Congratulations, Putin: Your Adoption Ban is Shooting Russia's Most Vulnerable Kids in the Foot
Ten years ago, I stood in a Detroit airport, my knees practically shaking. Across the terminal, I could see my parents, luggage in tow, exhausted but joyful. Behind them was a small figure in a royal blue tracksuit – a beautiful Russian girl who I had seen only in photos, but who would become very, very familiar to me in the coming years. And for the rest of my life.
It may sound like hyperbole, but it’s no exaggeration to say that my world was changed forever on that day. That was the day I met the first of my two sisters.
But now, thanks to some incredibly misguided legislation, it’s possible that experiences such as mine will become a thing of the past.
"A sufficient response."
When I first heard about the potential ban on American adoptions from Russia, I wasn’t too worried. There’s no way it would pass, I thought. But all 143 members of the Russian parliament recently voted in support of the controversial measure, and Putin has expressed his plans to sign it into law.
Ostensibly, the ban is intended to protect Russian children from experiencing abuse at the hands of their adoptive families. The bill in question is named for Dima Yakovlev, a Russian toddler who died after being left in a hot car for hours by his adoptive father. A tragedy, to be sure, but stories like Dima's are hardly the norm: of the 60,000 Russian adoptions since 1992, only 19 have met any sort of tragic end. (That's .03%.) Nevertheless, the bill will likely pass.
However, the true reasons for the ban have much less to do with protection than with politics. Putin has gone on the record as dubbing it "a sufficient response" in retaliation to the U.S.'s new Magnitsky Act, which imposes sanctions on Russian officials accused of human rights violations.
As a result, Russia’s most vulnerable kids are now going to pay the price for their president’s pettiness. Though he claims that he's doing this to protect Russia's children, his bill puts forth absolutely nothing to promote Russian domestic adoptions. "I still don’t see any reasons why I should not sign it," Putin says of the adoption ban.
Well, Mr. President, I can think of a couple off the top of my head:
My sister Marina, center, is now married and the mother to a little girl who is an absolute joy. My sister Vera, on the left, is a feisty and talented culinary student (who probably will hate me for posting the top photo for the world to see). When my parents traveled over to Russia to meet them, with the hopes of bringing them home to join our family, both of them were given the choice to come. With a measure of bravery and grace I will probably never have to show in my lifetime, they both said yes.
Now, it should go without saying that it’s preferable if kids can stay in their own country, surrounded by their own people, speaking their own language. (My sisters have it better than many in that regard – my non-Russian brother speaks the language fluently, and we've all made a great effort to ensure that they retain their culture.)
But the reality is that we live in a world where adoption by Americans is necessary.
What, after all, is the alternative? While Russian orphanages are home to 740,000 children, there are just 18,000 Russian families waiting to adopt. Best-case scenario, there would still be roughly 720,000 children in orphanages, with more being orphaned yearly than adopted. Here's another scary statistic for you: the average life expectancy for a Russian orphan is 30 years old. "When an orphan exits [the] orphanage system, at the age of 16 years old," says advocacy group Change 30, "they are middle-aged for their demographic." 10% of teens who "age out" of the system commit suicide within the first year; just 10% go on to lead what would be considered successful lives.
I don’t know how my sisters' lives would have unfolded had they said "no" to my parents; they're both strong and each have a good head on their shoulders, so I like to think they would have done well. But it’s unlikely that they ever would have been adopted. And that’s as far as I’ll let myself think about that "what-if."
My heart sinks to the pit of my stomach when I think of the adoptive families of the 46 children who have gone so far as to have their adoptions approved by the Russian court. When this legislation passes, the children will be forced to stay in Russia.
I remember my grief when it looked like the adoption of my older sister wasn't going to work out; I can only imagine what these families must be feeling. Even without the looming ban, it's difficult to exaggerate the emotional rollercoaster that is the adoption process. You can pay all of the money, go through all of the paperwork, even meet and fall in love with your child – but if the judge has had a bad day, you don’t necessarily get to bring your child home. My parents tell me that they were physically shaking when they stood in front of the Russian court on October 31st, 2002. Adoptive parents may not go through labor in a bodily sense, but their pains are no less great.
I wish I could end this blog with a stirring call to action, with a petition to sign – but it seems that the writing is on the wall. Even in the face of loud opposition from many Russians, Putin remains stubborn. For the foreseeable future, then, no American children will have the opportunity I had – to see a new Russian sibling walking across an airport terminal, hand-in-hand with their new parents, a future full of promise ahead of them.
I can only hope that adoption advocates keep up the good fight and that Russian politicians will change their mind before it’s too late.