Friday, April 16, 2010

The Suspension of Russian Adoption

The New York Times yesterday reported Russia’s formal announcement to suspend indefinitely all adoptions of Russian children by Americans, this in the wake of the case of Torry Ann Hansen, who reportedly sent her adopted son of just one year, seven year old Justin (Named Artyom in Russia) back to Russia by plane.

I am a little hesitant to comment, in the first place because it feels a little presumptuous, the idea that my own experience as the happy, proud, and blessed father of two children who were adopted internationally – one from Russia, one from Kazakhstan but of Russian heritage – in any way equips me to speak with special authority on this incident or its aftermath. If there is one rule of thumb that one can take from the adoption process, it is that no two cases are alike. Each is the product of several complex, often very painful backstories, as well as a myriad of practical, legal, and cosmic contingencies that no distant analysis can possibly hope to assess. No one following the story of the Hansens (no relation, for the record) through press reports knows nearly enough to assert anything useful or meaningful about who exactly is at fault or what exactly should have been done to avoid such an obviously tragic situation.

To the broader issue of how this story has affected the status of Americans wanting to adopt from Russia, however, I have a number of reactions, all drawn from experience, all offered in hopes of tamping down some of the rasher responses that this incident seems to have elicited.

First, to the extent that Artyom’s case may be seen to expose systemic negligence or cravenness on the part of any of the parties involved -- American adoption agencies, the Russian orphanage system and Educational Bureau that oversees international adoption -- my own experience was that the individuals involved, from the domestic agents, to foreign agents, lawyers, doctors, drivers, translators, social workers, judges, nurses, and caretakers, were almost universally well-intentioned, caring, professional, and dedicated to a degree that I have frankly not seen in any other walk of life. Obviously exceptions exist. Anywhere there is money to be made and people in desperate situations, opportunists will emerge. That does not change the fact that 99% of the people working to bring together adoptive children and adoptive parents are heroes. They are saints and angels walking among us, and I consider the opportunity to have worked with them – though “work” is obviously not the word – to be one of the great privileges, and one of the most humbling experiences, of my entire life.

Like most couples who reach the point of adopting internationally, my wife and I felt ourselves to be in a pretty desperate, defenseless situation, at the mercy of a highly bureaucratic system over which we had very little control. Yet as we wended our way through, and particularly at the most crucial period while we were abroad and committing legally and emotionally to our children (which is actually a pretty good story, you should read it some time), we encountered a level of attention, expertise and understanding beyond anything we could possibly have imagined. It was frankly surreal, the amount of time and care these people brought to our effort, and there is literally not a day that passes that I do not think of them, all of them -- common ordinary everyday people, living in remote corners of the world, in homes of their own with children of their own and problems of their own, who nonetheless, unbidden by anything but the generosity of their spirits, worked so tirelessly to make our family and our happiness possible. God bless them all to the end of their days, and please don’t let this latest unrelated incident tar their efforts or the incalculable good they have done.

That said, anyone trying to put in perspective the Russian response to this incident should know: such suspensions are not all that unusual. They’re pretty par for the course, in fact, which is why one bit of advice that I do give couples considering international adoption is that they need to be light on their feet. International adoption is a constantly shifting landscape. Countries open up and shut down their programs all the time, in part because incidents of abuse, deception, and corruption do occur – no system is fail-safe – and when they do, there exists in most of these countries very active local lobbying groups that are virulently opposed to international adoption, and that are ready to pounce on these stories like tigers.

To a degree, one can understand. There is no greater natural resource than a nation’s children, and one can see how upsetting and offensive it might feel, watching those children being taken away by foreigners on airplanes. If foreign couples were routinely coming to America to adopt American-born children, you better believe there would be organizations dedicated to opposing it, who would be calling it blight on the nation’s character, and who would, like existing groups abroad, attribute the most disgusting imaginable motives to these foreign adoptive parents: accusing them of buying children to put them to work, or to exploit them sexually, etc. etc. These things are said, and they would be said here too if the shoe were on the other foot. So it is that stories like that Torry Anne Hansen’s are seized upon both by nativists, publicity-mongers, and hay-making politicians, as they serve to support the cause and vindicate the worst suspicions of some very suspicious minds.

