U.S. mother seeks Russian parents for the girl a law prevented her from adopting


Katrina and Steve Morriss sit with Lera, then 6, during a visit to her orphanage. (Family photo courtesy of Katrina Morriss)
February 3

Katrina Morriss still wishes that somehow, someday, she could get around Russian law and find a way to adopt 8-year-old Lera, a child with Down syndrome who was placed in an orphanage outside St. Petersburg 22 days after she was born.

But after a year of grief since the adoption she was pursuing was abruptly blocked by legislation targeting Americans, Morriss has come to understand that the odds are stacked against her. So last week she was back in Russia from her home in suburban San Diego — to try to recruit a Russian couple who would adopt Lera in her stead.

Morriss and her husband, Steve, spent three days in the summer of 2012 visiting with Lera at Peterhof Orphanage No. 1. They bonded so intensely, she said, that she now feels a parental obligation toward the little girl, despite the Russian ban.

“She’s my daughter until she’s someone else’s daughter,” Morriss said as she sipped a cup of hot chocolate in a Moscow hotel. “There’s a child living in an orphanage who deserves a family — and she had one.”

While here, Morriss cooperated with filmmakers working on a documentary about orphans and told her story to local journalists. She met with children’s rights advocates and toured a center called Downside Up for children with Down syndrome. She got Lera included on Internet lists of orphans available for adoption.

But she chose not to go to Peterhof to see Lera. The last time they were together, 19 months ago, the girl wailed in despair when the Morrisses finally had to leave.

“I mean, how cruel would that be?” Morriss said. “I show up for my welfare — and leave again?”

Even in her new quest, the odds are still stacked against her.

“This child will never be adopted,” said Valery Asikritov, director of the orphanage where Lera lives. It pains him greatly, he said, but prospective Russian parents are frightened and overwhelmed at the thought of a disabled child.

In the 40 years he has worked at the Peterhof orphanage, which cares for 310 children with disabilities, three have been adopted — and one of those was returned.

Boris Altshuler, an advocate for children’s rights here, met with Morriss. “I explained to Katrina that in Russia there is no system of professional assistance to families with disabled children. Thus the life of this child in a Russian family, and — even more — the life of this family with an adopted disabled child, would be extremely difficult,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Morriss said she was thoroughly impressed by the resources and conditions at Peterhof. But Asikritov said they can never be enough. “We pay a lot of attention to her,” he said of Lera. “But I will always say that not even the best orphanage can replace parents.”

Lera was one of several dozen Russian children who had been chosen for adoption by American parents and whose cases were in the legal pipeline when Russia suddenly closed the door in December 2012. That was in response to an American law targeting corrupt Russian officials.

The Morrisses had expected that Lera’s adoption would be complete by then, but they had run into bureaucratic delays and had to refile their request — and then they lost her.

Katrina is 45, the biological mother of three teenage boys and the adoptive mother of a 6-year-old American girl. Steve works as an aerospace engineer; she stays home with the children. When she learned about the plight of Russian children with Down syndrome, she said, they decided they should do something to help. That’s how they found Lera.

“A real bond was developed” over their three-day visit, Asikritov said. “How, I don’t know, but it was.”

The Morrisses have joined a suit against Russia in the European Court of Human Rights but don’t expect much from that. Simultaneously, Altshuler has launched a campaign to amend the Russian ban so that disabled children would be exempted.

“The medical treatment in Russia is not of the American level, and when the adoption ban deprived a certain number of children of this U.S. treatment — this was, and remains to be, a sort of extremely cruel barbarism,” Altshuler wrote.

So far, though, his effort hasn’t made much headway. Altshuler said he is disappointed that it has received no attention from official Washington. Morriss has much the same complaint. After Russia enacted the ban, she said, American officials barely shrugged.

“It’s all political, and I don’t understand it,” she said. “All I know is, there’s a little girl I’m extremely fond of who will never have a mom and dad.”

When Lera reaches adulthood, she will probably be sent to another institution. The quality of her life will inevitably change, Asikritov said. “In a family, she could have been happy. Family is family.”

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