With the recent headline news about the Russian adoption that went very very wrong, I have been asked by many friends and family about my opinion of the situation. I've not been able to really articulate my feelings about it, but I do have a strong opinion. I think the best way to answer the questions and give my perspective is to tell our story. So, I'm steering away from the normal topic of my blog to talk one time about this very important issue. If you don't want to read the whole story, that's okay – just go here to sign the petition requesting that Russia continue to allow adoptions to US citizens.
When my husband and I decided to adopt, we looked at many different options. Domestic infant adoption had a long wait and there were age limitations we were concerned about. Foster care adoption came with it's own set of challenges and concerns and we felt we were not the right fit for it. Then came international adoption consideration. I was immediately pulled towards Russia. I don't even know how I knew that Russia had an international adoption program but somehow I knew.
We started investigating Russian adoption, and visited with several adoption agencies. Through the advice of a friend we were referred to Children's Hope International. We went to a prospective parents meeting. I knew after that brief meeting, it was the agency we should go with. We filled out the 6 page application soon after. It was just the tiny beginning of the MOUNTAIN of paperwork we would complete over the next 16 months.
Our application did not even make it past the first checkpoint before the agency called us and asked for more information regarding an answer we had given about my husband's medical history. STOP – before it could go any further, my husband had to go to his doctor, be checked out and get a letter stating his health was good. He did, the doctor wrote the letter, and everything was fine. The application went forward. This would be one of the many times that we would be required to get a medical review.
The next step was called the home-study phase. We were assigned a social worker to manage the home-study for us. During this time, we were required to have full blown physicals, and the doctors must complete a detailed form stating our health in all areas of the body. The doctor was also required to provide a notarized copy of his medical license along with this form (in other words, we couldn't just pay some quack to sign off on this form!)
We were also interviewed separately and together by the social worker. We were given a 100 questionnaire, asking everything from things about our childhood, parents, siblings, all the places we had previously lived, previous romantic relationships, our marriage, how we communicate, how we argue/fight, even questions about our sex life! We had to meet with a psychologist and have a mental assessment completed. We had to have written references from family members and friends. We had to establish a legal guardian of the child (the one we didn't even have yet) in case we both died. We had to turn over financial records of every kind, bank accounts, retirement funds, stocks, bonds, credit reports, etc. And all of that had to be reviewed and certified by a CPA (so, we couldn't just say we had money in the bank). We also had a criminal background check done and had to be fingerprinted and cleared by the FBI.
Parenting classes were also required as part of the home-study. We took 20 hours of classes ranging from baby and child CPR to adoptive parenting and attachment and bonding processes. We were also introduced to doctors and psychologists in our area that specialize in internationally adopted children and learned of the program they had for parents when they were in-country. This would be invaluable in the future.
Finally, after 5 months of me running around like a crazy woman getting all the paperwork properly completed, notarized and apostilled (that is a designation that only the Secretary of State of Tennessee can give and it makes the document a legal international document), we were finally ready to send our dossier off to Russia. Oh, and by this point, we were several thousand dollars invested in the adoption as well.
For nine months we anxiously waited for “the call.” We were given a loose timeline of 3 to 4 months. But there were no guarantees. Things change everyday in the world of international adoption. 4 months came and went with no call. I grew more and more anxious. I wanted my child so badly! Every week with no news seemed like a month. Our agency was very good, they would communicate with us on a very regular basis and tell us what they knew. Our dossier was originally sent to the region of Smolensk (the area where the Polish President and staff were in the plane crash). But that region had stopped accepting adoption applications for the time being. Later our dossier was sent to Astrakhan in the southwest region of Russia.
Finally, FINALLY! We were called about a little 4 year old boy. They wouldn't release any medical records to us, we would have to travel to meet him, that was standard for Russia so we didn't balk at that. We agreed to travel to see him. Four weeks later, we were on a plane to Moscow, and then a domestic flight to the town of Astrakhan. Russia is a different world. It's very intimidating. Although they are a democracy now, there are still lots of processes and procedures left over from the soviet days. But, we had wonderful guides. We were assigned a translator through our agency and the agency had in-country staff that escorted us through the whole process. Thank Goodness! We'd probably still be trying to find our way out of the airport if it weren't for them!
