NY Times Reports on Horse Ranch for “Troubled” International Adoptees in Montana
I knew at some point the news would turn its gaze back to this horse ranch. I blogged about the ranch a little while back, and it seems that I am here once again.
EUREKA, Mont. — Hundreds of adopted children, most of them Russian, have come here to northwest Montana to live and perhaps find healing grace with the horses and cows and rolling fields on Joyce Sterkel’s ranch. Some want to return to the families that adopted them, despite their troubles.
Others, like Vanya Klusyk, have seen far too much of what the world can dish out.
Vanya, 17, suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome, which affects his reasoning ability, his impulse control, his intelligence and even his height. Then there were the beatings in the Russian orphanage, he said, where he lived from age 8 to 14, until a California couple brought him to America.
“There were bigger boys, 18 and 19, and I was too small,” he said in a quiet voice, standing in the bright sun outside the ranch’s school on a recent morning. Vanya, who turns 18 this summer, wants to stay on after graduation, working with other wounded children, and Ms. Sterkel has said he can.
An international adoption can be a journey into the waters of the unknown, and sometimes the rocks and shoals — for the parents, the child or both — are too much to negotiate. Ms. Sterkel’s remote ranch, five miles from the Canadian border in a homesteader’s valley that got electricity only around 1960, is for some of those families the end of the line.
In the weeks since a woman from Tennessee put her daughter’s 7-year-old adopted son, alone, on a plane back to Russia, saying he had been violent toward his mother, much of the furor has focused on parents, governments and adoption agencies, and what they do right — or do not do right — by adopted children.
Missing from the debate have been the voices and perspectives of the children themselves and the wrenching life that many face as a legacy of fetal alcohol, institutionalization, poverty and the sometimes socially corrosive survival skills they were required to hone in their early years.
“Lying, stealing and hoarding food,” Alexi, a smiling, upbeat 13-year-old girl, said when asked why her adoptive parents had sent her here. Alexi, whose family did not want her last name used, sat on the edge of a pool table in the main ranch house, swinging her legs and reading a book, “The Purpose Driven Life” by Rick Warren.
She spent the first two years of her life in a Russian orphanage, she said, and does not remember anything about it. She just knows she has always had a hard time trusting adults, including her adoptive parents.
Here at the Ranch for Kids, a nonprofit established seven years ago and focused on adopted children from Russia — where Ms. Sterkel’s family came from a century ago, and where she worked as a midwife in the early 1990s before adopting three Russian children herself — background stories of hard luck or horror are as common as skinned knees.
Ms. Sterkel, 63, said those stories gave her great sympathy for parents who had reached a point of desperation. Adoptees with inner lives, and brains, twisted by experiences that began even before birth can be mercurial — sunny one minute, explosively violent the next, with no ability to make moral judgments about what they have done. They can also be emotionally distant, self-destructive or both.
In Russia, vodka’s curse has been woven through history since the early czars. One widely cited study concluded that Russia’s rate of fetal alcohol syndrome was eight times that of the rest of the world.
Exposure in utero to alcohol can cause irreversible brain damage, with visible manifestations that include smaller eyes and a smaller upper lip with the lip’s groove flattened. Even those with lesser exposure can have an interior rewiring of their brain chemistry, according to extensive medical research.
Isolation in infancy — in an understaffed orphanage or with a drunken parent — compounds those problems. A paper published last year in The American Journal of Psychiatry about preschool-age children from Romania found that more than half who had lived in an orphanage had psychiatric disorders, from attention deficit to post-traumatic stress. Boys tended to have more symptoms than girls, the study said.
That well-documented path of devastation makes Ms. Sterkel impatient with remarks like the one made by President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia, who called the return of the boy from Tennessee a “monstrous deed.”
“What he experienced was monstrous,” she said, gesturing toward Vanya. “Sending a kid back was not.”
Ms. Sterkel can be just as tough in talking about some of her own clients, like the adoptive parents of a Russian boy who was recently brought to the ranch with early signs of fetal alcohol troubles. The parents had agreed to pay $3,500 a month for the boy’s keep, but they knew, they said, that whatever happened, they just could not take him back.
“That’s when it’s sad — they haven’t exhausted all the possibilities,” Ms. Sterkel said.
Ranch for Kids now has 30 children, ages 5 to 17, some of whom stay for a month or two, some for years. Critics say the ranch, and places like it that focus on experience as therapy — exposure to nature, animals and rules of ranch life — are islands of unreality that do not fundamentally address a child’s problems.
“All it does is give them a hiatus,” said Ronald S. Federici, a clinical neuropsychologist in Virginia who mainly treats foreign adoptees.
Dr. Federici has tracked international adoptions since 1992 and estimates that about 4,000 from Eastern Europe alone have foundered — with children being sent into state care or to places like the Ranch for Kids or back to their home countries. He said that while he respected the impulse behind the ranch, permanent improvement could not happen without a spine of rigorous medical and therapeutic treatment.
“It’s like a vacation at the beach — we’re always better when at the beach,” he said.
Ms. Sterkel and her staff do not fully disagree. The rhythms of the ranch — afternoons on horseback, two teachers in a room of eight children, cow-milking — are not how life back home really works. But she believes that strict routines and responsibilities, like cleaning one’s room and close contact with nature and animals, can make a difference in upended lives.
“We can’t fix the fundamental damage,” she said. “Generally, our parents have reached a place where they need to restore sanity.”
About 70 percent of the roughly 300 children who have come here, Ms. Sterkel said, do go back to their adoptive families — though she admits she often loses track after that. Of the remaining 30 percent, the younger ones are often readopted, while adolescents typically go into the federal Job Corps program. And now there is even a second-generation to work with — a 10-month-old girl named Lilia.
Lilia’s mother was adopted from Russia and came through the program herself a few years ago — fiercely unmanageable and claiming, in full embrace of the Goth lifestyle, to be a vampire. The young woman’s life did not much get better: She ended up on methamphetamine, tattooed, pierced and pregnant at age 19.
But she came back to the ranch last year, Ms. Sterkel said, for the final months of her pregnancy, and then agreed to let the infant stay on in the Sterkel family’s care. Ms. Sterkel, now the baby’s legal guardian, said she assumed Lilia had prenatal exposure to alcohol, so she is trying everything she has learned over the years — especially physical contact, usually with the baby on her hip or lap — as an effort at early intervention therapy.
And Vanya now has a big brother figure, a former resident as a child, Jenya Davidson, 21, who has fetal alcohol syndrome, too, and came originally for help, only to return years later to work as a handyman and to help attend to the younger children. The two young men share an apartment over Ms. Sterkel’s garage.
Mr. Davidson, with a nearly constant smile, said northwest Montana was now home. He dreams of starting his own landscaping business.
Sarah Kershaw contributed reporting.