We don’t cover too much international news in the pages of the Messenger, preferring to keep the focus on people and events in Wise County. But I was intrigued by the recent story of Russia banning anyone from the United States from adopting children from their country.I recalled interviewing Decatur resident Serene Smith during my first month on the job here, back in the summer of 2000. Smith had recently adopted two children from Russia and was, at the time, operating an adoption service. I figured she might have a unique, local perspective on the story.
“It’s sad. They have so many kids over there who need homes,” she said of the situation in Russia.
Smith adopted biological siblings 13 years ago from a Russian orphanage where her two children had spent three years.
In the years since, the adoption has worked out well. Her kids, now in their early 20s, both have jobs. The oldest is married and has a child of his own. Both still live and work in Wise County.
Smith said it doesn’t always work out. Some children become so institutionalized that they can’t function in a family setting. In rare cases, adopted parents have done some, well… not-so-smart things. Smith recalled one parent in Tennessee putting an adopted child back on the plane to Russia. Russian leaders have pointed to these rare instances as reasons to ban U.S. adoptions of Russian children.
“Just because individuals do stupid things does not mean everyone that adopts is going to do crackpot things,” Smith said. “Most of them are good parents and want their children to do well.”
The Russian adoption ban looks a little like retaliation against the United States for a law that places financial sanctions on Russians who violate human rights, known as the Magnitsky Act, according to The Washington Post. The law is named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian who died while in prison awaiting trial. Magnitsky discovered a $230 million tax fraud being carried out by Russian police and tax officials, according to the Post story. He was arrested after accusing the officials. Magnitsky’s body showed signs of torture, but no one has been punished for the crime.
Media coverage of the adoption ban has brought much attention to the plight of Russian orphans. One Post story said that there are 740,000 orphan children waiting for adoption in the country. Many of those have parents in Russia, but with a poor economy, many parents simply can’t afford to raise their children, handing them over to the state.
Smith said she has seen the corruption at work in Russia, often in the adoption process. She said the government needs to do something to crack down on it, but banning adoptions just hurts their own children.
“I hate to see children, whether in the United States or anywhere else in the world, not have access to loving homes due to political conflicts,” she said. “There has got to be a better way of dealing with it than banning adoptions.”
Perhaps the worst part is that some families who have already begun the adoption process will not be able to complete it. Smith can speak from personal experience on how the bond with a child begins well before a parent physically meets the child.
“Before we got started, we had video,” Smith explained. “It was almost like a sonogram. That was my baby. It didn’t matter that they were in Russia. It was a picture, and it was real, it was my baby. I don’t know why God put him in Russia, but he was my baby and I had to go get him.
“For these parents who are already in the process and now probably won’t be able to get that child, not only will it be a big financial loss for them, it will be a huge emotional loss as well. When I turned on that video, my kids were the first two on that tape. I knew those were the ones I was supposed to have. There were 40 kids on that tape. I looked at the whole tape and kept coming back to those kids. That’s them.”
The adoption ban means more Russian children will remain in orphanages until they age out of the system at 16. Smith said at that point, the children are turned out on the street. With no education, skills or family, they often turn to petty theft to survive, Smith said.
U.S. adoption of Russian children may not have a spotless record, but Smith said the alternative is much worse.
“There’s always going to be bad situations and there will always be children that don’t work out with families for one reason or another, but they have an opportunity here,” she said. “Once they are placed in a home, they have access to resources, access to opportunities they are never going to have in an orphanage, whether it is in Russia or Ecuador or China or where ever they are [coming] from.
“As long as they are in an orphanage setting, the chances of them having a life, an education, a future for themselves is slim to none.”
Russian politicians may not see it that way, but many Russian citizens do. Smith shared the story of a man she and her husband met in Russia when they went to pick up their two adopted children. The man, who taught history at the University of Russia, drove her husband to pick up the children’s visas.
“When (her husband) came back, the gentleman said, ‘All is good?’ My husband said, ‘All is good.’ He said, ‘I’m a proud Russian, but today there is no future for children here. You saved two lives today,’” Smith said.
Smith believes, or at least hopes, that the Russian government will soon see that banning adoptions is a mistake that ends up hurting their country’s children even more.
“I hope with time reason will prevail,” she said. “We need to be looking out for the kids, and where that is going to bring us tomorrow if we don’t.”