The first day in Astrakhan, we tried to make an appointment with the Ministry of Education to receive the formal referral of the child. But, we were told there had been a death in the department and everyone was gone to the funeral. Oh no! This could throw off our whole schedule. We were only supposed to be there for 1 week and we were required to spend a certain number of days visiting with the child and make a decision about adopting him. Finally, our adoption coordinator got us a late afternoon appointment. We thought we were there just to pick up the referral – but we actually were given a lengthy interview. Some of the questions were: “Why do you want to adopt?” “why Russia”, “do you understand that institutionalized children can have emotional, behavioral, and development problems?” “Can you parent a child like that.” After we answered all the questions, the lady told us that by law they had 10 days to review our dossier and give a referral. WHAT??? 10 days!! I did not have 10 day to sit around Russia waiting on them! They had our dossier for months and had plenty of time to review it! Of course, that's what I was screaming in my head. In reality, I thanked her politely and we left, deflated. When our in-country Adoption Coordinator heard this (she was not allowed to sit in on the interview with us) she started spurting things in Russian and quickly turned around on her high heels and marched into the MOE's office. She returned five minutes later and said “they will call us with a referral by noon tomorrow.” We nervously took her word for it.
We went back to the MOE's office the next day. Had the same interview with a different person. But this time, when she was satisfied with our answers she laid a piece of paper down on the table and walked away. Our translator jumped up and said “this is it! this is the referral!” I was so surprised by the MOE's sudden departure that I didn't really know what was going on. The translator started reading. “it's a 2 year old girl, her name is…, she was born…,” I said “wait, it's a girl?” “yes, it's a girl” said the translator “she's 2 years old, her birth mother…” I interrupted again, “it's a girl?” The translator slowly said “IT IS A G-I-R-L.” We never did find out exactly what happened to the 4 year old boy we were initially matched with. But after we read the referral and signed the paper requesting to see her, the MOE pulled up a picture of her on the computer. There was this little girl with a fluffy bow in her hair, standing next to giant pink bunny. She was frowning and looked annoyed to be standing next to the bunny. But to me, she was the most beautiful child I'd ever seen and I knew, in that instant, that was MY child.
We quickly left the MOE and drove straight to the orphanage, or baby home as they are called, to meet her. My head was spinning, we had just went from expecting a 4 year old boy to being referred a 2 year old girl. We arrived at the baby home. It was in a building that used to be a kindergarten. It was run down, but very clean, you could smell the cleaning solutions as soon as you stepped in. And there was almost always someone mopping the floor when ever we went to visit. We were required to wear blue booties over our shoes before entering the main part of the building and we had to take our shoes off when in the visitation room.
We met with the orphanage director, a very large, intimidating woman, who was stern and all business with us. But when I saw her interact with the children, I could see her pure love for them. We were given our soon to be daughter's medical history, her family history, we were shown a picture of her as an infant, and a picture of her birth mother. Then, they brought her in, this little blond haired toddler. She seemed right at home in the director's office. But she was much more interested in the toys on the shelf than any of the people in the room. I couldn't take my eyes off of her. The director had to tap the table and tell me to pay attention to her so she could finish telling me about our daughter's record. It didn't really matter at that point, because in my mind, she was already mine.
We were able to spend about an hour with our daughter that day. Of course, she was very unsure of us. Who were these two strange people, who talked funny, and looked funny. She wouldn't let us hold her or barely touch her, but that was fine. The next day we returned for a longer visit. We would visit with her every day, 2 times a day for the next 4 days. We sent her medical records and birth family history to a physician with the Vanderbilt International Adoption Clinic, where he reviewed the records and gave his opinion of any issues. We were required to have spent a certain number of hours with her before we could petition the court for her adoption. We also had to be evaluated by the orphanage staff and a Russian social worker on our interaction with our child and our bonding. We brought her toys to play with and I had made a little photo album with pictures of our house, our family, me and hubs, our pets and other things so that she could understand a little more about where she would eventually be going.. After 5 days, we had to say goodbye and through our translator tried to help her understand that we would be back soon to take her home.