Fortunately, there also exists in all these countries much saner, more compassionate, less paranoid minds that do recognize the fundamental good of adoption, and who tend eventually to prevail in restoring and improving such programs, contingent upon new rules and regulations designed to redouble the vigilance of the various agencies and parties involved, to make sure that the corruption, deception, and lassitude that invariably creep into any operation is kept to a minimum.

All this, of course, dances around the other question to which such incidents invariably give rise (just go check the comments sections of any related blog-post), and that is: why would anyone want to adopt of a foreign child in the first place when there are so many perfectly good American children who need homes and loving families? I can’t pretend that this is a mindset for which I have a whole lot of time or sympathy. The idea that “patriotism” should be informing a couple’s most intimate decision about how they want to form a family just seems odd to me, a little sick, and frankly un-American. All children deserve loving homes. Any couple or individual who wants to provide such a home to any child anywhere should be encouraged and supported and not have to suffer the insinuation of being somehow elitist or America-hating for the path they choose.

The fact is, adopting a child, whether one does so domestically or internationally, is an extremely difficult thing to do – logistically, financially, and most of all emotionally. In this day and age, most couples who have come to the threshold of adoption have traveled and long and painful road, marked all along the way by failure and heartbreak. They are not picking and choosing options based upon their personal preferences and prejudices. They are being forced to choose priorities among a list of variables – age, gender, medical risk, expense, delay, ethnicity, and nationality – none of which they want to have to consider, but which they must consider in order to proceed towards the elusive goal of becoming parents. What tilts a given couple in one direction over another is likely to be very subtle. I suppose patriotism could be an element, sure (a twisted take on it anyway). So could family background, so could the couple’s age, or the environment in which they live. So could personal medical history, family history, timing, who they know, friends who have had good experience with one route, friends who have a bad experience with another. The point is, it is an unimaginably subtle and complex set of influences that guide an adoptive couple on their path, but what they are looking for, above all, is WHAT WILL WORK. After all that struggling and doubt and false starts and failure, they just want a sign that this is the way is it supposed to be; this is the way that it will be. For some, those signs point to Russia; for others, they point to Korea, or Guatemala, or Ethiopia, or China, or Tennessee, or Florida, or the Foster agency down the block. The hope is that everyone is eventually able to find the path that works for them and for the children; not that they find the path that works for someone else.

And this brings us, finally, to the individuals who have been most adversely affected by this recent decision, and those are the families whose adoptions are still pending, but which have now been put on hold indefinitely. The Times reported that there were 250 such families right now. Again, I’m loathe to make assumptions about the experience of people I do not know, but as one who has walked down this particular road, I can say with a reasonable degree of certainty that these people are devastated – heartbroken, confused, angry, and bereft. They had reason to believe that their dream was finally becoming a reality. They had seen the light at the end of the tunnel. The light was an actual person, a child, whom they had already held and promised their hearts to. Yesterday, for reasons having nothing to do with them or those children, that light went dark again. Those children have been wrested from their hearts, and have been replaced by all the doubts and discouragement they have been fighting to overcome since deciding they wanted to be parents.

Obviously, as a rubbernecker, I am intrigued and concerned by whatever motivated Torry Anne Hansen to do what she did. I am concerned for Artyom as well and I wish him the brightest possible future. But I’ll admit it, my deepest concern right now is with the other victims of this incident – the families that might have been and might still be – and it is to them I extend my most earnest and heartfelt prayers, that they find a way to stay strong and determined, be patient, continue to trust their instinct, and find a way to understand: all of these obstacles and setbacks will serve them some day, God willing, as parents.