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Russian Adoption Ban: One U.S. Family Counts Its Blessings While Others Fight On

  • Richard Solash

Three-year-old Alina, one of the last children from Russia to be taken in by a U.S. person before a ban on such adoptions took effect on January 1.

Three-year-old Alina, one of the last children from Russia to be taken in by a U.S. person before a ban on such adoptions took effect on January 1.

Mary doesn't talk about Preston as the child she might have had. She refers to the 21-month-old boy, sitting in a Russian orphanage thousands of miles away, as "my son." It's not "if" she is able to bring Preston home, but "when."

Mary, who requested a pseudonym due to the sensitivity of her case, and her husband are one of the 46 U.S. families who are being hit hardest by Russia's ban on American adoptions. Each of those families has twice seen their children-to-be and all were in the final 30-day waiting period required before bringing them home when the ban took effect on January 1.

But for Mary, as for several of her counterparts in the group of 46, the ban does not signal the end of quest, but the start of a new one. Some are consulting with Russian lawyers in preparation for a possible legal battle, while others have decided to head east, vowing not to return to the United States without a new member of the family. Mary is one of them.

"Rather than just wait and see how bureaucracy works, we feel that being in country would be our best bet, so we are going to travel as expected," she says. "And it's not a matter of disregarding the ban. It's a matter of 'This is our child.' This is our child, and no mother or father would do anything different."

Mary, who is in her late 40s and lives in the northeastern United States, says her adoption was completed in mid-December. According to an agreement governing U.S.-Russian adoptions, which entered into force just one month prior, a 30-day waiting period was all that separated Mary from returning to Russia to pick up her son. She says the child was first visited by 22 Russian families at his orphanage southwest of Moscow, all of whom chose not to adopt him due to "his birth mother's history." Mary did not elaborate.

She had already found a Russian pediatrician and quit her job of 22 years to become a stay-at-home mom when Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the ban on December 28. The move, Russian lawmakers said, was an effort to protect Russian children from possible mistreatment at the hands of U.S. families. Primarily, however, it was a response to the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, a set of human rights sanctions against Russian officials that was recently enacted by Washington.

Playing Politics?

Russia has more than 700,000 orphans and an acute shortage of Russian families looking to adopt. In recent years, more Russian children have been adopted by U.S. parents than by families from any other country. Many of those children have disabilities.

Children's rights activists have decried the move to prevent U.S. parents from adopting Russian children, and NGOs have accused Moscow of playing politics with its most vulnerable population.

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department has reached out to Russian authorities on the matter, arguing that an exception at least be made for the 46 families about to complete their adoptions.

But Mary isn't waiting. She will fly to Russia this weekend and doesn't know when she's coming back.

"We promised this child that we were going to be his mommy and daddy and I'm not going to sit back and renege on that promise," she says. "This is my baby and I love him dearly -- and if I can't take him out of the country, then I'm going to stay in-country with him. I am not leaving my son."

Once she arrives, she says she plans to collect her documents from the adoption facilitator or go to the local court to try and get them. From there, she hopes to pick up her son from the orphanage. Otherwise, she says she'll stay as long as her visa permits.

And if her visa expires?

"Oh my god, I haven't thought that far," she says. "We are just being very optimistic and hopeful. I am appealing to President Putin as a father and a humanitarian. I hope the U.S. government will back me and help me do whatever I need to do."

Counting Blessings

Meanwhile, the last families to make it out of Russia ahead of the ban are counting their blessings.

Joelle Ziemian, 50, a public relations professional in Washington, D.C., was in Russia to bring back her daughter, three-year-old Alina, just as the adoption ban was flying through the parliament.

Ziemian says Alina, who was born with a lazy eye, had been left in a public stairwell with her birth certificate pinned to her shirt.

She says she was asked by Alina's orphanage in Krasnoyarsk to pick her up on Saturday, December 29, and not the following Monday, as was planned, because her bed was needed for another orphan.

If that hadn't happened, Ziemian may not have made it back to Moscow and out of the country in time.

"The woman [at border control] went through every single page, and there is a massive amount of paperwork, given that this is Russia," she says. "I was probably standing there with Alina for almost a half an hour and finally [the woman] said, 'Bye-bye. Have a good life.' And I started to cry."

For other families hoping to experience a similar moment, Ziemian says, "I wish them well, but it's hard to imagine that they will be successful."

"In my mind's eye, I see these parents going from office to office and seeing only closed doors."

Fading Hope

While several prospective adoptive parents are flying to Russia in the coming days, some are taking a different approach.

Kendra Skaggs, 33, is a special-education teacher in the southern state of Arkansas. She and her husband were also waiting out the 30 days before retrieving their daughter, Polina, when the ban became a reality.

"My hope gets less and less every day," she says. "I am a person of faith and so I trust that God has a plan and he knows what's going to happen and he's going to protect her. And I just hope that his plan is my plan."

As of now, her plan has included consultations with U.S. and Russian lawyers. The Skaggs family is among several from the group of 46 who are considering a legal challenge to the ban. They argue that the U.S.-Russian adoption agreement previously in place mandates a 12-month period before changes are made. Moscow says the requirement no longer applies, as the agreement itself has been cancelled.

Skaggs has heard of the families planning to go to Russia, but feels the effort would be futile.

"The orphanage is protected by gates and it has a guard shack," she says with a wry chuckle. "So it's not some place that you can just walk into. I'm sure I wouldn't I wouldn't be able to get in and they're not going to bring her out to me."

Families like the Skaggs are also holding out hope after Robert Shlegel, a Duma lawmaker from the ruling United Russia party, introduced an amendment on December 29 that would allow U.S. adoptions to continue for children with special needs.

Five-year-old Polina, the Skaggs' would-be daughter, was born with spina bifida and a clubfoot. Skaggs says the girl has needed multiple operations because the orphanage is not providing adequate physical therapy.

She says she has been advised to suspend her blog, "Pennies for a Princess," which she had used to chronicle the adoption process and help her raise the approximately $45,000 needed. If there is anything that could be deemed anti-Russian, she fears, she could be denied a visa in the future.

Her town, Bella Vista, has planned a candlelight vigil in support of Russia's orphans on January 12.

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