Entry #3 The Adoption Procedure in ’90s Russia

Entry #3   The Adoption Procedure in ’90s Russia

After playing tourist for a couple of days in Moscow, we were taken about 250 km. north-east of Moscow to the city of Yaroslavl.  It appeared more attractive than Moscow and full of the look of things ancient – over 1000 years old.  Yasik has very old blood in his veins.

City of Yaroslavl in relationship to Russia's capital, Moscow
City of Yaroslavl in relationship to Russia’s capital, Moscow

Although we had been driving for several hours we were taken to a variety of offices before heading to the orphanage. In each office, we were left to wait while our facilitator conducted the business required in each office.  Our only contribution was to offer the gifts we had brought from Canada to whomever was handling the issue at hand, basically the removal of Yasik from the files of Russia. Otherwise we sat to the side while each transaction took place. In one office where we waited in the outer office on wooden benches while the interpreter talked to the staff in an inner office, we watched an inch worm work its way across the floor.  Dave tried to help the little thing and it freaked in terror.

Once we had stopped at several registries to begin the process of removing Yasik’s Russian footprint, our driver turned the van in the direction of the orphanage for our introduction to our son-to-be. Perhaps knowing her time with us was limited, the interpreter suggested we use this short drive to write down questions we might have for the orphanage staff but that turned out to be a bit useless.  When I pulled out my questions later, translator or no translator, I got blank but respectful stares.  I would have loved to know why.    Subtext: careful control of the flow of information?

While I was naively writing down some questions, the translator, a school teacher possibly conversant in several different languages, came up with an even better way to use five or ten minutes.  She began to teach us some phrases she thought would be helpful in communicating with Yasik.  Monolingual Dave started mimicking her without hesitation.  I have worked in a couple of foreign languages and know what a nightmare language learning can be so just wanted to throw up — I was going to one of the truly important moments of my life and being pushed on the way there into doing something which has given me some of the most stressful experiences of my life.  I get it, if books written to guide people through the adoption process are merely suggesting adoptors primed to prove how perfect they will be as parents learn a few tourist-level phrases, but some of these books sound like they are suggesting adopters learn their child-to-be’s language by ordering an app from Amazon. Do they have any idea what that means? It is doubtful though even they would dare to suggest language learning be all wrapped in a few minutes. I thank Yasik for learning English so quickly.

The amazing expectations of those few minutes did not end there.  The translator also managed to tuck in some information about Yasik’s history.  Yasik’s mother visited him in the hospital where he lived for the first two years but “she moved around a lot”, whatever that meant. I did not question the comment at the time.  Did Elvira expect a show of concern or some awareness of that oblique FYI?  Now I wonder if my blasé reaction was because my mind was pre-set to an assumption against this mother’s care of her children. I have since learned much more about how many Russians saw adoption at the time. Somewhere I cannot currently validate, I was either told or read parents left their children at a state-run orphanage or what was also called a boarding school (often a more literal label than the boarding school as private school) while they attended to commitments like education or work away from home.  One source I did manage to secure is Russian Babies, Russian Babes: Economic and Demographic Implications of International Adoption and International Trafficking for Russia written by J.R. McKinney.  She writes of how the Soviets in the early years of their regime decided the raising of children would best be done by the state.  In time the costs to the state measured against desired results of producing the ideal Soviet citizen led to backtracking to the tradition of the family-raised child.  The children being raised by the state were generally weaker intellectually, physically and socially than family-raised children. Moving away from the Soviet aspiration to the tried and true was likely done with as little fanfare as possible, leaving Russian society with a stronger acceptance of placing a child in state care than would have been true in other cultures. If Yasik’s mother “moved around a lot” then state care may have been an obvious choice not only for someone struggling with drugs or alcohol but perhaps someone struggling with other pressures of poverty.  Yasik was, after all, born in the decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I have no journal entries referring to the role of the father in Yasik’s life because it appears no one told us anything about him. Was this because only recently has research begun to look at the impact of the father on prenatal and infant development?  J.R. McKinney in Lone mothers in Russia: Soviet and Post-Soviet policy  notes in Post-Soviet Russia, 70% of Russian children lived in households where needs exceeded income.  The article points to the demographic called ‘Lone Mothers’ as very specifically mothers who never married and therefore could look to no one else for support of any kind.

