Russian adoption ban will hit disabled children, evangelical Christian families

January 2, 2013

Anton Delgado (right) was adopted from Russia by an evangelical family. He shares a birthday with his adopted brother Judah (left).

In the “before” photos a pro-adoption protester carried outside the Russian Parliament last week, little Anton Delgado looks bloody, bruised and listless -- baby steps away from death.

In the photos from after his adoption, his face fills out and his bandages come off. Twenty-three-month-old Anton sits propped up on a couch with his adopted parents and siblings in Texas, thanks -- his adoptive mother, Vanessa, says -- to the grace of God.

“I prayed for God to tell me the right time to adopt,” said Vanessa Delgado, who met her husband, Jason, at church and regularly quotes Scriptures in her blog posts. “Then I saw a picture of Anton on Facebook, and I knew, 'That’s my son.'”

Russia’s ban on U.S. adoptions brokered heartbreak for many would-be parents and their adoptive children last week. But the law may hit one community especially hard: evangelical Christians, who in the past five years have begun adopting in droves.

Adoption statistics are not broken down by faith, but agencies have seen a strong uptick in adoptions from impoverished countries since mega-preachers such as Rick Warren took up adoption as a religious issue five years ago, said Susan Cox, vice president of public policy for Holt International, one of the world’s largest international adoption agencies.

A number of evangelical “adoption ministries” emerged in the past decade, Cox said. Hope for Orphans, a branch of the international nonprofit Family Life, began setting up orphan ministries in local churches in 2003. Denver’s Project 1.27 (from James 1:27, “look after orphans and widows in their distress”) promotes the adoption of foster children in the U.S. system. Reece’s Rainbow, another “adoption ministry,” pairs families with children who have Down syndrome children and lack proper care in their home countries.

The movement reached a head in 2010, during what one Wall Street Journal op-ed called “adoption season for Evangelicals.” That spring, Rick Warren, the powerhouse preacher behind California’s 22,000-person Saddleback Church, made adoption the subject of one of his popular civic forums. Two months later, prominent evangelical theologian Russell Moore -- himself the adoptive father of two boys from Russia -- penned a lengthy cover story for Christianity Today on “why every Christian is called to rescue orphans.”

Calls such as this one led to an uptick in adoptions from poor African countries such as  Ethiopia, said Cox, the adoption agency spokeswoman. They also led many families to disabled children like Anton, who risk neglect and abandonment in societies like Russia’s.

Anton has a rare condition called epidermolysis bullosa, which means his first layer of skin is not attached to the second. Something as small as rubbing or scratching can make his skin slough off, and Anton’s fingers fused together during the sub-par treatment he got in Russia.

He spent the first year of his life in a hospital after his parents abandoned him. He was born as one of two twin boys to a surrogate mother, but when his biological mother saw his photo, she only wanted the other boy. Ironically, another photo of Anton convinced Jason and Vanessa Delgado to adopt him.

The couple has two biological children -- Kenya, 6, and Judah, 23 months -- but lost their conjoined twins Melody and Madison in November 2008. Since then, Vanessa wanted to adopt another special-needs child.

“Adoption is a beautiful gift,” she said by phone from Fort Worth, where her kids yelled and played in the background. “God adopted us through Jesus when we did nothing to deserve it. It’s a beautiful picture of the Gospel.”

But since Putin signed the adoption ban last week, the Delgados and other adoptive parents have begun to wonder what will happen to the disabled children left behind. According to The Promise, a London-based non-profit group that promotes early childhood education in Russian orphanages, more than 200,000 children in Russia are currently institutionalized.

On Facebook and Blogspot, where an entire mommy-blog community has grown around adoption ministry, parents gathered to share laments and prayers.

Many posted before- and after-adoption photos of their disabled children. Cross-eyed James Ivan now has glasses and regular therapy. Anya, a chubby Down syndrome baby with bloody scars on her ankles, now dances ballet and plays with her three siblings.

Amy Livingston, a "religious but not preachy" mother of four in Westminster, Md., posted pictures of her daughter Polina, who was adopted from Russia earlier this year. In the first photo, Polina stares off-camera, slack-jawed and empty-eyed. In the second, she smiles until her cheeks dimple, a big purple bow in her hair.

“When my husband and I met Polina, she didn’t smile or want to be touched,” said Livingston, who suspects her Down syndrome daughter was hit and otherwise abused in her orphanage. “Now she’s very affectionate … she’s so smart. She’s a sponge.”

In Russia, six-year-old Polina would have been transferred to a mental institution soon, Livingston said; according to The Promise, that means no education, minimal therapy and little human interaction. Now she’ll start normal kindergarten in January, and her mother hopes she’ll one day go to college and maybe live on her own.

“Those kids are thriving now,” Delgado said. “They have opportunities they never would have had in the orphanage. So the ban is absolutely devastating -- I pray it will be lifted.”

In the meantime, babies such as Anton Delgado will go to their weekly physical, occupational and speech therapy appointments. Vanessa Delgado says her son will start feeding therapy soon, to get off the feeding tube he needs now, and later enroll in preschool. Someday, maybe, his frequent skin infections will settle enough for Vanessa to relax her insane cleaning regimen: changing his sheets every morning, bleaching the tub before he gets in it and wiping the bathroom with Comet, bleach and vinegar after he gets out.

On Jan. 16, Anton will celebrate his first birthday in the United States. His adopted brother, Judah, also turns two that day.

"To come from such a tragic beginning, and now have a brother his own age?" Vanessa Delgado said. "God is such a redeeming God."

But how Russia will redeem the rest of its orphans, only God can say.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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