We returned home to the States and waited for a court date to be assigned. We got it pretty quickly (for Russia). We returned seven weeks later for the court hearing. We stood before a Russian judge, a prosecutor, a representative from the Ministry of Education and a representative for the social worker. We had our translator in the court room with us, but our adoption agency was not allowed to have a representative during that time because of a credentialing issue (not the agency's fault, Russia had allowed the credentials of all international agencies to expire and was taking their sweet time to renew). We were asked so many questions about our parenting style, how we would discipline, what were our child care arrangements, would I return to work, what religion would we raise her in, and the question that caught us off guard: who gets the child if we divorce? They left no stone unturned. During this hearing, some new information about her birth family was revealed. The fact that we were not told about this earlier really upset the judge and she really plowed into the MOE Rep on why we were not told of some crucial information. She questioned us heavily on if we still wanted this child given the new information. We both firmly said yes! In my mind, the information was good to have for future reference, but it was not a deal breaker. In our case, the judge and the orphanage seemed to want to make sure we had all the information about our daughter's history that was available. After 2 hours and a 30 minute recess, the judge made the decree that she was ours!
Now we had to wait 10 days to get custody of her. This 10 days is supposed to be for paperwork filing and to notify all interested parties. This was one last shot that her birth family had to make objections to her adoption. We visited with her every day in the orphanage during the 10 days. She seemed to get more and more comfortable with us. She took to my husband quicker than me. But that was alright, I knew that I was nervous because so many eyes were on me, and she could feel that. After we got home, and it was just me and her, we could really bond.
After the 10 days were up, we came to pick her up. She was scared. And she refused to let us touch her. The translator had to hold her in the car. She actually threw up in the car! But once we got back to the hotel and she saw all the toys we had laid out for her, she became more comfortable with us and let me hold her and carry her. Sleeping was the hardest part. She did not sleep! She would just cry and cry until her little body just gave out. That was the biggest problem we had after we came home too.
We spent another 7 days in Astrakhan waiting her her passport to be processed. Then we flew back to Moscow. That was another wonderful adventure. She screamed the whole 2 hour flight to Moscow. Nothing we did helped. Even the other passengers tried to calm her down. Nothing worked. Oh! And then there was the exploding diarrhea diaper that I got to change in the airplane bathroom. And, did I mention that there was turbulence??? Yep, fun times!
We made it back to Moscow and spent 4 days there. We were required to go to the US Embassy and be interviewed there and get her visa and other immigration paperwork that made her a US citizen. When we landed in Atlanta GA, she became a naturalized US citizen with all the rights and responsibilities of a natural born citizen of the U.S. We received a certificate in the mail along with a “welcome letter” from the President of the United States a few weeks later.
We were greeted at the airport by many of our friends and family and the director of our adoption agency. We were exhausted but so happy to be home. It had been a grueling 28 days in Russia and an angst filled 16 months before. But it was all worth it. Because I was holding my daughter in my arms. She is my forever daughter. I would never give her up.
We had adjustment issues. There was many screaming, throw herself in the floor fits. There was a biting phase, a hitting phase. She had to learn English (we had learned enough Russian to communicate with her, but were far from fluent). She also had to learn that we were her parents and there was only one “mama' and one “papa.” We tried to keep her world small for the first few months and limit her exposure to other people. Of course that was hard, because we have so many friends and family that wanted to see her, hold her and welcome her into the family. I took her to the international adoption clinic in our city where she was fully checked out by a medical doctor and she was evaluated by a psychologist who specializes in internationally adopted children. She was a wealth of knowledge and insight on how to help us bond and attach. There is also an open invitation for us to come back should we need their services in the future.
I also joined Russian playgroups because I want my child to know other children that came from where she did. I think it's important that she know that she's not strange in that way. I also became friends with other Russian adoptive mothers. We are a support to one another. I cherish these relationships because we share such a unique experience.
We also continue to receive follow up and support from our adoption agency. As a requirement of Russia, we must have an in-home post adoption visit by a social worker at 6 months after adoption and then at the 1 year anniversary and then annually for the next few years. These reports are taken very seriously by our agency and are sent to Russia for review.
I write this very long story (trust me, I condensed it a lot!) to hopefully answer some of the questions and mystery about Russian adoption. I want everyone to know that there are strict procedures and reviews for potential parents. And there are many support groups and post-adoption support professionals available for parents when issues come up.
I don't know why this woman chose to do what she did, but I know that there are thousands of children waiting for homes and thousands of adoptive parents whose hearts just dropped with the news that Russia is suspending adoptions. I urge you to please sign the petition “We Are the Truth.” This petition is going to President Obama and President Medvedev urging them to make an agreement to keep Russian adoptions open to American citizens.
If you have any specific questions about our adoption or adoption in general, please feel free to email me or leave a comment. I'll be happy to answer anything I can.