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.Reactions?
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 couple from California brought him to America.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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