At first glance, the children saddling up the horses look like they were cast by Hollywood to play wholesome, athletic all-American kids. But outward appearances don’t tell the whole story.
One has molested a sibling. Another has tried to kill the family pet. Lying, stealing, vandalism, fire-setting round out the list of transgressions.
Because their parents can no longer manage them at home, the 24 youngsters -- almost all international adoptees -- have ended up at the Ranch for Kids, a therapeutic boarding school in northwest Montana.
This is the final stop.
Most had already logged countless hours in psychiatric units, wilderness programs and residential treatment centers, searching for answers to their disturbing behaviors. The goal is that, through intense intervention and structure, their conduct will improve enough that they can go home.
But some will never return, moving on to new families. They are part of an expanding phenomenon known as adoption disruption -- the official term for parents attempting to return their adoptive children.
“Some parents just can’t do it anymore; they’re done,” said Joyce Sterkel, who runs the Ranch for Kids. “It’s tragic . . . and everyone is a victim.”
No one appears to keep data on adoption disruption. Relinquishment is statistically rare among the 20,000 foreign-born children adopted by Americans each year, but experts say it is happening with increasing frequency.
One Ohio adoption agency reports receiving as many as five calls a day from parents about disruptions, up from just one or two a month a couple of years ago.
“No one knew the magnitude of the problem,” said Sterkel. “The horror stories just keep on coming.”
Though dissolutions of domestic adoptions are not unheard of -- a decade-long study of 5,750 Illinois children adopted from foster care through the mid-1980s found a rate of 6.5% -- it is among the international population where experts are seeing a troubling increase.
Experts blame the jump on several factors.
First, as Americans have adopted more children from overseas -- the number has almost tripled since 1990 -- the number with disturbing behavior has also grown. And these children are now hitting adolescence, when their rages are more dangerous.
Moreover, many parents were unprepared for the challenges. Sometimes agencies glossed over their charges’ complex medical histories -- or omitted them altogether. “Now, they’re out there all alone . . . living in a constant state of crisis,” said therapist Amy Groessl of the Children’s Research Triangle in Chicago, which serves high-risk families.
Though some may have undertaken parenthood with unrealistic expectations, it seems more typical that they are deeply committed but ill-equipped to cope with profoundly damaged children. The youngsters may have fetal alcohol syndrome, mental illness, attachment disorders -- perhaps all three -- and can’t function in a family, though they show no outward signs of disability.
“These kids are the victims of every kind of abuse you can imagine: sexual, physical, emotional,” said Sterkel. Adoptive parents receive no hint of or preparation for the difficult road ahead, she said. “They thought love was enough.”
So when the nuclear family melts down, parents must grapple with a heartbreaking choice: “Do we remove this child . . . or do we all go down?”
Sterkel, a nurse and mother of three grown biological children, knows the struggles personally and professionally.
In the early 1990s, she lived in Russia for two years as part of a humanitarian relief effort and saw threadbare orphanages. After Sterkel returned to the United States, she couldn’t shake the image of Katya, suffering from years of abandonment and neglect. She adopted the 10-year-old in 1996.
Then she learned of a Russian teen, Sasha, who first had been adopted -- along with his three younger siblings -- by a Colorado family. That arrangement quickly unraveled. Sasha moved on to a second household, also in Colorado, while his two sisters and his brother were split up and placed in several states. Soon after, Sasha tried to poison his new mother. Charged with felony assault, he was sent to juvenile detention.
“My new mother told me that I should forget [my siblings], but I couldn’t,” the 23-year-old said recently. “I went nuts.”
When Sterkel heard his story, she decided to rescue him. The adoption was finalized in 1999. Today, he helps out on the ranch, connecting with other hard-to-reach kids.
“I still have a lot of trust issues . . . especially with women,” said Sasha. “But life is a lot better now. Of all the families I’ve had, this one is the best.”
There would be one more son -- Michael, now 20 -- bringing the brood to six.
Meanwhile, word spread that this Montana woman, who speaks conversational Russian, and her husband, Harry Sutley, could offer a respite to parents in crisis.
The wind howls across the craggy landscape, five miles from the Canadian border. There’s plenty of physical activity and virtually nowhere to run. In the early days, Sterkel didn’t have much of a treatment plan beyond keeping the kids busy and nurtured.
Today, the program employs 15, but the youngsters -- mostly 12 to 17, but some as young as 4 -- live in the same spartan dorms. And the blueprint is unchanged: The route to self-esteem is through teamwork and productivity.
The first half of the day is devoted to academics followed by chores. On a ranch, cows always need milking, ditches need digging, fences mending. It’s a bracing change for the socially isolated children.
The most coveted time is spent with the horses, also known as equine assistance psychotherapy. Push a horse and it’ll push back; hefty doses of kindness, patience and respect will usually yield results. It’s a way to connect with aggressive, angry children and nudge them toward new insights. Traditional counseling is available, but only at a parent’s request.
“Here, everyday life is therapy,” said Bill Sutley, 35, Sterkel’s son, an affable wearer of numerous hats, from ranch manager to math teacher.
The regimen works, he quickly added, only because of the number of adults who can step in at a moment’s notice. He knows well that “tough love” bromides are no match for complex neurological wiring. And what works with one child doesn’t necessarily work with another. “There’s no magic formula,” he said.
The typical stay is six to 12 months, although some students stay longer. Room, board and tuition total $2,950 to $3,500 a month.
Since 2004, about 150 kids have cycled through, with only six booted out, all within the last year.
“It takes a lot before Bill and I will cry ‘uncle,’ ” Sterkel said. “But we have the staff to think about.”
From here, a third will return home and another third -- mostly those 16 and older -- will move on to Job Corps, an education and vocational training program run by the U.S. Department of Labor.
And the remaining third will discover that their parents are relinquishing their rights.
Sometimes, the task of telling a child he or she will be joining a new family falls to Bill Sutley, an electrical engineer by training. “I just say: ‘This is not your fault. You have a screwed-up brain.’ And then I do my best to explain why the current situation isn’t working.”
He rarely judges those who arrive at this painful conclusion. Sure, one couple sent a one-paragraph e-mail (“Just incredibly lame,” he said). But for the most part, families are held hostage -- especially when adoptees act out sexually or falsely allege abuse by their adoptive parents.
When all efforts fail, Sterkel starts a new placement process with a call to A Child’s Waiting in Akron, Ohio -- one of the few adoption agencies that works with youth they did not originally place.
Children are tagged green, yellow and red, based on the difficulty of finding replacement families.
The numbers have risen so dramatically that A Child’s Waiting plans to build transitional housing this year to accommodate this group, said Crissy Bessemer-Kolarik, co-director. “The red kids have the most significant issues, such as sexual predators.”
To prevent future disruptions, agencies are emphasizing more pre-adoption training and post-adoption support. Some are telling prospective parents they should assume that their children were exposed to drugs and alcohol in utero, unless documentation indicates otherwise.
For one suburban Chicago mother whose daughter is at the ranch, the warnings came too late.
The girl regularly accused her of abuse, she said, and the investigators who knocked on her door had no framework for dealing with such an impaired girl.
The mother’s short-term solution? To never be alone with the child. She is still undecided about the long term. “All I can tell you is that we grieve for what might have been.”