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Putin Is Wrong About My Kids

Our adopted children escaped the misery of Russian orphanages. Others won’t be as lucky.

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The author’s children, Victor and Alex. (Courtesy Sharon Dilworth)
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Our son Victor was born thousands of miles from us, near the Finnish-Russian border, and placed in a baby home immediately after birth. His mother signed away all her rights, claiming she did not have the money to raise him. He was healthy—a blond with blue eyes. Unlike other countries, in Russia newborn babies are not available for international adoption: A seven-month waiting period gives would-be Russian parents the opportunity to adopt. But in the seven months our son was in the orphanage, official documents stated that no one had come to visit him; no one had inquired after him; and no one had expressed interest in adopting him.

I had always known that my husband and I would have to adopt if we wanted to become parents. My husband was 26 when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and underwent a year of life-saving, but infertility-inducing, chemotherapy. We lived a few miles from a Pittsburgh adoption agency whose owners were immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Familiar with the system, they worked primarily with Russian orphanages; they were encouraging and supportive throughout the process, and we always felt fortunate to be working with them. I dove in, taking lessons three times a week from a severe Russian tutor in the neighborhood to prepare for Victor’s arrival, not realizing that my son, a baby, wouldn’t yet know how to speak in either language.

Victor is one of more than 60,000 Russian children who have been adopted by Americans since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. No longer. Last week, Vladimir Putin signed a law banning parents like me from adopting children like mine.


We had been told there were 100 children between the ages of 1 and 3 living in the orphanage north of St. Petersburg where we were going to meet our 13-month-old son. We expected to hear their voices. Instead we were greeted by a silence that overwhelmed all other impressions.

It was early April of 1999, and the temperatures were unseasonably warm in the low 70s. Our driver parked near a small gated playground where there was a wooden slide, a seesaw, and an unpainted miniature merry-go-round. It was abandoned. We would later learn that the children were not taken outside because they did not have winter clothing. They played outdoors only in the summer months.

We were assured several times by our agency and by the social workers handling our case that the children were all getting the best care in this facility, though judging by the number of caretakers we saw we couldn’t imagine how this was possible.

On our limited tour of the orphanage, we saw two rooms where the children sat on the floor. There were no toys, no games, no music—nothing for the kids to do. They looked up at us but did not engage. They did not play with each other. These were children who had learned early that crying got them nothing, so they didn’t waste the energy. They were docile and obviously bored. On his first car ride our son stared at the trees outside the window, apparently fascinated because they appeared to be moving.

We were given our son’s daily schedule at the orphanage and noticed that he had a 15-minute massage every other day. “That’s when he’s touched,” the translator explained. His back was rubbed and his leg muscles stretched. This was to help his bones grow, the staff explained.

My husband and I were asked if we would like to feed our son and then chastised for our pace: One worker fed 15 children onion soup in a matter of minutes. She shoveled it into their mouths with such haste we were afraid they would choke. They ate the non-nutritious, watery soup twice a day.

We were taking our son away, but there would be no reprieve for the others. Our gut reaction was to forget our fears—about fetal alcohol syndrome and deprivation, about developmental delay and emotional scarring—and take as many children home with us as we could. Anything, we felt, was better than this misery.

Back in the United States, our pediatrician would warn us that every month spent in an orphanage could mean one month of developmental delay and one month of physical delay for a child. The emotional-development delay is impossible to measure. Nonetheless, our son blossomed over the ensuing 12 months, and two years later we returned to Russia to adopt our daughter, Alex, from an orphanage in Moscow.

We were new parents and didn’t realize how different our babies were from children born in the United States. They seemed happy; they loved to eat; they were not afraid of strangers. But we could put them in their cribs for nap time, and unlike our friends’ kids who would protest and cry, Victor and Alex would sit quietly until they fell asleep. We never suffered a sleepless night and didn’t realize how strange this was until we talked to other parents. Quickly our children learned that we responded to their demands and their tears. And they got louder and louder.


