Alexandra Garmazhapova
Alexandra Garmazhapova
Russian journalist
How one law can deprive a little girl of a family: the anti-orphan law, 3 years after

Exactly three years ago, the Russian parliament passed a law that forbids Americans from adopting children from Russia.

This was the Russian authorities’ response to the “Magnitsky list” adopted in the US, which forbade entry into the US to about 60 Russian officials, who the Americans believed were responsible for the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who worked for the Hermitage Capital investment advisory firm.

 In February 2013, the Russian newspaper “Kommersant-Power” got a hold of the federal list of orphans who were affected by the law. There were 248 children on this list: for 126 of them, potential adopting parents had already visited them and expressed a desire to adopt them, for 70 of them, the adoption applications were already submitted to the adoption court, and for 52 more, the courts have already approved the applications for adoption at the end of 2012, but the children were unable to leave Russia in due time as soon as the law was in effect. The law stated that the children whose adoption applications were approved are to be given permission to leave, but the adoption courts refused to give the adopters the physical copy of their approved application awaiting the Supreme Court decision. This decision came in late January, and in the following few months, the children from the third group, all 52 of them, left with their adoptive parents. And thus 196 children remained on the list of victims of the anti-orphan law. These children have met their potential adoptive parents, got attached to them, and waited for them.

One of the children on this list was Lera, a girl from St. Petersburg’s Home for Children with Intellectual Disabilities №1. Her mother abandoned her child because Lera was diagnosed with Down Syndrome. Her chances for finding adoptive parents in Russia were slim. But when she turned 5, she had a stroke of luck: the Morris couple from California learned about her, fell in love with her, and started doing the paperwork to adopt her.

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They named her Natasha. Katrina Morris explains: “her birthday is December 19, and she looks like a Christmas child, so her adoption would have been like a rebirth for her”.

In the USA, it was not only Katrina and her husband Steven who were awaiting her, but also their four children: three teenage sons and an adopted daughter.

The adoption court hearing was scheduled in early 2013, and the law went into effect on January 1, 2013.

Essentially, Lera was abandoned for the second time.

When hope was lost, and it became clear that Lera will never see a family, Katrina did not give up: she continues collecting signatures, appealing to American senators, asking them to beg President Obama to convince his Russian colleague Putin, picketing outside the White House, etc..

Katrina continues sending Lera-Natasha gifts for every holiday, because she wants the girl who has turned 10 in December 2015 to know that she has not been forgotten or abandoned.

And every time, Lera awaits the goodies from her American mother, whom she has not seen in over three and a half years. She always runs out excitedly towards us — the people who come with gifts and messages from Katrina — hugs us, and then dashes towards the box with American postal labels, hurriedly unpacking them.

In December 2013, when it became clear that Vladimir Putin is not about to reverse his decision and allow Russian orphans to be taken by their loving American families, Katrina sent the girl a flashy vinous dress, and knitted hats for her peers.

This dress fit Lera perfectly: only a real loving mother can guess the size so well from a distance. For Easter in 2015, Katrina sent the orphan girl a doll that resembled her (Katrina says that this doll is Lera’s namesake), and soft matryoshkas, which “American children hide under their pillows and hug whenever they are sad or scared”. These matryoshkas are so that “children can feel loved”.

For Lera’s 10th birthday in the same orphanage, the American mother sent her a Christmas snow-white dress with sparkles, as well as silver shoes (the brand that produced the shoes is called “Dora”, but when written in cursive, this looks like the Russian word “Docha” – daughter).

The girl is always very eager to try on the new gifts. For example, she wore the Christmas dress to a New Year’s concert organized by the St Petersburg administration.

In Russia, there were a few brave government officials who dared to speak out against the ban on American adoptions; among them is the director of Lena’s orphanage Valery Asikritov.

Despite the fact that his institution is equipped with all necessities (a plasma TV, on which the children watch their favorite cartoon “Masha and the Bear”, leather couches, and pretty toys), he admits that children will feel better in a good family, regardless of the country. Valery Nikolaevich says that in the decades that he has spent working in the orphanage, only once was there a successful adoption of a child with Down Syndrome: a boy who was adopted by an American family in the 90s. He keeps in touch with the boy and comments: “he has bloomed, I can see that he is happy!”

“Lera’s story is an exception. There are no potential adopters for these children. Throughout all of the years I’ve been here, there was only one case the 90s when Americans adopted a boy. And a few years ago, a Russian lady took two girls under custody”, – says Valentina Popova, the institution’s deputy director. After all, Lera and her peers don’t just have Down Syndrome, but also a myriad of concomitant disorders: for example, the eight-year-old Natasha suffers from an atrophy of optic nerves (because of a bad eyesight, she has to touch her interlocutor).

In 2012 (before the final document was signed that ruined the futures of hundreds of thousands of Russian orphans), journalists actively reacted to Vladimir Putin’s speeches and questioned him about the law almost a year later at his yearly press-conference. But three years later, after the events in Ukraine (the annexation of Crimea and war in Donbass), in Syria, the terror attacks in Paris, in other words due to a difficult geopolitical situation, the level of interest towards Russian orphans has significantly subsided.

During Putin’s most recent press-conference, there was only one correspondent, Alexey Solomin from the Echo Moscow radio, who took the president back to this topic, asking whether we can expect an end to this truly cannibalistic regulation, which has already resulted in the deaths of several orphans who did not receive proper medical treatment in Russia.

“According to official statistics, in Russia there are still many orphans with disabilities who have not found a family, so maybe the time has come to ease the ban on adoptions by foreigners?”

When answering this question, Putin referred to statistics, which he claimed show that “in terms of percentages, the fraction of foreign adoptions of our children with disabilities is much smaller than their adoptions of healthy children”. “None of these foreigners were ever eager to adopt sick children. These are the statistics. This is why we will not rush towards changing the decisions that have already been made,” – said Russia’s President, without citing a single figure that would prove him right.

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Journalists from a Russian online media outlet Meduza.io almost immediately provided data that refuted Putin’s words. For example, if we compare the number of children with disabilities who were adopted by foreigners with the number of healthy children adopted by foreigners, indeed it is true that the latter were adopted more frequently; however, it is not correct to make that comparison, as healthy children are generally adopted at higher rates. “In 2012, Russian citizens and foreigners adopted 9169 children, and only 200 of them were disabled. At the same time, the fraction of disabled children compared to healthy children was 6.6% for foreigners, while it was only 0.4% for domestic adopters. If we were to compare absolute numbers, Russians adopted 29 children with disabilities, whereas 171 were adopted by foreigners. 1 in 9 children adopted by American citizens was disabled.” – the correspondents noted.

The fault does not only lie on the Russian authorities and Russian society. Our American citizen interlocutors believe that the problem also lies in the fact that the White House is not showing much interest in providing its citizens with the opportunity to become happy parents. And the topic of Russian orphans no longer seems to be in the American agenda, even though this is an issue about living and breathing human beings and their families, which is one of the most important humanitarian values, and not about abstract geopolitics.