The Short Life of Viktor Matthey

Experts in the field of international adoption - particularly adoptions from Russia and Eastern European countries, which still rely on an orphanage system to care for children without parents - say there are ways parents should prepare for children emerging from these institutions, especially if the children are older.

Jane Aronson, a New York physician who specializes in providing advice to prospective adoptive parents, views videotapes of the children under consideration and offers an assessment of the children's health and development. She also provides medical care for the children once they arrive.

Some are exposed to tuberculosis, others to hepatitis B. Vitamin D deficiency causes rickets, a weakening of muscles that impairs normal development, especially gross motor and fine motor development. Add to that the possible exposure to lead paint, fetal alcohol syndrome, an unstimulating environment and a lack of individual contact with adults, and children wind up with a host of problems not normally seen in the United States.

"It's a very challenging situation to take older kids from an institution," Aronson said. "You need to be incredibly prepared. You need to know the language. I believe families who adopt older children .?.?. must have some working knowledge of the language, rudimentary, so the kids are not freaked out when they come. A lot of behavioral problems, I believe, in older-kid adoptions come from just the inability of kids to communicate their fears and anxieties."

Ronald Federici, a developmental neuropsychologist in Washington, D.C., and a professor of child development at Virginia Tech, has adopted seven children from Romanian orphanages. He counsels parents who adopt children from institutions in Eastern Europe, and Russia especially, to take their time helping the children adjust to new lives, especially older children.

He said all children over the age of 3 who come out of an institution are considered "special-needs" children, with emotional and developmental issues that require extraordinary care.

"No 6-year-old coming out of an institution is going to come out normal," Federici said.

To the Mattheys, however, the three Russian boys seemed perfectly normal.

While Brenda had developed a decent vocabulary in Russian, Bob was less facile. "I kept getting 'tomorrow' (ZAF-tra) and 'breakfast' (ZAF-trak) mixed up, though, cause they're like one letter apart," Bob said. "I kept asking them if they wanted 'tomorrow' and they laughed at me."

But the boys picked up English quickly - especially Viktor, who used a Russian-English translation program on the computer to help communicate with his new family. By February, the boys were using English exclusively, according to their grandmother.

The Mattheys had decided the house they were renting in Raritan Township, a 21⁄2-story white, wood-frame house on a well-traveled road, was no longer large enough. They found a new home on a wooded hilltop in Union Township, between Pittstown and Pattenberg in northern Hunterdon County.

The house was a four-bedroom, two-bath ranch, built in 1958. The exterior was red-and-white, with an attached garage and a greenhouse off the garage. It was screened from the road by tall pines and some scraggly shrubs.

The former owner of the house, Adah-Grace Roberts Vollmer, who now lives in Doylestown, Pa., remembered remarking during the sale on the number of children in the Matthey family.

She also recalled warning the family about the pump room, which she described as about 5 feet by 8 feet, separated from the rest of the basement by a locking door.

The room contained a pump that drew water from the property's well. The room also had a 50-gallon holding tank for the water pumped in from the well, and a water-softening system. There were no lights or heat in the pump room, and the concrete floor was always wet, she said.

"It's a dank, miserable place," she said. "I tried to use it as a wine cellar and, for a while, I kept a rack of wine in there, but it was so dank, the labels would come off."

She said the door to the pump room had a hook-and-eye lock, but she kept the door open and specifically told Bob Matthey he should do the same.

"I did warn him and showed him," Vollmer said. "It was so damp. It was a miserable place and I did warn them it was a good idea to leave the door open."

The Mattheys closed on the $215,000 property on May 22, 2000.

In their new house, Viktor and the twins shared a room furnished with a set of bunk beds and a single bed. They played on a trampoline in the back yard, and Viktor learned to ride a bicycle.

While the Mattheys had always home-schooled their children, they decided that for the coming school year they would send the four older boys to a church school in Washington, Warren County, so Brenda could devote as much time as possible to the twins and Viktor.

Brenda gave the twins - who had just turned 4 - baby bottles at night, to promote bonding, and because she believed that would help them develop their speech.

She also fed a bottle to Viktor, who was 6 years old when he arrived, so he wouldn't feel left out. All three boys had put on weight and had grown taller, according to a June 9, 2000, follow-up visit by Lori Phelan, a social worker from Bethany Christian Services, the agency that had done the Mattheys' original home study.

The report said all the children "appeared to be doing well." Viktor was described as somewhat withdrawn at first, but beginning to show more affection and emotion. He was called by his new middle name - Alex.

The boys had been found to have rickets - not uncommon among Russian adoptees - and the Mattheys were advised the cure was good nutrition. Initially allowed to eat as much as they wanted, the boys didn't know when to stop eating, and so the Mattheys began portioning out their food.

Viktor was also having trouble sleeping. He did not take an afternoon nap as his younger brothers did, and he woke up frequently in the night.

There also were toilet-training problems, especially with the twins. Brenda told the Bethany social worker that she was "gentle with her reaction" to the problem.

The report concluded that the adoption was working out nicely.

"The children have benefitted greatly from all the care and love given to them," Phelan reported. "This is evidenced by their socialization and affection toward each other. The children are very much loved and cared for."