I know that a lot of you are curious about the truth behind the headlines you have seen about Russian orphanages and the terrible plight of Russian children. I haven’t wanted to write about it partly because of the personal nature of our experience and partly out of that age old fear of jinxing something by talking about it.
Unfortunately, most of the horror stories that you have read were true. Fortunately, we can now say “were” in most cases rather than “are”, but there is still a lot of tragedy to go around.
Russia has five times the percentage of children without parents as do Europe or the States and three times the rate of Down syndrome and other birth defects. When the Soviet Union died, 750,000 children were in orphanages with little chance of being adopted and 150,000 of those were sick kids, mentally or physically.
Here, parents were, and still are, encouraged to abandon sick children to the care of the state at birth. The idea of keeping an autistic or child with birth defects at home is virtually unknown. Additionally, the rate of alcoholism is just as high among women as men, leading to a mini-plague of Alcohol Fetal Syndrome children and children whose parents drank themselves to death or into a stupor that lead to the authorities taking the children.
During Socialism, parents were even encouraged to send children away if they couldn’t afford to feed them. One of our family tragedies is Aunt Luda. Even though Larisa’s grandmother was a dentist, she couldn’t afford to keep all three of her children, so the middle daughter, Luda, was sent away to a state boarding school. Larisa’s mother still feels guilt about being the child at home, and Luda still shows the effects of being raised in a state institution. Larisa says that grandma was such a grumpy woman Luda was really the lucky one.
For years after the crash of socialism, little was done. The orphanages were normally just as bad as the horror stories on television showed, and the state continued to graduate a steady stream of ill-educated prostitutes and thieves. What adoptions were done were normally to foreign parents who were sold children for $25-$30,000 in fees paid to “consultants” who passed them on the orphanage officials.
Russians are NOT unfeeling boors when it comes to children, but there was just no money for orphanages and the average Russian could barely feed the children that they had, let alone adopt another one.
About the time that Larisa and I decided to adopt a child, things were changing for the better for the kids and for worse for us as prospective parents.
Some bright people in the government finally figured out that it was cheaper to put kids in foster homes or state supported adoptions that it was to run the orphanages – and it was also possible the kids would come out better. It’s bad for the national supply of hookers and thieves, but good for the supply of future nurses, mechanics, doctors and other successful children.
In 2008, the state started paying money to foster parents and even relatives of the children to care for them and began a program to subsidize adoptions for Russian couples who could not adopt otherwise.
That, and the fact the financial crisis had passed, improved the lives of children without parents dramatically. There are still some horrible orphanages and about a half million too many abandoned children, but things are getting better.
Today, there are 600,000 orphans and abandoned children living in Russia. Of those, only 153,000 are still in orphanages and those are mostly newborns waiting for adoption and physically or mentally ill children who cannot be adopted. Most of the rest are with family members (who are now paid to care for them) or with foster parents. It is still a huge number of parentless children, but better than it was.
There were 13,000 adoptions in Russia last year. 9,000 were to Russian parents and only 4,000 to foreigners. Things are getting better.
When Larisa toured several orphanages looking for a child, what she saw was much better than it was in the old days. There were fewer children up for adoption and we lost out on a couple that were adopted in the few days that it took us to make a decision. There was definite competition to get the healthy children.
Most the orphanages she visited were clean and comfortable. Sometimes there not quite enough staff, and sometimes they were floors in big institutional looking buildings, but the kids had food, toys, clean clothes, and other kids to play with. She did not see any of the warehousing practices (kids left in bed all day, tied to radiators, left in poop filled diapers, etc.) that occurred in the old days. Russia has cleaned up its act.
The orphanage that Sonia was in was a collection of cottages, each housing about a dozen children with two full time staff there all of the time. I was not allowed in, but the rooms were clean, the furniture decent, and toys were everywhere. It was not a bad place to live.
Americans and Russian Adoption
It is still possible for careful Americans with about $30,000 to adopt a healthy child here, but it requires care, because the outcomes for Americans adopting here is still often very bad if you are not very careful.
It works like this. You go to a large city such as Moscow or Stavropol and hire an adoption consultant. Their fee still generally ranges from $25,000 to $35,000. For that fee, they will help you find a child, handle the paperwork, handle the court appearances, and bribe the orphanage officials. I don’t know the normal split, but I have heard that the fee is split about evenly between the “consultant” and the orphanage staff. Do not ever try to bribe anyone here on your own. Last year a couple adopting in Siberia were solicited for a bribe by the social worker. For unknown reasons, she turned them into the FSB and the husband was arrested delivering the bribe. He is currently in a Russian jail.
You also have to actually qualify for an adoption, go through a background check, and agree to year of home visits by American social workers. In the days of confusion following the fall of the Soviet Union, anyone with money could adopt, no, “buy” a child. Those days are gone.
Even with the consultant, you still have to be careful. For good reasons and bad, adoption workers often give Americans the worst possible kids.
In some years, virtually all of the adoptions were to American and European parents, and normal national pride caused Russians to hate the Americans that were taking their children away. Worst, those early days of easy adoption resulted in some children, a very small percentage, but some, being abused by parents who should never have been allowed to have a child. It made no difference that the few children adopted by Russians did worst on the average, the newspapers were full of the American abuse stories.
Envy based hatred is the worst kind, and it caused a lot of social workers to “get one over on the Americans” by taking huge money from them for a really sick kid.
