Give Children a Chance Before Abandoning

An adopted 7-year-old boy was placed on a one-way plane ride back to Russia, reportedly with a note attached to him that said, "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." In response, the Russian government threatened to suspend all child adoptions to America.

The abandonment of adopted children who are sent back to their native country is not specific to Russia. Ethica, an adoption advocacy organization, reports that Vietnam and Guatemala have disclosed abandoned children, as well as cases in Liberia, Romania, Ethiopia, Indonesia and Korea. Though most adoption agencies work to support families and children, there are outliers that do not inform families of a child's psychiatric history or care.

Instead of blaming the mother for abandoning her child, or blaming the child for horrific behaviors, I will focus on the mental health systems that are capable of helping these families heal. This 7-year-old boy should have seen a mental health professional.

We do not know the details of the situation -- what the child's behaviors were in Russia, what the environment was like, or if he was maltreated or neglected in the orphanage. We aren't privy to how much information the adoptive mother had prior to his arrival, what her parenting style was, her reasons for adopting, or her expectations of him. But obviously, the fit between parent and child was bad enough that the boy was sent away.

As most parents know, children can seem pathological at times, at which point we fantasize about shipping them off. Self-absorbed, demanding, needy, defiant and impatient -- this is the nature of childhood. But other kids have severe behavioral and emotional problems like violent rages, hurting themselves and threatening the lives of others. This can leave parents feeling guilty, ill-equipped, and burned out.

Children feel the same, as most do not enjoy being self-destructive. They just don't have a more adaptive way of coping, much like the parent who acts by leaving her child. These children with severe emotional disorders are suffering, perhaps from abuse or neglect, and may have a treatable psychiatric disorder.

Psychiatric care can be expensive and difficult to find, so we often rely on the publicly-funded health system. But county mental health systems are constantly facing budget cuts, and residential group homes are closing. Fewer mental health providers are on our insurance panels since the reimbursement rates are so poor.

Mental illness is the most costly condition treated in children in America. And more citizens pay out-of-pocket for mental disorders than they do for asthma or bronchitis. In order to improve the lives of children and their families, public health care needs to invest in the mental health of our children now.

Policy-makers can prioritize child mental health by maintaining funding in the county mental health systems, improving insurance reimbursement rates to mental health professionals, and supporting specialty training in caring for children facing adversities.

Children are, by definition, not independent. They live in a world in which they bring innate temperaments and behaviors, which change in reflection to the relationships they're exposed to. The environment, culture, and society all dance with a child, to assist in development. The mental health care system is part of the society that missed a dance with this family.

If this 7-year-old boy and his adoptive family had a psychiatric assessment and were involved in mental health treatment, perhaps we could have eased the suffering that he and his mother endured alone. We should give families a chance, before abandoning both parents and their children.