Orphans, families in agonizing limbo

Lunchtime at Baby Home No. 13 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Timofey, front, has enjoyed his soup already

Andy and Bethany Nagel left photos of themselves at the orphanage for the little boy with Down syndrome who was going to be their son. We’ll be back, they told 4-year-old Timofey, blowing kisses from the doorway and retreating anxiously into the chilly street.

The new Russian law banning adoptions by U.S. families that took effect Jan. 1 erased the Nagels’ plans to bring Timofey to America in March. In all, it stranded more than 330 families who had already begun stitching hoped-for Russian adoptees into the webs of their lives.

“We have all these sorts of feelings of grief that we could process — if we didn’t know he’s still out there,” said Andy Nagel, 31, an assistant pastor at a Presbyterian church in Germantown, Md.

The estimated 1,000 Russian adoptions annually by American families has been a tender subject in the Kremlin for years. Though an estimated 300,000 orphans languish in about 3,000 facilities across Russia, handing them over to a former Cold War enemy can strike a painful note.

The occasional story of a Russian adoptee abused or neglected in an American home — as in the case of 21-month-old Dima Yakovlev, who died in 2008 when his American father left him in a hot car for nine hours — sparks outraged headlines across the country.

But critics say the motivation for the ban was not so much concern over potential harm — they point out that far more orphans die after being adopted in Russian homes — as it was reprisal for a U.S. statute focusing on human rights in Russia. The American measure, signed into law earlier in December, imposes visa restrictions and financial sanctions on Russian officials involved in the case of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

Magnitsky claimed to have uncovered the theft of more than $230 million in public funds by corrupt Russian officials, but he was charged with tax evasion and died under suspicious circumstances in a Russian jail in November 2009.

The subsequent Russian ban “is a draconian piece of legislation because it not only bans intercountry adoptions to the United States, but even bans Russian citizens from doing any business with people who do intercountry adoptions to the U.S.,” said Diane Kunz, director of the New York-based Center for Adoption Policy.

Kunz said the ban immediately affected about 700 children who were in the process of being adopted by American families. Most wrenchingly, about 300 of the children had already met and were beginning to get to know their prospective new parents. They suddenly found themselves cut off.

“These are the families that were completely out of luck, and it’s just a tragedy,” Kunz said.

Families tell stories of paperwork abruptly returned unprocessed by Russian government offices; of decorated rooms and boxes of toys with no one to claim them; of a feeling of loss akin to miscarriage, only worse in a way because they find themselves imagining what’s happening to the child left behind in the orphanage.

So far, 99 of the more than 300 children originally paired with U.S. families have been adopted by families in Russia or other mainly Western countries.

“It’s been heart-wrenching,” said Diana Gerson, a Manhattan rabbi who was poised to adopt an 18-month-old girl she last saw in St. Petersburg on Dec. 28, four days before the ban took effect.

Sergei Zheleznyak, a deputy speaker in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, said U.S. families should give up hope of completing any more adoptions. “Our goal is to take good care of all the orphans in our country and see to it that they find families inside Russia,” he said.

Critics in Russia refer derisively to the new ban as “Herod’s Law,” an allusion to the biblical tale of a massacre of infants purportedly ordered by King Herod in an attempt to kill the baby Jesus.

Russian journalist Victoria Ivleva-Yorke has served as a legal advisor to more than 20 U.S. families who are preparing to submit cases to the European Court of Human Rights, alleging a violation of the rights of stranded adoptees, including Timofey, who are not likely to find other homes.

But even if the families prevail, the European court is not allowed to overturn Russian court decisions — which would comply with the ban — so the victory will be a Pyrrhic one unless the Kremlin faces so much international censure it reverses the decision.

Seeing no progress in negotiations between the U.S. State Department and the Kremlin, the Nagels and Gerson are among those who are preparing to go to the European court, if only because doing nothing is something they cannot bear.

Timofey, who doesn’t talk but clearly watches and listens, is growing too old for the baby house, Nikiforova said. He will soon move to an orphanage for older children, where he will remain until he’s 18. After that, if his case goes as most Down syndrome cases do, he will probably spend the rest of his life in an asylum.

“With each new change he will experience a new trauma and will be surrounded with less and less love and care,” Natalia Nikiforova, chief doctor at Baby Home No. 13 said, “until he ends up completely ignored and neglected in his utter solitude.”

The Nagels said they are determined not to let that happen, but feel helpless.

“It’s a terrible feeling to know there’s this very grim future for this child that you want to be in your home,” Bethany Nagel said, “and there’s nothing you can do to make that happen.”

By Sergei L. Loiko and Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times
Photography by Sergei L. Loiko

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