Russian adoption ban: One year later

A year after Russia imposed a ban on adoptions by Americans, some affected US families are reluctantly looking elsewhere to adopt. Others refuse to abandon flickering hopes of uniting with the Russian children who won their hearts.

Ron Ruud/AP/FILE
This December 2012 photo provided by the family shows, from left, John, Jack, and Renee Thomas at their home in Minnetrista, Minn. Jack was adopted from Russia in 2008. At the time the Russian ban on adoptions by Americans was imposed in 2013, the family was trying to adopt Jack's biological brother, Nikolai.

A year after Russia imposed a ban on adoptions by Americans, some affected US families are reluctantly looking elsewhere to adopt. Others refuse to abandon flickering hopes of uniting with the Russian children who won their hearts.

Thirty-three of the families have filed appeals with the European Court of Human Rights, contending that the ban violates the rights of the orphans whose adoptions were thwarted. But there's no tight time frame for the case, and even a favorable ruling might be unenforceable if Russia objects.

Meanwhile, Russian authorities have spurned requests from US officials to reconsider the ban, and the two governments have other volatile issues on their mutual agenda – including terrorism and various foreign policy differences – as the international community prepares for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, next month.

"I don't see movement on the Russian side, and on the US side we've heard nothing," said Diana Gerson, a New York City rabbi who had her heart set on adopting a Russian toddler. "I feel in many ways we were abandoned."

By the Russians' count, the ban halted the pending adoptions of 259 children. Roughly 230 US families, some seeking to adopt more than one child, were affected – including scores of Americans who had bonded face-to-face with the children during visits to their orphanages.

The Americans have been dropped from Russia's official roster of prospective adoptive parents, and many of the orphans – possibly more than half – already have been placed with Russian families.

At Christmas, several dozen of the Americans signed an open letter to the children they had hoped to adopt. The letter, published by some Russian media outlets, expressed gratitude to the Russian families who had taken in some of the children, while also hinting at a whirl of other emotions.

"It has now been one year since we've held you in our arms and promised you we would be back and together as a family," the letter said. "We only want you to know that we love you today, tomorrow, and forever even though we are miles across the ocean."

Throughout the 12 months, the issue has occasionally resurfaced, then faded from the news spotlight.

There was a flurry of activity in May, when more than 150 members of Congress signed a letter to President Barack Obama, asking him to raise the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin. A congressional delegation visiting Moscow urged Russian officials to allow completion of the pending adoptions. And many of the affected families visited Washington, seeking support for their cause.

Hoping to ease Russia's concerns about the treatment of Russian children in the US, the families proposed that any such adoptions in the future be subject to more stringent post-adoption scrutiny.

Among those who spoke in Washington was 8-year-old Jack Thomas, adopted from Russia in 2008 by Renee and John Thomas of Minnetrista, Minn. At the time the ban was imposed, the family was trying to adopt Jack's biological brother, Nikolai.

Over the past year, the family has lobbied energetically to get that adoption approved because of its exceptional nature; Renee Thomas says it is apparently the only one of the disrupted adoptions involving one sibling in the US and another in Russia. Thomas says she's traveling to Russia on Wednesday to make the case that Jack and Nikolai, who is now 5, should be reunited under Russian policy of trying to keep siblings together as they grow up.

"We want to respect the Russian system of justice," she said.

Some of the other US families could decide to adopt from other countries, Thomas said. "But there is no other option for us. It would be a travesty for the politics between the two nations to prevent these boys from growing up together."

Garrett Boehm, a Chicago attorney who has been a leader of the families' lobbying efforts, remains passionate in his criticism of the ban, but he and his wife have initiated efforts to adopt a child from Poland in hopes of providing a sibling for Aleksander, a 7-year-old son they adopted from Russia in 2007.

They had hoped to adopt a Russian orphan named Anna who has just turned 2, but the ban thwarted their plans, and they are unsure whether the girl remains in her Siberian orphanage.

"My son asks, 'When is Anna coming home?'" Boehm said. "We're faced with how to answer that, and it's not a very satisfactory answer. He asks, 'Why did I get to leave and she can't?'"

Gerson, the New York rabbi, hasn't ruled out trying to adopt from somewhere other than Russia, but she finds it hard to cut emotional ties with the little girl she met in St. Petersburg in December 2012 – a trip she embarked on even as the proposed ban was moving through Russia's parliament.

Gerson, who is single and of Russian descent, said the girl, whom she planned to call Olivia, was 18 months old.

"When she came into the room at the baby home with a caretaker, I pulled a toy out of my bag, and she climbed into my lap and never left," Gerson recalled. "I knew from that moment that she was my daughter."

After spending mornings and afternoons with the girl for three more days, Gerson flew back from Moscow to New York on Dec 28. On arrival, she learned that Putin had signed the ban.

