When an American couple adopted an infant from a Russian orphanage, it seemed that fortune had smiled upon the 13-month-old girl. But within three years, Carolyne's adoptive parents in Nebraska gave her up to the state. Authorities placed Carolyne in emergency foster care with an uncertain future. But one family's tragedy was another family's blessing. STORY BY JOE DEJKA | PHOTOS BY MEGAN SMITH AND CHRIS MACHIAN | THE WORLD-HERALD
Sunday, July 10, 2016
Carolyne’s life started like a fairy tale. Rescued from a Russian orphanage by an American couple. Whisked away to their big house in the Omaha suburbs. The 13-month-old girl got a fresh start. But instead of harmony, there was friction. Carolyne’s adoptive parents claimed she was disobedient and uncontrollable. She wouldn’t attach to them. They suspected the girl suffered emotional damage in the orphanage.
Beverly Hanson said that the moment she saw her daughter's photo she knew she was supposed to be her mom. Carolyne Hanson's first Halloween with her family, at age 3, she dressed as Snow White.
Unable to cope with the girl, they gave her up. Authorities took her from their home. They placed Carolyne — 3 years and 9 months old — in emergency foster care, a state ward. Outcast. Branded a troubled kid. Then along came Bev and Joe Hanson — customer service rep and auto mechanic, big-hearted people who faced their own kind of rejection. Unable to produce children of their own, weary of fertility testing, the Hansons yearned for children to adopt and love. In fall of 2004, Bev received an email about a little girl whose international adoption had gone bad. The girl was in emergency foster care and needed a permanent home. Attached was a photograph: a tiny pixie with short, curly brown hair sitting against a couch, wearing white tennis shoes. “As soon as I saw her big brown eyes, I said, ‘I’m done.’” She texted Joe. “How would you feel about adopting a little girl?” Bev sent Joe the picture. He was on board. They just HAD to meet her.
Carolyne Hanson pets her dog Max at her home in the Benson neighborhood of Omaha. MEGAN SMITH/THE WORLD-HERALD
Carolyne’s case disturbed investigators. The tip came in to a child abuse hotline in September 2004. The tipster knew a woman who no longer wanted her child. Chris Teuscher, an investigator for the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office, visited the house with a social worker to check on the girl. Carolyne was one of two Russian girls the Sarpy County couple adopted from different orphanages. They were not biological sisters. Carolyne was born Dec. 21, 2000, in Ekaterinburg, Russia, a mountainous region near Kazakhstan. According to the U.S. State Department, she was one of 4,950 Russian children adopted by Americans in 2002. Her adoptive mother suspected Carolyne suffered from reactive attachment disorder, an affliction linked to factory-like conditions in Russian orphanages. In severe cases, neglected children don’t learn to attach to others emotionally. Teuscher reported that the parents had stripped decorations from Carolyne’s bedroom. There were no toys, only a dresser, clothing in the closet and a crib with a sheet on the mattress. Her 5-year-old sister’s room was “normal,” Teuscher wrote, with toys and pictures on the wall. The father told him the toys and decorations were removed in an attempt to improve Carolyne’s behavior. She could win them back by being good, Teuscher wrote. The parents, at their wits’ end, asked authorities to take Carolyne from their home. Teuscher and the social worker got her bags together and some belongings. They took her into custody of Nebraska Health and Human Services. Teuscher was sure that removing Carolyne was the right decision.
Bev and Joe went through two years of fertility testing. “And it felt like a lifetime,” Bev said. It was no fun getting poked and prodded every few weeks only to learn they could not conceive a child. But after some soul-searching they realized that maybe they could make a difference in other ways. “If not my own blood, then make someone else my blood,” she said. They looked into private adoption. One adoption agency wanted $10,000. Another, Bev said, asked them to will their estate to the agency. Some required open adoption: letting birth parents visit, whether you liked them or not. And then there was the upfront $4,000 fee one wanted to charge. “I don’t want to buy a child,” she thought at the time, “I just want to open my home to love a child.” They decided to become foster parents and adopt a foster child if the opportunity arose. To become foster parents, the Hansons took six months of classes, two or three times a week. The training included horror stories of kids with behavior issues in foster care. Instructors described various scenarios and disorders that foster parents could expect. The Hansons went in with eyes open.
