friends, this child. I thought, 'Why me? Why her? Why us together?' We finally take this leap of faith, this giant leap, we got her out of Russia -- wasn't that something good? I just sank lower and lower."
She begins scraping her thighs again, this time with a fork. In July, she checks herself into a hospital psychiatric ward, where she stays for three days. In the early fall, the Thomases fire their attorney and Denise tries to represent herself, tell her own story -- how could people not understand? But through a mixup, she misses a court date, and on November 5, four slate-gray unmarked police cars pull up to the house as Denise is unloading her work supplies (she cleans houses part-time), and a cop informs her that a bench warrant has been issued for her arrest, that she is a fugitive. She is handcuffed and taken to jail, where she spends the night.
As the summer and fall progress and turn to winter, "we would have our second thoughts," Peter says. "What could've happened if Elena had stayed, if the therapy she was scheduled for had worked? To this day, I still think about her. I can't say I miss who she was. I miss who she might have become."
It is a year later now, and Elena is gone. Last June, as the Thomases were beginning their crash course in the criminal justice system, Arapahoe County social services began a concurrent action called a Dependent or Neglected Children Case to legally separate Elena from her adoptive family. Denise and Peter felt cornered. If they were found guilty of trying to sell Elena, she would be taken away from them anyway. And even if they were found innocent, that could take a year or longer, at which point Elena would be even less attached to them than before.
But they also felt ambivalent about their adopted daughter, and so, Peter says, "early on we met with social services and said we didn't want Elena back. We did not think it was in her, or our, best interests to have her come back." Still, throughout that summer, Denise continued to see Elena in supervised visits at a county building; Peter declined to accompany her. In July, Denise told Elena that she would not be seeing her again.
In response to Peter's request that they take Elena, the Phillippis flirted with the idea, but in July decided against it.
So Elena's first placement was in a foster home run by a single mother with seven children. Several days a week, the woman would leave Elena in a daycare center while she gambled at a local casino. Last fall, a reporter for Redbook magazine visited the daycare and found that Elena had been left twice that week without food for a full day (the parents were supposed to pack a lunch but didn't). In December, Elena was placed with another foster family, who the Thomases hear is in the process of legally adopting her. It is a setup that the NAIC says is one of the best predictors of a successful long-term adoption.
Last fall, the Arapahoe County District Attorney's Office offered Denise a deal: If she would plead guilty to solicitation of trafficking in children and child abuse, she would get a deferred sentence -- no jail time if she stayed clean for four years. Indignant, she refused. "All of a sudden they want us to plead guilty to child abuse, which to this day we're not being accused of," Peter says, and so the child-selling charges stand.
Colorado has two laws that cover instances in which adults exchange money for a child. The first, a felony, is trafficking of a child. Lawyers say is it meant to cover true horror stories -- the drug addict who attempts to sell her child for cash to support her habit, for example -- and thus carries a heavy penalty, up to eight years in prison and a $500,000 fine. The second law is less serious, a misdemeanor. It says that no person other than a certified and licensed adoption agency may receive any money out of an adoption. It carries a fine of $500.
Oddly, Denise was charged with the first, more serious offense, even though Arapahoe County's own court records suggest that investigators and prosecutors knew she was attempting an adoption rather than an outright sale. "There is reason to believe that Thomas wanted to keep the adoption private and to bypass the legal adoption process so she could transfer custody of her daughter quicker," reads the sheriff's report from the night the police confiscated the Thomases' computers. Arapahoe County DA spokesman Michael Knight declined to comment in detail on the case, saying only that his office brings charges that it thinks most appropriate to the circumstances of a crime. Denise's trial for attempted child trafficking is scheduled to begin in Arapahoe County District Court on June 19.
On a recent April day, Pete pops in the video of Elena, the one that marked the start of their -- and Elena's -- tumble into family chaos and crime. It is interesting to watch the Thomases watch the images of their former adopted daughter. Pete and Denise's faces show nothing -- no longing, no sadness, no rancor.
Later, Denise brings over a photo album to show off. Inside, however, are pictures not of Elena, but of Olga. One shows Olga -- Lauren -- with her American sister, both girls dressed in cheerleader outfits, smiling like they are sharing an extraordinary joke. "Look at her," Denise says. "Look at her. She's a Mississippi cheerleader now."
"Sometimes," says Pete, looking over her shoulder, "in those months when things were terrible, I would dream of the Phillippis calling me up and saying, 'We don't want Olga; it just isn't working out.' I'd have snapped her up in a moment, kept both the girls. We'd have been one big happy family."
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