Adoptions: From Russia With Red Tape

Family and home were alien concepts when Russian-born Alex came to live with his adoptive parents, Marla and Duncan Chisholm, of Midland, Tex., in March, 1997. Already in his five years of life, Alex had been ripped from his neglectful birth family, then from two orphanages in Novorossiysk. But four months after he arrived in the U.S., a light flickered on. "You my mama and I you little boy!" he exclaimed one day to Marla. A short time later, on returning from a family vacation, Alex wandered through the house, methodically touching his toys, then broke into a smile. "We came home!" he exulted. "We went away, and we came home!" The Chisholms knew the light was on to stay.

Alex's happy outcome is more typical than recent media reports about former Soviet bloc adoptions suggest. Stories have described emotionally damaged children unable to bond with their new families, an Arizona couple accused of abusing their adopted daughters on the flight home, and a Colorado mother who beat to death her 3-year-old Russian son for misbehaving. Tragic as these tales are, they hardly reflect the mostly happy linkings between Americans and children of the former U.S.S.R.

Last year, U.S. citizens adopted 3,816 children from orphanages in Russia, which now surpasses China as America's No.1 source of foreign adoptions. Russia was followed by Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, and several former Soviet republics. While some children from the region have displayed severe symptoms of reactive attachment disorder--the heartbreaking failure to bond--most problems are treatable. So are language delays and physical maladies common to the orphans: malnutrition, rickets, parasites, and exposure to syphilis and tuberculosis. "I'm not trying to minimize the heartache some parents have gone through," says Maureen Evans, director of the Joint Council on International Children's Services, an adoption agency coalition in Cheverly, Md. "But the majority of adoptions have been extraordinarily successful."

BACKLASH. Statistics bear her out. Take a recent survey by Cradle of Hope Adoption Center in Silver Spring, Md., of 1,246 U.S. families who adopted from the former U.S.S.R. Some 84% termed their children's adjustment very good, and another 11% called it good.

Despite this high satisfaction level, parents considering an adoption from the region must steel themselves for frustrating setbacks and delays. Russia is a huge, inefficient country where regional officials set their own rules. Slow bureaucracy can hold up record processing and assignment of children for months. And suspicions about the large sums of cash involved, plus wild rumors such as one about Americans selling adopted babies' organs, have touched off a backlash against foreigners. Says Irina Volodina, head of the Russian Education Ministry's department for children's rights and social welfare: "We understand people need to pay money for translators, drivers, and lawyers. But for the average Russian who reads the newspapers, it looks like people are buying and selling babies."

In Georgia, for instance, foreign adoptions dropped off sharply after First Lady Nanuli Shevardnadze declared her opposition last year and pledged to find homes locally for the orphans assigned to parents overseas. And Russia's Duma is slated to vote May 13 on four bills imposing adoption restrictions. Waiting times for foreign applicants could increase sharply from the current average of 6 to 18 months. Despite these obstacles, Russian and U.S. officials don't expect to see foreign adoptions end. U.S. ratification of the Hague Convention, an international treaty establishing a central adoption authority in each signing country, could reassure the Russians further.

If you want to adopt in Russia or Eastern Europe, expect to spend a total of $11,000 to $25,000 on agency and document fees, drivers and translators, and travel. Generally, you're eligible to adopt whether you're single or married and if you're 25 to 55, with or without previous children. Russians may ignore their own restrictions, such as an age ceiling of 42 for adopting an infant. While you may bring home an infant as young as 7 months, most children are 1 and up.

Your first step is choosing an agency. Groups like Adoptive Families of America and the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse can help (table). The Joint Council offers an excellent resource, The Adoptive Parent Pre-paration System ($30, 301 322-1906.) Next, you'll compile a dossier that includes a Justice Dept. fingerprint check, certified birth certificates, and a letter from the U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service allowing you to bring a foreign orphan into the U.S. You must also arrange a home study, in which a social worker interviews you and writes a report on your motives, finances, and general fitness to adopt. The document gathering process takes six months or more.

Once your adoption agency receives your paperwork, you'll wait up to a year for the magic call announcing: "We have a child for you." Weeks or months later, the agency gives you the go-ahead to board a plane to Moscow, Bucharest, or another city to meet your "facilitator." This is the person who will escort you to meet with your child and cut through red tape.

At this stage, things can get shady. Adopting Americans often arrive with thousands of dollars in cash, which the facilitators are believed to hand to local bureaucrats processing everything from passports to adoption decrees. You may be told not to ask questions and to bring gifts like jewelry. "When you have a country where people don't have enough food on the table, you know perfectly well this system is going to work because of gifts," says Flicka Van Praagh, international adoptions director at the Spence-Chapin agency in New York.

COMPLICATIONS. The amount of time you spend in the country depends on the vagaries of bureaucracy and your judge. Most Russian adoptions now require two trips spaced a few weeks apart. And complications can arise--like suddenly learning your child has adoptable siblings. With the adoption complete, you'll head to Moscow for a mandatory medical exam for your child, plus visa processing at the U.S. Embassy, before the trip home.

Once back in the U.S., excitement may give way to the grim realities of post-orphanage health. "Catch-up is the name of the game," says Dr. Jane Aronson, a Mineola (N.Y.) pediatrician who reviews adoptees' medical records and videos for U.S. agencies. Except for hepatitis B, HIV, and fetal alcohol syndrome, most problems are reversible. Yet considering the orphans' origins, you should expect some difficulties.

Attachment disorder prompts great fear. A child's lack of eye contact, inability to be comforted, and indiscriminate affection toward strangers are all signs. Yet Aronson estimates that fewer than 10% of the 300 internationally adopted children under 2 that she has seen have had attachment problems. In children 5 and up, the figure has been 25%. Most respond well to therapy.

Holly Richardson of Orem, Utah, should know. She and her husband, Greg, have adopted five former Soviet bloc children, adding to their family of four biological children and one U.S. adoptee. One adoptee died, at age 4, from Down's syndrome. The other four have disabilities, from hepatitis B to missing fingers and toes. Holly says Alina, 8, from Romania, and Mira, 10, from Kazakhstan, had attachment issues. "They hated to be held," she says. But both have responded to treatment, and Holly says she has successfully used bonding techniques, such as massage, on her two Russian toddlers--Roman, 22 months, and Kristiana, 19 months. Despite her kids' health problems, Holly has no regrets. "There has never been a time when we thought, `We wish we hadn't done this."' She plans to adopt more kids from the region--and soon.

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