Thursday, November 5, 2009

Why Do the Russians Make It So Tough to Adopt?

Guest Post by Fran Cronin for Adopt-a-tude

This past September, Fran Cronin’s family was featured in the Adopt-a-tude piece “Attachment: ‘Love Is Just a Starting Point.’” The struggles of Fran and her son with attachment issues were highlighted there. Now Fran describes how she came to adopt from Russia and why institutional care can profoundly hurt children.

When you are 46 and want to have a baby but biology is no longer on your side, the answer to what you want is adoption.

In 1998, when my husband and I decided to pursue adoption, we had been living in Moscow for almost four years. Our biological daughter was almost three, and we were eager to expand our family.  But as a breast-cancer survivor, living in Yeltsin-era Moscow, the farthest I got with fertility enhancement was taking little purple pills prescribed by a doctor in Helsinki, accompanied by lots of unspontaneous sex.

“We are living in the land of adoption,” my weary husband finally said. He was alluding to what we called Plan B in the family-planning manual. 

That year, the adoption of Russian babies by foreign nationals was almost epidemic. During 1998, Americans alone adopted 4,432 Russian babies, more than 12 adoptions a day. On our frequent travels back and forth between Moscow and New York, there would invariably be several families returning with their newly adopted children. The trend peaked in 2004 with the adoption of 5,865 Russian children by American families.  The following year, the Russians tightened the rules for accrediting adoption agencies, and since then the number of Russian children adopted by Americans has been in decline.  The most recent report from the U.S. Department of State revealed numbers had dropped to 1,861 in 2008.

We were familiar with adoptions, but those we knew of in our wide circle of aging-out parents were not of babies; they were all of young toddlers, ranging in age from fourteen months to three years.

Although Russian institutions were bursting with abandoned or unwanted children, the bureaucracies of both the U.S. and Russia made arduous, repeated, and capricious demands on us. (No one challenges your intent when you birth a baby.)

The U.S. Embassy lost our fingerprints. The Russians made us scramble for their coveted brightly colored (and costly) ribbons and seals. For nine months, I cleaned our apartment in preparation for home visits, crisscrossed unfamiliar and congested streets in search of obscure notaries, bought dozens of baby outfits and baby toys.

Although we made clear to every so-called adoption expert available to us in Moscow—especially those in the lucrative position of helping us identify a baby—that we wanted to adopt an infant, we were told we were misguided. What we really wanted, they insisted, was a girl at least three years old. This would safeguard us against “boy trouble” and unknown ills lurking beneath the cuddly cuteness of an infant.

We countered that there are no givens, even with a biological child. We never wanted a guarantee. The driving force was our desire for a child. Our thinking was—and I believe this even more strongly today—that in places where infants are at risk, adopting a baby as young as possible allows adoptive parents to ameliorate the wrongs of early care.

Up until we began our own adoption process, I had assumed that living in Moscow would be an advantage. I had contacts, knew the bureaucratic ropes, and felt I could facilitate an independent adoption without the hassle and pandering of a stateside agency. 

I had spent two years on the board of a nonprofit organization (ARC or Action for Russia’s Children) that actively supported alternatives to institutional care of children abandoned, abused, or relinquished at birth due to obvious physical defects. Many of these defects could have been easily ameliorated if proper medical care had been available. But warehousing children with either physical or neurological disabilities was the assumed norm. (I never once saw a wheel chair anywhere in the city.)

For example, my Russian tutor, a woman in her late thirties, revealed to me that she had a brother born with a severely low IQ. Her parents hadn’t wanted to give him up at birth. But fearing reprisals from nosy neighbors, they shuttered him in their two-room apartment rather than risk public ridicule and ostracization. Her brother’s existence wasn’t revealed until a man interested in marrying my tutor came over to meet her parents. The suitor left and never returned.

Actual numbers for any of this are hard to obtain. But the government and medical community’s rampant collusion in keeping “undesirables” out of the public eye is well known. More recently, legal introduction of parental-rights termination due to poverty, alcoholism, and out-of-wedlock birth has further swollen the institutional population. Unicef estimates that in 2002 at least a half million (or two out of every hundred) Russian children were in institutional care. Other organizations estimate the number to be as high as 800,000 and growing.

In the late nineties, although warehousing of young adults and placement of infants and young children in detsky domes (children’s homes) was a tremendous drain on scarce resources, it was simultaneously a venue for bureaucratic power. The figurative turnkey to required adoption permits lay buried deep in the tightly bound bosom of a woman who presided as the Minister of Education. It was in her windowless basement office that I presented my multi-sealed and stamped dossier.
At the time, Russian law required that babies be available for domestic adoption up to the age of four months. The wait has since doubled and is now eight months. This waiting period was thought to be a window of opportunity for family members, or other Russian citizens in that oblast (region), to come forward and adopt. The reality was they never did.

Testing at the age of two was institutionalized as a way to categorize state-dependent children. If a child was diagnosed as an idiot, then the services provided would be marginal: no formal education or life-skills training, large warehouse-type housing, release to the streets by the age of sixteen or so.