Added to the difficulties Russian parents faced in those years was the negative attitude in Russian society toward domestic adoption, seemingly still prevalent but actively countered for Russians were concerned about the population drain, even though, again at that time, Russia was open to the money foreign adoptions brought to the country. These ‘on the one hand’ but then ‘on the other hand’ considerations demand that we understand we cannot simply assume a child in state care arrived there because someone else was wilfully negligent or no longer living.

Things changed dramatically a few years later as adoption got dragged into Russian-American politics, but this was the environment in which we were adopting.  Children who had either been dropped off or placed in care were designated ‘social orphans’ when they had living biological parents who had the right to return for their children.  Numbers from 70% to 90% are offered to account for ‘social orphans’ in the state system at the time.  Yasik was a ‘social orphan’ .  Adoption was not on the table if Russians had just dropped kids off at the boarding school-cum-orphanage while other issues are being worked out.

While I walk our dog, Brodie, on the Log Train trail I listen to books. Listening to From the Ashes by Jesse Thistle, about when he and his brothers were taken from their addicted father by Children’s Aid Society, I am struck by some similarities with the time he spent there in early childhood. As the brothers settle into a housing situation that sounds fairly institutional but is clean and provides regular meals, the oldest brother explains to other kids residing there that their “‘dad was away and that we’d be going home as soon as the police found him.  “I used to think that, too,” one kid said. “But we’re orphans now – don’t cha know?  I didn’t know what that meant.” This young boy thought that his parents dropped him off at the Children’s Aid Society because he wanted Cheerios and they had none.  He saw it as his fault that he was now an orphan.  Jesse Thistle thought that his parents too were gone from his life because he had “asked for food too often“.

Kids were questioned, checked over for infections and parasites and some afterwards “never came back.  That was the scariest. It was like they had been eaten by monsters. No one knew what happpened to them, but the older kids said they were the lucky ones because someone wanted them.  I didn’t understand that; our mom and dad wanted us, why didn’t theirs want them, too?” A few weeks later a foster home that would take all three of them was found.  They were told they were lucky.  They were “cleaned up” … and … “packed up“(39-42). So wouldn’t this too be a Canadian version of ‘social orphan’ with a family somewhere, government intervention and children confused and frightened.

However, as we later found out, while Yasik would have been labelled a ‘social orphan’ with living family, a copy of the court papers given to Yasik’s sister and adoptive family show that the state took away Yasik’s biological parents’ rights.  Yasik was not boarding at the orphanage while his parents were working away from home.  He was in process of becoming available for adoption though the actual court decision came a year later.  Yet because at the time of our adoption, Dave and I were given no assurances that the parents had either relinquished or had their rights removed, when I came across articles of illegal adoptions a few years later, I did worry.   I read that a number of Russian adoptions involved illegally obtained children, lacking parental surrender.  I googled this issue and found articles that say yes Russia is as haunted by trafficking in children as many, many other countries. And Russia’s response is not to turn a blind eye, being faced with shorter life expectancy and distaste for the idea that Russians are being taken from Mother Russia. In fact, “In 2008, an amendment to the Russian law on human trafficking re-established that the activity of buying and/or selling a person constituted trafficking regardless of whether it was done for an exploitative purpose” (Transaction Costs: Prosecuting child trafficking for illegal adoption in Russia Lauren A. McCarthy). One article questioned the money laid out by people from wealthier countries in the quest of adopting a child even for the most wonderful of reasons, family making.  This money alone likely out weighed the cost of raising that child in his or her social setting.  Does this constitute “regardless of whether it was done for exploitative purpose” with the phrase ‘or not’ left unsaid? LUMOS makes the contention that orphanages can be big business.  The desire to help solve a problem can sometimes be turned by others into something hurtful to society. It is an aspect of adoption I only wanted to turn away from as too sickening to contemplate before we read the copy of the court decision.

