Area family adopts Russian orphan before ban begins
Posted: December 29, 2012
The Winchester Star
WINCHESTER — With the stroke of a pen Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin ended the chance for thousands of Russian orphans to have what Elise Hester appears to have today: a loving family.
Putin signed a bill banning Americans from adopting Russian children.
It will take effect Tuesday, and apparently affects even couples working their way through the Russian government’s lengthy adoption process.
Brian and Mary Kay Hester can breathe a sigh of relief that they landed at Washington Dulles International Airport with their adopted daughter last May.
“Looking at the situation, it makes me sad,” Brian said. “There are so many other children looking for a forever home.”
Russia’s new anti-adoption bill is widely seen as a retaliation against the United States for recent sanctions against Russian officials who purportedly violate human rights.
Putin is seen as supporting a crackdown on dissent and democratic freedoms in Russia.
But it is the children who will suffer.
According to UNICEF, about 740,000 children do not have parental care in Russia.
Adopting a child from a Russian orphanage has never been easy.
“It’s an up-and-down process anyway,” Brian said.
The Hesters began their quest to bring Elise home last year when she was 18 months old.
The Russians first asked for a Virginia background check, a two-week process, then changed the demand to a full FBI background check, which requires about eight weeks.
The Hesters were also told they must make three trips to Russia during the adoption process. The last one involved a 10-day stay for the final court hearing, which would confirm the adoption.
The process, Brian Hester said, costs most people about $50,000. It also means providing many “gifts.”
Your “facilitator” will advise you to bring “gifts” to everyone involved in the process, Mary Kay said.
Brian said he grew very familiar with Walmart.
The Hesters also found the orphanage staff very secretive.
On their first visit to visit Elise, after a 30-hour plane trip and a 10-hour drive from Moscow, they were allowed to see her for 30 minutes, and most of that time was spent talking to a social worker.
They saw a playroom, with toys, and two offices, but weren’t allowed anywhere else in the building.
They were also told Elise was “chronically sick,” and heard from the orphanage during the process about several respiratory illnesses.
Since she has been in the United States. she has had one cold, Mary Kay said.
“All we wanted to do was get her out of there,” her father added.
Mary Kay felt the orphanage staff did its best, but funding was apparently limited and the number of caretakers was too low.
She said the ratio of teachers to 2-year-olds was 1 to 14.
Some of the issues the Hesters faced sound familiar to Johnny Milleson, president of the Bank of Clarke County.
In 1995, he and his wife adopted two brothers from Russia.
Then, too, the process was precarious.
“They would close the country and then open it again,” Milleson said, so the couple’s efforts to bring the boys home spread out over many months.
Luckily, it involved only one trip to the country.
Gifts were also a part of the process. Milleson recalls taking a shoebox full of children’s Tylenol as a gift to the manager of the orphanage where the boys had been taken after their mother abandoned them.
Milleson checked with a local doctor before leaving, to learn about the type of medical problems he might encounter. He came armed with a cream for scabies, on that advice, and found it was needed.
Milleson was also told to bring clothing for each child.
The boys had to leave behind all their clothing at the orphanage, even the garments they were wearing at the time.
Milleson said that 17 years ago, the Russian people had split sentiments.
Some, he said, didn’t want Russian children to lose their history and tradition.
Others felt the children should be given a chance to find a life outside Russia because they had so little future inside it.
Mary Kay Hester said that when children grow too old for the orphanage, they are put on a bus and sent to their hometown or village, with no support when they arrive.
Some of that tension still exists, the Hesters said.
Sometimes, too, problems occur on the American end.
A case the Russians mention involved an American woman who, in 2009, adopted a child — only to put him back on a plane to Russia because she said she could not deal with his behavior.
“The judge did ask us about that,” Brian Hester noted. “It didn’t have anything to do with us, but it affected us.”
In court, they had to apologize, as Americans, for her actions, he added.
The fact that thousands of Russian children have good homes in the United States was not mentioned.
Russian families are first on the list to adopt children and those offered to international adopters have most likely been passed over by their own countrymen, Mary Kay said.
Some have medical or emotional problems that may need extensive and expensive treatment.
Just by being in an orphanage, Mary Kay said, they will be behind their peers in development.
“For every three months in an orphanage, you can expect a month delay,” she said, citing a lack of stimulation and interaction.
Brian Hester noted the difference in two pictures of his daughter — one taken at the orphanage and one taken later in the year.
“You can see it in the eyes,” he said. Her solemn, almost blank-faced picture from Russia shows “no life, no hope.”
Today, pictures of Elise show a happy, smiling face.
“She’s a normal child,” he added.
And, when he comes home from work and she runs to him and grabs his legs and holds on tight, Brian is so glad they got her home to Winchester.
It’s what he would want for all the other children still waiting in Russian orphanages.
— Contact Val Van Meter at email@example.com