MOSCOW -- Traveling 5,000 miles from Baltimore by airplane and overnight train into the unknown, their luggage disappearing just long enough to provoke anxiety, Mary Lou Kenney and David Bolton arrived in the Russian city of Ulyanovsk to find their new baby daughter covered with bright green spots.
The orphanage staff received them warmly and provided immediate reassurance. Nine-month-old Anna had a perfectly normal case of chicken pox, and the eruptions had been painted with an antiseptic routinely swathed over children here.
The current of uneasiness that had flowed through the adoption process began to dissipate. The Kenney-Boltons had begun their search for Anna as the Russian parliament was threatening to severely restrict or even cut off adoptions by foreigners. But since they adopted their child, legislation has been passed that will enable thousands more foreigners to adopt children from Russia's overcrowded orphanages.
The Baltimoreans, who had chosen their child with the help of a 30-second video, wondered if they would find unreported health problems. And they asked themselves a natural question: Would they love this child?
"After being with her half an hour," Bolton says, holding Anna and grinning at her, "she was so engaging there were no doubts at all."
Just as this newly expanded family was reveling in its good fortune, Russia's parliament, the Duma, was preparing to pass a bill that would offer thousands of other American families a similar opportunity to rejoice. Overcoming nationalistic rhetoric that compared foreign adoptions to baby-selling, the Duma listened to the pleas of doctors and orphanage directors and agreed that more than anything, children need families, no matter their nationality.
Significance for Americans
The bill, passed by the Duma June 5, holds enormous significance for Americans. Since foreign adoptions became legal here in 1992, more and more Americans have been coming to Russia to adopt. By last year, when Americans adopted more than 3,800 children here, compared with 3,500 from China, Russia had become the most popular overseas destination for Americans seeking to adopt.
"People here waiting to adopt are hungry for news of these changes," Kenney said from Baltimore.
The Duma bill, which awaits President Boris N. Yeltsin's signature, would require adopted children to keep their Russian citizenship until they are 18, would order Russian consulates to monitor the welfare of the children and would permit "intermediaries" to act on behalf of adoptive parents.
"I think the changes will be invisible to most adopting parents," says Michele Thoren Bond, first secretary and consul in the immigrant visa department of the U.S. Embassy here.
However, Bond says, the agencies parents work with would be subject to new requirements. The bill demands more thorough licensing and regulation of foreign adoption agencies, though the details have yet to be spelled out in actual regulations.
In general, agencies would have to document their staff's qualifications and provide evidence of licensing in their home state and tax records to show that they are not-for-profit.
"Now they want better regulation," Bond says, "and that's completely understandable."
Adoptive families' godsend
With fewer and fewer infants available in the United States and with economic hardships here increasing the population of orphanages, Russia has become a godsend for adoptive families.
In 1992, Americans adopted 324 children here. In the last fiscal year, the U.S. Embassy's consular office in Moscow issued visas for 3,851 adopted children, and even higher numbers are expected this year. In the first eight months of this fiscal year, 3,311 children were adopted, with 697 in December alone.
On some days, as many as 50 children and their parents crowd into the visa department's cramped waiting room.
The first versions of the Duma bill proposed a moratorium on foreign adoptions and would have prohibited agencies from acting on behalf of adoptive parents -- which would have made it nearly impossible for most Americans to adopt a child in Russia, where they would be bewildered by language and bureaucracy.
Backlash against foreigners
Though most Russians are grateful that children are being adopted by foreign families rather than spending their lives in institutions, the adoptions have inflamed nationalist sensibilities in some political circles. And even legislators who don't object to foreign adoptions have been uneasy about the operations of private adoption agencies.
"Adoption has always been perceived as a state function, such as marriage," Bond says. "They don't see how a private agency can fit into that. All of that is alien."
Some officials regard the fees agencies charge as tantamount to buying a child.
"Paying $10,000 for a child -- it's a new slave trade," Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist party leader, said during debate on the bill.
Americans often pay $20,000 or more for the adoption, which includes charges for home study, the cost of the agencies' work, visas, travel, hotels and administrative costs in Russia. Some officials here charge that bribes are paid to give children to foreigners instead of Russian families.
"I think the agencies are in a position to justify their fees," Bond says. "Most are not-for-profit and are audited every year by the IRS."
She doubts that Russian families are refused when they seek to adopt.
"There is such a huge number of children available for adoption," she says. "They could satisfy all the demand and still have 500,000 children in institutions. They've got 60 kids for every family interested in adoption."
Bond says that the number of parents coming here to adopt has had an effect on opinion. Hundreds of judges, orphanage directors and doctors have had an opportunity to meet the people who are taking Russian children to the United States.
"Overall they are very warm, thoughtful and fabulous representatives of the U.S.," she says. "You couldn't ask for better examples of what kind of citizens our country produces. They're really good folks."
At a conference on adoption earlier this year, organizers said that only 100 Russians had expressed interest in adoption last year, and only 12 of them actually adopted. Over the past five years, as the economy has collapsed, the number of children in orphanages has increased one and a half times, according to Boris Altshuler, who helped organize the conference.
Family-oriented, connection-dependent Russian society offers bleak prospects for orphans. The conference reported that 20 percent of the children who grew up in orphanages became vagrants, 30 percent ended up in prison and 10 percent commit suicide.
"When they leave the orphanage there's nowhere for them to go," Bond says. "They have no training. They can't get a job, and certainly no one wants to have an orphan date his daughter."
Most of the babies and children adopted here are developmentally behind Americans their age. They suffer from poor diet and too little stimulation and attention. But most orphanages are clean, and the people who run them love children and do the best they can with very few resources.
Kenney, formerly an editor and now a full-time mother, and Bolton, a geologist, were very pleased to see how well the Ulyanovsk orphanage was run.
They began their quest by attending a workshop in Baltimore bTC sponsored by Families Adopting Children Everywhere, which led them to the adoption agency in Baltimore County that they finally chose.
They already had one child, Matthew, 5, but nature had not offered them a second one. "We always felt we wanted more than one child," Kenney says.
Anna, they say, is small for her age and at first didn't seem interested in trying to stand up, but they expect her to thrive on the love and attention she'll get. The doctor who examined her here told them, "You will see, she's like a flower who will open up."
Already, she has learned to wave and say something that sounds exactly like "bye" to her parents, who describe themselves as starry-eyed.
Matthew embraced his new sister warmly.
The first day they were back home, Anna was crying in her crib and Matthew raced upstairs to her. On the way, he called back to his mother:
"She needs me!"
Pub Date: 6/14/98