The Hansens, including mom Bev, seen above, rescued Carolyne from emergency foster care and adopted her in 2005, providing her a stable, loving home.
Bev believes in love at first sight. She first fell in love with a boy needing foster care. He was adorable, she said. Blond, blue-eyed, 7 years old. The Hansons took him into their home in October 2003 and adopted him in July 2004. Two months later, they learned of the little Russian girl. When Bev saw Carolyne’s picture, she fell in love again. The Hansons quickly set up a get-to-know-you visit at a popular fall amusement destination: Vala’s Pumpkin Patch in Gretna. It was a big family gathering. They rented a fire pit. Carolyne rode a pony. She got her face painted. She petted the animals. Family members were thrilled to have her. “People just flooded her with affection and love from the get-go,” Bev said. “She just soaked it all up.” Although her given name was Carolyne, all day everyone called her Carly, the name the previous couple used with her. Carolyne was quiet most of the day. She answered their questions with “yes” or “no.” As the family headed for the exit, near the goat pen, Bev and Joe asked if Carly had fun at the patch. She answered: “My name is Carolyne, not Carly.” She was never Carly again.
Carolyne fixes her father's lapel at their Benson home. MEGAN SMITH/THE WORLD-HERALD
Carolyne spent 30 days in emergency foster care. In October 2004, the Hansons took her into their home. Her former parents officially relinquished their parental rights. Bev and Joe adopted her on National Adoption Day, Nov. 19, 2005. The Hansons were prepared for behavior issues. While a state ward, Carolyne had been diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder. Their older adopted boy had been diagnosed with the disorder. The Hansons figured they were prepared if Carolyne displayed the signs. The disorder stems from being neglected and unloved. Kids with it never developed a deep, loving bond with anyone. They can become angry and detached from everyone or indiscriminately seek attention from anyone, even strangers. If you’re going to help these kids, Bev said, “you have to roll with the punches.” When they first took custody of Carolyne, she warmed up to Bev right away. She wouldn’t talk to Joe for two weeks. The independence she displayed at the pumpkin patch surfaced again and again. One time Joe was cooking dinner. In comes Carolyne, about 5 years old. She’s been outside, riding a bike. “Is this a wrench?” she asks. “Yes,” Joe said. A few minutes went by and Joe started to wonder. Why did she need a wrench? Outside, he found Carolyne with her bike upside down. She was removing her training wheels. “Sure enough, as soon as she got them off, she went right down the driveway,” Joe said.
Carolyne painted a mother wolf and her pup and presented it to Bev Hanson on her birthday. Art gives her a voice that’s all her own, Carolyne says.
Her knack for art was apparent early on. She drew on the walls. The Hansons thought about turning one wall of her room into a chalkboard after she drew on it. They got her an easel with a roll of paper. That solved the writing-on-the-walls situation. Besides, Carolyne wanted a pink and purple room. “She had to have Disney princesses,” Bev said. Some mornings they would find a big purple marker stain on the sheets. Carolyne had been drawing and fell asleep. “Art is hard work,” joked Joe. Now 15 years old, Carolyne has continued her art. She likes to observe objects up close, to study the detail — for instance, the colored glass of a ceiling light hanging over a table at Panera Bread. “That could be a really great drawing, just the detail, the pattern,” she said. Her favorite medium is pencil sketching. Art gives her a voice that’s all her own, she said. One night last year, Joe and Bev went to a Michael’s Craft Store and bought her four or five canvases and paint on sale. By morning, Carolyne had whipped up a painting for Bev’s birthday. It was freehand. A mother wolf and pup.
