When she arrived in Memphis 11 years ago, even a short car trip left her with motion sickness. That seemed like ancient history when Elena Mordvina got her driver's license at the end of March.
Driving meant she could get a job. The job meant she could rent a house. "It's like climbing a ladder. Each step gets me a little closer to the top," she says of the route she traveled from a Russian orphanage, through a failed adoption, life on the streets and the birth of a son.
Elena, 21, was 9 when she was adopted by a Cordova couple who wanted a daughter in addition to their three sons. She stepped off the plane from Russia with little more than a change of clothes, a few snacks and a silver cross with Jesus on it hanging from a raggedy string around her neck.
Her arrival in Memphis was supposed to be an answer to the prayers of her adoptive parents. For Elena, it was a chance for a child beyond the toddler stage to be adopted and live a version of the American dream. Instead, it was a catastrophe. Elena claimed she was abused by her adoptive mother. Her doomed adoption was cited as one reason for the breakup of her new parents' marriage.
Another Russian orphan, a 7-year-old boy, got the world's attention last year when his adoptive mother in Shelbyville, Tenn., put him on a plane alone and sent him back to Russia. He was violent and threatened to burn down the family home, the mother said. Elena's adoptive mother told friends she thought Elena was the "devil's egg." After four years, her adoptive family gave her up to state custody without getting her U.S. citizenship.
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Elena spent three months at Lakeside [a mental health facility], then lived briefly in a series of foster homes and at Porter-Leath Children's Center. She ran away. She stayed briefly with friends she had met at Lakeside, with a 45-year-old man and others. She moved to Jackson, Tenn., to stay with a former sister from one of the foster homes where she had stayed. She had a green card, identifying her as a permanent resident, and was able to work at a Burger King. It was in Jackson where she met a 19-year-old man who became her lover. "It wasn't that I was in love. I was careless and dumb," says Elena, who worked until 11 days before the birth of her son, Mario.
She lived with the baby's father for a while, but says he did not work steadily and took little responsibility for her or their son. When the bills mounted, she left.
Her former soccer coach, Droke, says Elena "made some horrendously bad choices. Once she got into Lakeside, it's kind of like the gates of hell opened up." An accountant and former wrestler, Droke says he stuck by Elena. "She made some bad choices. A lot of kids do. The problem with her was she had nothing to fall back on. ... She didn't do anything but get adopted and have a bad adoption."
Droke, a former neighbor and friend of the Mills family, quickly learned they had not gotten her U.S. citizenship. She lost her green card while living in Jackson and, without it, was unable to get a driver's license. Droke set up a Facebook page called "The Elena Mordvina Trust," inviting friends to donate to help Elena get back on her feet.
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She now is studying to take her GED exam Monday. "What she lacks in wisdom and experience she makes up for in heart and determination," says Boraten. "She just needs a little help here and there." Boraten also is planning to help Elena get her U.S. citizenship.
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She took a break on the doorstep of her rental home on moving day to consider the adoption process and its pitfalls. "You don't know who they (children) are going to be placed with. People have personalities that you don't see outside the home. You don't know what kind of people you're placing your child with. Everything is not what it seems."
5 weeks ago