A year later, Rob realizes how little he really knew. He and his wife had always wanted a large family and thought they were prepared to adopt five children who spoke no English and had been seriously abused by alcoholic parents. In fact, Rob, 34, and Rita, 37, are proving their mettle by scaling mountains of laundry and gaining ground on more daunting obstacles such as learning disorders, violent behavior and the sad plight of kids who don't know how to trust. But although the Jurotiches say they have no regrets, Rita adds with a laugh, "I am questioning my sanity right now."
The first warning sign appeared while they were still in Poland. For no apparent reason, the children would swear at Rob and Rita—in Polish, of course. "We knew it was bad," says Rita, because translators suddenly clammed up and "people were turning red." The situation only deteriorated when the children came home to Chesterfield, Mo. Sylwester, 13, the oldest of the boys, would punch and kick his siblings, parents and babysitters. Eight months ago he was sent to live in a residential facility for troubled children, where doctors are evaluating how best to treat him. The other children have had problems as well. Artur, 7, starts fights with classmates, and his teachers are working with him to improve his behavior. Andrzej, 12, is behind in school, while the oldest child, Oktawia, 14, has battled the parents over authority. The youngest, Katarzyna, 5, has intense temper tantrums. Each child now meets once a week with a therapist. "The honeymoon period ended the first week," says Rita. "Welcome to bedlam."
The Jurotiches are not alone. All over the country, families are finding themselves ill equipped to handle the emotional problems of children adopted from Eastern Europe. Since the fall of Communism in 1989 opened up Eastern Europe, 18,000 children have been adopted by Americans. Such adoptees are "a high risk population," says neuropsychologist Ronald Federici, who has examined more than 1,000. Because of their time spent in understaffed orphanages during crucial developmental years, he says, between 50 and 60 percent of these children have learning and behavioral problems—depression, anger, lack of attachment—that can last a lifetime. Leslie Scherr, a Washington, D.C., attorney who helps families arrange adoptions, agrees that Eastern European adoptees "need counseling and therapy. Often a kid doesn't stand a chance in hell without a very, very heavy input of your own dollars."
Just ask the Jurotiches, who paid around $21,000 to adopt the kids and are now spending $1,300 a month on the therapists, medicine and tutors that are not covered by insurance. "We had no idea what we were getting into," says Rob, a tax attorney. "If we had known this coming in, a prudent person would have had appointments with psychiatrists lined up." But like many Americans who adopt Eastern European children, the Jurotiches were not told about the children's developmental problems, and handwritten medical records given to the Jurotiches in Poland had not been translated. Rita, who works as a pediatric speech pathologist, is even more blunt. "This is the kind of situation that can destroy people financially, emotionally and physically," she says, sighing. "This is not for the faint of heart."
Overseas adoption seemed like a good idea to Rita and Rob. Both came from large Missouri families: She was the oldest of four children, he was one of five. The couple, who met in a coed softball league, were married in 1990 and a year later bought a four-bedroom home in Chesterfield because, says Rob, "we wanted to fill it with kids." But Rita miscarried in 1995 and was told she could not get pregnant again. The couple tried adoption in the U.S. but found the experience "a cattle call," says Rob, with hundreds of families vying for a handful of kids. Finally they decided to adopt internationally, settling on Poland because the country keeps sibling orphans together. On Sept. 24, 1997, the Jurotiches brought their new children home.
Rob and Rita quickly learned they would have to be strict. The children had grown up with parents who often abused them and eventually abandoned them in 1994. The children have tended to imitate the violent behavior they grew up with. In their new home, says Rob, "we don't cut them any slack. There are rules, and there are consequences. These children need more than hugs and kisses." Indeed, their lives are tightly structured. After school they must finish their homework before they are allowed to play, and after dinner they must lay out their clothes and pack their bags for the next day.
Rob and Rita's daily routine has become an unending cycle of bills and chores. On many mornings, Rita gets up at 5 a.m. to start the laundry and see the children off to school. In the afternoons a babysitter watches the children until their parents get home. They cook all meals for the week in a marathon session on Saturday or Sunday, with some help from Oktawia and Andrzej. Above all, Rita and Rob are trying their best to teach them what makes a family work—which included sending Sylwester away. "There is nothing shameful in getting additional intervention," she says. "It is important for the children to become complete and whole members of society."
The other four children are making headway. At first, Oktawia—accustomed to being the mother of the group—had difficulty adjusting to her new life. "We want her to learn how to be a child again," says Rita. Lately the shy teen has made friends in her eighth grade class and even got her first A's, in art. She initially told her parents she wanted to be a beautician; now she talks of going to college.
Despite academic troubles, Andrzej seems to have had the easiest time fitting in. "He is wonderful, a very good boy," says Rita. His parents are determined to help him get through school with the help of tutors. "I'm not going to let him sneak through without learning anything," says Rob. Andrzej doesn't seem to mind the pressure. "I feel like I am part of a family," he says.
Artur, who is learning English quickly, split the school year between kindergarten and first grade and loves America. "It is much better here," he says. "Over there they drink a lot of beer and vodka." But his vocabulary has gotten him into trouble. One day his teacher taught him the word "pull" and demonstrated what it meant. A little while later he saw the word on a fire alarm and tried it out. When the alarm went off, "Artur had no clue of what was going on," says Jill Ramsey, principal of the River Bend Elementary School, who reassured him that no one was angry. Artur, she says, "has just blossomed. He is a very bright young man." Katarzyna, the youngest, has also learned English. She speaks in complete sentences, and she and Artur "constantly tell us that they love us," says Rob. "The older ones don't express it as often, but every once in a while they will say that to us too."
The children like to go on picnics together, play with the two family dogs, Tippecanoe and Tyler, and visit zoos and museums in St. Louis. On weekends, Rob sometimes takes them to University of Missouri football games and St. Louis Cardinals baseball games. And despite all the day-to-day struggles, Rob and Rita both say that they got what they were seeking after all. Before the children arrived, says Rob, their house was like "a museum piece." Now, says Rita with a smile, "there is a lot more laughter. We are stepping over toys and over shoes. It is a home. That is what it was meant for."
Giovanna Breu in Chesterfield