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Russia: Adoptions Offer Second Chance In Life

  • Bruce Keppel

Bellingham, Wash., 12 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- For his first four years, Pavel knew life only as a ward of an orphanage in Vladivostok in the Russian Far East. Then, an American mother of three older children in the northwestern city of Renton, a suburb of Seattle in Washington state, successfully "jumped through the hoops" of an elaborate adoption screening process and brought Pavel from the institutional setting of the Vladivostok orphanage into the warmth of her family home.

It was October 11th when Suzanne Fiala, a medical doctor and mother of three children of her own, became the first mother whom Pavel had ever known, having been turned over to the state at birth by his teen-aged, single mother.

Fiala tells our correspondent that Pavel's acceptance by her biological children, who are 18, 17 and 11 years old, has been total. She says "they adore him and have developed the closest bond with him."

Pavel Fiala's brief biography appears to be headed toward a happy ending. And Suzanne Fiala believes that the adoption process through which she went virtually ensures such an ending in the vast majority of adoptions of foreign children.

But in at least two widely publicized cases the adoption of Russian children turned tragic.

In the first case, a couple in Phoenix, Arizona, stands accused of using excessive force in trying to subdue their adopted 4-year-old Russian daughters on the plane as they flew from Moscow back to the United States. In that case, Richard and Karen Thorne face criminal charges, and the girls are in the custody of Karen Thorne's brother.

In the other case, a Colorado woman named Renee Polreis was sentenced to 22 years in prison after being convicted of beating to death the 2.5-year-old Russian boy she had adopted.

It can be argued that those two cases are two too many, Fiala notes, but she advises viewing them in the context of the total number of such adoptions -- and children from the former Soviet world have come, since adoptions began five years ago, to constitute the largest category of foreign adoptions by U.S. citizens.

Last year, American parents adopted 11,340 children from foreign countries. That is more than twice as many international adoptions recorded two decades ago. The former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe accounted for nearly a third of these adoptions.

The U.S. State Department reports that Russia has become the leading source of foreign children adopted by Americans, with 3,816 adoption, compared with 3,597 Chinese children. In Russia, officials say 30,000 children are put up for adoption in each year.

But the alarm generated by the two well-publicized abuse cases has prompted lawmakers in the Russian Duma, the lower house of parliament, to draft rules to tighten control of adoption by foreigners -- a process, by the way, that the American agency that arranged Pavel's adoption welcomes.

And last month, Nikolai Shugai of the Ministry of Education in Vladivostok visited the Seattle area to see for himself how adopted Russian children, including Pavel Fiala, are being treated and how carefully adoptive parents are screened.

In the case of Pavel Fiala, the 4-year-old's mother applied for adoption of a foreign child last January through a 20-year-old, nonprofit agency in Renton, the same Seattle suburb where she lives, called the World Association for Children and Parents. Suzanne Fiala describes the association's screening process as detailed and thorough, involving weeks of exploration of her parenting skills and expectations and of her own children's attitudes toward a newcomer. It was not until October that Suzanne Fiala was matched with Pavel and flew to Vladivostok, where she again underwent screening at the orphanage and the Ministry of Education. The process was completed October 11, when Pavel became a member of the Fiala family.

Although the child had been classified by the ministry and the adoption agency as "a waiting child" -- one with special needs -- Fiala says Pavel had been misdiagnosed as having hydrocephalis (commonly known as "water on the brain," and characterized by an enlarged head). The condition can cause brain damage severely limiting both physical and mental development. But, she said, he was correctly described as "profoundly delayed" in his development.

But, she tells RFE/RL, that developmental delay appears to have been generated by his abandonment at birth and four years of life in an orphanage. Whatever the cause of that delay, it quickly dissolved, she says, in the course of the eight weeks that he has been a member of her family. She says he is "a happy, healthy and joyous boy," adding that "we have not had a bad day since he joined us." Fiala says Pavel is a boy who "expects so little and appreciates so much."

Suzanne Fiala is a physician who regularly handles births. As such, she says she sees many cases at the hospital where she practices in nearby Tacoma of "children having children." She contrasts that almost accidental acquisition of parenthood with the amount of thought, reflection and screening that goes into foreign adoptions such as hers -- not to mention the additional formalities of applying for governmental visas and other permissions necessary to bring a foreign child out of one country and into another.

Fiala says she found Nikolai Shugai to be "a very compassionate man" who found -- in contrast to the two cases of abuse -- adopted Russian children who were well cared for. And she recalls what she said to Shugai: "You have children who need homes, and we have homes that need children."