A Russian parliamentary resolution has left hundreds of American families and thousands of children in limbo after it proposed an indefinite ban on American adoptions of Russian orphans.
Seven weeks into a ground-breaking diplomatic agreement designed to regulate the adoption of Russian orphans, the parliament’s ban is seen by politicians and adoption communities as a major setback and a potentially treaty-violating move by the Russian government. It bans American adoptions of some of Russia’s 750,000 orphans, many of whom are considered “special needs” and require support not available in Russia, adoption agencies say. President Vladimir Putin signed the bill into law Friday, and it goes into effect Tuesday. American adoption agencies are waiting to see if hundreds of pending adoptions, some mere days from being finalized, will go through.
Russian officials in the parliament, known as the Duma, named the bill for Dima Yakovlev, an adopted Russian boy who died in the United States of heatstroke, and whose death Russian officials allege the United States did not thoroughly investigate. But, the bill is widely perceived as punitive action against a recently passed American trade and human rights bill, known as the Magnitsky Act, that targets Russian human rights violations.
Colorado resident Jan Wondra, who lives in Centennial and has an adopted Russian daugther, said the ban has created anxiety for families and children caught in the political fray. She thinks of the bill as a political cat's-paw, and something that stems from nationalistic fervor and pride in the Duma.
“The Russian orphans have been turned into political pawns in this situation,” Wondra said Friday. “They wanted to get our attention and they did.”
For Wondra, national vice chairman for the non-profit group Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoption, American adoption of Russian children has long been a sensitive issue, tarnished by an increasingly complex process and the abuse of Russian children abroad.
In response to the deaths of at least 15 Russian children adopted by Americans, and further fueled by the return of a Russian boy by his adopted grandmother in 2010, the Russian government has become increasingly vigilant when it comes to foreign adoptions of its children. Today, the process requires at least three visits to Russia, Russian court appearances, and between $50,000 and $70,000 to complete. The passing of the Yakovlev Law caught many families in crucial phases of the process — some have chosen their children, or spent money on travel and legal expenses.
“They have already met the children more than once. The children have begun to call them mama and papa,” Wondra said. “These people consider them their children.”
There are at least 1,000 Russian orphans in the midst of an adoption, and somewhere between 50 and 100 American families who are in Russia this December on their final trip to pick up their children, Wondra said. But Putin and the Duma have not clarified some of the lingering issues for these families — it is unknown if the Yakovlev Law will grandfather in some children whose adoptions are nearly completed. In his annual news conference last week, Putin did not elaborate on its implementation, and said he had not yet read the Duma proposal.
The political obstacles and uncertainty, coupled with lack of funding, moved the adoption agency Bethany Christian Services to cancel its Russian adoption program a couple of years ago, said Bill Blacquiere, the group’s CEO and president. But the agency, which has offices in 35 states including Colorado, has between 25 and 30 families with pending adoptions, he said.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Blacquiere said Thursday. “That’s what’s causing a lot of anxiety and some emotional trauma. We have several families, two scheduled to fly to Russia during the second week of January for their third visit to pick up their child.”
Like Blacquiere, Heidi Hendricks, vice president of Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountains, is waiting to see how the Yakovlev Law will be enforced. The few Colorado families adopting children through the agency will not be as severely affected, Hendricks said on Thursday.
“We were one of the fortunate agencies,” she said. “We had people just beginning (the process), or people who had just ended. That was just coincidental.”
But for Hendricks, the concern now is for the thousands of Russian orphans, and their futures.
“There’s over 700,000 children in orphanages. There’s no future and there’s not an access to a future with a family,” she said. “All of those kids have minor special needs. They are fixed in a instant here, but there they are listed as special needs. Their futures are really taken away from them.”
Before Bethany’s Russian adoption program closed, Blacquiere spent time in the country teaching workers about foster care programs and promoting special education for orphans with physical or mental disabilities. Special surgeries, or special educational opportunities are some things that Russian children stand to gain by coming to America, Wondra said.
While Russian adoptions of their own children would be ideal, cultural and economic barriers often make that impossible, she added.
“Many of these children involved here are special needs children, and they will not be adopted in Russia. Russians will not adopt them.”
Although the country has suffered from a demographic crisis and children are highly valued — the country has a national children’s day holiday — the Russian attitude towards orphans is old-fashioned, Wondra says. Russians who adopt children typically seek babies, and Wondra has seen cases where women will fake pregnancies before they adopt a baby. Older children, on the other hand, “don’t have a much of a chance there,” she said. Russia does not have an established foster care system, Wondra and Blacquiere said.
“Their children are in institutions, they have no foster care. They operate the way we did in the 1930s,” Wondra said.
Like orphans in the United States or other countries, Russian orphans are often the children of drug addicts or alcoholics, and many suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome. Others, who have been neglected, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. Wondra maintains that, for these children in Russia, there is little hope of a good future. Although Putin stressed at his news conference the need to improve the lot of Russian orphans, this has been a concern for years, Wondra says.
“The number of children in orphanages, 750,000 — it hasn’t come down very much in all these years,” she said. “They age out. They have no training, no skills. How are they supposed to live?”
The thought that they have given their three Russian children a better chance at life helps Greg and Donna Patchell through the trials of raising their adopted kids, some of whom suffer from PTSD and other behavioral disorders. Twelve years ago, the Patchells tried to adopt a Bosnian orphan, but when a demographic crisis shut down the country’s orphanages, they turned to Russia. They adopted three siblings, two brothers and sister, and brought them to Colorado. They struggled to communicate in mixed Russian-English and to raise children whose medical history and genetic inclinations were unknown to them. It has been no walk in the park, Donna Patchell said on Friday, and adopting Russian orphans is a serious decision.
“We just would love parents to understand that you are doing a fantastic thing,” she said. “It’s not a fairy tale. It can be, but a lot of times it isn’t. Their lives are lot better than they would have been. But we do not view ourselves as saviors.”
The Patchells have struggled to help their oldest son overcome drug addiction, possible affects of fetal alcohol syndrome, as well as a personality disorder they call “reactive attachment disorder.”
But still, the ban on American adoptions of Russian children calls to mind the December day when they went to village orphanage to claim their children, the Patchells said.
“We were coming back on the second trip, and you literally brought the clothes that they wear out of the orphanage,” Greg recalled. “We were coming in with these big bags. The other kids were outside playing in the yard — it was December. And they’d look at you and they’d freeze, and it was hard. They look as if they are thinking, ‘Are you coming for me?’ You have that image frozen in our brain forever.”
Adoption issue timeline:
Nov. 1: The bilateral agreement on adoptions between Russia and the United States goes into effect.
Nov. 16: The House passes the Magnitsky bill, which eliminates cold war-era trade restrictions in Russia but also holds the country accountable for human rights violations. The bill is named for Sergei Magnitsky, an anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian prison in 2009.
Dec. 14: President Barack Obama signs the Magnitsky Act into law.
Dec. 19: The State Duma votes to ban the adoption of Russian children into the United States. The ban is given the unofficial title of the Dima Yakovlev Law, named for a Russian child who died of heatstroke in the United States in 2008.
Dec. 21: The State Duma in Moscow officially adopts the Dima Yakovlev Law.
Dec. 28: President Vladimir Putin signs the Dima Yakovlev Law, to go into effect on Jan. 1.