Collegeville family ensnared in Russian adoption controversy

A Russian success story: Grace Brown, 5, adopted in 2008, has tea with sister Kathleen, 17, at home in Honey Brook.
A Russian success story: Grace Brown, 5, adopted in 2008, has tea with sister Kathleen, 17, at home in Honey Brook. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 23, 2013

A teenager says his parents treated him badly, hassling him about little things until they finally kicked him out of the house, forcing him to sleep in a culvert.

His parents describe a willful young man who ignored house rules, disrespected teachers and others, and chose to leave.

It's a scenario that plays out in communities across the United States.

In this instance, the troubles between a Collegeville couple - Jackie and Steve Salotti - and their son became an international incident when Russia framed it as an example of Americans mistreating adoptive Russian children.

The story flared recently. The Salottis' adopted son Josh, who had returned to Russia, lambasted his parents on TV there.

About four months earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin had barred Americans from adopting Russian children. The December ban was seen as retaliation for a U.S. law targeting Russian human-rights violators. Scandals in the United States haven't helped.

Russia says about 20 children have died from abuse or neglect by their American families.

A Moscow Times story quoted a Foreign Ministry official who said the Salotti case "confirms the necessity of ensuring effective control over the observance of the rights and legal interests of Russian children adopted by citizens of the United States."

The story of the Salottis and their adopted son is a tangled tale that stretches from Moscow to Montgomery County, beginning about five years ago.

Josh was 13 when the Salottis adopted him and an unrelated Russian boy, Sam, then 14. The family met the two, who were living in an orphanage, through a program that brought Russian children to the United States to visit prospective families.

Sam went to the orphanage early in life. His mother died when he was young and his father was never around, said Charles D. Mandracchia, the Salottis' attorney.

Josh was 5 when his mother was fatally shot, Mandracchia said. For a time, the boy lived with his alcoholic father and his grandmother. But the grandmother couldn't handle the father's abuse of Josh, and sent the child to the orphanage, where he became friends with Sam.

The Salottis knew that much about the pair, but they didn't know much more, only what Russian files told them - and not all of it was true.

One boy had "life-threatening health issues" that the file listed as treated, Jackie Salotti said. They were not. Another condition needing surgery was diagnosed for the same boy. He didn't get the surgery until he got to the Salottis'. The other child was generally healthy.

The children had good times, she said, including camping and fishing with their father. But they never really embraced their new home and the Salottis' rules, including a curfew and no alcohol or drugs in the house. They increasingly wanted to do things their own way.

"Their language was always f- this and f- that," she said. "We were getting at least weekly reports of them flipping teachers off or smoking or stealing things from school."

The climax came when Josh befriended another Russian adoptee. A Russian news story that quoted both young men said Josh asked the Salottis if his friend could live with them when the friend and his adoptive family parted last October. When they said no, the two teens lived outside.

Josh wasn't kicked out of the house, as he told Russia's Channel One, she said. He chose to leave and said no when the family urged him to come back. After the weather turned cold, the Salottis and the Methacton School District helped him get housing through a social-service agency in Philadelphia.

Josh also decided to return to Russia, Jackie Salotti said.

Russian children aren't the only adoptees who have had problems. An ex-pediatrician in Tennessee, for example, was found guilty in 2010 of first-degree murder in the death of her 4-year-old Chinese daughter.

But the spotlight falls brightest on Russian children. Why?

"Russia monitors these cases. If it happens to a Russian adoptee, we know it," said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute near Boston.

Most adoptions of Russian children are not catastrophic.

Count the Brown family of Honey Brook in Chester County among those.

Ken and Tricia Brown brought Grace, now 5, home from Moscow in December 2008. They waded through a two-year process working with the Adoptions From the Heart agency in Lower Merion Township.

"Grace has been a blessing to our family," which includes two biological children, Tricia Brown said. "She adapted very well from the start. I think it's because she was such a young age."

The Browns were proactive in learning about Grace's background. In Moscow, they hired a doctor to examine the little girl. The only medical problem found, Brown said, were two bouts of pneumonia she suffered.

They also ran information they got past the International Adoption Health Program at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Once in the United States, Grace needed help learning to pronounce new sounds and eating on her own, but Tricia Brown said those obstacles were quickly overcome. Otherwise, Grace is healthy.

In many cases, though, the ills of Russia are passed on to its young.

Children living in shoddy orphanages carry an increased risk of malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies, which impedes brain development, said Amy Lynch, coordinator of the Children's Hospital adoption program.

"The kids coming from Russia and some other countries tend to have significant developmental delays at the time of adoption," and can have difficulty forming emotional attachments, she said. These problems are more severe in older children.

With the high rate of alcoholism in Russia, many children also suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome.

"One cannot underestimate the mountain you will climb when you bring home a child who has been wounded in this way," said Tina Traster, author of a forthcoming memoir about adopting her daughter from a Siberian orphanage.

"Angelina and Brad make it look easy, but it isn't," she said of actors Jolie and Pitt, known for adopting many children. "It's easy to find yourself in a Twilight Zone kind of world, where the parent can very easily lose their way."

Though there are some support programs, including the program at Children's, Jackie Salotti and others say families need more help before and after adoption.

"My heart breaks for the family and for the boy," said Justine Massara-Petit, copresident of the Philadelphia-area chapter of Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoption.

Parents expect these children to come and fit right in, she said, "which is what we all want."


Contact Carolyn Davis at 610-313-8109, cdavis@phillynews.com, or follow @carolyntweets on Twitter.

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