Page last updated at 11:40 GMT, Sunday, 16 May 2010 12:40 UK

Adopting from Russia with love... and trepidation

Russian orphans growing up American

Russia and the US are negotiating changes to overseas adoption procedures after a controversy last month sparked by an American adoptive mother who sent her son back to Moscow alone. The BBC's Kim Ghattas met a Pennsylvania family with a unique perspective on US-Russia adoptions.

In a leafy town in Pennsylvania, four children and their parents are reunited after a day at school and work. Abby, 14, is showing off her purple nail polish, Lydia, nine, wants to rehearse on her cello.

Trevor, seven, and Hayden, 11, are wolfing down snacks prepared by their mother Julie, while father Mike asks about homework.

They appear the all-American family, but the children were all adopted in Russia and the transition has been a sometimes arduous journey for the Jones clan.

"It just seemed that the need was so great, that it really just pulled at our heartstrings, that it was the right place for us to be," says Julie Jones, describing the decision to adopt the children from their homeland.

If we had seen the videos, in all honesty, we probably would have inquired about some other children
Mike Jones

Abby and Hayden were adopted first, in 1999. Six years later, Julie and Mike and the two children went back to the same orphanage in Russia to adopt Trevor and Lydia.

Russian orphans, especially when they are adopted as older children, are often damaged, mentally and physically, by life in orphanages and by the drinking and smoking of birth mothers.

In the first videos her future parents saw, Abby looked like a sweet timid child. The couple expected some challenges but didn't realise how much Abby suffered from attachment disorder.

After the adoption was completed, the orphanage gave the couple more videos showing a very different child - much angrier, almost menacing.

Adopted Russian girl Abby
Abby says that life in the US is better than it might have been in Russia

"If we had seen the videos, in all honesty, we probably would have inquired about some other children," Mike Jones says.

"It's a challenge for the adoption agency because they want to get as many children adopted as they can. But at the same time, there probably are some instances where they're putting the children in a little better light than they are."

'Failing system'

Mike and Julie are very happy Abby is in their life and, overall, satisfied with the US adoption agency they used. But they count themselves lucky that the problems the children had were not more serious, and that with the support of friends and family they were able to provide the right environment for the children.

But not all adoptive parents are able to cope and that's where the system starts failing. Even young Abby knows it.

"Because I was raised in such a good family, it's better here than it was in Russia," she says, sitting on a swing in her parents' garden.

"There's a lot of kids who should be [allowed] to come, but I just think that [both] governments should just look at the families more closely."

The case of seven-year-old Artyom Savelyev - sent back to Russia alone by his adoptive mother with a note saying she no longer wished to parent the child - sparked anger in Russia at the US.

A swing set is seen in the backyard of Torry Hansen and Nancy Hansen's shared backyard in Shelbyville, Tenn
Artyom Savelyev was sent from his family home, back to Russia

There were calls for a total moratorium on adoptions with the US because this was not the first incident involving Russian orphans. Since the early 1990s, the Russian authorities say 18 orphans adopted internationally have died in their adoptive families, 17 of them in the US.

Just over two thirds of Russian orphans adopted abroad end up in the US. But 15 children also die every year under domestic Russian adoption, according to Russia's children rights ombudsman Pavel Astakhov.

The Russian Duma eventually rejected the motion calling for a freeze on adoption in the US while the two countries negotiate a bilateral agreement to improve the process.

The failings are on both sides. Russia is one of only three countries that has yet to ratify the 1993 Hague adoption convention which regulates international adoptions.

US officials want the Russian side to give more information about children, and sooner, so parents can make an informed decision.

"The parents don't see the complete medical status of the child until they show up to court for the final adoption," said one US senior official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the negotiations with Russia are ongoing.

"In some cases that may be a little later than the parents would have wanted to see it depending on what it says."

Dr Ronald Federici, a clinical neuropsychologist in Virginia, who has worked with adoptive families, tells a similar story.

He says the information is often only one or two pages of redacted information badly translated, given to the parents when they are in court, the child already in their arms.

Some parents, albeit overwhelmed by their new knowledge, feel obligated to bring the child home and then problems start. Others simply leave the children behind, according to Dr Federici.

That's why the issue of matching children with the right family is so important.

We're not getting a fifth - but we have no regrets
Adopting parents Mike and Julie

Some families are able and willing to deal with problem children, others are not and US adoption agencies are being urged to put in place a better vetting system. Many observers said Artyom should never have been adopted by the single mother he was matched with.

There are also concerns that families are not getting appropriate post-adoption support, after the adopted child arrives in the US.

This support is currently not mandated or enforced and because Russia is not part of the Hague process, the US state department cannot bar agencies that fail to provide it.

If things break down, there is little recourse for the families. So the sad, little known fact is that Russian adoptees are often simply sent back to Russia.

Not all of them make it into the news like Artyom. In the last 10 years, Dr Fedirici alone has seen 39 children sent back to Russia.

"[These children] have foetal alcohol syndrome, trauma, deprivation, neglect, abuse, malnutrition and illness. These things can be overcome, but it's a very arduous process," said Dr Federici.

But for the Jones family, back in Pennsylvania, it is a happy ending.

"We're not getting a fifth," said Julie, laughing, "but no, we have no regrets."

The key now, for both the US and the Russian governments is to make sure other families too have no regrets about adopting from Russia.

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