Expanding their families, contributing to research

Study: The trend among Americans to adopt from other nations led a Towson professor -- and mother of two born in Russia -- to investigate speech development among these newest arrivals.

May 12, 2001|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

Sharon Glennen still remembers the eerie quiet of the Russian orphanage where she spent 10 days in 1997, waiting to adopt her daughter, Irina. The place was clean and well-maintained, the female caretakers invariably kind. But they did not speak to their charges, except in the rare one-on-one moments of changing and dressing them. And as soon as the toddlers learned to use spoons, they were left to eat on their own -- again, in total silence.

The image was one that would recede over time -- especially as Irina, now 4, has blossomed into a chatterbox known to her family as the little czarina. But Glennen, an assistant professor in the department of communication sciences and disorders at Towson University, was struck by how little was known about the speech development of foreign-born adoptees.

Irina is Glennen's second Russian child. She also has a son, Kevin, who seemed to have small, subtle problems with his language. Although he had a large vocabulary, he didn't start putting words together into sentences and phrases until after age 3. As a trained speech pathologist, Glennen had known how to help him. But what, she wondered, would other parents have done? How could they compare their children's development to the development of those who had the advantage of English as their first language?

Glennen's maternal concern has blossomed into a professional opportunity. With colleague Mary-Margaret Windsor, who teaches occupational therapy at Towson, she launched in February 2000 a longitudinal study of Russian-born adoptees, starting with toddlers in the 12-to-24-month range and following them until they enter school.

This is Glennen's second project involving Russian-born adoptees: She also conducted a written survey of 130 families that helped to establish some baseline standards for children who have experienced what is known as arrested language development.

When she tried to find information about children like her son and daughter, "there wasn't anything," Glennen recalled. "We realized how little is known about these children in terms of what is typical."

And, given that the number of foreign adoptions more than doubled during the past decade -- from 7,000 to 20,000, according to the U.S. State Department -- Glennen felt it was increasingly urgent to study the speech and language patterns of these children.

Her findings from that first study should provide a measure of relief for parents of foreign-born children. Although some will demonstrate some developmental delays upon arrival, the vast majority catch up rapidly and usually are on track with their American-born peers by age 2.

But what happens after age 2? That's the focus of Glennen's and Windsor's current study, in which children are studied during a series of visits, starting within three months of their arrival.

Subjects No. 1 and No. 2

Yesterday, Glennen and Windsor sat in Towson University's Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic, watching intently through a one-way glass as subjects No. 1 and No. 2 -- aka Jared and Caroline Neill of West Chester, Pa. -- played games designed to showcase their speech, hearing and motor skills.

Jared, 30 months, and Caroline, 33 months, were adopted from the same Yekaterinburg orphanage in November 1999. Early the next year, their mother, Kathy McNeil, heard about the study through Eastern European Adoption Coalition Inc.'s Web site, at www.eeadopt.org. (Glennen and Windsor plan to expand the study to other foreign adoptees.) Her children were the right age -- about 15 months and 18 months -- and she signed them up.

Yesterday marked the siblings' third visit to the clinic. Caroline, facing four students and a video camera, sailed through her tests. But Jared became bored and distracted -- one of the built-in limitations of studying children between ages 2 and 3.

"Look at the way he holds the marker," Windsor observed at one point. Jared had it clutched in his fist, his elbow jutting out from his body almost like a wing. The posture is unusual, but Windsor said she often sees it in children who began their lives in orphanages, in part because they might not have spent enough time on their stomachs, building their upper bodies by trying to raise their heads.

Glennen listened intently to their speech patterns and articulation. Later, she will review the films and study the notes made by the students who conducted the sessions.

Filling in the blanks

Caroline and Jared's mother said she didn't have any concrete concerns or anxieties when she signed up for the program. But she thought it was important that adoptive parents have as much information as possible.

"It was more the lack of knowledge about their early months that caused any concerns I might have," she said, holding a wriggling Caroline on her lap as the visit ended with a quick hearing test. "It wasn't that we had seen" signs that they were developmentally delayed.

Parents, Glennen and Windsor observed, have always been obsessed with measurement and where their children fall with regard to various norms. But these families had no norms. Their fear was that a bright child could be deemed developmentally delayed, or that one with problems might fail to get help in a timely fashion.

Nineteen children have been signed up for the current study and Glennen is always looking for more -- through public appearances and the Eastern European coalition Web site. The hope is that the study will evolve into a way to provide support and specialized programs to all families with foreign-born adoptees.

But perhaps the biggest surprise for Glennen, who once worked with severely disabled children at Kennedy Krieger Institute, is how deeply affecting the work is. Yesterday, as she watched Jared and Caroline and talked about her work, she suddenly teared up.

"You tend to get emotionally wrapped up in the children you see," she said, "because that could be your child."

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