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U.S. Families Hope For Miracle As Russia Bans Adoptions

  • Richard Solash

Children play in their bedroom at an orphanage in the southern Russian city of Rostov-na-Donu.

Children play in their bedroom at an orphanage in the southern Russian city of Rostov-na-Donu.

Jan Wondra says she saw her adoptive daughter, and loved her, before she knew her.

"I kept having a dream that kept waking me up at night," she says. "There was always a little girl running toward me calling for Mama. [She had] a sad little face, her arms were outstretched, and she always disappeared in the dream before she reached my arms.

"When we started the adoption process, they put a big book in my lap of waiting children all over the world. I randomly opened that book and looked at the page and I saw the face of the little girl in my dream. I almost fell off my chair."

The face that Wondra recognized was Yelena Lomonova's. The child had been born with congenital hip defects and given up at birth by her unwed mother. In 1994, Wondra traveled to Russia's Pskov region to pick up her daughter. The girl, she says, came to her with open arms, just like in the dream. Yelena is now Katie, who, after two hip surgeries, is a thriving college senior in Colorado.

But for hundreds of U.S. families in the process of their own Russian adoptions, dreams are quickly becoming nightmares. A Russian ban on adoptions by U.S. citizens that was fast-tracked through parliament amid overwhelming support from lawmakers was signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin on December 28 and will go into effect on January 1.

The Wondra family in Moscow in 1994 after their adoption

The Wondra family in Moscow in 1994 after their adoption

Wondra is now the acting chair of Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoption (FRUA), a volunteer organization that provides support to adoptive families. In recent weeks, that support has been needed more than ever, she says, as families scramble to find information about the ban, sign petitions in protest, and come together to keep hope alive.

Seeking Answers

While there is no official registry, advocates estimate that between 500 and 1,000 families are currently in the process of adopting from Russia.

"Both my wife and I were absolutely crushed by this," says Matthew Boyle, an electrical engineer from Maine who, along with his wife, is among those would-be parents. "We went through a long infertility process, we went through a long and really heartbreaking domestic adoption attempt, and we've been waiting now for Russia for almost a year. We were getting ready to go into the holidays thinking it would be our last holiday as just the two of us."

Boyle, whose official adoption request is pending in Petrozavodsk, says he has had more questions than answers since learning of the Russian legislation. He says he has read comments by Pavel Astakhov, Russia's child rights commissioner, that the ban would even prevent the departure of dozens of children who have already been cleared to go to their new U.S. homes. But he also knows Putin has said that any changes to the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Adoptions Agreement, which entered into force just last month, would require a year's notice.

U.S. adoption agencies say they've been unable to provide clear answers to their clients. Several say on their websites that are not currently opening any new Russian adoption cases.

Born Of Tragedy

On December 21, the U.S. State Department's Office of Children's Issues held a private informational call with U.S. adoption advocates. It has since posted a message on its website encouraging families in the process of a Russian adoption to register for updates.

U.S. families have adopted 60,000 Russian children since 1992, including many with disabilities. In 2011, more Russian children were adopted by U.S. parents than by families from any other country. The process, which usually takes around 18 months, costs up to $60,000 and requires extensive paperwork, background checks, and three visits to Russia by the prospective family.

The Russian ban is named after Dima Yakovlev, a 21-month-old boy who died of heatstroke in 2008 after his adoptive U.S. father accidently left him in a hot car for nine hours. Nineteen adopted Russian children have died in the United States in the past decade.

Nevertheless, the Russian move is a response to U.S. legislation signed into law this month that would punish Russian officials implicated in gross human rights violations, including in the 2009 prison death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

Boyle says he wonders why Russia couldn't have instead responded by enacting sanctions against the abusive U.S. parents or welfare officials implicated in the deaths of the 19 Russian adoptees. The country, he feels, is victimizing not only innocent U.S. families, but its more than 700,000 orphans.

Charlotte, 4, came to the United States in March.

Charlotte, 4, came to the United States in March.

Kelly, a stay-at-home mom in Virginia, agrees. She is the adoptive mother of Charlotte, a 4-year-old with Down syndrome and Celiac disease. She brought her daughter to the United States this March from an orphanage near Moscow. Kelly is now in the process of adopting two more children from the same orphanage, both also with Down syndrome. Like several other prospective parents who spoke to RFE/RL, she requested that her last name not be used for fear that it might jeopardize the adoption.

"I am absolutely concerned about the ban, particularly for the children with special needs, because there is no life for them [in Russian orphanages]," she says. "Children aren't meant to be political pawns."

Alongside the ban, Putin on December 28 signed a decree aimed at boosting support for orphans with serious health conditions.

Frustrated Families

Another prospective adoptive mother who requested anonymity said she was "devastated" and had been "crying for days."

"Our biological daughter keeps talking about the Russian brother she now may never have," she said.

Another mother who requested anonymity wrote to RFE/RL on December 27 from Russia, where she had arrived to pick up her adopted child. She was hurrying to return to the United States. "We are relieved to have been spared," she wrote.

Prospective parents say they now must wait and do what they can, including signing online petitions. One, a letter urging Putin to reject the ban, was written by Alexander D'Jamoos, who was born with deformed hands and legs in Penza, Russia. He was adopted at 15 by a Texas family and recently climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.

Another petition urges the White House to add the names of Russian legislators supporting the adoption ban to the list of Russians facing sanctions under the Magnitsky Act. It now has nearly 55,000 signatures.

"We are praying a lot and we are writing senators and writing congressmen and anyone who will listen," Kelly said ahead of Putin's signing of the bill. "We are praying for a Hail Mary at the last hour."

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