Competence of Children Adopted from the Former Soviet Union

By McGuiness, Teena; Pallansch, Leona | Family Relations, October 2000 | Go to article overview

Competence of Children Adopted from the Former Soviet Union


McGuiness, Teena, Pallansch, Leona, Family Relations


The former USSR led the way with the most children adopted from overseas into the United States from 1997-1999. This study (a) characterizes overall functioning of adoptees and (b) utilizes hierarchical regression analysis to evaluate both risks and protective influences of adoptive families and their relationships to child competence. Competence levels ranged from challenged to developmentally normal. Family cohesion and expressiveness were significantly associated with higher levels of child competence.

Key Words: adoption, competence, international, protection, risk.

Nearly one million U.S. families desire to grow through adoption but only an estimated 25,000 healthy infants are available annually in the U.S. (van Balen, Verdurmen, & Ketting, 1997). Since the demise of the Soviet Union, many families seeking to adopt have turned to that region in search of children. There are approximately 600,000 infants, toddlers, and young children in orphanages (Powell, 1998) and many are available for adoption. However, as demonstrated by reports in the media (Holden, 1996; Nakashima, 1996; Saul, 1997), many children have mental and physical health difficulties. A strikingly different picture has emerged as contrasted to other international adoptees such as those from Korea (Albers, Johnson, Hostetter, Iverson, & Miller, 1997). These difficulties include behavioral and emotional challenges and developmental delays. The difficulties may be, in part, related to the institutional settings experienced by these children during sensitive developmental periods (Spake, 1998). Other risk factors influencing the health of these institutionalized children include difficult economic conditions in the former Soviet bloc countries, poor sanitation, limited availability and poor quality of health care, and the different motivations (humanitarian vs. profit-oriented) of the agencies facilitating these adoptions (Albers et al., 1997).

The effects of institutionalization on subsequent emotional and behavioral development have important ramifications for understanding the adaptive behavior of children adopted from the former Soviet Union. From 1997 through 1999, the countries of the former Soviet Union were the principal sources of international adoptees for American families while China followed as a close second. In 1999, approximately 4,400 children entered U.S. adoptive families (U.S. Department of State, 2000). Most of these children spent significant portions of their early months or years in orphanages and were exposed to the biologic and social risks associated with institutionalization (Frank, Klass, Earls, 8c Eisenberg, 1996). They were often voluntarily relinquished at birth to institutions but some were forcibly removed due to parental abuse and neglect and resided in orphanages until adoption.

Nearly a century of research in child development points to five areas of potential biologic and social risks for infants and young children in orphanage care (Bowlby, 1951; Chapin, 1915; Goldfarb, 1945; Rutter, 1995). These biologic and social risks include (1) increased morbidity from infectious disease, (2) delays in nutrition and growth, (3) impairments in cognitive development, (4) difficulties in socioaffective development, and (5) physical and sexual abuse. Infants and young children are uniquely vulnerable to the medical and psychosocial hazards of institutional care in any country (Frank et al., 1996). Unfortunately, the negative effects of institutionalization cannot be reduced to a tolerable level even in clean facilities with adequate personnel. In the short term, orphanage placement puts young children at increased risk of serious infectious illness and delayed language development (Ames et al., 1997; Holden, 1996; Morison, Ames, & Chisholm, 1995). In the long term, institutionalization increases the likelihood that children will grow into psychiatrically impaired and economically unproductive adults (Frank et al.

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