Of course, babies reared in stimulus- or nurture-void environments will invariably test poorly. Denied the comfort of being held, the satisfaction of good nutrition, or the opportunity to bond and form human attachments, these babies grow solitary and listless. Or, as in the case of my son—who was only five months old when we adopted him—lose the desire to cry.

Leading up to our adoption, we first viewed him, on video, as a chubby two-month-old in the arms of caretakers. We then visited him at three-and-a-half months, loaded with stimulus toys and presents of simple clothing for him and other babies in the orphan ward of the hospital in southern Russia where he lived.

Six weeks later, we returned with our daughter, carrying more presents and envelopes stuffed with cash, to attend the local oblast hearing and complete our adoption. In the short span between our two visits, our son had physically deteriorated from a plump, animated, alert baby to a drawn, gray-pallored, and muscularly low-toned infant. All the toys we had given him—mirrors and soft toys with bright colors and sound—were gone.

On pick-up day, we received him bound and swaddled in a tight-fitting cloth that rendered him unable to move.

I got the baby boy I wanted; at five months, my son remains the youngest Russian adoption I know about. Yet the emotional scars of his early deficits go deep. I can’t make up for what he was denied before me.

Which raises many questions, including why do the Russians make it so tough to adopt?  They clearly are not invested in raising unwanted children—so why don’t they provide the education and access necessary for women to have control over conception? (It is not uncommon for a Russian woman to have multiple abortions as well as children they give up for adoption.) If the government does not want to release these babies into families who will care for and love them, then why don’t they provide the support necessary to help them mature into productive citizens?

Today, at age eleven, despite all the love my 115-pound body and well-educated mind can give, my son continues to need lots of care to help him feel happy and whole. For him, every day is a struggle against misread social cues; slow processing of multiple instructions; and a chronic need for attention, love, and approval.

I used to get seeing-red mad. If only someone had cared for my son, perhaps much of what dogs him and makes him fearful of his world might have slipped away.

But shaking my past at the past does not aright so many multiple wrongs. The reality is that we are here, and ever grateful together, mother and son. I don’t know what the future will bring, but as this boy’s mother, I can guarantee I will do whatever it takes for him to realize all the happiness he deserves. 


kendra! said...

Eloquently written, Fran. You so skillfully unravel for us what so many of us wonder about the seeming abundance of Russian children in need of loving homes and the inexplicable red tape precluding adoptive families from access to them. A thoughtful piece from a thoughtful lady.

Alex Speredelozzi said...

Fran, Eye-opening, heart-tugging piece. My wife saw it on the table after I printed it out and immediately scooped it up and read the whole thing. It's apparent that despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation is still a country in which the state bureaucracy still dominates people's lives in cruel, unhealthy ways. Unfortunately, the Putin presidency seems to be steering the country away from openness and representative government. Both of which are needed to alleviate problems such as the warehousing of children. Putin has used the economy to consolidate power and strengthen the presidency (Just as Bush used terrorism to expand the powers of the American presidency; maybe that's why they seemed to hit it off in the beginning). Well, I didn't mean for this to post to take a political turn, but it's difficult to ignore some of the causes behind inhuman policies.

Ken Hertz said...

Wow Fran, what a powerful and thoughtful piece. It is such a tragedy that these bureaucracies are so harmful to the children they purportedly are set up to help. When we were in the process of adopting from India, we encountered the same seemingly capricious, sometimes redundant requirements. We dutifully pressed on, one hurdle at a time. The powers that be in India were also in the midst of a nationalist-inspired debate about whether to even allow adoption of their children by "foreigners." In the meantime our son Paresh went from 3 months old (when we first found out about him) to 1 year, when we were finally able to come and get him from the orphanage in Pune, near Mumbai. The staff at the orphanage were dedicated and caring, not like the large-scale institutional warehousing of children that I've heard about in Russia and other places, but still--you can only do so much. Every day that goes by in the orphanage is a day that a child is not getting the fawning, loving attention that only a parent can provide. Paresh seems to be fine; he is a happy, well-adjusted 6-year old now. But sometimes when I hug him, I think of his first year of life and squeeze just a little tighter.

Martha Nichols said...

The conflict between the rhetoric about providing support for abandoned children in-country--no matter how well-intentioned--and the reality of what's actually available in places like Russia and Vietnam is a bitter one.

Just as it's difficult to get away from the money that drives the international adoption system, it's hard to ignore the many, many children in inadequate care who need homes now. This is not just a matter of the choices individual adoptive parents make, but the political and cultural will to address such abuses as Fran describes is still a long time coming.

fran said...

to this point, there was an interesting story on NPR yesterday afternoon. They profiled a "jester" sent by the US to moscow to do some cultural exchange, including a visit to an orphanage. he described fearing the worst but was delighted by the orphanage, the condition of the kids, and the educational resources available, including art therapy. his take away was how progressive the russians are, etc. if you ask me, he is naive and was blatantly snookered. of course he visited a showcase, but how could he allow himself to be so easily duped? and this guy went as a rep of the US...if there is no outrage, there will be no change.