Orphan children play in their bedroom at an orphanage in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.
When I was eight years old, I remember wandering through a pre-9/11 Hartsfield -Jackson Airport in Atlanta with my sister, who is two years older.
Our parents sent us to Miami to stay with family for several weeks while they traveled to Ust-Labinsk, a small Russian town a short drive to the Black Sea and a slightly longer drive in the other direction to Chechnya.
The reason for their journey was to adopt my younger sister. She was a few months shy of her first birthday then and among many children in living in a derelict orphanage. My parents returned to the region a year later, leaving me and my two sisters with family again, so they could go to a city called Krasnodar and adopt my younger brother. He was a few months from his first birthday but had not yet left the hospital where he was born for an orphanage.
I could not understand why, instead of having more kids on their own, they would choose to trek around the world. Now it makes perfect sense.
They wanted more kids and could have their own, but there were children already born that needed a family. Why not find one?
Russia’s orphanage system then, and to a somewhat lesser extent now, was a hodgepodge of underfunded facilities; even basic care is a practical impossibility, and masses of children are left huddled together without a home or any reason for hope of a future any brighter than the life they were born into.
My parents have often described infants neglected in cribs, rarely held or paid attention, because there was not the money for adequate staff; for years, many people worked at orphanages without any pay at all trying to fill the void, hoping (mostly in vain) that they would one day be compensated for their work; baby formula and clothes suitable for cold weather were scarce. Quality education was usually non-existent.
Children are kicked out of orphanages around age 16 and left to whatever life they can scrape together with a shoddy foundation beneath them. All too often, prostitution, drug dealing, and gang-related violence become part of what it takes to manage an existence.
My sister likely would have faced a future even bleaker than most had she remained in Ust-Labinsk.
She was born with clubbed feet. Corrective surgery cost more than most Russian families earn in a year. With a good insurance plan and a capable medical system in the U.S., the bones in her feet were taken apart, the muscles pulled from the bones, and everything arranged to look and function like normal feet. Now you would never know there was a problem.
If Russia had banned adoption by Americans before then, my sister would have spent her entire life physically disabled. She would not pass time with piano lessons and art, and my brother would not go hunting or play soccer. They would not be studying to get driver’s licenses or trying to figure out what to do after high school. This would likely be the year of their transition to life on the streets of Southern Russia.
Instead they are part of my family.
My lived experience represents the rule, not the exception, when examining the tens of thousands of Russians adopted by Americans over the last two decades.
Somehow this was ignored when, late last month, Russian President Vladamir Putin signed a law passed by the country’s Federal Assembly that bans adoptions to the United States.
In some ways, it is easy to understand why the ban was approved.
Mistrust has long been mutual between Russia and the U.S., seemingly since time immemorial. The Cold War has thawed out over the past couple decades, but anytime an issue involves both of the countries, the same old “they’re-the-bad-guys” narrative writes itself all over again – on both sides of the world.
In this case, Russian media took an intense focus on roughly 20 adoptees that died or suffered severe abuse in the care of American parents.
Maybe no story is more infamous and gut-wrenching than that of Dima Yakovlev, a blue-eyed, blond-haired boy who was adopted by a Virginia family. He was 21 months old when he was left alone in a truck sweltering with July heat. He died.
Miles Harrison, Yakovlev’s adoptive father, was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter. The law enacting Russia’s adoption ban is named in the boy’s memory.
It’s not difficult to imagine Russian equivalents of Bill O’Reilly and Rachel Maddow, bored with their own news cycle, in want of a story sure to evoke an emotional response, playing up Yakovlev’s story and others that represent the most extreme examples of adoption gone wrong.
Someone in Moscow must have looked into a camera, tearing up and hands shaking, as they decried “traditional Russian values” being torn to shreds by damned Yankees who take and abuse the most innocent and vulnerable children – another must have gleaned with a professorial air as they informed viewers that, yes, these cases are extreme and rare, but government must do something, anything, to stop this kind of tragedy from happening again.
There is a popular but factually incorrect theory in Russia and other former Soviet countries that many people want to adopt so they can harvest and sell vital organs of the children. The myth may have taken hold because many Russians struggle to comprehend why anyone would want to care for a child that is not their own in any case except infertility.
It has been widely reported that the law came into being in part as retaliation for Obama signing the Sergei Magnitsky Act in December. Magnitsky died in a Russian prison after revealing government corruption. The new law prevents officials thought to be involved with the lawyer’s death from entering the U.S. or using the banking system.
In December, Putin chastised the law:
So nobody dies in their prisons, right? Maybe there are more [deaths] in theirs than in ours. Listen, they haven’t shut Guantanamo for eight years now. They keep people in shackles and chains without trial or investigation, like in the Middle Ages. [These are] people who open secret prisons and legalized torture to conduct investigations, and these people are now lecturing us about some of our failings?
Against that backdrop, the ban is no less tragic, but it makes perfect sense.
Amid the political noise and cultural biases, no one apparently stated the obvious: Yes, the relationship between the U.S. and Russia has been tumultuous, and the death or abuse of a child is ineffably tragic – but why not focus on the many real problems instead of manufacturing a crisis based on isolated tragedies?
How will orphanages care for a burgeoning number of children in a system already stretched thin? Does it really make sense to condemn a thousand or more kids annually – and pretend there is no abuse or tragedy in orphanages – because there have been rare moments of tragedy in America?
Those uncomfortable questions remain unanswered, and Russian leaders have in effect ignored the dying forest in favor of a nonexistent tree.
“It is an emergency because kids grow fast, and every day spent without love and care damages them for the rest of their lives,” said Olga Spachil, a Krasnodar-based advocate who arranged the adoptions of many Russian children, including my brother and sister.
The crisis is real, and on a certain level, it’s tempting to demand an eye for an eye. That response would be ineffective. A continuation of “they’re-the-bad-guys” will only help the ban perpetuate.
“It’s always a country’s right to make decisions about its children,” said Kris Faasse, adoption services director of Bethany Christian Services, an agency that helped my parents arrange both of their adoptions.
“Their children are the country’s future, but we’ll continue to engage in dialogue to get across a simple point: kids need families. Kids need to grow up in families. We need to talk on that personal level,” she said.
Talking on a personal level will not change the law overnight – but nothing will, and a sustained dialogue about real and uncomfortable problems on both sides of the globe is the only way to drown out politics as usual.
If only that didn’t seem so unique.
Austin Baird is a reporter for The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) and can be reached by email at email@example.com or @AustinBaird on Twitter.