Alec Cole, a precocious 13-year-old with striking eyes and an olive complexion, recently arrived at Sterkel's ranch for his second stint. Born in Belarus, Cole spent the first three years of his life in an orphanage, where abuse and neglect compounded the effects of FASD, which can affect impulse control, intelligence and, in Cole's case, physical characteristics like height.
When a Florida couple adopted Cole, they assumed he would assimilate into their family with liberal doses of love and affection, but the damage had been done before Cole ever had a chance, and his ability to trust adults has been undermined.
Over time, his behavior grew increasingly aggressive and unpredictable, and the family reached a tipping point when assaults and threats of violence against his parents and adoptive sister became commonplace.
"I kicked, fought, cursed, yelled and did all kinds of wrong things to my parents," Cole said, reciting the litany of reasons his adoptive family had for sending him to live with Sterkel, and for spending what amounts to a college education in the course of his therapy.
He has made progress at the Ranch for Kids, but not without frequent setbacks. During one violent outburst, he attempted to attack a staff member with a 2-by-4. Still, after living on the ranch for two years and following a visit from his family, Cole went home to Florida for a yearlong trial period. His violent meltdowns reemerged and the family determined he was not fit to live with them; he returned to live with Sterkel last month.
"I'm not saying I don't appreciate my other set of parents, but it's hard being given away," he said.
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Some of the children spend several weeks or months with Sterkel before returning to their families, and the outcomes are sometimes positive. Others, like Cole, require years of respite care just to develop basic life skills.
Others still leave the ranch only when they reach the age of 18 and their adoptive families no longer bear legal responsibility. Those young adults often enroll in the federal Job Corps training program, Sterkel said, but without a structured "next-phase" environment, their futures are grim.
"We have well-meaning families who adopt these children and believe that love and affection is all it takes," Sterkel said. "They expect challenges. They expect malnutrition and lack of love, but they do not expect a child who has permanent brain damage, who cannot bond. We can correct their behaviors, but we can't put their souls back in their body."
Having navigated the murky waters of an international adoption, Sterkel says most families she encounters are patient and committed to their adopted children; however, some simply surrender their children to the ranch's charges.
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Zhenya Wood, 16, gave up on school before coming to Montana, but a winter digging ditches and performing manual labor alongside Davidson has changed his outlook.
"I'm not much of a ditch digger or a rancher, so I'd like to give school another chance," he said.
A victim of FASD, Wood lived in a Russian orphanage from the age of 3 until 7, when a Pennsylvania couple adopted him. "I don't have a lot of happy memories," he said, recalling the orphanage as "dark and unclean, with bad food."
Wood's mother died three years ago and his father sent him to Sterkel after the teenager's behavior became uncontrollable. "We were just holding on after my mom died, and I realize that my dad doesn't deserve all the crap I've given him," he said. "But these teenage years are tough."
Wood says he believes his father can sense a change in him during their weekly phone conversations, and his goal is to return home.
"I sure hope so. I've forgotten what he looks like," he said.
Still hoping for change
2 months ago