[Dallas, Texas] Sophie snaps her fingers and, with her classmates, bounces, twirls and kicks to the tune of West Side Story’s “America” blaring through the dance studio sound system.
The 10-year-old, adopted from Russia by U.S. parents nearly nine years ago, is a bright-eyed, carefree fourth-grader who wakes up with a song on her lips and a skip in her step, eager to make the world her stage. “From the day we brought her home, she loved to sing and dance,” said Vicki Davis of Ennis. “She was always taken with the performance aspect of life.”
Sophie was one of nearly 23,000 Russian children adopted by U.S. parents in 2004 — by far the high point for U.S. adoptions from that country. Every adoption involves an odyssey of background checks, reams of paperwork, legal hurdles, medical exams and screenings. When a child is adopted from a foreign country, there are also cultural considerations to understand and accept.
But at the end of all this labor, the reward is a family. “It took exactly nine months from the time we filed the paperwork,” said Vicki, “so it was like a pregnancy.”
She can’t imagine how hard it would be to terminate the adoption process once a child has been identified as a match. But earlier this year, that’s what happened to many couples after Russia announced it was banning all adoptions of Russian children by Americans.
That decision was in retaliation for a new U.S. law targeting alleged Russian human rights violations. But the ban also came in the aftermath of the death of a 3-year-old autistic boy adopted from Russia by a West Texas family. Russian authorities have accused the parents of mistreating the child. The autopsy found that the boy’s death was accidental and due to a self-inflicted blow.
Over the years, children adopted from Russia and other Eastern European countries have thrived with their new families, said Jan Wondra, head of the nonprofit Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoption, or FRUA.
“Over 99 percent of families who have adopted from Russia, Ukraine, Eastern Europe and Central Asia — their kids are doing well,” said Wondra, who lives in Colorado. “That doesn’t mean they don’t have challenges. Sometimes those challenges are immediate, and sometimes they don’t appear for many years.”
Orphanage No. 10
At birth, Sophie faced challenges that were immediate and potentially life-threatening. Born to an HIV-positive heroin addict in St. Petersburg, Russia, Sophie was dropped off at Orphanage No. 10. She was a foundling with few prospects and no name.
She was a casualty of two scourges plaguing Russia at the time — heroin and AIDS. The HIV-AIDS epidemic, which hit the U.S. in the 1980s, exploded in Russia in the early 2000s, especially among heroin addicts using dirty needles.
Adding to the plight of babies born to HIV-infected, heroin-addicted mothers was the discrimination these children faced in Russia, as well as the reluctance of foreigners to adopt HIV-positive children.
Half a world away in Texas, Vicki and Ronnie Davis were looking to adopt. Married in 1980, they lived on a ranch in Ennis. Vicki, now 54, worked as a lawyer at the time. Ronnie, 56, competed in National Cutting Horse Association events and worked on their ranch.
After discussing their options with several U.S. private adoption agencies, the couple decided upon an international adoption, finally settling on Russia. In August 2004, they learned that an orphanage in St. Petersburg had matched them tentatively to a 16-month-old girl. Within 10 days, they flew on the first of two trips to Russia.
They knew that Sophie’s mother had been infected with HIV, but they also knew that the transmittal rate was less than 15 percent if the birth was handled properly. That meant giving the pregnant mother anti-viral medication and delivering the baby by Caesarean section — a course of treatment that occurred with Sophie’s biological mother.
During Sophie’s stay at the orphanage, the medical staff had repeatedly tested her for HIV, “so they were 99.9 percent sure she did not have HIV,” Vicki said.
As a precaution, the couple hired a British doctor who worked in Russia to examine Sophie. That examination also showed that Sophie had no major medical problems, and the Davises were cleared to adopt.
Sophie was slow to warm up to the couple from Texas. “She wanted no part of us at first,” Vicki said, adding that it was “probably very normal” for a 16-month-old baby to react with anxiety to strangers.
They visited Sophie every day for a week. By the last day, she was starting to warm up to them. They returned to Texas to wait for the bureaucracy to digest all the paperwork. Finally, after two months, the Russian government gave them permission to pick up Sophie.
“We actually adopted her on the 11th of November,” Vicki said. “So that’s her ‘Gotcha Day,’ as it’s called. We celebrate it — not to the same extent as her birthday, but we recognize it and try to get her a gift.”
Vicki thought of giving Sophie a different name, but in the end decided to stay with the name given to her at the orphanage. “It struck me this was the only thing this baby owned of her own,” Vicki said, “so I just felt we couldn’t change her name.”
Her full name became Sophia Diana Frances Davis — but she’s always been called Sophie, for short.
When the Davises returned home to Ennis with Sophie, they hoped she might become interested in the dozen or so horses that roamed their ranch. But it quickly became clear that Sophie had the DNA of an entertainer.
Petite, with an endless supply of energy, she was motivated early on to sing, dance and act, Vicki said. “We always encouraged her because that seemed like something she loved.”
As a first-grader, after becoming entranced by the TLC show Toddlers & Tiaras, Sophie started going to pageants. That led to acting and dancing classes.
She’s a natural performer who often breaks into an impromptu routine. She’ll riff on a song from a Disney movie during the drive home from school, or rap out the lyrics of a hip-hop song before acting class. Her bedroom, filled with clothes, costumes and tiaras, resembles the dressing room of a theater — complete with a mounted floor-to-ceiling mirror.
“She’s always had this personality to attract people,” Vicki said. “She’s not shy at all.”
That was apparent during a recent family outing at her elementary school, an outdoor event that included sack races, dances, rock climbing and other games.
Sophie, with her long blondish-brown hair flying behind her, sprinted up to her friend Julissa, wrapping her in a tight hug. Then the two friends plopped down at a table to square off for an arm wrestling contest.
The family is making sure that she stays connected to her Russian heritage and culture. Since she was tiny, the Davises have read to her Russian fairy tales and other books with Russian subjects. Sophie takes Russian language lessons, and the family has developed a close relationship with the director of the Russian School of Dallas.
In October, Sophie saw the Moscow Sretensky Monastery Choir at the Majestic Theatre. Made up of 40 men singing in the Russian choral tradition, the choir is more than 600 years old, and their concerts incorporate everything from church chants to Russian folk music.
When Sophie tries to imagine what Russia looks like, she thinks of “all the towers,” which she has seen in books, she said. But it’s the Russian culture that most attracts her. “I like the music and all the dancing and singing.”
So whether she’s running wild on the playground, attending a Russian concert or hip-hop dancing to the latest American rap song, Sophie is growing up, both a Texan and a Russian. With her parents to guide her — and her innate spirit to drive her — she is coming into her own.
By David Tarrant , The Dallas Morning News
Photo by Lara Solt