Russian ban leaves families in agonizing limbo

Published May 26, 2013 at 05:00AM

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Andy and Bethany Nagel left photos of themselves at the orphanage for the little boy with Down syndrome who was going to be their son. We’ll be back, they told 4-year-old Timofey, blowing kisses from the doorway and retreating anxiously into the chilly street.

Their whole life was in the album they left that day in October: pictures of the room they’d fixed up for Timofey at their home in suburban Maryland; grinning images of their two American sons, ages 6 and 13, who would be his brothers. The book sat beside Timofey’s bed in Baby Home No. 13, and staffers would help him thumb through the pages.

“Where is your papa?” they’d ask, and he’d point to Andy’s picture. “Where is your mama?” And he’d find Bethany.

In January, Natalia Nikiforova, chief doctor at Baby Home No. 13, crept into Timofey’s room, quietly picked up the album and hid it in her office. There would be no American family.

The new Russian law banning adoptions by U.S. families that took effect Jan. 1 erased the Nagels’ plans to bring Timofey to America in March. In all, it stranded more than 330 families who had already begun stitching hoped-for Russian adoptees into the webs of their lives.

“We have all these sorts of feelings of grief that we could process — if we didn’t know he’s still out there,” said Andy Nagel, 31, an assistant pastor at a Presbyterian church in Germantown, Md.

A national controversy

The estimated 1,000 Russian adoptions annually by American families has been a tender subject in the Kremlin for years. Though an estimated 300,000 orphans languish in about 3,000 facilities across Russia, handing them over to a former Cold War enemy can strike a painful note.

The occasional story of a Russian adoptee abused or neglected in an American home — as in the case of 21-month-old Dima Yakovlev, who died in 2008 when his American father left him in a hot car for nine hours — sparks outraged headlines across the country.

But critics say the motivation for the ban was not so much concern over potential harm — they point out that far more orphans die after being adopted in Russian homes — as it was reprisal for a U.S. statute focusing on human rights in Russia. The American measure, signed into law earlier in December, imposes visa restrictions and financial sanctions on Russian officials involved in the case of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

Magnitsky claimed to have uncovered the theft of more than $230 million in public funds by corrupt Russian officials, but he was charged with tax evasion and died under suspicious circumstances in a Russian jail in November 2009.

The subsequent Russian ban “is a draconian piece of legislation because it not only bans intercountry adoptions to the United States, but even bans Russian citizens from doing any business with people who do intercountry adoptions to the U.S.,” said Diane Kunz, director of the New York-based Center for Adoption Policy.

Kunz said the ban immediately affected about 700 children who were in the process of being adopted by American families. Most wrenchingly, about 300 of the children had already met and were beginning to get to know their prospective new parents. They suddenly found themselves cut off.

“These are the families that were completely out of luck, and it’s just a tragedy,” Kunz said.

Families tell stories of paperwork abruptly returned unprocessed by Russian government offices; of decorated rooms and boxes of toys with no one to claim them; of a feeling of loss akin to miscarriage, only worse in a way because they find themselves imagining what’s happening to the child left behind in the orphanage.

So far, 99 of the more than 300 children originally paired with U.S. families have been adopted by families in Russia or other mainly Western countries.

“It’s been heart-wrenching,” said Diana Gerson, a Manhattan rabbi who was poised to adopt an 18-month-old girl she last saw in St. Petersburg on Dec. 28, four days before the ban took effect.

“I wake up every morning and wait for a phone call. I’ve spoken to families whose kids are no longer there — they’ve been adopted by someone else. And there’s no amount of pastoral or rabbinic training that could have ever prepared me for those conversations.”

Nikiforova, the physician, has been equally distraught, worried that there will be no adoption for many children with special needs or mixed ethnicity — Timofey, for example, and Gerson’s prospective daughter, a Eurasian child with developmental disabilities at another home in St. Petersburg.

