Russian adoption ban still affecting prospective parents

Jody Johnson of Lansdale with son Jonah, 7, who may be sharing his room with two boys from Eastern Europe whom Johnson hopes to adopt.
Jody Johnson of Lansdale with son Jonah, 7, who may be sharing his room with two boys from Eastern Europe whom Johnson hopes to adopt. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 18, 2014

For a while, Jody Johnson was hopeful. She kept the clothes and toys she had bought for Oksana, the young Russian girl with Down syndrome she planned to adopt.

Johnson, a divorced mother from Lansdale, listened in on conference calls with U.S. officials and corresponded with other families who felt as abandoned as the children they were forced to leave behind.

But a year after President Vladimir V. Putin signed legislation banning the adoption of Russian children by Americans, families such as Johnson's have been forced to change course, albeit reluctantly.

"I still e-mail her orphanage on holidays, her birthday," said Johnson, 38, an Air Force technical sergeant. "I don't hear back."

Johnson, who went to Russia to meet Oksana, then 6, has made the difficult decision to adopt from a country other than Russia. Others are doing the same or adopting within the United States, adoption officials and activists say.

Still other prospective parents have "put things on hold or given up completely," said Alex Dzurovchik, director of operations for the International Assistance Group, a Pittsburgh agency that had specialized in Russian adoptions.

In late December 2012, Putin signed legislation establishing the ban, which some see as retribution for a U.S. law targeting Russians deemed to be human-rights violators and a reaction to allegations of abuse against some American parents of Russian adoptees. Others see it as a move to dispel a perception that Russia needs a political rival and Western superpower to take care of its children.

The ban affected at least 1,000 families and Russian children, said Jan Wondra, acting national chair of Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoption, Including Neighboring Countries, a parent support and advocacy group.

The emotional impact has been devastating, said Diane Kunz, director of the Center for Adoption Policy in New York.

"Once you get a picture [of a Russian youngster], that's your child," Kunz said.

'Gut-wrenching'

The prospective parents were in varying stages in the lengthy adoption process, which involved multiple trips to Russia and cost about $50,000.

A dozen families working with the Adoptions From the Heart agency in Wynnewood had to start over, said Sam Wojnilower, coordinator of international services.

Russian children who were visited by their prospective new parents and told they would have new homes have received no explanations, advocates say.

"It's gut-wrenching," Wojnilower said.

Some families are fighting back with activism. They are participating in petition drives and lobbying government officials to change the law. Some have filed complaints in the European Court of Human Rights, protesting the ban.

Jim Thompson and his wife, Sze Man Yau, were lucky. The Plymouth Meeting couple made it home from Russia with their 2-year-old daughter, Elena, three weeks before Putin signed the law on Dec. 28, 2012.

"We heard rumors, but we were hopeful that it wouldn't impact us," said Thompson, 51, who traveled with Yau, 46, and Elena in a blizzard to reach the U.S. embassy and finalize their travel documents. "Then, sure enough, Putin did it."

Thompson described Putin's action as one that "cruelly treats kids like a political football."

For Johnson, Oksana was to be her first daughter. She has three biological children, boys ages 7 to 19.

"I chose Russia because I wanted children who don't have options to have a place to grow up," Johnson said, "So I asked my agency, 'What other programs are open?' "

Eventually, Johnson received a photo and referral of a 4-year-old boy from an Eastern European country. Later, when she read about the plight of an older child, age 12, she offered to take him, too.

Johnson has completed the first stages of the adoption approval process and expects to visit the boys in the next few months. She hopes to have them home by summer.

In the meantime, she is trying to help Oksana from 4,700 miles away. She plans to be interviewed by a Russian journalist, hoping publicity about Oksana's plight will move a Russian family to adopt her.

"As much as I would hate to give her up - in the event that Russia would open up again - I would rather her have family to grow with and love," Johnson said.

For now, she is readying a room in her Lansdale home for the boys. She plans for bunk beds. Members of Johnson's church have offered to help with babysitting.

Johnson's friends Amber and Ryan Gager of Atco are helping with the adoption costs.

The Gagers adopted daughter Lilya from Russia six months before the ban. Amber Gager, an artisan who makes scarves, is donating the proceeds of her sales to help Johnson pay her adoption fees, expected to total about $45,000.

Gager says she hopes the ban will be overturned.

Through it all, Johnson's thoughts of Oksana linger.

"I go on the website of the orphanage," she said. Every once in a while, there are pictures and she's in them. I'm pleased to see her and know that she's well."


kholmes@phillynews.com

610-313-8211

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