We have this dramatic feast of a movie this holiday season, Les Miserables, based on Victor Hugo’s grand tragic novel (in 365 chapters), and a principal focus of that extraordinary tale of redemption is how ex-con Jean Valjean, a victim of disproportionate punishment and abuse, resists rage and adopts the orphan, Cosette, when her mother Fantine dies, and raises her as his own with love, kindness and at great risk and sacrifice.
Jean Valjean saved Cosette from the Thenardiers, a cruel corrupt couple, who forced Fantine’s illegitimate daughter, Cosette, to work at their inn while treating their own daughters, Eponine and Azelma, so kindly.
When we walk from the darkened theater, we may overlook how little has changed from this artistic recounting of real historic suffering to the present day.
There has been a recent story about adoption and children that makes this crystal clear.
Russia has put a stop to American adoptions of Russian Children. The media, with rare exception, has covered this as if it is only a reprisal for America criticizing Russia’s human rights violations. Citizens are screaming bloody murder, how could Russia do that to the children we would adopt? But it’s more complicated than that. It is more like how could we do what we have to the children from Russia adopted by Americans?
Three years ago, Dmitri Yakovlev, a 21-month toddler, adopted from Russia, was left in a parked car for nine hours, and Dmitri died of heatstroke; the adopted parent responsible, Miles Harrison, was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter. A Russian spokesperson reportedly said, “When we give our children to the West and they die, for some reason the West always tells us it was just an accident.”
Two years ago, there was a 7 year old boy, Artyom, adopted from Russia, renamed Justin, who was put on a plane from Washington to Moscow, with a note by his adopted mother, Torry Ann Hansen, from Shelbyville, Tennessee, that said, “After giving my best to this child, I am sorry to say that for the safety of my family, friends and myself, I no longer wish to parent this child.” Ms. Hansen paid someone $200 in Moscow to drop the child off at the Education Ministry. Artyom told Russian authorities that Ms. Hansen was “bad,” pulled his hair, and that he had cried. Russia thought then to suspend all adoptions of Russian children by Americans.
This past summer, a Wisconsin couple, Martin and Kathleen O’Brien, who had four biological children and six adopted children – three from Russia – were charged with child abuse. The three children were beaten, stabbed, kicked in the groin, slapped and doused with pepper spray. The O’Briens made the adopted children stand naked on the back porch while the biological family ate dinner. The parents made fun of them and said they should go back to Russia. A Russian television reporter asked, “why American families with children of their own adopt Russian children and then mistreat them?”
Over the years, since 1991, more than 50,000 Russian children have been adopted by United States citizens. Nineteen of them have died in recent years.
I know families that have adopted children from Russia who have raised and cared for them as did Jean Valjean for Cosette – with loving kindness. But we must admit there are also modern day couples like the Thenardiers who abuse children.
There’s a broader context for this abuse that we must consider – that Americans are not just abusive of adopted children; they are also terribly abusive of their own biological children.
This is no recent occurrence and, for good or bad, we have some statistics on what the states are suffering in terms of child abuse and neglect, defined, at federal law, in the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, as “any recent act or failure on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or an act or failure to act, which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.”
In 2011 there were 2 million reports of maltreatment of children, prompting a child services agency response and a disposition. In the entire population of children, there were 9.1 victims per 1,000 children in the population. Children in their first year of birth were victimized the worst at the rate of 21 children per 1,000 children in the same age group. Slightly more abuse was suffered by girls. More than 40% of the victims were white and the remainder split between Black and Hispanic. More than 75% suffered from neglect, 15% from physical abuse, 10 percent from sexual abuse. In 2011, there were 1, 545 deaths of children. 80% of the deaths were children younger than 4 years old. Four-fifths of these deaths were caused by one or more parents.
Upton Sinclair, a muckracker who, in his own right, forced society to reflect upon its harmful excesses, described Les Miserables as a necessary book “so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth.” He thought that there was something we could learn from such mirrors of our life so long as we witness “the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night” and so long as “social asphyxia shall be possible.”
A resolution we may wish to renew is to save our children – all our children – in this New Year!