Finding Our Focus
A Family's Refusal to Give Up on Their Adopted Son
Anton's problems started within the first six weeks of his life, when profound neglect altered the way his brain developed.
When he was just a toddler, he watched as his father stabbed his mother to death. His father went to prison and Anton went to an overcrowded and over-run orphanage. Prolonged neglect and abuse altered his development even further. In his short life, full of trauma and uncertainty, the world had seemingly given up on him.
"If a child doesn't get held or touched a lot within the first six to 12 months of their lives, it actually affects the way their brains develop," said Senior Chief Petty Officer Vinc Whitmire, Anton's adoptive father. "When someone holds a baby, one of the first things they do is bounce them up and down. This contact and bouncing is critical to their development. Don't ask me why, it just is."
"We are sure he was physically abused and nearly certain he was sexually abused," said Chief Petty Officer Tricia Whitmire, Anton's adoptive mother. "These things caused Reactive Attachment Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and a few other unhappy acronyms, all of which manifested in a child who was defiant, willfully deceitful, argumentative, misogynistic, aggressive, and unable to interact appropriately with others."
Anton has no conscience, said Tricia. No empathy. And he does not experience emotions or physical pain in the way that most people do.
"His brain isn't the same as mine or yours," said Tricia. "That's very hard to remember when we are picking him up from school for the third time in a week because they cannot tolerate his behavior any longer. That's hard to remember when a teacher calls, almost in tears, because of his attitude. It's almost impossible to remember when he is lying, stealing, hurting the feelings of everyone he encounters, and throwing his own poop from his bedroom window."
Although these are all hallmarks of a bad kid, Anton is not a bad kid; he is a sick kid - a kid that Tricia and her husband Vinc are trying, literally desperately, to bring up in a loving home. And that kid has met his match. The Whitmires aren't giving up.
In the Beginning
Vinc and Tricia joined the Navy in 1993 and 1994 respectively. They met at A School in Monterey, Calif. Both language experts in the military, and with limited assignment choices throughout the world, they ended up stationed in the exact same places throughout their careers, just a year behind each other.
"I always joke saying I couldn't get away from him and I couldn't get over him, so I married him," said Tricia.
"From California, to Hawaii, to England, I would be stationed somewhere and a year later Tricia would have orders to the same duty station," said Vinc. "After following each other for years, it was just finally time to get married."
So Sept. 28, 2000, the Whitmires tied the knot.
"We have gotten to see so much of the world together!" said Tricia.
"We have so many shared experiences that it's ridiculous," said Vinc. "We can have a conversation with no words, just a shared past speaks volumes. We have so many people say they don't know how we can work together, that they couldn't stand to work with their spouse, but for us it's great. I not only love my wife, I enjoy her company more than anyone else's."
After nine years of marriage, the Whitmires began to think about children. They weren't sure if they could have children on their own, and they didn't want to find out. After nine years and no baby, the presumption was that they could not.
However, they did not want to go through the hassle of testing, fertility treatments, etc.
"We had seen couples that tried fertility treatments and seen the pain and loss they go through if it's unsuccessful," said Vinc. "We were always happy and that just didn't seem like a happy place to be. You could really see the stress that it put on their marriage and lives. We decided we didn't want to bother with that."
Instead of waiting to see, or giving up on the idea of having a child, they made a conscience decision to adopt.
"We felt we had a lot to offer," said Tricia. "We were very stable in our jobs and finances and ridiculously happy in our marriage.
"We didn't have any overwhelming desire to have a child, or any feeling that our lives were incomplete," said Vinc. "It's just that we were the happiest people we knew and thought that we might have a lot to offer."
All the Whitmires wanted was a healthy child. They had no boy or girl preference and had no grandiose ideas of a future football star or model. As first time parents, they knew they were on a steep learning curve, so for them, all they were looking for in a child was 10 fingers and 10 toes. In return, they would do their part of caring for that child to the best of their ability.