In balance to the generally negative perspective the West has toward the care provided by Russian orphanages I would insert this research article: Structural characteristics of the institutional environment for young children ( Muhamedrahimov R.J., Arintcina I.A., Solodunova M. Y., Anikina V. O., Vasilyeva M. J., Chernego D. I., Tsvetkova L. A., Grigorenko E. L. (2016). Structural characteristics of the institutional environment for young children. Psychology in Russia: State of the Art, 9(3), 103-112).  Two orphanages in St.Petersburg are studied making it evident that not all orphanages were damaging to children in their care.  Although because we are ultimately talking about human beings with as much love as any the world around, it should be a given and unnecessary to say again here that there are in Russia as anywhere people working in orphanges who actively seek to do their best for the children in their care given the need to be pragmatic in difficult circumstances.  The care-givers at the first orphanage were working on changes that show these Russian people were as aware as Dr. Bruce Perry who writes,

Now, of course, we know that an infant’s early attachment to a small number of consistent caregivers is critical to emotional health and even to physical development….While we don’t know whether there is a fixed “sensitive period” for the devlopment of normal attachment the way there appears to be for language and sight, research does suggest that …[when] children are not allowed the change to develop permanent relationships with one or two primary caregivers during their first three years of life, [they will] have lasting effects on people’ ability to relate normally and affectionately to each other. 
Children who don’t get consistent, physical affection or the chance to build loving bonds simply don’t receive the patterned, repetitve stimulation necessary to properly build the systems in the brain that connect reward, pleasure, and human-to-human interactions (The Boy who Was Raised as a Dog 90, 92, 93).

And in our particular adoption, whether we were on our game or not, our adoption agency was doing due diligence. They were adhering to The Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Cooperation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption which came into force in Canada on April 1, 1997.  As the Fact Sheet handout given to us says, “The convention is an international law created to prevent abuses from occurring in intercountry adoptions“.   The Fact sheet does go on to say, “The adoptive family is responsible to ensure that the child they plan to adopt is legally free for adoption and that all legal requirements of both countries have been met, including adoption consents, validity of adoption order and immigration requirements”.  Ooh, with a squeegied up face, I might admit that I don’t remember doing that sort of due diligence personally.

Yet here is a very recent article showing these concerns remain:

Former WA Rep. Matt Shea, accused of domestic terrorism, working to secure adoptions for Ukrainian children in Poland   March 16, 2022 at 6:00 am Updated March 16, 2022 at 7:55 am   By David Gutman Seattle Times staff reporter

Former Washington state Rep. Matt Shea, the far-right Republican who was found by a House-commissioned investigation to have planned and participated in domestic terrorism, is in a small town in Poland with more than 60 Ukrainian children, trying to facilitate their adoption in America.

Shea has said his group helped rescue 62 children and their two adult caregivers from an orphanage in Mariupol, the city in southeastern Ukraine that has been bombarded by Russian forces. “It is a hosting organization that hosts Ukrainian orphans in America with Ukrainian families with the intent that ultimately that ends in adoption,” Shea said on the show. “It’s been doing this hosting program for several years.”

Loving Families and Homes for Orphans appears to have a website, but it is non-functional.  The group, based in Fort Worth, registered with the Texas secretary of state in 2018. No such group is registered as an adoption agency with the Texas Department of Health and Human Services. The group is also not registered with the Intercountry Adoption Accreditation and Maintenance Entity, the group that oversees American agencies involved in international adoption.  A non-profit group called Loving Families and Homes for Orphans was registered in Florida just one month ago. It lists its purpose as: “To provide loving and caring homes and families for the orphans from other countries for a short time period.”  The group was registered by Irina N. Sipko of Palm Coast, Florida. Sipko did not return requests for comment.

Artur Pomianowski, the mayor of Kazimierz Dolny, said in a post on Facebook that he’d visited the children and they are safe and being well cared-for. He also said the “case is being investigated and clarified by the relevant authorities” and that the kids would not leave Kazimierz Dolny without consent of the authorities.

But international agencies say, with the chaos and confusion of war, now is not an appropriate time for international adoptions from Ukraine. And Shea’s presence, and the lack of information surrounding the American group he’s with, has raised concerns among some residents of Kazimierz Dolny, the small Polish town where the children are staying at a hotel-guesthouse.  “I asked him many times, ‘What are you going to do with these children?’ and he told me that it’s not my business,’” Weronika Ziarnicka, an aide to the mayor of Kazimierz Dolny, said of Shea. “I got the feeling in my gut that something’s wrong with this guy; he didn’t want to tell me his last name.”

Shea, who rarely speaks to mainstream media, did not respond to requests for comment.  Speaking on a Polish television show, “Idź Pod Prąd,” Shea said he was working with a Texas group called Loving Families and Homes for Orphans (he also called the group Loving Homes and Families for Orphans).

“I do not know what Matt Shea and his friends are doing here around children,” Pomianowski said in an email. “Mr. Shea and his friends have given us some contradictory information and, for that reason, it is difficult for us to trust them.”

