In American-Russian Row, Children Pay the Price

By passing a bill banning American adoptions, Russian is accused of hurting its neediest children for to settle a petty political score.

Natasha Mozgovaya
Natasha Mozgovaya
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Natasha Mozgovaya
Natasha Mozgovaya

For those who have visited Russian orphanages (and many Israeli and American Jewish families have, looking for children to adopt), it's hard to forget the images. Children wear similar pajamas, supplies and toys are scarce and those with special needs do not get special care. Their eyes are sad, but they dare not cry.

This month, Russia again gambled on the fate of these needy children, whose parents abandoned them to the state. Its parliament, the Duma, approved a bill banning the adopting of Russian children by American parents, and President Vladimir Putin is expected to sign it soon.

The bill is widely seen as a response to the U.S. passages of the Magnitsky Act (a law meant to prevent Russian human rights violators from entering the United States or keeping assets there) and its repeal of the Jackson-Vanick amendment, normalizing trade relations between the U.S. and Russia. 

Especially displeased by the Magnitsky Act, Moscow threated its own blacklist of "American human rights violators," but since it's less fashionable for Americans to hold overseas accounts in Russia, it found a more sensitive spot to strike: adoptions. Since 1999, U.S. citizens have adopted more than 45,000 Russian children. Several high-profile cases have ended tragically, with the children being abused and neglected by their adoptive parents.

In 2010, Russians were outraged when Torry Hansen of Tennessee put her adopted 7-year-old boy on a plane back to Moscow with a note in his pocket complaining about his psychological problems and returning him as damaged goods. And the new Russian bill is named after Dima Jakovlev, a Russian toddler who died in 2009 after his adoptive American father forgot him in a car for hours.

The bill faced severe criticism not only in the U.S., but also at the UN and in Russia itself. Dozens of adoptions were put on hold, with many Americans parents forced to stay silent out of fear that protesting will only further anger Russian officials, who argue that despite its overflowing orphanages, their country can take care of its own children. 

"I chose Russia because half of my heritage is Russian," says Rabbi Toby Manewith, who adopted his nearly five-year-old son Nathaniel 3-and-a-half years ago in Rostov, Russia. “My son's orphanage was clean, but they had so little. Though the caregivers and the doctors were working to their capacity and clearly loved the children, the system is overtaxed. There aren't enough diapers. They changed the babies and toddlers' diapers twice day. Children played with empty water bottles and discarded plastic bags. I donated toys as I assume many others did, but they were broken within days because caregivers didn't have time to teach anyone to care for things. My son didn't return kisses for two months. We had to teach him how to hug. He is very loving now.

"I am thankful to Russian society for the gift that is my son. I named him Nathaniel [which means gift in Hebrew], because that's how I think of him, as my gift," she says. "I especially think of Nate's beginnings when he says the Shabbat blessings or dances with the Torah. Every child deserves a family that will celebrate them, that will celebrate with them and take joy in their learning, that will smile, or cry as my mother did, when their child mangles the words of his prayers."

On Wednesday, a small group of people gathered in front of the gates of the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C. Several of them were Americans who had been adopted from Russian orphanages. Alex D'Jamous, a 21-year-old student, was adopted by a Texan family at the age of 18. Despite having had his legs amputated, he recently managed to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Tatyana McFadden, a 24-year-old woman in a wheelchair, was adopted from a St. Petersburg orphanage at the age of six. Born with spina bifida (a condition where the spinal cord does not fully develop in the womb), she had an operation three weeks after being born, but remained paralyzed from the waist down. After her parents abandoned her, she crawled around the orphanage, because there were no wheelchairs.

At the London Paralympics, 18 years later, McFadden took home three gold medals. She credits her success – and her survival – to being adopted by her American mother, Deborah McFadden from Baltimore, Maryland.

"I certainly had no plans for adoption, let alone of a sickly, weak child paralyzed from the waist down," Deborah McFadden said. "But when I was in the orphanage giving them aid, I met Tatyana, and that night I went back to the hotel and couldn't get her out of my mind. I went back the next day, and said I'll bring you a wheelchair. And the orphanage director told me that when I left, Tatyana told everybody, ‘That's my mom.’ It was amazing. I really do believe that Tatyana was born to be my daughter. I can't imagine my life without her. God made it happen. The fact that she survived is a miracle. When I brought her back to the U.S. she was so weak that doctors said she probably wouldn’t live long. Now, I am her mother, and I said, "Yes, she will." So I got her involved in swimming and gymnastics and wheelchair basketball and downhill skiing – not to make her an athlete, but to make her strong. Now she is considered the fastest wheelchair racer in the world. She has traveled all over the world, and I am proud of her. She drives a car. She is at the University of Illinois on a scholarship. She is an honor roll student. But she tells me, ‘I am the lucky one. I lived because you adopted me.’"

Tatyana McFadden wanted to deliver a similar message to Putin, but even giving a signed petition to the Russian ambassador proved difficult. They waited in front of the gates in the freezing rain for half an hour, until the Russians called the police. 

"They knew we were coming," Deborah McFadden says. "I didn't expect them to be so callous. I expected they would be polite, and whether they agree with it or not, to be more gracious, but they were not. There were basically three children there at the gate, to call the police – it's shameful. So the secret service came and said it's an unauthorized protest. We said, there is no protest; they are trying to present the petition, and spoke very gently. The police said, ‘If they don't accept it, what would you do?’ There is a threat of violence – Tatyana in a wheelchair? I am laughing because it was so absurd. After 40 minutes, a guy from the Embassy came and asked, ‘What do you want to do?’ We said we wanted to deliver the petition. So he took it and said, ‘Now leave.’” 

Tatyana McFadden was scheduled to speak to CNN on Thursday about her attempt to deliver the petition asking President Putin not to sign the bill.

"She is not angry with Russia," Deborah McFadden says. "She wants to go the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Russia. When you are an athlete, you concentrate on one sport, but she said she wants to go in January to tryouts in Utah for cross-country skiing. She wants to make it for the Sochi Olympics in winter sport. I asked why. She said, ‘I want to go back to my country of birth and I want them to be proud of me.’ But she said she would be very angry if the President of Russia says there will never be adoptions by Americans, because she says, ‘Who would have adopted me?’

"She went back in April to visit her orphanage and talk with the director and the children. And she said: "I have a life because everybody cared for me, but Russia couldn't take care of me because of my medical issues. So being adopted in America where a family could take care of my issues, I was given a chance, and all I am asking of the president of Russia is to think about those who cannot be adopted there. Let them have a home. They can be adopted by Americans".

Deborah McFadden's first reaction to the bill was, "I was sure I misunderstood what was happening, because I couldn't believe that the Russian Duma would use children as pawns for a political agenda. These children have no hope. These are the children that are older, these are children with disabilities, and because Russia is angry with the U.S. for something that has nothing to do with adoption, they would jeopardize their lives?"

Regarding the cases of abuse and neglect in the U.S., she said, "There were 12 cases here that should have never been won [in court]. But the fact is, Russia has its problems, as does America. One should never make a law or ruling based on the mistakes of a few, when it hurts so many good people. And what happened should be handled by bilateral agreements, not by punishing these children. There is a family in Virginia that has adopted one child and was waiting for two and a half years to adopt a second child, who is six years old. They've been to Russia seven times to visit their son – they call him their son, he calls them mommy and daddy. Not one Russian in 6 years wanted this child. And the Russian courts all said it’s a good family. But they said, ‘Until President wants us to give you permission, we won't.’ Something is wrong."

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