Deciding to Adopt
Vinc and Tricia's decision to adopt wasn't a life altering decision. Without a whole lot of discussion, they just decided.
"Our first discussion was if we were ready or not," said Vinc. "We had a great life and were both passionate about the Navy and we had to determine if we were ready for that big of a change."
Turns out they just didn't realize how big a change it would actually be.
"The adoption process was pretty invasive," said Tricia. "We had every aspect of our lives poked and prodded. "
The lessons taught in boot camp about attention to detail were nothing compared to this process, said Tricia. No mistakes or corrections were allowed and evidence of something as innocuous as un-stapling and re-stapling documents was ground for them to be kicked back for a redo.
"We knew there would be some hills and hiccups, but were not prepared for how painful it was actually going to be, and that was all before we started negotiating with another country.
Originally the Whitmires were under the assumption they would be adopting an infant Chinese girl. The process is long and usually the child isn't even conceived before the process begins, said Vinc.
"We actually decorated the room and had a name picked out before we realized that China wasn't going to happen for a variety of reasons," said Vinc.
But the Whitmires don't give up easily, so they shifted their focus to Russia.
The Whitmires weren't told much about the child they would be adopting from Russia. All they knew was that he was 7, healthy, inquisitive and smart. Once they were further into the process with him, they were told of some allergies and medical conditions (that never manifested,) along with some scant details of his life.
"We knew that his biological father was in prison for stabbing his biological mother to death when he was less than two years old," said Tricia. "And we knew he had been in the orphanage since then."
In total, the adoption process took four years and in 2009 the Whitmires were told they would be able to adopt 8-year-old Anton.
"We were excited and apprehensive to meet Anton," said Tricia. "We were not very emotional though. In fact, the people we dealt with in Russia thought we were cold fish. They were accustomed to fawning, weepy new parents overflowing with affection and repeatedly telling their new child how much they loved him or her, and that just wasn't us. We were kind and affectionate, but we recognized that this child was as much a stranger to us, as we were to him."
"It was kind of strange," said Vinc. "We had watched documentaries on adoption and met other adoptive parents during this process, most of which were emotional. They would gush over their new child going on about how much they loved them. This struck me as strange. How can you pretend to be so emotional about a kid you just met? I say pretend because that's how it would have felt if I acted that way. I'm sure everyone's experience is different, but I had just met Anton, so how could I love him? We just met. Our translator kept trying to get Anton to call us mom and dad and hold our hands. It was awkward - we were complete strangers."
And Then There were Three
The first few months were surprisingly easy, said Tricia. Despite the language barrier, Anton seemed immediately at ease with the couple and understood that he was part of the family. Affection began to come easier and Anton was quick and eager to learn. Within three months of Anton coming home, the Whitmires moved to Japan. Anton took it all in stride.
"Anton forgot his Russian quickly, but still hadn't picked up English," said Vinc. "We like to joke that in the beginning it was a bit like living with Tarzan - 'Anton eat.' Once he did learn some English, we would ask questions about everything. 'Is it hot?' 'Is it fast?' For the first few months, everything was neat. We got to watch him learn to ride a bike, go to a zoo, do a lot of those firsts in a short time."
And Tricia and Vinc weren't alone in their adoration of their little boy. Families on both sides gushed over the boy. He was a son, a grandson, a nephew, a cousin, right from the start, without hesitation. Boxes of clothes and toys began arriving to the Whitmire house before the adoption of Anton was even complete.
"Everyone was very excited for us," said Tricia.
Real problems with Anton didn't begin for almost a year. There were warning signs, even in Russia, but they were easily overlooked and masked by the language barrier. But as Anton's language skills increased, so did his issues.
"It started to get difficult soon after moving to Japan," said Vinc. "Nothing big. Just the same little things over and over. We knew he was intelligent, so we couldn't figure out why he would get in trouble for the same things day after day. We had to pick him up from the principal's office every day for a week because he kept getting into trouble. Nothing major, just small and constant jabs."