Carolyne cuts loose at the dance studio. “She is quiet with the mouth but not quiet with her moves,” said Lauren Paulsen of the Backstage Dance studio. CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
She started dance lessons at age 9. As a teenager, her favorite is hip-hop. On a recent night at the Backstage Dance Studio in west Omaha, Lauren Paulsen belted out directions. “Let’s go out. Boom. Da da da da.” Eight girls in her hip-hop class do their best to follow along. In the front row, Carolyne is a natural. Her fierce moves, perfected in front of a mirror at home, command attention and create a presence bigger than her 4-foot-11 frame. When the family first took her into their home, she was 27 pounds. She barely came up to Joe’s knee. They got her a Chihuahua because their Labrador retrievers kept knocking her down with their tails. She called it Kitty because of its ears, Bev said. At the dance studio, the instructor encourages the kids. Carolyne adds her own details, powerful movements that express the in-your-face music. “She is quiet with the mouth,” Paulsen said, “but not quiet with her moves.” That’s good, the instructor said. Hip-hop is about confidence, owning the song. After practice, Carolyne works her gymnastics moves. Watching her, one’s mind can easily wander to those great Russian gymnasts: compact body, strong arms, broad shoulders. Carolyne’s dark hair and olive skin complete the picture. On a family visit to the Nebraska Furniture Mart, a cashier once told Bev: “Oh, she got your pretty dark hair and his pretty dark eyes.” “I said, ‘Yep, she sure did.’ ”
Dad Joe Hansen is an auto mechanic at Nebraska Alignment & Frame on North 8th Street. Long, purple fingernails don’t seem to be an impediment as Carolyne wields auto mechanic tools. CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Sophomore year looks promising. Carolyne made the honor roll third quarter at Omaha Central High School. She finished freshman year with straight B’s. That was an improvement over middle school. “Last year I didn’t really know where I was,” Carolyne said. “I didn’t know where I was state of mind. So I didn’t really try in school. I got three F’s. It was bad.” She said she’s maturing and determined to improve. “If I do bad on a test, and I studied, I would get so mad at myself. That’s why I have straight B’s and A’s right now. Even a B-minus kind of made me mad because I’m, like, ‘Why can’t it just be a solid B?’ ” She recently got her learner’s permit. Bev and Joe got her a Lexus sports car. Not new. It’s practically as old as her: a Lexus IS300. Fire-engine red. It needs body and engine work. “It’s drivable, but it’s a work in progress,” Bev said. Carolyne said she’s glad it’s not new. She gets to work on it. It’s interesting.
Carolyne helped out recently on a car being fixed for a family friend. CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
The Hansons never saw evidence of reactive attachment disorder. Nor did a therapist who later worked with Carolyne. There were minor issues. Carolyne used to crawl under her bed and hide stuffed animals and dolls in a hole in the box springs. “She had a 5-foot snake from the Henry Doorly Zoo that she stuck up there,” Bev said. Bev thinks Carolyne was reacting to the instability in her life at the time. There were issues with sleep time, Joe said, but they all worked out after she got into a routine and she knew her new family situation was stable. She hoarded candy at Christmas and hid it in her room. Bev and Joe found candy wrappers in her sheets, in her bed, along the wall, in a corner of a drawer. “She was like a little gopher with them,” he said. Although shy at first, she had no problem attaching to people and no anger issues, Bev said. “She has her moments,” Bev said, adding that she’s a well-rounded girl. Bev and Joe talk freely with Carolyne about her past. She has no memories of Russia and only fleeting memories of the Nebraska parents who gave her up. The Hansons are convinced that her former parents’ description of Carolyne as a disturbed child was wrong. “It isn’t her,” Bev said. “It never was.”
“Last year I didn’t really know where I was,” Carolyne said of her eight grade year. “I didn’t know where I was state of mind. So I didn’t really try in school. I got three F’s. It was bad.” She finished her freshman year with straight B's. CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Bev said she believes those parents were just ill-equipped to parent Carolyne. “I’ve told Carolyne this before — not to bring religion into it — I think God had a reason to have them go get her to bring her to me,” she said. The couple who brought her from Russia have tried to make peace with what occurred. Contacted by The World-Herald, they issued a statement. Like any couple going to Russia for a child, they wrote, their intentions were “pure of heart.” They expected the child they brought home would fit with their family. But when their family experienced attachment issues, they had to do what was best for their family and for Carolyne. “We believe God’s intentions were not for us to have a second child, but that we were just His conduit to bring a child from Russia that He knew He had a home for in Nebraska, her home, with her forever family. We wish her peace with life, and her family, and her happiness with them.” Carolyne says of her new parents: “They saved my life.” “They’re the reason I’m living today. I love them to death, and I don’t know what I would do without them.” She’s grateful to Teuscher and the social services workers who worked her case. She feels like a survivor. Confident. Proud. “I’m proud that I’m stronger, not weaker, by the actions of other people,” she said. “Of all the trouble she had,” Joe said, “I think she did pretty good.” “Pretty good?” Carolyne interjects. “I did awesome.” Contact the writer: 402-444-1077, firstname.lastname@example.org