US adoption ban leaves Russian children and families in limbo

It was 2001. I was on my first international assignment, documenting health issues in rural Russia.

The group of businessmen that I was working with were visiting a Russian orphanage. I dreaded going there. My mind was filled with the awful images I had seen of children housed in filthy Romanian orphanages.

Fortunately, the orphanage we visited wasn't anything like I had imagined. I'd like to pretend that all the orphanages were like this one, but I'm not that naive. There are an estimated 800,000 children in Russia's government-run orphanages. With numbers that high, it's pretty likely that most places are more grim and dismal than the orphanage I saw.

But here is what we saw that day.

The children greeted the visitors in a large open room, and were delighted to play with the small toys their guests had given them: bubbles, bouncy balls, slinkys.

Some of them ran right up and chattered with us. Others, sat off in the distance and watched carefully.

(This was all long before we started down our path as an adoptive family. I knew back then, that I wanted to adopt a child one day, and that our child might live in a place such as this. I'm so glad that I didn't know as much about adoption then as I do now. I surely wouldn't have been able to keep from sobbing as I watched these children play.)

There was one girl who truly touched my heart. I saw her pulling herself up a staircase, hand over hand. One leg would not move well and she was painfully thin. She gave me a sweet and shy smile. And she kept climbing.

I asked about her and learned that she had a kidney disease. Because of the high cost of the medication, they were only about to try and treat her through diet, which wasn't a treatment at all. Medication, readily available in the US., was the only thing that could help prevent more damage. My heart ached for her and I have shed more than a few tears for her, wondering if she ever found a forever home.

Another little boy was all giggles and smiles as he blew giant bubbles for the crowd. A den mother said something to him about his grandmother's upcoming visit, which shocked me. My translator explained that many of the children in the orphanages had parents, but their parents had their rights terminated for a variety of reasons. However, many of the parents and/or other relatives could come and see these children. Most didn't.

I toured the facility and saw the "houses" that the orphanage was arranged into. Each consisted of 10-12 children, in a cluster of rooms organized around the larger "living room". They had two den mothers, one in the day and one at night. There were 2-3 bedrooms where the children slept.

The rooms were warm. They had patchwork quilts on their bed. The children seemed OK.

But as nice as this place was, it was not a home. Not a family.


In the decades that the children have been adopted from Russia, over 60,000 of them have been placed in American homes. The numbers have been decreasing each year as all international adoption programs have. In 2011 nearly 1000 children were placed in the U.S.

Tonight I talked with a soon-to-be father who is bringing home two brothers from Russia. He and his wife have been in process for a year and already traveled to Russia once, spending a week with the 3 and 4 year olds. They have a bedroom ready for the boys. Ornaments hung on the Christmas tree with the boys' names. They have new toy bikes waiting for them.

The family was hoping to get their call in December. The call to bring their children home. But their paperwork was delayed. And the judge who was supposed to hear their case took the entire month of December off for vacation. They thought they had to hang on just a little longer.

Instead, the family is now on hold indefinitely. Last week the soon-to-be father was watching the nightly news and learned that Russia had passed a bill in parliament that would ban adoptions of children to the US. It's a big political game, designed to punish the US for a law passed here called the Magnitsky Act which would sanction Russian officials suspected of human rights violations.

Today, President Vladimir Putin signed the bill into law: Russian children are no longer allowed to be adopted to America. 

I swear I could feel a collective shudder in the adoption world when news of this broke. Anyone who has braved the international adoption arena knows this fear all too well. The fear that no matter how close you get, how sure it all seems, that you are dealing with countries and red tape and politics and it can all come undone. There are no safety nets.  And the countries have every right to do as they please and change rules at any time. But it's crushing to see the casualties of these types of actions.

Media outlets are stating that around 50 US families had adoptions pending and are affected by the ban. The soon-to-be father and his wife are one of that grim number. We talked as he sat on one of the toddler's beds. Stone faced and in disbelief. He has no idea if the two Russian boys he loves will ever come home.

My heart just breaks for these families. And it grieves for those kids who came so close to having the life they deserve.

Russian Adoption Ban Brings Uncertainty And Outrage  {NY Times}

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