Three-month-old Sveta arrived at Children’s Home No. 13 last summer with yellowish skin, a swollen stomach, and no liver. The orphanage for babies and toddlers with disabilities in St. Petersburg did what it could. Sveta was a skinny and a quiet baby. The birth certificate that accompanied her out of the hospital where she had spent the first three months of her life had simple dashes on the lines for her parents’ names and home address. Legally, she was now alone in the world. The staff at the orphanage knew exactly what it meant: the girl’s mother had given the clinic a false name and a false address, and had fled—adding one more child to Russia’s almost one million population of orphans living in state institutions.
The baby girl’s modest but well-kept new home near the Lions Bridge on Griboyedov Canal has a long history of dealing with seriously ill children; but Sveta’s condition required professional medical help. So after two weeks of struggling to save Sveta’s life, the director of the orphanage, Natalya Nikiforova, arranged to move the baby to a Moscow center for liver transplants, sending one of the orphanage’s employees to babysit her there.
“We desperately hoped to find adoptive parents for Sveta in the West, as after the liver transplant surgery she would need constant medical care that we simply could not provide at our institution. To our greatest joy, our adoption agents found somebody willing to bring Sveta home to the United States,” Nikoforova said.
That joy, however, was short-lived. President Vladimir Putin’s decision to end adoption of Russian children by the U.S. means a different ending for Sveta’s story.
“After the president signed the adoption ban to the United States, Sveta’s life might not last long,” Nikoforova said with a sigh, calling the new bill, enacted earlier this week, a “crime.”
Since 401 out of 405 Russian parliamentary deputies voted for the adoption ban, the U.S. State Department has received inquiries from more than 500 American families who were in the process of adopting children from Russian orphanages—and dozens of those kids have health issues. State reports that the number of distressed families caught mid-process by the law continues to grow: at least 45 families are awaiting issuance of a final adoption decree from Russian courts.
Orphanages do not release the names of adoptive parents until the process is finalized. But two of these families could well be the new parents for Timosha, 4, and Yanka, 1, a boy and a girl with Down Syndrome, also from Nikiforova’s children’s home—both toddlers were to go to homes in the U.S. in February, but now they are doomed to stay at the orphanage.
“The Kremlin will eventually figure out political issues,” Nikiforova said. She was referring to the dispute with Washington that prompted the adoption law, which came in response to a law Congress passed, called the Magnitsky Act, that bans travel to the United States, and freezes U.S. bank assets of, Russian officials suspected of corruption.
“But our children with broken fates will continue to live quietly in these sad-looking institutions,” Nikiforova said.
Over the past 25 years of her experience at the orphanage, she said, American parents adopted seven children with Down. Not a single child with the condition was adopted by a Russian family in that time, she said.
The U.S. has been a leader among countries adopting children from Russia. In the last two decades, American families have taken away about 60,000 Russian orphans, including blind, deaf, and paralyzed kids, as well as children with AIDS, and various mental disorders.
“Most Russian orphans have been through hell.”
The Kremlin, however, did not like the idea of Russian children being taken leaving abroad, and poured money into encouraging local adoption, offering monthly stipends of up to $300 per child—an average monthly salary in some Russian regions. The money stimulated foster programs, but there were no institutions to educate foster parents, or assist families during the first few years of adoption. Experts hope the public attention the law has brought will put a spotlight on the plight of disabled orphans and at least improve conditions in Russia.
“Most Russian orphans have been through hell,” said Tatyana Bulanova, the director of Omoforovsky correctional school and orphanage in the Vladimir region. Forty-eight children living behind Omoforovsky’s bare blue walls are 7 to 17 years old, most with psychological disorders. In the summer, teenagers often escape from the orphanage—some go to live inside the pipe of a heating station in Kovrov, where they sniff glue and live on coins tthey collect from the floor at weddings. Bulanova said most of the kids experienced slower intellectual development because they had alcoholic parents, and “deeply traumatized psychology.”
When a few years ago the state started promoting adoptions, some Russians took orphans home without any knowledge or idea of how to bring up an emotionally broken child who had spent years living on the street or suffering beatings by drunken parents. Local experts monitored a wave of adopted children being returned to orphanages after their foster parents had made some money taking care of them—then decided it was too hard.
“Russia is not ready to manage on its own—we really hope that there’ll be no full moratorium on international adoption, though officials talk about it all the time,” said Tatyana Tulchinskaya, the director of the Here and Now humanitarian fund.
A series of murders of Russian adoptees in the United States—the Kremlin reports as many as 19 cases—has had a highly negative impact on issue of U.S. adoption of Russian children. And while thousands of Russian orphans have been successfully assimilated into the American dream, the problematic adoptions are the ones that have received the most recent—negative—publicity.
The adoption process itself, meanwhile, has been long and complicated—and expensive: Some families spent up to $50,000 during a one- to three-year process that involved going around to Russian state institutions collecting required paperwork.
Small wonder that adoptions from Russia have been petering out over the past five years. In 2004, U.S. families adopted 5,865 orphans; last year fewer than 1,000 orphans left for America, several dozen of them with disabilities.
Putin’s decision to ban all American adoptions drew heavy criticism among the Russian elite. High-ranking bureaucrats, including a deputy prime minister and the foreign minister, uncharacteristically expressed doubts about the president’s judgment.
Was Putin punishing America, or Russia’s own children? Robert Schlegel, a member of parliament from the ruling United Russia party, who voted in favor of the bill, later suggested there must be a special amendment to allow Americans to adopt sick kids “as long as we cannot handle children with health issues on our own in Russia.”
So far, there has been no sign of compromises. Nikiforova even risked speaking out on television, calling on authorities to consider the fates of three seriously ill children at her orphanage, who are waiting for their American parents. She spoke about all the positive cases she has experienced with American parents, including that of Tatyana McFadden, a wheelchair racer and winner of multiple medals at the Paralympics. In 1995, she was just one more weak and paralyzed orphan at Children’s Home No. 13 in St. Petersburg.
“I am very concerned and really wish authorities would not burn all bridges and let our Sveta, Timosha, and Yanka have a chance to live a healthy life with their loving American parents,” Nikiforova told The Daily Beast.
It remains to be seen whether her pleas will cut through the politics.