A few weeks ago, a filmmaker for Radio Free Europe spent the day with my family at our home in upstate New York documenting our "ordinary" moments. Olga Loginova, the filmmaker, promised to produce the six-minute documentary within a week. She said it was urgent to show the world there are "successful Russian adoptions."
Why? Because Americans' ability to parent Russian orphans has become a flashpoint in a complicated political struggle that began when Americans took aim at Russia's handling of human rights by passing the Magnitsky Act. The conflict escalated after Russia retaliated by shutting down adoptions to Americans after more than two decades.
Scores of adoptive parents are now in limbo, as are young babies languishing in Russian orphanages. Many organizations and activists are fighting publicly and behind the scenes to reverse the ban, both here and abroad. But Russian advocates who want to maintain the ban have a powerful sound bite fueling their fight: "Twenty adopted Russian children have died at the hands of their American parents."
Look world, they are saying, there is something inherently wrong with how Americans are parenting our children. Our children are not safe. The ban makes sense. It must be upheld.
Just last month, less than 60 days after the ban took effect, Max Shatto, a 3-year-old Russian boy who was adopted last October, was found dead in the street outside his Texas home. The Russians screamed murder. The news reinforced the notion that Americans are unfit parents. The autopsy said the toddler died of self-inflicted wounds. The Russians didn't buy it.
No one denies that twenty deaths of Russian-adopted children is a disturbing statistic. Even in context -- 20 out of 60,000 adoptions -- something is not right. It isn't. I know this because I am an adoptive parent from Russia and because I speak to other adoptive parents of Russian children all the time.
There is a common experience among American parents who are raising Russian-adopted children. Sometimes, these children arrive in our arms with emotional and/or physical issues. Some of us are prepared -- or at least made aware of disabilities before the adoption is completed. But most are caught off-guard when children won't attach. This condition is called Reactive Attachment Disorder. It is caused by early separation from a birth mother. Babies don't get the nurture and love they deserve. Their needs are barely met in the orphanages. They learn, subconsciously, it's dangerous to attach.
There are scores of adoptive parents who are suffering silently, wallowing in shame as they try to make sense of having gone across the world, at least twice, to take in a child that rejects love.
Nothing is more mind-boggling than trying to rock and cuddle an 8-month-old who pushes you away. I can tell you how hurtful it is when you're trying to attach to a child who won't let you. The truth is you live in denial for a long time. You believe something's wrong with you. You tell yourself I will heal this child with love. Then one day, it occurs to you that love may not be enough. It becomes incumbent upon you to understand how children who begin their lives in orphanages think. You realize it's your life's work, not only to parent them, but to heal them.
A decade ago, my husband Rick and I brought our baby home from a Siberian orphanage. We had some dark years, but when our daughter was 3, we began working with her after we schooled ourselves in Reactive Attachment Disorder. We responded with a litany of parenting techniques that slowly took hold and over time Julia became completely attached to my husband and I, and we to her.
What the Russians don't want to acknowledge is their hand in this problem. Julia lived in a gray grim building that reeked of ammonia. She was one of ten babies in a room, one in 100 in Orphanage Number 2. When we took her home in February 2003, her skin was pure as alabaster because she'd never, never been outside and seen the light of day. I can only imagine how many times she had cried and been ignored and how badly she wanted to be held but wasn't. After time, she must have learned it's futile to expect nurture. She taught herself to expect less. It will take a lifetime to undo these harsh early lessons. As Julia's mother, I understand her fight is my fight.
Which brings me back to the ban on adoptions. Yes, there have been twenty deaths, and this is horrific. Yes, there are thousands of American families doing their best to raise children who are badly damaged. Most of these parents are spending their emotional and financial treasure to give these children a real chance in life.
Our family is considered an example of a "successful Russian adoption" because Julia is attached and thriving. We understand how lucky we are. We also know how fragile it all is.
International adoption is not a perfect formula, but the alternative is for Russian children to grow up and age out in orphanages. We're talking about 700,000 children living in Russian institutions. Russian advocates of the ban might want to continue using Russian orphans as political pawns, but they should stop vilifying American parents in a vacuum. In fact, Russians are fortunate to have American families who are willing to pick up the pieces of what is left of Russian children whose lives begin in orphanages.
To view the English version of the film on Radio Free Europe, go to this Youtube link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2XL68iMY1bA&feature=youtu.be.
Tina Traster is writing a memoir, due out next year from Chicago Review Press, on her Russian-adopted daughter. Visit her web site www.juliaandme.com