When Turning Four Means a Death Sentence: Russia, Adoption, and Down syndrome

Friends of ours have been trying to adopt an orphan with Down syndrome for years now. In order to protect their tenuous status as adoptive parents, I can’t go into all the details. But I can tell you that they have prayed for their son, they have filled out form after form after form, they have raised money, they have traveled abroad to visit him, and they long to bring him home.

But last month the Russian government decided to put an end to Americans adopting children from Russia. Because my friend’s son has Down syndrome, his life hangs in the balance. When he turns four (which will happen soon), he will be sent to an institution. It is very likely that he will die there because the institution will be understaffed and ill-equipped to care for children with special needs.

In Why We Should Care About Russia’s Orphans, Tesney Davis describes her visit to one of these institutions, where she and her husband found their five-year old son, covered in infectious sores and weighing only nineteen pounds. She writes:

We were allowed to feed him lunch. When the tray was placed in front of him, he attempted to grab and shove large pieces of break in his mouth. The orphanage worker grabbed his hands and chastised him. It punched me in the gut…he was starving.

I patiently broke up pieces of bread, soaked them in broth, and fed him. He choked on every bite. The worker tried to explain to us that he was learning to eat. We later learned he was bottle fed at the baby house. He had never had solid food. When he was transferred, one worker had the responsibility of feeding thirteen children with intensive special needs. It struck me then…he hadn’t eaten in two months. The children were given food in the institution but if they didn’t know how to eat, they were out of luck. Survival of the fittest.

The next day we visited again. Kirill was wearing the same clothes. Urine and feces had soaked through his diaper onto his clothing. I held him close. I didn’t care. How would I leave him at the institution when it was time for our visit to be over? This was the last time we would see him for nine long, agonizing months.

Through an arduous process in which they were initially denied the possibility of adopting Kirill because the judge declared that he was unfit to live with a family, they finally were able to bring Kirill home:

For several weeks, Kirill sat in a corner of our kitchen and would not move except to suck his thumb, bang his head, or rock and moan. I would try to interest him in toys but he didn’t know what they were or how to play with them. I prayed for God to help him come out of his shell. Slowly, he did.

We still have a long way to undo the damage done by Kirill’s institutionalization. He has been diagnosed with sensory processing disorder; probably as a result of the extreme neglect he faced in the institution. We don’t know about what conditions he was in prior to being transferred, but we do know the conditions in the institution from which we adopted him. Even if he was at a “good” baby home, a year in the institution would undo any progress he might have made.

So we focus on the victories instead. We focus on the redemption of Kirill’s life and the progress he HAS made. He has gone from wearing twelve-month-old baby clothes to a children’s size five. He has grown from nineteen pounds and thirty-one inches long to forty-five pounds and 43 inches long. He can walk, run, and jump. He loves animals, Sesame Street, and swinging. He has learned how to play with toys. He loves to give hugs and kisses. He loves food and can feed himself with utensils and drink independently. He uses sign language to communicate. He has come a LONG way. But had we not adopted him, I believe he wouldn’t be alive, much less a happy, thriving six-year-old boy.

I wish I had policy solutions to suggest. I wish I thought that Americans starting a petition would change this situation so that kids like Kirill never ever have to endure what they have endured, so that my friends can bring their son home. But as Americans it’s hard to imagine that we can change the mind of the Russian government.

So what can we do?  We can take some comfort in knowing that 20,000 people marched in protest of this policy in Moscow recently. But beyond anything else, we can pray. Please join me in praying today for these kids in Russia, and for the countless children around the globe who are considered unworthy of a good, full life due to their intellectual or physical disabilities. And may the God who counts every child’s life as eternally valuable, bring justice and mercy and hope.

About Amy Julia Becker

Amy Julia Becker writes and speaks about family, faith, disability, and culture. A graduate of Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary, she is the author of Penelope Ayers: A Memoir, A Good and Perfect Gift (Bethany House), and Why I Am Both Spiritual and Religious (Patheos Press).

Comments

  1. This has been heavy on my heart since I learned of Putin’s decision to ban American adoptions in Russia. I cannot imagine the conditions these children face, and I ache for the families who want to give them a home and may now be unable to do so. I admit I was devastated to learn how children with Down syndrome are treated in some areas of the world even today, as well as how they were treated in this country not so many decades ago. It’s just one of the many reasons I am grateful for voices like yours who help us look for the value and the light in the lives of a population who could so easily be overlooked, abused, and forgotten.

    • This is so disturbing to me as both someone who wants to adopt from Russia one day and as someone who has a background in Russia (lived there for some time, speak the language, etc.). It’s politics, I know, I know, but it’s also CHILDREN. Keep your eye out for a post at Prodigal on this very subject :)

    • Thank you Liz! I get very discouraged by stories like these, and yet I’m also incredibly grateful for the opportunities kids like Penny have here. So I hold out hope…

    • Freida Potter says:

      I’m very much hoping our governemnt will 1) hold up its end of the adoption treaty with Russia that came into force in November 2012 (that our govt violated FIRST) and 2) come up with a better way to screen PAPs (as the 19-20 deaths clearly suggests there is room for improvement).

  2. Don’t foget about little Nicolai Emelyentsev, another beautiful baby boy with DS listed on RR who survived 18 mos in a grim Russian baby house until his godly Christian US adoptive parents fell in love w/ his sweet face on RR and adopted him — Nicolai lived all of 1 month with Kim and Fyodor Emelyentsev in the US. They beat him 2 death:
    http://www.tooeleonline.com/pages/full_story?article-Tooele-mom-pleads-guilty-to-child-abuse-homicide%2520=&page_label=home_top_stories_news&id=96085-Tooele-mom-pleads-guilty-to-child-abuse-homicide&widget=push&instance=home_news_left&open=&


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