Photo: Katrina Morriss during her first meeting with Natasha (courtesy Morriss family)
Six months ago, Bill and Val Deutsch had two special ornaments hanging on their Christmas tree. One featured a photo of their soon-to-be son, 15-year-old Timothy*, who was halfway across the world in a Russian orphanage. The other portrayed their 14-year-old prospective daughter, Anna*, who lived in the same orphanage. A set of Russian dolls waited on the mantle for the day Anna came home.
The Deutsches’ home study for the international adoption had just been approved, paving the way for their first in-person meeting with Tim and Anna in Russia in late February. Only then would the teenagers know they had prospective parents who wanted them. They would be recognized as Bill and Val’s legal children just a few months after that, and finally come home to Richmond, Virginia.
With the end game in view, Bill, Val and their adult children all felt the season of expectant hope particularly strongly.
But today, Tim and Anna are still in their orphanage. They’ve never met — or even heard from — their almost-parents, despite the long paper trail and expense the Deutsches have endured on their behalf. Instead, the teenagers are just two of about 700 Russian children caught in an international spat between world powers, leaving emotionally and financially invested parents in limbo. After six months, some of these almost-parents are acknowledging that they’ve lost their children.
“You have these hopes that this is going to be your son or daughter,” Val remembers. “And then, when it’s taken away, it’s like a death — a bereavement.”
Russian president Vladimir Putin banned all in-progress adoptions of Russian children by American parents on December 28, 2012 — just days after the Deutsches finalized their paperwork. The ban followed hot on the heels of a U.S. law that denied visas to Russians accused of human-rights violations and froze their U.S. assets.
“We trust in the sovereignty of the Lord,” Val says, “but why in the world would the Lord put it on our hearts to reach out to [Tim], and then have the door close. You always have those spiritual struggles. You don’t know the why’s.”
Despite active lobbying by waiting parents, State Department efforts to reunite separated children and parents have gone nowhere. In the meantime, 99 of the more than 300 children have been adopted by families in Russia or other Western countries, according to the Los Angeles Times. And those are the bittersweet stories, since these children now have families, albeit not the ones they first met. However, one orphan, an almost 3-year-old girl with Down syndrome named Daria, passed away from an undiagnosed heart condition without any other prospects.
The diplomatic grinding has fallen especially hard on families who made their first trip to Russia, where they had a chance to meet and build relationships with their future children, before the ban took place. These families were a step ahead of the Deutsches in the adoption process, and were only waiting for an official court decree to finalize the adoption.
Katrina Morriss, who met her future daughter Natasha* in July of 2012, knows that the obstacles between her and her 7-year-old girl grow bigger every day the ban lingers. But she also knows that Natasha, who has Down syndrome, will almost certainly spend the rest of her life in an institution instead of a family home if the Morrisses can’t adopt her. Morriss and other families in her situation have shared their stories on the Facebook site 300 Broken Promises, a combination of support group and awareness campaign.
“We knew from the beginning that we were being asked by God to adopt her,” Morriss says. “She has no one else to fight for her if we give up.”
Morriss is quick to point out that Natasha’s orphanage is a bright spot among Russia’s eclectic and sometimes notorious social providers. Children with disabilities like Natasha’s are typically delivered to a mental institution before they age out of the system, and are rarely adopted domestically. Morriss is thankful that Natasha’s home can give her a place to live well into adulthood, but says, “It breaks our hearts thinking of this little girl that is now 7, spending her whole life in an institution instead of a loving family.”
The Deutsches and Morrisses were all hopeful that last week’s meeting between the U.S. and Russian presidents at the G8 Summit might finally broach the subject. More than 150 members of Congress even addressed a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to put the Russian adoption ban on the agenda. But the New York Times reported that Obama and Putin ignored human-rights matters in general, and the hundreds of stymied adoptions in particular, during their frosty interaction.
Many international adoption agencies have now closed their Russian offices since they can’t move forward. Christian World Adoption and Adoption ARK, two agencies heavily involved in Russian adoptions, have actually shut down since the ban was imposed, and cited the ban as a contributing factor.
The Deutsches spent all of January and February hoping the Kremlin would reconsider, but seeing the adoption agencies leave Russia brought them up short. It meant that no one expected a resolution anytime soon.
Time presents a real-world danger as well emotional one for Tim and Anna. As teenagers, they are within months of “graduation,” when they will age out of the child support system at 16 years old. The Deutsches know that if they wait on hope, it still might be too late for the two teenagers whose pictures won their hearts.
“The kids that we’re really burdened for are kids like Tim and Anna who are getting ready to age out of the system,” Bill said. “And we had to look at some point and say, there are kids in the same situation and their clock is ticking too.”
The statistics back them up. Six thousand of the approximately 15,500 Russian children who age out of orphanages every year are homeless within a few years, according to Human Rights Watch. Only four percent make it to university; for all the others, trade school options are skimpy at best. A third of these young adults are jobless, and many develop drug and alcohol addictions. The suicide rate jumps to over 10 percent a few years after graduation. The statistics are similar across the former Soviet bloc.
For parents who didn’t have the chance to tell their Russian children they loved them, relinquishing that path and pursuing others makes increasing sense. Bill and Val say they’re not the only ones in their support network of adoptive parents who are pursuing children in neighboring Eastern European countries. They’ve now submitted all the paperwork to adopt two other Eastern European teenagers, Estelle and Gerard.*
Even as they move forward with measured excitement, their experiences with their Russian children make them cautious.
“We were big on this is Tim and Anna and this is who we’re getting,” says Heidi, the Deutsches’ 18-year-old daughter who will soon head off to college. She chose a school close to home in part so she could get to know her new siblings. “And so it was hard, even after we committed to Estelle and Gerard, to say these are the kids we’re getting.”
Her mom feels the same way. “I’ve just held back emotionally. We all kind of have,” Val says. For her, seeing is believing now, and she doesn’t think she’ll feel the same excited emotions until she’s booked her ticket to meet her new children.
The Deutsch and Morriss families are each moving forward in their own way, influenced by where they were in the adoption process and how they feel God leading them.
But neither family has ceased praying for the Russian children they love. Bill Deutsch keeps Tim and Anna’s timezone in his iPhone’s world clock, and Heidi still has their photos on her dresser. Katrina Morriss and her husband still pray that Natasha will one day be part of a family, even if it can’t be theirs.
*All adoptee names are pseudonyms due to safety concerns.
Katherine Britton is a commercial and hired-gun writer and editor who still wears her green newspaper visor when she thinks no one is looking. You can read more of her work on her personal blog.
Publication date: June 24, 2013