In a statement posted to Facebook by Dom Dziennikarza, the journalists’ guesthouse where the children are staying, Loving Families and Homes for Orphans says it is a Christian organization based in Texas and that Sipko is the director.  “We are in direct contact with the governments of Ukraine and the United States, supported by the highest levels of politicians, international and local church leaders as well as dozens of companies from Ukraine, the USA and Poland,” the statement says.

The U.S. State Department did not directly respond when asked if they’d been in contact with Loving Families, but a spokesperson warned: “Only accredited Adoption Service Providers are authorized to facilitate inter-country adoptions of children to the United States.” It can be extremely difficult in wartime to determine whether children who appear to be orphans truly are eligible for adoption, the State Department said.  “It is not uncommon in dangerous situations for parents to send their children out of the area, for safety reasons, or for families to become separated during an emergency,” the State Department spokesperson said. “Even when a child’s parents have died, children are often cared for by other relatives.  Also, many children living in orphanages in Ukraine are not orphans.”

The National Council for Adoption said this is not the time for U.S. citizens to be considering adoption from Ukraine, as many families fleeing the war become separated.  “It is paramount that the identities of these children and their families be clearly established, and their social, legal, and familial status is fully verified by governmental authorities,” the council said. “For most of these children, we cannot do that at this time.”

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees and UNICEF put out a joint statement calling for temporary and foster care for children but saying “Adoption should not occur during or immediately after emergencies.”

So yes concern re: adoption remains viable.  Marion Crook in Thicker Than Blood says this about the urge to adopt based on the need to ‘save the children’:

In the early 2000s, evangelical groups began to advocate for a Christian mission to rescue orphans by adoption.  They cited scripture to support the notion that Christians were called to bring orphans into their homes as a way of both advancing the role of Christianity in the work and ensuring their own salvation….  Some adoptive parents were grateful for the additon to their family and truly had wanted to adopt.  Others paraded their mixed-race children as proof of their Christian faith…. If God willed that a family must adopt, then any obstales to that adoption — laws, agency oversight, the best interests of the adoptee, and consideration for birth parents — were against God’s will …. the underlying philosophy of the Orphan Crisis Movement…(53).

Yasik didn’t become available for adoption until just before we applied presumably because the court case was by then being considered.  A short time before we left for Russia, we were given the heads up that a Russian family or two were considering adopting Yasik and that another packet of money would secure our position in first place.   We laid the money down immediately. And whiff of a money grab aside, it may well be some Russian families were interested for the UN publication Child Adoption: Trends and Policies provides a graph showing 75% of adoptions were domestic in the early 2000s, and somewhere I cannot locate at this writing, I saw the same breakdown for the year 1997. As noted above, Russians, for all the writing about their antipathy to domestic adoption because they do not want a child not of family blood, did process far more domestic adoptions than international at that time.

Yasik was moved to the orphanage before his second birthday the translator told us. We were given to understand the orphanage did not know when he was taken to the hospital. For many years I told Yasik and myself that a small window was opened onto the care Yasik’s mother had for him for as the translator told us, his mother came to visit him at the hospital a number of times.  Connecting with Yasik’s older sister disabused me of that romantic notion.  Yasik’s bio mother apparently came only to see if she could get a hold of the money the state provided for Yasik’s care. Even at the time, the translator’s mention that Yasik had rickets in those first two years should have ignited some reflection either on the care his mother gave him or the care and attention he got during his time at the hospital. He had rickets and he could not walk until the orphanage took over his care.  Now we have to assume that his parents were responsible for his rickets.  Did she not care? Did she feel too cowed by authority and her own inability to care for him? What about the father’s responsibility?  The six-year-old brother did not want to return to the home because of Yasik’s father’s brutal abuse.  I will add here another thought.  In Act Natural: a cultural history of misadventure in parenting, Jennifer Traig  tucks in this note when discussing crawling and walking: “You have to reach a certain brain mass before you can [walk]”(116).  Given his parents lack of care, we can assume that Yasik’s development was delayed.  Yasik caught up physically in the orphanage to the extent that when our doctor gave him a medical just after we brought him to Canada, he surmised Yasik had built up a strong immune system in the orphanage and he was then meeting the developmental markers for his age.  We adopted a child who simply weathered every illness common to kids with barely a sneeze. Even when it was his turn to get chicken pox, he and his little buddies spent their “sick” week playing in the park across from their school.