Families worry about possible Russian adoption ban

To Heather and Aaron Whaley, they're already parents to a 4-year-old girl living in a Russian orphanage off the Sea of Japan.

The Frederick couple have never met the child, but they've given her a name — Addie. They've hung pictures of her in a pink dress and white sandals in their house and dreamed of the day they'll throw their arms around her for the first time and bring her home — a moment that now may never come.

The Whaleys, like untold numbers of families across the United States, are waiting to see whether Russian President Vladimir Putin decides to block adoptions between the two countries. Putin signaled Thursday that he would sign a law to create the ban.

The action follows President Barack Obama's decision this month to sign a U.S. law, the Magnitsky Act, that grants Russia "permanent normal trade relations" status but imposes visa bans and asset freezes on Russians accused of human rights violations. The law, sponsored by Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, was named for Sergei Magnitsky, an anti-corruption lawyer who died in 2009 after spending a year in Russian jails.

Putin has said the Russian law — imposing similar measures against Americans accused of violating the rights of Russians abroad — was an appropriate, but emotional, response to the U.S. legislation.

But to many American families, the adoption ban seems like an attempt to use children as political pawns.

"I feel like if our president and our political leaders just looked at the pictures of my little girl and realize I could lose her because of this, then maybe they would think twice about the repercussions," Heather Whaley said.

Since 1992, Americans have adopted more than 60,000 Russian children. Putin said in televised comments Thursday that the United States has been too lenient on the adopted parents of 19 Russian-born children who Russian authorities say died in America over the last decade. The Russian bill was named for a boy who died in Virginia after his adopted father left him locked in a car.

The legislation comes just weeks after the two countries entered into a bilateral agreement on international adoptions that provides additional safeguards intended to better protect children.

"I intend to sign not only the law ... but also a presidential decree that will modify the support mechanisms for orphaned children ... especially those who are in a difficult situation, by that I mean in poor health," Putin said.

Tatyana McFadden, the 23-year-old U.S. Paralympian from Clarksville, spoke out Thursday about the possible ban. McFadden, born with spina bifida, was adopted from an orphanage in St. Petersburg, Russia, when she was 6.

"A Russian family didn't want me," McFadden said. "But an American family wanted me. Having a disability, I don't know how long I would have survived medically."

With her adopted family, McFadden has thrived. Now a full-time student at the University of Illinois, she won 10 medals, including three gold, in the Paralympics, among other feats, including completing four marathons. She is training for the Boston and London marathons.

McFadden said she wanted to speak out about the consequences of the ban to be a "voice for those that can't be heard."

Adam Pertman, director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and author of "Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution is Transforming Our Families — and America," said it was unclear whether the ban would stop adoptions, such as the Whaleys', that are under way. Whether American families would be reimbursed for money they have spent on the pending adoptions, which cost $40,000 or more, is also uncertain, he said.

Pertman said the ban could further limit the options available to American families looking to adopt internationally after global standards were set by the Hague Adoption Convention, an agreement between the U.S. and more than 85 other countries, not including Russia. The new standards aim to prevent the sale or kidnapping of children, encourage domestic adoptions and require a central authority in each participating country to oversee adoptions.

"The implications for U.S. families are obvious," Pertman said.

"The bottom line is that it is horrific for children who will wind up living their lives in institutions. If adoption is your route [to build a family], you can find another country, another means. If you're that kid in the institution, you are hitting a brick wall. I think this is just a really unsettling, heartbreaking example of using children as pawns in a political game."

More than 9,000 international children were adopted by American families last year, including 240 in Maryland. American families adopt more Russian children than families in any other country. Nearly 1,000 Russian children were adopted by American families in 2011, according to statistics from the U.S. State Department.

Katie Horton of Alexandria, Va., said she is struggling with a decision to sign a form that would relinquish her appeal to adopt a child, whom she intended to call Sara, in an orphanage in Russia's northern region. If she signs the paper, the 20-month-old girl has a better chance of being adopted than if she waits to see the outcome of Putin's decision. Older children are less likely to be adopted.

"I feel like if she's got any chance at all to get out of the orphanage, it's the right thing to do," Horton said. "If Putin signs [the legislation], I don't know that there is hope left."

Horton, a research professor at George Washington University, adopted her daughter, Emma, about four years ago from a Russian orphanage.

She spent a week in February with the child she hopes will be her second daughter, and waited the better part of the year as Russian court hearings on the matter were continually postponed.

"I fell in love with her, as you do," Horton said. "These kids so desperately want good homes and someone to love. It's heartbreaking. It's so awful. I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about her and wondering if she is warm and well fed."

Horton and the Whaleys have worked with Adoptions Together, an agency with offices in Maryland, Virginia and Washington that conducts home studies, training and other services to facilitate international and domestic adoptions.

Janice Goldwater, founder and director of the nonprofit, said Adoptions Together was accredited by the Russian government to directly process adoptions until about two years ago, when working with the Russians became too difficult and too expensive. Over about 20 years, Adoptions Together placed about 1,000 Russian-born children with adopted parents in the region, she said.

Goldwater said she applauds the Russians for looking to strengthen their own domestic adoptions, but she fears Putin's action is politically motivated.

"My reaction is pure sadness," Goldwater said.

The U.S. State Department expressed "deep concern" over the potential ban.

"It is misguided to link the fate of children to unrelated political considerations," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said in a statement. He said the United States was troubled by the restrictions the bill would impose on the ability of Russian civil society organizations to work with American partners.

Heather Whaley, a therapist who works with autistic children, said she knew Addie was meant to be part of her family as soon as she saw her photo on an adoption website about a year ago. She and her husband, an engineer, have been trying to raise enough money to finance the adoption, including petitioning help through their website, http://www.bringaddiehome.com.

"We are fighting for her; if I have to sell everything we have, I'll do it," Heather Whaley said. "I can't imagine what will happen to her.

"It is so difficult to face that reality that she might not come home."

Reuters contributed to this article.



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