For those that don’t hate Americans, but do love their children, giving the really bad children to Americans also makes sense. The belief of many child workers is that giving a sick child to an American with medical insurance and a modern medical system might allow a child to survive who would otherwise die. They are right. A child with a heart defect in America gets an expensive but survivable operation. The same child dies here.
During our adoption search, Larisa saw one American couple shuttled from place to place shown only children “with diagnosis” and saw one Italian couple pay a $25,000 fee to adopt a non-verbal two year old boy.
So, it is buyer beware. A few years ago, you read the international headlines about a cruel and uncaring American adoptive mother putting her adopted son on a plane and sending him back to the orphanage in Russia – alone. Don’t you believe it.
The orphanage knew very well that the boy they gave to the American parents was dangerous. He had a long record of violence and threats in the orphanage, which they hidden from the parents. He was damaged goods passed of to innocent parents as a normal child. They were just dumping a bad kid on a hated enemy.
Every Russian knows it, but they still blame the Americans who sent him back because logic does not stand up well against national pride. Despite the news accounts, the adoptive parents acted responsibly. They accompanied him to the airplane and arranged for a person to meet him at the plane in Moscow and take him back to the orphanage. They did not arrange anything with the orphanage, but people who have been cheated and used may have little incentive to ask permission to stop the disaster.
So, if you adopt a child her, do it because you love kid’s so much that you can’t imagine life without one, but put your heart on hold during the process and act like you’re buying a car from a very crooked car dealer. Spend a lot of time with the child, get him/her checked by an independent doctor, study the people you are dealing with, and THEN take the plunge.
Having given you the required warnings, I now have to point out that there are also a lot of caring, competent, honest people working in the Russians adoption system. Perhaps because Larisa is Russian, we had none of those problems.
There were a lot of infants available, but Larisa and I are a little long in the tooth for diapers and 3 am feedings, so we wanted to adopt a two or three year old child. Because of the great prevalence of mental problems in Russia children, it also seemed prudent to adopt a child who we knew would be able to speak someday.
She visited several orphanages and missed out on a few good choices, but finally she found a great child. Sonia was just two, blonde, blue eyed, and bright, already starting to talk. Problem was that Sonia was not legally available for adoption
Sonia was born to an unmarried 40 year old alcoholic mother and drug abusing father who neglected her terribly. When confronted by the authorities, the mother immediately gave up her parental rights. The father made noises about protesting the adoption, but he had a serious case of tuberculosis, a drug habit, and a new girl friend who wanted nothing to do with his formers girl friend’s kid.
The adoption agency said that they were in the process of terminating his rights and that with his drug and health problems and history of ignoring Sonia that was no chance he would get custody. However, no one had wanted to take Sonia because they could not be certain that they would keep her.
We decided to take a chance. The social workers seemed certain that Larisa would be able to make the situation permanent when the father’s custody would be terminated in six months. In the mean time, we would get her as foster parents.
When you get a Russian child, it’s like buying the stripped down model at the car lot. There are no extras. In fact, there are no required parts. They give you the kid naked. We spent a couple of days at the bazaar buying diapers and pants and tops and hats and a potty chair and even panties. If it isn’t inside the skin, it is not included in the purchase price.
A few days after I had to leave for the States, Larisa took the train for a two hour ride to Minerale Vody loaded down with clothes and diapers and toys and bananas, and took a cab to the orphanage. We got a kid, and since it was a long ride back to Prochlodney, Larisa got her first experience changing a diaper on Sonia.
I got back a couple of months later and got to know my new daughter. She’s great. Since she has a Baba (grandmother), Mama, and Papa all catering to her, she is insufferably spoiled, but so cute that no one cares. We have not had the verbal problems that we feared; the problem is to get her to shut up.
There are some problems that almost all adoptive parents face that they don’t usually tell you about. Many adoptive children who are older than infants have nightmares at first. They’ve gone through at least two wrenching life changing crisis and it leaves a mark. Sonia was taken from her mother when she was 18 months old. One day she had a mother and the next day she didn’t. She suffered the same fate again six months later. One day she had friends, a bed of her own, a place in the cottage and a bunch of familiar faces caring for her. The next day she was alone with two loving strangers.
She had nightmares. At first, it happened as often as twice a night. Real nightmares are much scarier than just bad dreams. During a real nightmare, the child often appears to be awake, but is still sound asleep. She’ll struggle against you if you try to hold her or comfort her. It takes a long time to gently wake her up, hold her until she feels alright, and then, for Sonia, a banana and a pee and we were good for another couple of hours. Fortunately, she woke up in the morning so cheerful that you immediately forgot the pain of the night before.
Neither Larisa nor her mother had seen this type of nightmare and it was very disturbing for them and hard to handle. After four months, the nightmares were gone, but it was a frightening four months.
Now she only has the normal bad dreams of children her age about being chased by dogs, or falling in the toilet, or having mother fail to let her do something. Nice normal, “hug and a banana” bad dreams and very few of them.
The other thing Sonia suffered from in common with other adoptive children was a reluctance to be touched. She liked to be picked up and hugged, but would slap your hand away if you tried to rub her head when you put her to sleep or rub her back while you were watching television together. Sonia was a case of neglect rather than abuse, but apparently the touch of an uncaring parent had not been all pleasant.
With time and trust, that has changed a lot. One of her recent new words is Russian for “back scratch”. Now she often brings a pillow, flops down next to you, and announces “chasat”, and there is not enough “chasat” in the day to make her happy.
She does, however, make us very happy.