At first, we imagined that our kids would always be identified by the place where they were born. But that association quickly fades. Children don’t belong to countries; they belong to the people who raise them.

We have raised our children in the same Jewish community where my husband was raised. Our children will attend the same high school as their grandmother, a great number of their cousins, and most of their aunts and uncles. They attend a Jewish Day School where some of their classmates are the children of Russian emigrants who came to the United States from the Soviet Union in the early 1970s. The parents find it amusing that my son and daughter who were born in Russia don’t speak Russian while their children born in Pittsburgh are bilingual.

Our children are learning Hebrew and struggling with Torah portions for their bar/bat mitzvahs. The house is filled with the sounds of their squabbling, their singing, and their steadfast belief that, no matter what happens, they will be heard.

Our daughter was 4 years old when we were in the car and out of nowhere she announced to us that her mother in Russia had to send her away because she was too poor to take care of her. She knew she was adopted, but we had never discussed the economic reason for her being in the orphanage. We pulled over, primed to have “the talk” with her. But in a matter of seconds, she had moved on and told us with much glee: “A cute boy kissed me on the lips yesterday.” And that was that.

Both of our children are curious about their birth country and talk about Russia with a sense of pride. We are very good friends with two families who also have children adopted from Russia, and Victor once asked, in all seriousness, if that was where all kids came from.

Victor, now 14, loves musical theater and relishes being the center of attention. Next year, he will attend the Performing Arts High School. My 12-year-old daughter Alex, madly in love with Justin Bieber and addicted to Facebook, will now brag to her friends; “I am too adopted! Ask my mom.”

Apparently all this has been too much for Putin. The American families who had hoped to adopt children—and especially those who were in the process of adopting them—are suffering. They will have to search for other options, and I don’t dismiss their misery. But the greater loss is the thousands of Russian orphans who have no other options and are being used as political pawns by the Kremlin. These are children who most likely will never become a member of anyone’s family, Russian or otherwise.

We fear that these children living in this misery will simply be forgotten. The children from the baby homes will be moved to the toddler homes, and then to adolescent homes and eventually, when they are 18, they will be released as orphans into the world. The heartbreaking pall that hangs over Russia’s orphanages will grow and ultimately be forgotten, because the problem with silence is that no one can hear it.


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qnetter says:

Considering all of the American children in need of adoption, who have committed the “sin” of being older or developmentally challenged or non-white, it’s difficult for me to find much sympathy for the plight of adoptive parents of toddlers here. And we should be working to improve conditions for these kids in Russia by supporting local NGOs, instead of flying in “to the rescue” and pulling out their next generation.

    Jane C. says:

    Except that local NGOs that receive funding from outside of Russia must register as foreign agents and are suspected of undermining Russian society. If Russia’s government thinks that foreigners shouldn’t adopt Russian kids from the hell that are Russian orphanages, it should probably work on improving conditions in children’s homes and getting Russians to adopt more kids (especially ones with disabilities, developmental delays, etc.).

      They do work on both the issues you mention. There are billboard and tv campaigns to promote adoption, there are courses available for adoptive parents, and Russian parents are actually given a financial grant when they adopt. As regards the orphanages – I don’t consider the situation in 1999 (hence, pre-Putin’s government) in the orphanage desribed in this article as representative of all orphanages in Russia. Sure, I’m sure they still exist, but one shouldn’t get the impression that they’re a majority.

