Back in 2003, when I was adopting a baby from Russia, I was never afraid our efforts would be stymied by shifting political winds, or by anything at all. Like many other adoptive parents, we chose Russia because—though the adoption process was grueling and expensive—it was a sure thing, unlike the minefield that domestic adoption can be.
In 2003 alone, Americans adopted 5,221 Russian children, about the same number adopted annually from Russia since 1999. It wasn't until 2008, when other countries' adoption programs expanded, that Russia's started to fall off.
Then, in 2012, thousands of would-be adoptees were shocked when the Kremlin announced its plans to impose a ban on adoptions by Americans. While President Vladimir Putin said the freeze was due to concerns about the plight of adopted children stateside, it was widely understood to be an act of political retaliation for recent U.S. sanctions on prominent Russian politicians.
By the Russians' count, the ban, now a year old, halted the pending adoptions of 259 children, including scores of orphans who had already met their prospective parents.
For those who still want to adopt internationally, the former Soviet satellite of Ukraine has presented itself as an unexpected solution.
Dieter Gilbin and Lisa Bartholomew are one such couple. The Hawaii residents had been preparing to adopt a Russian girl named Ekatarina. They'd already decorated the nursery for the seven- month-old baby. They sat in on monthly conference calls with the State Department for families caught midstream in the adoptive process.
“At some point, we knew there was really nothing more they could do,” said Gilbin. “Our adoption agency told us [that] Russian offices they were working with were closing down. They also said we could switch to the Ukraine and we wouldn't have to start from scratch.”
Gilbin and Bartholomew grieved the “child they lost” and moved forward with a Ukraine adoption because of their intense desire to grow their family. (Gilbin has a 14-year-old who lives with the couple). They started the process last March, and on Dec. 19, they brought home their son, nine-month-old Maclain. Ukrainian law requires orphans to be at least five years old before they are eligible for adoption, but it exempts children with special needs. Maclain has a congenital heart defect.
Younger Ukrainian children are also eligible when they are part of sibling groups in which one child is at least five years old. A child must be registered for one year with the central adoption authority.
Bartholomew, a maternal fetal specialist who is familiar with medical complications, acknowledges the prospect of bringing home a special-needs baby gave her pause.
“It was something I had to think about,” she says. “I'm not a stay-at-home mom. I wasn't sure what we could handle. We are raising another child, who is 14, and I didn't think we could give all our attention to a sick child.”
The pull for a baby, that tug that allows prospective parents to take a blind leap of faith, propelled them forward. Unlike Russian adoption, where parents had received pictures and sometimes videos of children prior to traveling, parents go to the Ukraine to look through books with pictures of waiting children. When the couple was shown Maclain's picture, they thought he looked like “a lovely, curious baby.” They spent six weeks in Ukraine before finalizing the adoption.
“He sleeps through the night, he has a good appetite, and he's delayed developmentally but he only has a hole in his heart between the lower chambers, and he doesn't need surgery or medication,” said Bartholomew.
Adoption professionals say they're seeing an uptick in interest in the Ukraine. Theresa Barbier, director of Grace International, was working with 10 families in various stages of finalizing a Russian adoption in 2012. Half of those families turned to Ukraine, bringing home a total of 14 children since the Russian ban was imposed. (Some families adopted sibling groups of two or three children).
Barbier, who began working with Ukraine only after Russia closed its doors, says the country is open and receptive to American adoptions. “The Ministry has been amazing to work with; we've been surprised at how good it is.”
State Department officials say that neither Ukraine's political turmoil, nor its financial dependency on Russia, is affecting adoptions.
“Families who were adopting during protests said they were not affected,” said Barbier. “The Ministry kept its appointments; court dates have not been disrupted.”
The Ukraine has never had as robust an inter-country adoption program as Russia. While thousands of children were adopted from Russia—around 1,000 to 2,300 per year—Ukrainian adoptions to America hovered between 400 and 650 over the past five years. Ukraine is also making a greater effort to foster and place its orphans domestically, though most say special-needs children will continue to be adoptable from abroad.
Many prospective parents have worried that the Ukraine would sour on Americans adopting their children after a glut of negative stories leaked over the past few years—from 21 deaths of Russian children at the hands of their American adoptive parents over a decade, to re-homing stories that expose adoptive parents who are handing off internationally-adopted children, like unwanted pets, without scrutiny or oversight.
A congressional staffer who met with Ukraine's Ombudsman Yuriy Pavlenko last April said he has no reason to believe Ukraine has soured on inter-country adoptions but conceded that officials are concerned with the high level of non-compliance on post-adoption reports, which are required until the child turns 18.
"Forty-seven percent of families are either behind or have never filed post-placement reports,” said Jan Wondra, (She's now the national chair) of Families For Russian and Ukrainian Adoption, a parent support and advocacy group. She said it's critical for families to meet their obligations. Particularly at a time when international adoption is in such a state of flux, and prospective families know firsthand how devastating it is when a country imposes a ban and shuts its doors.