An orphanage in Irkutsk, Russia in 2000. (Gideon Mendel/Corbis)

Tragedy

Russia’s Adoption Ban Is Cruel and Vindictive to All

Russia’s orphanages are some of the worst in the world, and adoption by Americans provided a much-needed way out. Dr. Jane Aronson, founder of Worldwide Orphans Foundation, on the horror children will face in these ‘gulags’—and how a game of politics has sealed their fate.

Celia, a single mother from San Francisco, is a client of mine and has been preparing to adopt infant boy from Moscow for the last six months. She has been living in purgatory for the past eight days.

Celia traveled to Moscow on December 21, the day the news broke about a law proposed by the Russian Duma to close Russian adoptions to the U.S. You can read about the reasons behind the law: 19 deaths of orphan children adopted from Russia by Americans and in retaliation for a recent human-rights law signed by Obama. Since December 21, we have been flogged with news item after news item about the threatened closure of Russian adoption.

Putin signed the law on Friday, December 28, 2012. It is retaliatory, arbitrary, and unjust. It feels like a vindictive beating to me because it will have complex, enduring effects on thousands of orphans and prospective families in the years to come. 

On December 22, Celia was informed by her facilitator in Russia, that her day in court had been canceled, and that she would not be visiting her 10-month-old infant son, Vladimir. She sulked and anguished in her hotel room in Moscow and felt as if her boy had died. She wrote to me from Moscow.

Dear Dr. Aronson,

I am in Russia right now and the trip has become a disaster. I was supposed to appear in court this Monday, during my second trip and then bring him home in early March. The judge has decided to postpone all adoptions until Russia and United States resolve this conflict. I am terribly saddened and don't understand what is going on. Keep my son and me in your prayers. I am devastated, but I am still trying to remain hopeful that Russia will at least allow adoptions in progress, to be completed.

I wrote back with my attempt at consoling words, but the truth is that I am worried and can hardly console myself. In my experience there have always been politics in Russian adoption. From the minute adoptions started in 1994, they were never welcomed by the Russian government. For over 18 years, as a pediatrician specializing in orphan medicine, I have watched the many adoption moratoria come and go. Some have lasted weeks, some months, and some even longer. Each time the doors to adoption in Russia closed, people lost their children. The re-initiation after the slow-downs often resulted in the babies being removed from the registry and people going back to square one. Families experienced these losses as deaths, but even with these losses, they courageously moved forward with new referrals. Some families experienced multiple losses due to politics and bureaucratic changes in Russia. Russian adoption became marred by an unpredictable reputation with expected political obstruction and slow downs. The process was a military obstacle course with little reliability and the sure potential for failed adoptions with unfulfilled dreams for families.

From the minute adoptions by Americans started in 1994, they were never welcomed by the Russian government.

From the perspective of the orphans, the disaster is even more profound and tragic. They remain in orphanages in Eastern Europe—which are the worst in the world—with Russia and Romania taking the lead in disgraceful and outrageous conditions. These institutions are not habitable; children are malnourished and in some cases starving and emaciated. They lie in their own feces and urine and in clothes that are old, torn, and not fitted to their bodies. Orphans lie still and untouched in their cribs, all day and all night. They are in pain from hunger, cold, and a host of undefined medical conditions.

Babies and toddlers who do not “behave” are medicated and sedated with drugs such as Phenobarbital, a common antiseizure drug. This drug’s side effects can cause exhaustion and disengagement. They have no toys and not one iota of affection and connections with staff, which leads to attachment issues. With no touch, affection, and play, the children begin to provide their own stimulation because they need it to survive. If and when they stand up, they rock from side to side and bang their heads. They stare emptily into space and appear to be dull and delayed. Bottle propping and speed-feeding gruel causes them to choke and aspirate their food—sometimes causing pneumonia and death.

They are tortured by the circumstances I describe above and sustain damage to their bodies and their brains. When Russian orphans are measured, they are commonly found to have failure to thrive/growth-stunting for weight and height. Most significantly, they often suffer organic brain damage from exposure to alcohol in utero, malnutrition, and a lack of stimulation in orphanages. These conditions conspire to cause attachment disorder. A baby who lacks the capacity to connect and bond is the innocent victim of the final human injustice.

It’s the miracle of resiliency that allows orphans to escape these circumstances and international adoption provides permanency that can heal the orphan. When that opportunity is gone, these Russian kids will be permanently ruined.

They will be abandoned to languish and rot in “gulags” in Russia. Russian orphanages are the worst in the world and I speak from experience as the founder and CEO of Worldwide Orphans Foundation, which has provided medical and educational services for orphans in institutions in 14 countries over the past 15 years. I have spent 25 years providing services to orphans and vulnerable children and I have visited hundreds of orphanages, witnessing the cruel and evil treatment of defenseless, at-risk children who have no one to advocate for them. There are likely one million orphans in institutions in Russia and there are no active strategic de-institutionalization programs to help them have a better life. Russia’s neighbor, Bulgaria, has 7,000 orphans in orphanages, and there is an active staged de-institutionalization game plan, albeit a slow one, that WWO has been a part of for the past decade.

This moment is the nail in the coffin for international adoption which dwindled from 23,000 in 2005 to 7,500 by the end of 2012 as a result of the implementation of the Hague Convention in 2008 and the closings by many sending countries with threats of child trafficking.

Three years ago, a nurse from Tennessee sent her newly adopted 7-year-old son back on a plane to Russia because she didn’t want him anymore. She said he had a lot of mental-health issues that she couldn’t manage. This horrendous act of parental abandonment created a terrible crisis for Russian adoption. Lots of advocacy occurred, with representatives from the U.S. State Department traveling to Russia to stop the closure of adoption and that was successful.

Russian adoption has continued for the last three years, but things seemed to pick up when on November 1, 2012, a bilateral agreement for Russian adoptions to the U.S., was signed, creating what was thought to be a smooth and easy process for international adoptions from Russia. Putin’s signing of the ban on adoption rescinds last month’s agreement and is obviously purely political.  This ban on adoption defines Russia’s current anti-American stance.

Orphans in Russia and in many other countries have been political hostages before today. I have lived with this over and over again for decades. It is hard to fathom why governments cannot see that the hundreds of millions of orphans in the world need to be part of their communities and that they have the potential to become thriving successful citizens. Adoption is not the answer, obviously, but it can be a part of the solution. Whether domestic or international, adoption is one way to reach the thousands of kids who are legally available in their countries.

I have two sons, adopted from Vietnam and Ethiopia, who are now 12 and 14.  It distresses me especially in the last few days that they may have been deprived of the opportunity to be adopted by our family. I hesitate to think about their likely unsafe and harsh destiny in a world without adoption.

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