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World: Foreign Adoptions, Part 2 -- Defenders Say A Country Can't Replace A Mother's Love

For the past decade, Russia has been a leading source of adoptive children for families in the West. Thousands of Russian children are adopted each year. Other former Soviet countries -- notably Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Belarus -- are seeing the number of international adoptions grow, as well. New parents in the West say there are special challenges to raising children whose birth country may be thousands of miles away. But in the end, they say, a family is a family -- and every child benefits from loving parents, no matter how far it takes them from their native land. In the second of a two-part series, RFE/RL looks at the challenges of international adoption -- for parents and children alike. (Click here --> /featuresarticle/2004/11/6e3dc79c-070d-43f9-9fc7-6af6fec02a52.html for Part 1 of this series, which looks at the challenges of foreign adoption for children and parents.)

Prague, 19 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Rafael and Maria are a cheerful, confident couple in their early 40s. They have traveled from their home in the northern Spanish city of Santander to the central Russian city of Tyumen.

They are there to meet the child they are hoping to adopt, a thin 4-year-old girl with blond hair. They offer her toys and speak to her happily through a translator.

It has taken many months of paperwork and patience to bring them to this moment, and they are eager for the day when they will all be settled in Spain.

But Maria is quick to stress they will never let their daughter lose touch with the country of her birth: "Until the child is 18, she will hold Russian citizenship. We aren't going to make any secret of the fact that she has Russian roots. If she wants to, at any time, she can visit her country, the place where she was born. We would never stand in the way of that, not under any circumstances."

International adoption is a growing industry, with Russia second only to China in the number of parentless children it provides to foreign families.

In 2003, Russia granted more than 5,200 immigrant visas to children heading to American families. A decade earlier, that number was just 750.

Other former Soviet countries are also slowly opening their doors to international adoption -- most notably Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Belarus, and Azerbaijan.

Marina Mayhew is co-founder and president of Commonwealth Adoptions International, an agency based in the southwestern U.S. state of Arizona. The group began its work in Russia soon after foreign adoptions became legal there in 1992.

Since then, Commonwealth has overseen nearly 2,000 adoptions and expanded to work in nine countries ranging from Kazakhstan and Ukraine to Panama and Vietnam.

Mayhew, a native of Krasnoyarsk, Russia, says each country presents different challenges and benefits for adoptive parents.

Ukraine, for example, requires that prospective parents travel to the country only once -- an asset in terms of time and money. At the same time, however, the children it makes available for foreign adoption are often toddlers or even older -- a reality that can deprive parents of the thrill of a first word or first step.

Mayhew, who herself has an adopted daughter, says her agency spends much of its time educating potential parents about the particular challenges of raising children who were not only born in foreign countries, but who have often spent months or even years in state institutions.

"For some of them, it's a very difficult transition to come from the orphanage -- where, even though it may not be perfect, it was very familiar -- to come to a different country, to people who speak a different language, they have different food, they have different customs, everything around you is so different," Mayhew says. "And some of the children are easy, they go through those transitions very easily. And some are having a very difficult time. And it is our responsibility to work with families before the adoption to educate them on those issues and prepare them."

Some adoptive parents say they do as much as they can to keep their children connected to their native heritage.

Erin and Dennis Kling live in the Midwestern U.S. state of Missouri and have two adopted children -- 4-year-old Anastasia and Owen, who is nearly 3. The children, who both came from orphanages in the Moscow region, were adopted within a year of each other, and the Klings describe their adjustment to American life as "perfect."

But still, they are eager to foster their children's Russian heritage. They have filled their home with mementos from their trips to Russia and are planning to send Anastasia and Owen to Russian-language classes when they are older.

Erin Kling says she and her husband try to be honest with their children about their background. It's something, she admits, that can be difficult: "We know their birth mothers' names. We don't know anything about their birth fathers. And that's the one thing I wish we had more information about. I wish we at least had a picture. If we had a picture, it would be so much easier. But our daughter's 4, and she's already asking about Russia and about her birth mom, and so she knows her birth mother's name, and we talk about her and we talk about the reasons why she possibly gave her up for adoption. And so she'll ask me, 'What do you think Svetlana is doing right now?' And I'll say, 'Well, I don't know.' And then we try to figure out what time it is in Russia. And usually since it's during the day when she asks, usually it's nighttime there, and so I say, 'I bet she's probably sleeping right now.'"

Marina Mayhew of Commonwealth Adoptions says foreign adoption laws provide considerable protection for adopted children.

Parents are obligated to send photographs and regular reports about the children's well-being to their home countries. And agencies work closely with parents before and after the adoption to ensure the transition goes as smoothly as possible.

Commonwealth is planning to expand its work to include domestic adoptions within Russia. But until there is a home for every orphaned child, Mayhew says, it doesn't matter whether children stay in their birth countries or begin new lives abroad.

"When I am faced with such a question, I always say, 'Well, how would you feel if you were an orphan and there was absolutely no person in the whole country who loves you -- individually, as yourself?' And it's easy to say that it's better in the country, but love from a country doesn't replace love from a mother or a father or a family," Mayhew says. "The family unit, I believe, is of so much greater importance than national pride or belonging to a society."

Ultimately, what international adoptions require is flexibility -- for parents and children alike.

Even Rafael and Maria have seen their plans change in the short time they've been in Tyumen. Now, instead of a little girl, they are adopting two brothers, ages 1 and 6.

The adoption is due to be finalized in April, at which point the boys will begin their new lives in Spain.

(RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service contributed to this report.)