Holding their blue-eyed baby in a dilapidated orphanage in Fryazino, Russia, in February 2003, Denise and Stuart Wash basked in the moment they’d dreamed about since applying to adopt a year earlier. Gazing at the 13-month-old they’d named Johnny, they noticed “he was sort of expressionless,” Denise recalls. But they’d read about adopted kids, how they take time to bond, and didn’t worry. “We felt,” Stuart recalls, “once we got home, everything would be great.”
Only it wasn’t. Months after the family returned to Charlotte, N.C., Johnny didn’t hug or kiss his parents or brother Sam, the Washes’ then 4-year-old biological son. “Once,” Denise recalls, “he fell asleep in my arms in the rocking chair. It never happened again.” He preferred to rock himself, alone in his crib. He argued with teachers in daycare; at home he had violent tantrums. “Sometimes it took two of us to restrain him,” says Stuart, 47, who has a document-destruction company. “It took a toll on the whole family.”
But no one more so than Denise, who became the target of Johnny’s rages. He called her names, spit at her, hit, kicked and bit so hard he drew blood. “I had scratches and bruises up and down my arms,” says Denise, 45. “One time, he head-butted me and almost broke my nose.” What hurt most, though, was her heart: After struggling with infertility for years after Sam’s birth, she finally had a beautiful son who delighted her when he’d set the table or ask her questions about how boats work. “What I couldn’t understand,” Denise says, “was how this child that I loved could do this. We had a dream—and it got shattered. It wasn’t what we thought it would be.”
Nearly all the 20,000 international adoptions each year in the U.S. end happily. In a small number of cases, though, parents discover the child they brought home has severe emotional problems, often a result of prolonged neglect in an orphanage. One woman trying to help is Joyce Sterkel, a horseback-riding, 61-year-old grandmother who keeps her cell phone in a star-studded hip holster. Sterkel’s 160-acre Ranch for Kids (www.ranch forkids.org), tucked within the Rocky Mountains in Eureka, Mont., takes in about 25 such youngsters for months at a time; it gives exhausted parents a break and provides troubled kids with a mix of school, chores, horse therapy and old-fashioned tough love. “For these children,” Sterkel says, “the world has not been a safe place. They feel they have to be in control all the time. I try to change that.” Adoption experts respect her approach. “I’m a supporter,” says Dr. Dana Johnson, an adoption medicine specialist at the University of Minnesota.
When the Washes called Sterkel last year, after learning about her ranch on the Internet, they were desperate. Over the years, they’d taken Johnny to a dozen experts and gotten almost as many opinions. What emerged: Johnny had reactive attachment disorder, an inability to form emotional bonds, and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, which had hampered his self-control. Medication and near-daily therapy helped little. So on Aug. 24, 2007, Stuart handed an impassive Johnny over to Sterkel, who brought the boy back to the ranch. “It was,” says Denise, tearing up, “the most difficult decision we ever made.”
When Sterkel met Johnny that day, “he was like a butterfly, running around and around, talking nonstop like a machine gun,” she recalls. Arriving at the ranch, where she has a staff of 14, Sterkel started setting limits immediately. When Johnny would start babbling, stream-of-consciousness style, Sterkel would take him aside and tell him, “‘You’re gonna sit for a while and not play with your toys’. We’d repeat it over and over, until he got the consequences.” At first he got three time-outs a day, once for kicking a teacher; now he can go several days at a stretch without an infraction and enjoys rewards like getting dessert or going on field trips when he follows the rules.
On a recent Thursday, Johnny and 20 other kids hunched over their desks in a one-room schoolhouse, working on age-appropriate lessons while five teachers supervised. For lunch the kids—Johnny was the youngest—gathered at two picnic tables in a common room; outside, wild turkeys strutted about. At 3 p.m. school let out and chores began. Older kids fed horses, gathered eggs, shoveled snow; Johnny did homework and played with Legos. Next up: horse therapy (in which youngsters learn life skills through riding). In the stable, Johnny stroked a pony’s white face. “You’re so nice,” he said.
That sort of kindness is something Sterkel tries to teach—and is a big step for Johnny. Stopping him from tossing his stuffed bear Cuddles up the stairs, she tells Johnny to go sit quietly with his bear. “We’re practicing being the daddy,” she explains, “and taking care of the baby bear.” Johnny would later ask a visitor to watch Cuddles while he went riding.
While kids at the ranch come from all over, most are Russian—and Sterkel has an intimate understanding of them. A former nurse and midwife, she worked in Russia for two years; she and husband Harry Sutley, a nurse and science teacher at the ranch, have six grown kids: two biological, one adopted in the U.S. and three from Russia. Their Russian sons Sasha and Michael both had problems and came to Sterkel after their first adoptions didn’t work out. In 1999, getting calls from adoptive parents, Sterkel began offering informal respite care; in January 2004, she opened the nonprofit ranch.
It’s not cheap—fees average $3,200 a month—and many parents come with high hopes. Sterkel serves up sobering facts: Of the roughly 180 kids who have stayed at the ranch, about one-third reunite with their parents; another third get adopted by new families; the rest go into vocational programs or stay at the ranch until they turn 18. Even successful kids, Sterkel cautions, may never be the sweet darlings their parents wanted. “I can change their behavior,” she says. “I can’t put their souls back in their bodies.”
Sterkel worries that Denise, especially, may hope for more affection than Johnny is able to give. Still, when Stuart visited his son earlier this month, Johnny seemed calmer and, somehow, more genuine. “When we first saw each other, we hugged for what seemed like 10 hours,” Stuart says. “There was more feeling.” With Sterkel’s approval, Johnny will return home to Virginia, where the family now lives, next month. “I’m excited, I’m nervous,” says Denise, who has been attending seminars on caring for post-institutionalized children and plans to sign Johnny up for riding lessons. “I just want him back.” Johnny, perhaps for the first time, shares the sentiment. “I miss my mom,” he says. “I want to go home.”
Know a hero? Send suggestions to HEROESAMONGUS@PEOPLEMAG.COM