Written by Maura Ammenheuser, The Tennessean
It's been a month since Russian President Vladimir Putin signed legislation to stop adoptions of Russian children by American families. For those families, that's a month of not knowing if they'll see their child again.
John Simmons, a Kamas, Utah, father of nine kids - five of them adopted from Russia - compares the feeling to facing a death in the family.
"These people believe these are their kids," Simmons said, "and the kid just died, or it's like they're on life support."
Nationwide, 950 parents have contacted the U.S. State Department about their Russian adoptions. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said some will be allowed. But public statements have been brief, infrequent and, for parents, maddeningly vague.
One such family lives near Nashville. The couple have met their Russian son, but by Jan. 1 didn't have a court date. They wonder if they'll ever bring him home. The family wouldn't publicly discuss details; the adoption agency advised that the situation is so delicate that public comments could jeopardize the adoption.
Adopting a Russian child has become more complicated and expensive in recent years.Small World Adoption in Mt. Juliet is among agencies that have stopped handling Russian adoptions. Executive Director Jim Savley said Russia keeps increasing the number of required visits. Including travel, adopting a Russian child can cost more than $50,000.
Russian adoptions are overseen by regional courts with varying policies, and officials can get unpredictably picky.
Jeff and Elaine Jolly of Mt. Juliet have five children adopted from Russia. Jeff recalled arriving in Russia two years ago, with their four older kids in tow, to pick up their youngest boy, Dima, but had to overcome a last-minute complication when a Russian bureaucrat disliked the appearance of the seal on a particular document.
Russia has put the brakes on U.S. adoptions before. As Alan and Kim Clark of Franklin moved through the two-year process to adopt their three daughters, "there were two bans," Alan said. "It happens all the time with Russia. It's just not official. If America does something the government doesn't like, they slow the whole process down."
The current ban is different, though, Savley said: "Never in my memory has it been done with the president of the country coming out and making a statement."
Move Seen As Retaliation
The move is viewed as retaliation for U.S. sanctions against Russia over human rights violations. And families who have adopted from Russia say officials there are concerned about abuse by American families.
In 2009, a Russian toddler adopted by a Virginia couple died after being left in a hot car. Then came the Torry Hansen case. Hansen is the Shelbyville woman who in 2010 put her 7-year-old adopted son on a plane back to Russia bearing a note saying he was violent.
Jolly blamed that "debacle" for a crackdown that prevented the Jollys from adopting a sixth child from Russia. Simmons said after the Hansen case, Russia began requiring families to make three trips to Russia, instead of two.
"Tennessee has got a big honkin' black eye" in Russia's view, Savley said, because of Hansen and Mt. Juliet doctor Deborah Mark. In 2010, Mark killed her 4-year-old daughter, who was adopted from China.
"Other countries hear that," Savley said. "And they ask, 'People walk into school and kill 20 kids?' " The Newtown, Conn., school shootings didn't make America look any safer.
Jolly feels the small number of adoption tragedies should be weighed against thousands of happy ones. U.S. families adopted about 45,100 Russian children from 1999 to 2011, according to the State Department.
Many Americans have chosen Russian children because they're white, like the vast majority of families who adopt them, said Savley, Simmons and Clark. Families now intimidated by the Russian process turn to China instead, where the cost might max out at $23,000.
Besides China, Savley's clients now mainly look to Ethiopia, Bulgaria and Madagascar for foreign adoptions.
Dina and John Demarest, of Smyrna, considered adopting a Russian child but turned to South Korea instead.
"I felt better about the care Korea gave the babies," Dina said.
In Korea, the children are raised in foster care, not orphanages as in Russia. Dina worried a Russian child would develop emotional problems.
Children raised in orphanages tend to develop reactive detachment disorder, an inability to bond with others out of fear those bonds will be broken, said Barbara Grunow, director of adoptions for Memphis' Youth Villages, a child-welfare nonprofit. The Simmonses learned this personally; their oldest Russian daughter suffers mental health problems.
The Demarests also considered cost. They didn't have to travel to South Korea. They met Abby, now 7, after she was brought to the U.S. in infancy.
Once families meet their Russian children, though, race and money are less important than heartstrings.
When the Simmonses applied in 2004, their paperwork was approved for up to three children. They intended to bring home two sisters. The orphanage mentioned there was also an 18-month-old boy needing adoption. His parents had committed suicide.
"You hear this, and you look at the kid," Simmons said. "And you can't say no."
Savley urged families to keep talking with their agencies, whose employees in Russia can best monitor the situation. He predicted a period of near-zero public discussion, which has proved true. Savley interprets this as a sign of back-room international negotiating.
Jeff Jolly says families should try to stay positive. "How much is the life of a child worth?" he asked. "Is it worth the emotional agony for a year or two?"
"By all means hang in there," Jolly said. "All the waiting and the grief going though the process is worth it. Once you have that child with you, all that evaporates. It's just joy."