Tricia had read several books on attachment issues, parenting a child who had been through trauma and on the adoption of older children. But none that really addressed what they were going through and what they would continue to go through.
Anton was diagnosed with RAD, ODD, PTSD, ADHD and others.
"His exact problem was he wasn't loved as a child," said Vinc. "I know it sounds like a bad movie quote, but that is what causes RAD."
It's not that RAD causes Anton to act out. It's more of a slow emotional grinding, said Vinc.
"A lot of parents that adopt RAD children end up terminating the adoption," said Vinc. "That's extreme, but unfortunately not uncommon. There isn't much to prepare someone to take on a RAD child; we certainly had no idea what we were in for."
Living in rural Misawa, Japan, there were child psychologists, but they only visited a couple of months a year and were never the same person twice. Even after the move to Hawaii, help was not readily available. Even on this small island, every child psychologist and psychiatrist was overwhelmed and overrun. The Whitmires would repeat their story and their son's diagnosis time and time again.
Temporary relief came while in Hawaii via a very knowledgeable psychologist who seemed to specialize in Anton's particular issues.
"She seemed like a godsend!" said Tricia. "She recommended a multi-pronged approach to therapy. However, the truth is, Anton spent a lot of time working with a grad student who knew less about Anton's condition than we did. Contrary to what one would think, I am not at all angry about the treatment he received. It just illustrates the extent to which resources are lacking for children with mental health concerns."
Effects of Mental Illness
Good days were now being defined as days absent of really bad stuff. Not really good, but appreciated anyway. Anton was better when he was away from home. Hikes, bike rides, movies, even just feeding ducks at a pond or driving around the island could ensure better behavior.
Physical exertion could diffuse him. Teachers even resorted to having him run a lap or two around the track before interacting with kids at recess. On really bad days, Tricia would take him running around the 1.5 mile loop in their neighborhood and then do cross training exercises.
"It wasn't just about the exercises, but about following directions exactly. It put me back in control and gave him an outlet," said Tricia. "But in truth, nothing ever helped for long. We would try to diffuse things by refusing to engage, but he knew how to push every button and could escalate a situation from slightly annoying to unbearable in no time."
There have even been times, increasingly frequent times, said Tricia, when he pushes her to rage so quickly that she has wondered if she can or should be his mother.
"I can know all of his issues as much as I want academically, but actually living with them is exhausting. Tensions were so high in our home that even our dog was on anti-anxiety medication!" said Tricia. "At what point do we admit that we are abused parents? At what point do we worry that the tension will become emotional abuse of our son?"
The Whitmires began asking these exact questions and reaching out for more help and more resources.
"We know we are lucky," said Tricia. "We have support, we have a strong marriage, we have our willingness to ask for and accept help. I have seen parents who have struggled alone for far too long because they blame themselves, fear public opinion or just think their child is bad. When we start having doubts, we remind ourselves that we ARE making a difference, we ARE making progress, and we ARE the best hope for our son."
Anton was admitted to three months of residential treatment.
"This was a really hard decision to make," said Tricia. "How do you send a child with RAD away when things get bad? But we know it was the right thing to do. It was really our only hope for rebuilding this family with him in it."
"This, I believe is our last ditch effort," said Vinc. "This situation we are in isn't healthy for anyone. We're hopeful that he gets some benefit from the treatment, fingers crossed."
The Whitmires know that treatment will not cure or even "fix" Anton. But they are hoping for a stronger foundation built on more understanding on all sides, and possibly a fresh re-start. If nothing else, the time apart, with each member concentrating on making themselves better suited to handle things, will serve as a sort of reset button, said Tricia. But there are things she has come to terms with.
"Do I think he loves us? No. I don't know that he is capable of love," said Tricia. "I know that sounds terrible, but I mean it quite literally. He doesn't experience emotions the way that others do and I don't think love is one he gets. There's a chance he never will. In a rare and new flash of honesty, he told us that the only reason he wanted to come home was to play basketball outside. It had nothing to do with us and he doesn't see that as anything but normal."
