The Latitude News Op-Ed column is a space where people from all walks of life can share their opinions on the links and parallels between the U.S. and the rest of the world.
I have seen many grim things in my lifetime. Few rival the sights, sounds and smells I experienced in the Siberian orphanage where my daughter’s life began ten years ago.
Julia lived in a gray concrete complex, not far from a side street where my husband and I saw a man selling meat from a dead carcass in minus 20-degree Fahrenheit temperature, and where another lay on his side, bloated, red-faced and stoned on vodka. There was a rusted jungle gym poking out from dirt-crusted snow outside the cheerless building. Our baby, then seven months, spent her days inside a frozen fortress which reeked of ammonia. Rather than being fed enough formula, she was nursed on a sugary tea that would later rot her baby teeth with cavities. She slept in a tiny cot in a room full of orphan babies, some who would have a real home one day, and others who wouldn’t.
We’d been told our daughter, abandoned by a 20-year-old mother who could not care for her, spent her first 12 weeks in a hospital with respiratory infections and dysentery during the Russian summer of 2002. She was brought to Baby House #2 in mid-September when it was already too cold to take babies outside. My infant daughter had never squinted into the sun or felt the wind against her skin.
When we met her on our first trip to Novosibirsk, we spent a half hour in a cavernous gymnasium trying to play on rubber mats. She wore mismatched socks, one with a hole in the big toe, and over-sized clownish pajamas. In the gym, she showed no interest in a large rubber ball we rolled toward her. She had no concept of play. Instead, she laid on the mat, arching her back over and over. I was alarmed. Olga, our government-appointed handler, told us the problem was the infants weren’t getting enough exercise. Their little bodies ached so they’d stretch their muscles. I saw what Olga meant when a caretaker placed my baby in a cot and swaddled her so tightly, she wouldn’t fuss. Couldn’t fuss.
It was brutal to leave Julia behind on the first trip, but we had no choice because Russia required a second trip to complete the adoption. After leaving her in a cot, I glanced over to a little boy whose eyes were set wide apart and whose expression was blank. Olga later told me children “like that,” children with fetal alcohol syndrome, will spend the rest of their lives in an orphanage.
I left Baby House #2 crying for Julia, and for that little boy, and for every child who is doomed to life in an orphanage.
A decade later I weep again as I try to absorb the shocking news that Russia is banning American parents from adopting their orphans, effective January 1, 2013. These children were victims of circumstances. Now they are political pawns. The newly passed law is Russia’s retaliation against the U.S. Magnitsky Act, which was signed into law by President Obama in December. The act introduces sanctions against Russian officials suspected of human rights abuses.
In rationalizing its action, Russian officials say Americans have violated human rights too. They are referring to the deaths of 19 Russian children in the care of their adoptive American parents over the last two decades and to the horrendous incident of a Tennessee mother who put her seven-year-old adoptive son alone on a plane to Moscow to return him.
Some of the children were said to be unmanageable, inconsolable and in some cases dangerous to themselves and others because of extreme attachment disorders and violent behavioral problems. I am not condoning or excusing these parents but these shameful acts deserve context. Of the 60,000 Russian adoptees who’ve been placed in American homes in the last two decades, the number in which circumstances turned extreme is minuscule. So many of the Russian children arrive with deep, dark issues, my own child included. In truth, we are not prepared to parent such hurt children, but it becomes our life’s work.
Russian officials say 650,000 children are living in orphanages. Mental health experts agree children who start their lives in orphanages are likely to suffer from lack of care and nurture. Baby House #2 had 100 children. A baby needs the nurture of one mother, one caretaker.
Shutting down American adoption is a hardship for American parents waiting and wanting to adopt. More importantly, it is a human rights abuse on the tiniest of victims. Babies who would otherwise find passage to a better life will languish in orphanages longer. Though most Russian officials say parents from other countries will still be allowed to adopt, everyone knows the wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly. To date adoption of one Russian child by an American family typically takes 18 months. Why lengthen a baby’s prison sentence in an orphanage?
It breaks my heart to picture those children who are left behind. I have seen their faces. I wish every member of the Russian Parliament had been forced to spend two hours in an orphanage before casting their callous votes. In the meantime, what can our diplomats and leaders do to reverse this nightmare? I don’t know. I’m not a politician. I’m only an adoptive parent who has seen what the inside of a Siberian orphanage looks like.
If you’d like to read more stories about international adoption, visit the Latitude News adoption topic hub.
Tina Traster is a New York Post columnist and an essayist. She is the author of “Burb Appeal Too” and “Hits & Misses: New York Entrepreneurs Reveal Their Strategies,” a compendium of her columns from Crain’s New York Business. Her work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, literary journals and on NPR. Her essays have been anthologized in literary collections “Living Lessons,” “Nurturing Paws,” “Little Blessings,” “Not Your Mother’s Book” and “Mammas and Pappas.” Traster is writing a memoir about her adopted Russian daughter that is due out next year. Her website, which includes a video about her forthcoming book, is http://www.juliaandme.com.