        Jane C. says:

        I assume you read Russian, so here’s a bit of how the situation is in a Russian orphanage today: “Из этой тысячи детей в год, которая теперь ни к каким американским
        родителям не уедет, доживут до 18 далеко не все. А до 30 мало кто. Зато
        изнасилованы или сексуально использованы в учреждениях будут процентов
        60. Избиты, макнуты головой в унитаз или лицом в описанную постель, мыты
        очень горячей или ледяной водой, накормлены через рвотные спазмы — 80.
        Унижены, оскорблены, лишены контактов с родными, свободы перемещения,
        нормального образования, нормального детства — 100.
        Я знаю, о чем
        говорю. Потому что дети, попавшие в семьи, потом вспоминают и
        рассказывают. А их приемные родители рассказывают мне. А еще выпускники
        рассказывают. Сотни, тысячи рассказов. Некоторые даже идут в
        прокуратуру. Максимум, чего удается добиться — тихое увольнение “по
        собственному” уж очень зарвавшейся воспитательницы. А если насилие идет
        со стороны старших воспитанников — а это в основном так, то и вообще
        никто не идет, а что с ними сделаешь, если сами они — такие же
        несчастные, никому не нужные в свое время тоже изнасилованные дети?
        Опять в психушку? Они там уже были”.

        I read that over 30,000 of those given financial aide to adopt returned their kids three years later when the aide ran out. I read of a boy with severe burns due to being bashed in face by Russian adoptive parents with a tea pot and another boy who was forced to strip was bound and then thrown in a river to drown. See in America we can spin the story either way too. My adopted son was in an orphange (upto age 5 in 2009) with lots of toys and activities, very malnourished but adapted amazingly to family life; he too is very attached to his Russian past and active in the Russian community near my home. I never thought about how lack of caregiver response helped him settle and sleep so well but I often still get praised by school on how well he does at rest period. It’s not like many Americans don’t want their children to ‘cry it out’ and fall asleep without them responding. My son is used to authority and accepts that adults make the rules and this in part was very helpful. Recent stories out of Russian adoptions that I heare are positive about orphanages in general. There is one popular EU country where many children have to go straight from plane to the hospital due to severe starvation , but nobody bashes that country like Russia. I hope the children of Russia will be the focus and priority, but it will take time.

    Saint_Etienne says:

    As you well know, Putin and his henchmen have recently made it oh-so-easy to support local NGOs in Russia:

    Wendy Leibowitz says:

    I adopted from abroad. I felt there was much greater certainty to international adoption than domestic US adoption. You had to jump through a lot of bureaucratic hoops, complete paperwork again and again (who knew fingerprints could EXPIRE?), and pay a lot of money, but at the end of that process, you had a child. Many domestic US adoptions have no such certainty–the birth mother has to “choose” you over a lot of other applicants. I know women who have waited 3, 4, or 5 years to be chosen, with no certainty that they will ever be chosen–it’s like a constant audition. My international adoption (not from Russia, but from a country where my family has strong ties) took a little over a year. I truly pity those in Russian orphanages in the Putin era.

qnetter says:

Considering all of the American children in need of adoption, who have committed the “sin” of being older or developmentally challenged or non-white, it’s difficult for me to find much sympathy for the plight of adoptive parents of toddlers here. And we should be working to improve conditions for these kids in Russia by supporting local NGOs, instead of flying in “to the rescue” and pulling out their next generation.

