Russian Adoption Ban Hits Home for Ohio Family

4:58 PM, Dec 28, 2012   |    comments
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John Johnston, The Cincinnati Enquirer

MONTGOMERY, Ohio - A few weeks ago, Mike Sweeney and his wife, Natalia Zimina, flew to Russia and met the 4-year-old boy they want to welcome into their family.

They visited the boy, named Constantin, in a St. Petersburg orphanage several times over the course of a week. They signed adoption papers with Russian officials.

"The child now calls us Mommy and Daddy," Sweeney said.

But Constantin, like scores of other children whose U.S. adoptions were already in process, will not be coming to the Sweeney's suburban Cincinnati home. On Friday, Russian President Vladimar Putin signed a bill to ban Americans adopting Russian children. It becomes effective Tuesday with the start of the new year.

The State Department has not yet tallied the number of U.S. families who were seeking visas to bring adoptees home to America but it may be in the hundreds. Russia was the third-largest source of foreign adoptions by U.S. citizens -- 962 children in 2011. But the number of adoptions has been steadily declining since it's peak of 5,862 in 2004.

Irene Jordan, director of assessments and international program director Adoptions Together, a Washington DC-area agency, said Friday that the legal lock down was the final move after years of "increasing sentiment against international adoption" from Russia to the USA. "They began requiring three and four trips a year for prospective parents and an ever-increasing number of documents."

Adoptions Together placed about 700 Russian children with U.S. parents between 1992 and 2010 before shutting their Russia office in 2010 "because of the increasing challenges and rising costs," Jordan said.

For Sweeney and Zimina and other U.S. families whose Russian adoptions are in progress, the latest news is devastating.

The couple, who have biological children ages 14, 8 and 5, needed just two additional trips to finalize the adoption. In the meantime, they left photo albums with the boy "and said we would be back soon to get him. So he's expecting us," Sweeney said.

"It's really unbearable," said Sweeney, a professor of philosophy at Xavier University. "We feel like we're failing the child. We said we'd come back for him. It's just hard. It's hard to imagine how crushed he's going to be.

"And on top of that, we're concerned about him getting the medical care he needs."

The special-needs boy has neurological and spinal problems.

Russia's anti-adoption bill is widely seen as the Kremlin's retaliation against an American law that calls for sanctions against Russians deemed to be human rights violators. It comes as Putin takes an increasingly confrontational attitude toward the West, brushing aside concerns about a crackdown on dissent and democratic freedoms.

About 60,000 Russian youngsters have been adopted in the U.S. in the past 20 years but there are about 740,000 children without parental care in Russia, according to UNICEF.

For Sweeney and Zimina, especially, there is a sad irony to a Russian ban on adoptions by Americans. She is a Russian native, born in Moscow.

"We speak Russian at home. We lived in Russia for a while. We have family in Russia," Sweeney said. "We are about as Russian as you can be without actually being in Russia."

His wife works for the city of Cincinnati as an architecture designer. "My connection to Russia is strong," she said, adding that she comes from a family that, in the years before the Russian Revolution, was among the country's most powerful.

"I really did want to help Russia," she said. And the way to do that, she felt, was by adopting one of its children. The couple say they have so far spent about $17,000 on the adoption.

Dr. Mary Staat, director of the International Adoption Center at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, said children adopted from Russia often pose challenges.

"The thing that stands out for Russia and Eastern Europe is the high rates of alcohol use and drug use that places those kids at higher risk. A lot of (adoptive) families have struggled with the long-term effects of fetal alcohol syndrome in their kids."

Because Constantin has special needs, he had already been rejected by an Italian couple who initially agreed to adopt him.

"He's going to consider this another betrayal," Zimina said.

"We still hope for the best, and we pray," she said. But as she follows developments in Russia, she feels hope is dwindling.

If need be, she said, she will ask her adoption agency to deliver a letter to the boy. In it, she will try to explain why the people he had begun calling Mommy and Daddy will not be coming back for him.

Contributing: Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

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