"Eight years of trauma is not just going to go away," said Vinc. "I can only hope this gives us a foot in the door to continue to help him. I only want for Anton the same thing every parent wants, a happy, well-adjusted child that develops into his potential."
There are moments, said Tricia, which make her realize that maybe this is the child she was meant to have. They are harder to see, but still exist, she said.
"For starters, he looks very much like Vinc and has mannerisms similar to both of us," said Tricia. "We have caught ourselves mentioning things that he gets from one or the other of us, like the propensity for sunburn or his blonde hair turning darker, forgetting for a moment that none of it came from us. But the best thing has been watching him learn new things, watching him experience new things."
In Anton's four years with the couple, he has lived in three countries, gone to four schools and been exposed to or studied five languages. He has learned baseball and basketball, to skateboard, ride a ripstick, ride a horse, and ride a bike. He has seen plays, ballet, concerts and movies.
"The Navy lifestyle can be hard on kids, but for a kid so eager to see, do and try new things, it has provided so many great opportunities," said Tricia.
Anton is still in treatment and is making baby step progress. The Whitmires call it the "Anton Tango," one step forward, 4 steps back. But Tricia said he has a phenomenal therapist who is getting him to talk about how he feels, his actions, and his life. No one has been able to do that before.
If not for the Navy, the Whitmires would have had no choice but to give up on Anton.
"The Navy has been outstanding all along," said Tricia. "Our efforts to adopt and the travel we needed to do was all very strongly supported by our command. The best advice and support we have gotten has come from our Navy case managers, our Navy counselors, our Navy doctors and our Navy Chains of Command. I can't even begin to imagine how difficult this journey would have been without the support system we have found through and in the Navy."
"Our command in Maryland was very supportive in helping with the documentation required by both the state and Russia. The detailer was able to adjust our rotation date to facilitate the adoption. Once things started going wrong, our current command, NIOC Hawaii, has given us the flexibility to pick our son up from school early and take him to appointments. The support and understanding we get from the Sailors and Chain of Command has been humbling."
Speaking out about their situation has also helped a lot, said Tricia.
It not only gives her a chance to vent and talk things out, but it has also given her great ideas and fresh perspective from people who can see a little more clearly from the outside. It has allowed her to see that she is not alone in this, and that Anton is not alone in his behavior.
"I have met people in the Navy who WERE Anton," said Tricia. "They have been able to show me another side. I can't imagine where I would be now if I hadn't started talking about it."
"For me, I've met a lot of people who have children with one issue or another," said Vinc. "After opening up to them, they often do the same. Hearing about another parents' struggle dealing with issues such as autism, it makes me wish for their strength. You realize everyone has silent battles."
For the Whitmires, silence is no longer a battle. They openly and honestly talk about their situation in hopes of helping others and continuing to gain knowledge and insight for themselves. They both agree that another adoption is not in their future, not because this experience has taken them down a dark path both physically and mentally, but because Anton needs so much from them. And they plan to be there for him.
"Sometimes when I see him alone on a playground I wish he had a sibling," said Tricia. "But I think it's too late for that."
The Way Ahead
The Whitmires know they are Anton's only hope.
"We made a commitment to him and we can't bring ourselves to break that promise," said Tricia. "If we give up, he will go into foster care if he is lucky, institution care if he isn't - and he won't come out of that. We don't want that for him. His issues are not our fault, but at the end of the day, they aren't his either."
Now a teenager, the Whitmires know there may be hard times to come, but for now Anton is home where his parents say he is doing surprisingly well.
"I think he knows we are trying to help him," said Tricia. "My hope for him is that he grows up with a good sense of self, a good work ethic, and an understanding of other people."
All of which may just be possible because of an understanding Vinc and Tricia have; when the going gets tough, the tough don't give up.
Check out these links below for more information about behavioral health care and resources for children of service members.