As a parent of children who are also adopted from a Russian orphanage, I can tell you that my experience with the orphanage and the staff was very different. My children were in a warm building, full of toys and staff, and ate better than most of the residents of the village in which the baby house was located. My son was in the system from the time he was 10 months old. He was the favorite in the baby house, and has grown to be a young man we are proud of, and who has struggled and overcome the delays and struggles daily with the feeling of being lost and abandoned, despite the security and love he really does have here. My daughter was only admitted to the system at 3, and we adopted her shortly before her 4th birthday. She has “issues”, to be sure, but they are a result of the neglect an maltreatment in her parental home and other places she was thought to have been prior to being admitted to the system. Certainly, she had a bleak future in the system, which is generally overwhelmed and unprepared to treat the mental illness and developmental delays that many of these children are affected with. Although we can offer her a future impossible in Russia, it is far from an ideal situation, and she will likely need supervision and support throughout her lifetime. This situation is no different from the situation you find in this country with children available for adoption. After more than a decade of advocacy for my children and others, I would encourage anyone considering adoption to look at he whole picture – the good, the bad, and the ugly, before making a choice about where to look, and to carefully interview agencies, domestic and international, as well as parents who have adopted children from the places they are considering, to get a real idea of what they might be getting into, and if adoption is the right answer for their family at all. My work with my own children and with others has led me to the knowledge that there are thousands of children available for adoption in the US, and that my pre-parental ideals of avoiding the issues associated with adopting an older child of unknown heritage and genetics, possible fetal alcohol syndrome and drug addiction, etc, etc, etc, were not realized by adopting from outside the US. What I did get is children who look like me. I have yet to see if there will be a fairy tale ending to our adoption story, but if it happens, it will be after so many chapters of life and learning, tears and late night phone calls to women who love and support me, that it will be one of those novels you finish with a “Whew! – Thank G-d THAT is the end of this story”, rather than that “I can’t wait for the sequel!” feeling… If Putin puts half the effort into reforming their system, for all citizens, and not just orphans, that he put into reforming adoption processes, legislation and policy, all children in Russia will have the hope of a bright future.

commonsense77 says:

I appreciate your comment about American kids in need of adoptions and I’ve read a lot of similar comments in response to articles about the Russian adoption ban by Americans. However, I don’t think American parents’ intentions should be called into question just because they want to adopt a Russian kid instead of an American kid. I think many of these comments are clueless about the realities of orphanages in places like Russia (or Guatemala, Somalia, etc…) and give Russians (both the population and its government) too much credit. Russia has more orphans now, 700,000, than at the end of World War II. Russia does not have foster care like the US; only orphanages. This creates a dire situation for many of these kids. The US no longer has orphanages (remember orphan Annie – the govt did away with this). While foster care is far from perfect, it does attempt to give kids a home, ample food and a guardian. Russians, despite their national pride are not adopting nor
have they yet developed the altruism and volunteerism we see in the US to help those less fortunate. Russians’ economic situation clearly makes that difficult, but orphans are also largely viewed as damaged goods by the general public, and frankly a lot people there just don’t care.

Further, supporting NGOs in Russia will not help these kids at all or increase their odds for success, at least while Putin remains in power. Russian NGOs are barely allowed to function w/o the scrutiny of the govt and with constant suspicion cast upon their goals. Why would the Russian govt allow Americans to “fly in” help these NGOs? In fact, the Peace Corps is not even allowed to operate in Russia! The Russian govt could barely trust local volunteers who wanted to help flood victims recently in Krymsk.

It is unfortunate that some feel the need to berate parents of foreign adopted children as those who have turned their backs on domestic options. The adoption of our son was not a political decision, it was a decision to build our family. As two Jewish professionals, and older parents, our options for domestic adoption were almost non existent in our community. We chose Russian adoption as both an ethnic link to our heritage and to find a child who would suffer life in an Russian orphanage without adoption. Our son’s adoption was an extremely positive experience for all of us and his presence in our family is a blessing each and every day. This decision is painful, punitive and once again it is the most fragile who will suffer.

I visited an orphanage in Russia when I visited some years ago. The children sat listlessly in their cribs, with no one to talk to them or touch them. It is no wonder so many of them have attachment problems. This is a complete waste of humankind. The Russians would rather be “right” than humane. Not that many Russians adopt. Many of them have one child. It is difficult to support more. So sad.

so well written.From the heart!!!!. Your children are so lucky to have you

While I of course deplore Putin’s adoption ban, as a Russian, I would like to point out that 1) There are nice orphanages and there are horrid orphanages. Many orphanages nowadays are lovely, modern and very Western-style. Not all are like the one you described. God forbid. and 2) Since 1999, Russia has come MILES. During that time Russia’s society and economy were still recovering from the fall of the Soviet Union, and it was taking ages to reorder society. I was a child back then, and when I visit Russia every few years nowadays, I hardly recognise the country, it changes so fast.
Apart from that, again, while I denounce the ban, it has to be pointed out that its pseudo-justification in the Russian duma has some truth to it – in cases of abuse of Russian children by American adoptive parents, the latter have too often been allowed to get away with their crimes, in contrast with American child abuse of American children.

yea right says:

“Our adopted children escaped the misery of Russian orphanages. Others won’t be as lucky.”

