When I first heard the news that the Russian Parliament had passed a law banning overseas adoptions of Russian children to the United States, I was relieved. "Good", I thought. "Now Russia will start taking responsibility for her own children."
But when I saw on television a grieving prospective American adoptive mother, my heart went out to her. I thought of my friend Murray, who, over 40 years ago when he thought the adoption of his second adopted daughter from Korea had been thwarted, had publicly burst into tears. Men didn't do that back in the late 60s. Fortunately, the adoption came through in the end.
And then I heard a radio interview of the disabled Russian orphan, Alexander D'Jamoos, who wrote to the Russian President Vladamir Putin, pleading with him not to sign into law the ban on adoptions. He, along with 60,000 other Russian orphans, had been adopted into the United States, in his case, when he was 15. Without acrimony, he told of a life of disadvantage in the Russian orphanage where he had to get around on his stomach on a skateboard – his scooter - because his legs were deformed. Sometimes, when a wheel came off, he would not get a new scooter for some time. Finally, he was taken to the US for medical treatment where his legs were amputated and he was fitted with prosthetic legs. He grew close to his host family who managed to adopt him before he turned 16, the cut-off age for adoptions.
Alexander is now a 21 year old student at the University of Texas studying international relations and government. Over the past northern summer, he and friends, to raise awareness of disabled orphans in Russia, hiked to the summit Mt Kilimanjaro in Africa although, because he has no knee joints, he took his prostheses off and crawled for the last 12 hours. He goes back to Russia regularly, including to the orphanage where he was raised. Many of his fellow disabled orphans have "graduated", that is, left the orphanage, but are now living in nursing homes with ageing people.
"It's shocking," he says, "and that's why I wrote the letter. Every time I go back, I see my friends – they're either using drugs or on the streets and nowhere to go. The law assumes that everyone will have a better life in Russia but it's such a false statement. To me it is just shocking. There are no arguments that can ever justify this."
Earlier in the interview, Alexander had said: "It is so transformational being in a family."
Indeed, this was the rationale behind my adopting a Korean orphan 41 years ago and a Vietnamese one 37 years ago. They are now 42 and 40 and living happy and successful lives. This is not to say all international or interracial adoptions are successful. Some children come with mental scars that cannot be overcome, even in the most loving adoptive families. Sometimes the stresses and strains cause marriages to break up, as in my case and those of friends.
But for four decades now I have contemplated whether it was the right thing to do. The classic argument was: "You cannot take a child away from his culture" as though we were wresting these children away from an idyllic life of 'dancing around the maypole' as one adoptive parent ironically put it. The reality, of course, is way different. My children were relatively well cared for by the Holt International Children's Agency whose founder, Harry Holt, an Oregon farmer had adopted orphaned children after the Korean war and helped others to do so. His hope was that, by establishing good adoption practices in a country, that country would in turn establish adoption agencies itself such that only in-country adoptions would be necessary. Sadly, fifty years later in Korea, a country that is now relatively wealthy, children are still being shipped out to other countries for adoption.
In Vietnam, prior to the end of the war there, I spent three months helping out at the Holt orphanage in Saigon where my husband was paediatrician. The children were nutritionally well-cared for but the children under-stimulated. One dull-eyed 13 year old girl would care for a room full of two year olds who would scrape paint off the walls for something to do. No toys, no love, no nothing. And this was an orphanage with a good reputation! I started taking 20 two year olds at a time to our home for a couple of hours play on Saturday mornings, but they had no idea what 'play' was. I gave them all my children's toys, largely toy matchbox cars, and they would sit there, each with two handfuls, not knowing what to do with them. I had a sandbox for them but my Vietnamese maid thought it food and then remonstrated with me when she found it inedible. She had no idea of 'play' either.
Korea, then Vietnam, had a war. Bad things happen in war and children are given up by desperate parents. In poor countries, desperate parents give up their children because of poverty. This is not the place to judge them – we must only try and understand. Orphanages need not be bad places but the reality is they usually are, and even when they are reasonable, children are cast out when they are 18. In the case of Alexander's disabled friends, after the orphanage, it was a life on the streets or in nursing homes. For orphans not disabled, anywhere, it is a hard life unless you can make your way independently until you can find a spouse with whom to form a new life and a family of your own.
I wish international adoption were not necessary. I wish that all countries would look after their own. But they don't. So international adoption is still necessary. Not that we should get too hung up about it. My nephew and his wife adopted a Chinese three year old girl eight years ago. Stephanie is a star - bright and beautiful, greatly loved by her parents and extended family. We feel we're lucky to have her. Pity the poor children left behind.