Kathy Gnirk has experienced firsthand the uncertainties that diplomatic upheavals can put in the paths of parents seeking international adoptions.
In 2010, the Omaha mom was waiting to adopt a second child from Russia, a sister for the daughter she had brought home in 2008.
Then a frustrated Tennessee woman sparked an international incident by putting a 7-year-old boy she had adopted from a Russian orphanage on a plane back to his native land. The case prompted public outrage in Russia and concerns in the United States that Russian adoptions could be cut off.
Gnirk's hopes for another daughter soon looked like “a pipe dream,” she said.
She didn't give up. It took an extra year of work, but the adoption eventually went through.
Tessa, now 3, came home the day after Easter 2011. She joined her preschool classmates in a weather-delayed holiday program last week, singing “Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree,” while Gnirk and Tessa's sister, Amanda, now 9, watched from the front row.
But Gnirk and others fear that a new Russian ban on adoptions by U.S. citizens will leave other prospective parents disappointed and, more importantly, will leave other orphans without homes. Such changes also have a wider effect, raising the specter of possible roadblocks in other countries.
“Why are you punishing kids?” Gnirk said. “Children are happiness, not political pawns.”
Indeed, the bill Russian President Vladimir Putin signed Friday has been widely viewed as retaliation against a new American law aimed at punishing human rights abuses in Russia.
The Russian law calls for the ban to take effect today. It apparently nullifies a U.S.-Russia treaty on adoptions that took effect Nov. 1, a pact that contained added protections for children in response to several high-profile deaths of adopted Russian children in the United States.
Lynn Wetterberg, executive director of Adoption ARK, the international adoption agency in Buffalo Grove, Ill., that handled Gnirk's adoptions, said it's unclear how the law will affect adoptions already in the works in Russia. A notification provision in the treaty appears to offer an opportunity to allow the cases in progress to continue. But the Russian legislation could halt them.
Nor is it clear how many Nebraska and Iowa families may be caught up in the dispute. Russia traditionally hasn't been at the top of the list for Nebraska and Iowa families seeking international adoptions, said Jessyca Vandercoy, director of permanence and well-being programs with Lutheran Family Services in Omaha.
The agency, which conducts home studies before international adoptions and provides follow-up services afterward, doesn't have many families currently adopting from Russia. One family, however, has traveled there to visit a young boy they already consider their son. “They're probably very nervous and scared,” Vandercoy said.
Russian officials have indicated the ban could prevent the departure of 46 children ready to be adopted by U.S. parents. American adoption agencies have estimated that between 200 and 250 sets of parents had identified children they planned to adopt.
“Unfortunately, (for) all of these families, we would love to have answers, but we don't at this time,” Wetterberg said. “And over the holidays, it makes it even worse.”
The Russian law also is creating angst for parents seeking to adopt from other countries, said Susan Soonkeum Cox, vice president for policy and external affairs with Holt International Children's Services in Eugene, Ore.
Families trying to adopt in Ethiopia, which also recently made changes to its adoption laws, have been particularly anxious, she said. Holt, which has an office in Omaha, no longer works in Russia.
“We don't have any sense that this is going to happen anywhere else, but it makes people fearful,” Cox said. “It's sort of impossible to believe that a country would use their children as leverage and retaliation for a process they don't believe in.”
People adopt internationally for a variety of reasons, said Cox. Some offer homes to children from troubled spots, such as Romania or Haiti. Others don't want to navigate the bureaucracy at home.
Some seek babies, of which there is only a small pool in the United States. Others may be wary of the open adoptions that are more common here. Those typically include ongoing ties to birth parents.
Russia has been one of the top three sources for international adoptions by Americans for well over a decade. More than 45,000 such children have been adopted since 1999, according to U.S. State Department records.
International adoptions overall have declined steeply in recent years, from a peak of nearly 23,000 in 2004 to about 9,300 in 2011, including 962 from Russia.
Such adoptions have become more difficult in recent years, Cox and others said, partly because of rule changes, including The Hague Adoption Convention, intended to protect children's rights and address corruption in some quarters.
The families involved are subject to changing politics and policies, said Dr. Edward Kolb, an Omaha pediatrician whose family has adopted seven children — five from China and two from Romania.
“With all of our adoptions, we never felt like it was a done deal until we were on a plane coming home,” he said.
Stu Dornan of Omaha and his family have seen those shifts as well. His family adopted four children from Romania. The last, a daughter a decade ago, was one of the last children adopted from that country before it essentially closed to international adoptions. The Dornans later adopted a son, Nikita, now 13, from Russia.
Putin also signed a resolution calling for improvements to Russia's child welfare system, including measures to ease adoptions by Russian citizens. But some wonder about the country's capacity to absorb so many children.
Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a nonprofit group working to improve adoption policies and practices, said Russia doesn't have the resources or the infrastructure to provide what its orphaned children need, nor a culture of adoption.
UNICEF estimates that about 740,000 children are not in parental custody in Russia, while about 18,000 Russians are on the waiting list to adopt a child.
“No matter what they do,” he said, “they're not going to do it tomorrow. So for some period of time the children who are withering away in these orphanages will stay where they are. And that's heartbreaking.”
Putin's signature on the Russian ban, said Dornan, a former Douglas County attorney, will limit opportunities for kids to have families.
“It's really frustrating,” he said. “It's a golden opportunity wasted for the children of the world.”
The opportunity to provide a family — for a child and for herself — was precisely what drove Gnirk, a single mom, to adopt.
First came Amanda, then Tessa, both from the same orphanage in southern Siberia.
The second adoption was more difficult. With Amanda, the waiting period after her court date was waived, meaning Gnirk had to make only two trips.
With Tessa, the waiting period held, requiring three trips. Gnirk also had to complete a psychiatric evaluation, which she hadn't done the first time. And extra paperwork was required to make sure legal provisions were in place so Tessa would be cared for if something happened to Gnirk.
Gnirk sometimes wonders what would have happened if her girls had stayed in Russia. Amanda had crossed eyes and suffered sleep apnea, both of which have been corrected with surgeries. Now a third-grader, Amanda likes school, participates in Brownies, takes piano lessons and has “personality to spare.”
The girls have even helped bring Gnirk's extended family closer together, she said. Her siblings try to help with the girls. Photographs feature outings with family members and birthday cakes baked by Gnirk's sister.
“They all love them,” she said.
This report includes material from World-Herald press services.
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