They might not be as lucky, but they will probably be alive. That’s a result. Anyway, don’t remember you writing about any of those sad cases where kids were killed and, in one instance, put on a flight back to Moscow.

    And Putin has little to do with this – the Duma voted, he signed, over 2/3 of Russians support the move. Believe me, from experience, living in USA, watching its TV, having to deal with American suburbs, fast food, schools, and eventually state-backed propaganda that passes off as “free press” is NOT at all a blessing. The Americans make up their own myths about their country, but the children are silent – their American parents speak for them. Many European countries do not allow foreign adoption – Russia just moved in line with them.

yea right says:

why delete comments?

Lee Pollock says:

Reading Sharon’s beautiful story has touched so many of my emotions having shared a similar wonderful blessing by adopting Nina from a Moscow orphanage 16 years ago. In a few weeks our precious Nina will turn 18 and shortly will be moving off to college which will turn my wife, Natalie and me into empty nesters. Nina’s sister and her best friend, Talia our biological daughter, graduated from Syracuse two years ago.

Natalie likes to say that Nina was the fourth leg of our three legged table. Nina was born to be part of our family. Her adoption was beshert. Natalie, an only child and first generation Ukrainian knew what it meant to grow up without siblings and to have the sole responsibility to care for elderly parents. Natalie was determined that Talia would not be an only child. So after 5 years of trying to create a sibling for Talia, including investing in the best of modern science and technology, we attempted to adopt a child domestically. After months of trying, we were unsuccessful. We then decided to adopt a Ukrainian child. However, adoptions in Ukraine became very problematic due to widespread corruption. Ukraine had just become a free nation haven broken away from the rule of the former Soviet Union. Much of the tyranny of the years of communism still manifested itself in this newly formed country and reports of babies being sold by corrupt doctors and orphanages were rampant. Ukraine closed its doors to foreign adoption. Undeterred, Natalie went to our adoption agency based in Washington DC and told them that we would wait until a child of Ukrainian decent was identified in a Russian orphange.

A few months later, we received the call. Our precious daughter was identified. Two Ukrainian parents did not have enough money to care for their daughter and our fourth leg of our family table was waiting for us in a Russian orphanage to bring her home. After two trips to Moscow and seeing almost exactly what Sharon Dilworth described, one caregiver per 12 children who were all undernourished and quite passive, we completed our family.

Nina will turn 18 in a few weeks and has been accepted to college in the fall. To paraphrase from a quote by Roger Cronkite, “we have two daughters and one of them was adopted, I just can’t remember which one”. That is how we feel about Nina. This is the perfect definition of a symbiotic relationship. We have a complete family, all four legs of the table. Nina is thriving and a joy to her teachers, friends and family.

We told Nina from from the time that she could understand, how fortunate we were to have adopted her from Russia, never wanting her to have any negative thoughts about her beginnings. While she rarely cries (probably because of the sad lessons of survival learned during her first 18 months) and is curious about her biological family, Nina is incredibly well adjusted and comfortable with herself. Her future is unlimited and we are confident that Nina will make a difference in this world. As parents of an adopted child all we want is to love our child and to help them become the best that they can be.

What more could Putin want for these children? To deny these children a future – their future – is beyond cruel. Our hearts go out to the families that have already identified their children. Their agony has to be heartbreaking. But it is the lives of these wonderful helpless children who will suffer the most. Hopefully, the current regime will realize what they are doing to the fate of these children and reverse this horrible decision.


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Putin Is Wrong About My Kids

Our adopted children escaped the misery of Russian orphanages. Others won’t be as lucky.