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Jan 8 2013

A Soviet Immigrant Mom’s Take on Russia’s Adoption Ban

By at 11:46 am

I start this blog post about Vladimir Putin banning the adoption of Russian orphans by Americans with two full disclosures:

1) I was born in the former Soviet Union and brought to the US by my own parents when I was a child. I have since been back to Russia several times, for professional and personal reasons, and I can state without qualms that, in my opinion, life in America beats anything the former Eastern bloc has to offer now, or back in the day of the USSR.

2) Despite the above, during the Elian Gonzales brouhaha in 2000, I came down on the side of returning the boy to his father in Cuba because, one of the things that makes the US superior to the former Eastern bloc, is that we do not take children away from otherwise decent parents because we happen to disagree with their political views (or, at least, we try not to. That’s a subject for a different blog post).

So, with those two facts, and my unavoidable prejudices, out of the way (as well as my earlier stated distaste for using children as political symbols), I can now freely state that Putin’s position is indefensible.

Allegedly, he did it in response to a law passed by the Americans.  I have my own opinions about that particular law, which calls for Russian officials responsible for gross human rights abuses to be banned from entering the US or keeping their money in American banks. But, I still say that even if Barack Obama were completely in the wrong, and the people he targeted with his legislation are, in fact, warm, fuzzy huggers of kittens and bunnies, this has absolutely nothing to do with Putin’s unrelated choice of response.

The other pretext for Putin’s law is that about 19 Russian children adopted by American parents have since died. Nineteen. Out of 60,000 over the past 20  years (some estimates claim 70,000). I strongly suspect that more than 19 out of 60,000 children have died while under the care of their biological parents over the past two decades. Let’s ban all reproduction, in that case!

To be fair, Russia is not the first country to ban adoptions by outsiders. Following the 1988 Summer Olympics, South Korea, embarrassed by an NBC story about how many babies were adopted by Americans (at that point, about half of the entire international total), began phasing out its program. India slowed down their system in 2011, citing children being removed from their native culture as one of the many, many reasons. Because, you know, living on the streets sure beats a possible religious conversion. (Lest anyone think this is a uniquely overseas issue, let the record show that, in 1972, the Black Association of Social Workers called white parents adopting African-American children “cultural genocide” and took a stand against it that made the action a great deal more difficult in the US, as well.)

You know what? In a perfect world, yes, Korean children should be raised by Koreans, Russian children should be raised by Russian, Indians by…., African-Americans with, etc… You know what else? We don’t live in a perfect world. Children should be raised by parents, period. If there were enough of those to go around in-country, there wouldn’t be any orphanages, would there?

I used to volunteer for an organization called Kidsave, whose mission was to bring children from Russia and Colombia to the US for the summer in the hopes of finding them adoptive homes. Many of these children were older, or sibling groups, and so very difficult to place. I met dozens of these children. I talked to them and got their stories and translated them for the potential new parents. The conditions in even the best “boarding schools” as they are euphemistically called, were brutal, and once the kids aged out at 15 or so, they were tossed on the street with nothing, most especially no preparation for life afterwards. The numbers of suicides and girls sold into the slave trade is staggering.

But, again, you know what? That doesn’t matter, either. Even if Russian orphanages were all the equivalent of “Madeline” and Shirley Temple movies, parents still trump being raised by nuns, even if they do speak in rhyme.

And Putin didn’t just stop any future adoptions of Russian children. He stopped ones that were already in progress. The traditional process for a Russian adoption is for parents to make two trips, one to meet and formally accept the placement of the child, and a second a few weeks later to pick them up and bring them home. In many of the interrupted adoptions, the prospective parents have already met and bonded with the toddler assigned to them. Naturally, the media coverage is focusing on their current feelings and frustrations. And I genuinely feel for these folks, I do.

But, what about the children? The children have been told, “Your Mommy and Daddy are coming to get you soon.” The children are waiting. For parents who might never be allowed to come.

You know how, on “The Simpsons,” “Won’t somebody think of the children?” is a running gag? It’s pretty funny on “The Simpsons.” Not so much here. Kids like to be able to count on things. They kind of need the security to function. And this isn’t something minor, like a promise of a playdate cancelled. This is, “Mommy and Daddy will come back for you.” And then they never do.

(I could pluck the heartstrings further and point out that many of the children who get adopted oversees are special needs ones, who have absolutely no future in their country of origin, if only because either there is no education for those with their conditions, or because they have physical ailments, like a cleft palate or a hole in the heart, that are trivial to fix in the West, but death sentences elsewhere. But, that, also, isn’t the point. This law affects all children. And all children need parents.)

So what can we, as concerned Americans, do about this?

Honestly? I don’t know.

Last month, I wrote about the 25th anniversary of the March on Washington to free Soviet Jews. In 1987, the Jewish community–Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, unaffiliated–got together to fight for the rights of people who couldn’t speak for themselves, trapped behind an iron curtain.

Is it too much to ask for another miracle like that?

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on Kveller are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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