Finding a home

More than half the children adopted out of Baby Home No. 13 in the 25 years Nikiforova has worked there have gone to Russian homes. But none of those children had Down syndrome. Two similarly diagnosed children at the facility — Yana, 2, and Vyacheslav, 3 — were also being adopted by parents in America.

On a recent afternoon, staffers were caring for the 73 residents of Baby Home No. 13, a cheerful, well-tended facility with rooms full of toys, soft rugs and comfortable couches.

In the dining room, Timofey was halfheartedly eating a plate of fish, while three toddlers sat at the table with neat bibs around their necks. “Little precious beauty,” a nurse cooed after each successful spoonful. In another room, Vyacheslav and another child sat pensively on plastic toilets.

Nicolas, a 2-year-old with a condition that leaves his skin so fragile that any friction can cause damage, was crying in his crib, raising hands clenched painfully in blood-red fists.

The disease, epidermolysis bullosa, or Butterfly syndrome, also causes sores to develop inside his mouth and intestines.

“Nicolas is not feeling well today,” a nurse said as she tried to cuddle him. “He may spit some blood from internal sores soon, and he will feel more relaxed after that.”

A legal challenge

Sergei Zheleznyak, a deputy speaker in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, said U.S. families should give up hope of completing any more adoptions. “Our goal is to take good care of all the orphans in our country and see to it that they find families inside Russia,” he said.

Critics in Russia refer derisively to the new ban as “Herod’s Law,” an allusion to the biblical tale of a massacre of infants purportedly ordered by King Herod in an attempt to kill the baby Jesus.

Russian journalist Victoria Ivleva-Yorke has served as a legal adviser to more than 20 U.S. families who are preparing to submit cases to the European Court of Human Rights, alleging a violation of the rights of stranded adoptees, including Timofey, who are not likely to find other homes.

“We have to seek justice for these families and these kids in Europe because we no longer have any legal means to struggle for these children in Russia,” Ivleva-Yorke said.

But even if the families prevail, the European court is not allowed to overturn Russian court decisions — which would comply with the ban — so the victory will be a Pyrrhic one unless the Kremlin faces so much international censure it reverses the decision.

Seeing no progress in negotiations between the U.S. State Department and the Kremlin, the Nagels and Gerson are among those who are preparing to go to the European court, if only because doing nothing is something they cannot bear.

Gerson described the exhaustive process of financial examinations, background checks and home inspections she underwent before being introduced to the toddler she hoped would become her daughter.

At first, the little girl, whom she doesn’t want to name to protect her privacy for now, seemed “just terrified,” Gerson recalled of their meeting in December.

“I took out a toy cellphone and started punching the buttons. It made a sound, and all of a sudden she crawled out of the caretaker’s lap and into my lap, and started pressing the buttons herself,” she said. “It was just the most exhilarating feeling in the world.”

Over the course of the next week, Gerson said, she visited her twice a day. The girl, at first silent, started singing and dancing with her. She began calling her “Mama.”

Gerson left behind toys and a recordable book in which a Russian friend had recorded loving messages for her. Like the Nagels, she left photos of herself, and of the relatives and friends who would become the child’s new family in New York.

“From the moment I met my little girl, it was like magic,” she said. “You don’t expect that. You don’t expect that kind of sensation of love, so quick and so vast that it’s all-consuming.”

But by the time Gerson got off the plane in New York, the adoption ban had been signed.

Timofey, who doesn’t talk but clearly watches and listens, is growing too old for the baby house, Nikiforova said. He will soon move to an orphanage for older children, where he will remain until he’s 18. After that, if his case goes as most Down syndrome cases do, he will probably spend the rest of his life in an asylum.

“With each new change he will experience a new trauma and will be surrounded with less and less love and care,” Nikiforova said, “until he ends up completely ignored and neglected in his utter solitude.”

The Nagels said they are determined not to let that happen, but feel helpless.

“It’s a terrible feeling to know there’s this very grim future for this child that you want to be in your home,” Bethany Nagel said, “and there’s nothing you can do to make that happen.”