In May, Gerson received a letter from Russia advising that the pending adoption had been officially vacated.

"I was told we were no longer connected," Gerson said. "It was as if I disappeared into thin air."

Gerson, 39, is among the Americans who filed appeals with the European Court of Human Rights. Most of the appellants, including Gerson, said the children they sought to adopt suffer from serious medical conditions, and would benefit from specialized care in the US that might be unavailable to them in Russian orphanages.

Yet Gerson acknowledges that the case may be a legal long-shot. As to how it might end, she said, "We have no idea."

When she last checked, Olivia was still in the baby home in St. Petersburg, yet the rabbi knows a placement with a Russian adoptive family could come at any time.

"She deserves a loving, permanent home," Gerson said. "If it can't be with me, it should be in a household, not an orphanage, though I'd grieve ... she'll be lost to me forever.

"What's hard is not knowing," Gerson added.

The adoption ban was intended in part as retaliation for a US law imposing sanctions on Russians deemed to be human rights violators.

However, Russian authorities used debate on the bill to complain about mistreatment and lack of post-adoption oversight affecting Russian children adopted by Americans, including the high-profile 2010 case where an exasperated Tennessee mother sent her 7-year-old adopted son back to Moscow on a plane alone. The bill was named after 21-month-old Dima Yakovlev, one of about 20 Russian adoptees who have died from abuse, neglect or other causes while in the care of their American parents.

Adoption advocates in the US express regret for those deaths. Yet they contend that the vast majority of the 60,000 Russian children adopted by Americans over the past two decades – including many with physical or emotional disabilities – have found loving homes and a high standard of care.

While the Obama administration has been relatively quiet about the ban in recent months, some members of Congress continue to speak out.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R) of Missouri, is the father of a 9-year-old boy adopted from Russia in 2006, and has met with both US and Russian diplomats to make a case against the ban.

Blunt said he was particularly angry that Russia, with tens of thousands of orphans in need of families to raise them, had worked so quickly to find Russian homes for the children who had been in line to be adopted by Americans.

"In this circumstance, that's about as cruel as you could possibly be," Blunt said.

Another senator, Roger Wicker (R) from Mississippi, helped win approval in June from the 57-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe for a resolution condemning "indiscriminate disruption of inter-country adoptions already in progress."

Last week, Wicker was among a group of senators who discussed international adoption with Secretary of State John Kerry. Wicker said he suggested that the Obama administration include on the US delegation to the Sochi Olympics an American citizen who was born in Russia and raised in the US by adoptive parents.

"It would make a statement that we want to raise the visibility of this issue," he said, evoking the prospect of the ban being discussed during telecasts of the opening ceremonies.

The State Department, which oversees some aspects of international adoption, held monthly conferences through July with families affected by the ban, then discontinued them for lack of new developments. However, department officials said they have continued to raise the issue with the Russians and are now planning one more outreach meeting with the US families.

Developments related to the ban have been followed closely by some American parents who'd previously adopted children from Russia.

Among them is Tina Traster of Valley Cottage, New York, who is writing a book, "Rescuing Julia Twice," about the sometimes wrenching challenges that she and her husband faced after adopting an 8-month-old girl from a Siberian orphanage 11 years ago.

It took years for the couple to conclude that Julia had a condition known as reactive attachment disorder that limited her sociability and emotional outreach.

"We've made it our life's work to make her as grounded and stable and attached as possible," Traster said. "But these children are different... The journey is complicated. It's heartbreaking at times."

While Traster would like Russia to lift the ban, she also hopes the dispute helps educate more Americans about the challenges of adopting children with emotional difficulties, as was often the case with Russian orphans.

"Often the prospective adoptive parents are unprepared and under-schooled about how to raise these children who've begun their lives in orphanages," she said, urging specialized training for teachers and pediatricians as well as for parents.

Jane Waldman and Mark Braverman of Levittown, New York, adopted a nearly 4-year-old girl from a Russian orphanage in 2004, despite warnings that the child, Elaina, had fetal alcohol syndrome.

"We fell in love with her on our first trip," Waldman said. "Even with challenges, we wanted her."

Over the ensuing years, tutors, behavioral therapists, and speech therapists worked with Elaina, helping her overcome many of the impediments that had delayed her development.

Now in 7th grade, Elaina is thriving, according to her mother, with many friends and a spot on a local swim team.

Waldman is frustrated that stories of troubled adoptions in the US have gained prominence in Russia, while less attention is paid to the fact that most adoptions of Russian children go well.

"Yes, there are some horror stories," she said. "But Americans, properly screened, can provide wonderful, loving homes for those children who otherwise have little hope."

Elaina, answering questions by email, said she hopes for a career working with animals, perhaps as a veterinary technician.

As for the ban, Elaina wrote, "I think it is sad because I want other Russian kids to have the same chance at finding a great, forever family in America as I did."

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