Death of Russian orphan galvanizes opponents of adoption ban

N/A/FAMILY PHOTO - Dianna Wallen with Maxim during a visit in summer 2009. The Wallens efforts to adopt Maxim from Russia were stopped when President Putin acted to block the adoption of Russian children by US citizens. (Family Photo)

A few pictures and a video: The 2-year-old with Down syndrome smiles, smiles again even harder, and stretches her arms out until she tips forward. No one is there to hold her.

Heidi Burrows, a mother of seven, could feel the yearning thousands of miles away in Texas. She and her husband resolved to adopt the Russian orphan with the sweet grin.

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They found Daria through a U.S. organization called Reece’s Rainbow, which collects information about orphans with Down syndrome from around the world, posts their photos to acquaint prospective parents with them and offers encouragement and fundraising for the adoption process. Last fall, when the group wrote on its Web site that the family had committed to Dayna — Daria’s Americanized name — Burrows burst into tears of happiness, as if the child were already hers. “I will love her forever,” she told herself.

Then, on Jan. 1, even as Burrows was assembling the paperwork, Russia banned U.S. adoptions, accusing Americans of neglect and mistreatment. The Russians named their law after Dima Yakovlev, a 21-month-old boy adopted by a Virginia family who renamed him Chase Harrison. Chase died in 2008 when his father accidentally left him in a hot car. Russian children, officials said, were safer in Russia.

So Heidi Burrows was unprepared when news reached her that Daria, who would have turned 3 in May, had died in April in her orphanage in Nizhny Novgorod, a city about 250 miles east of Moscow. The child, according to orphanage volunteers, had a heart ailment that went undiagnosed. “I have not been able to look at that video since,” Burrows said last week.

In death, Daria has become emblematic of the difficult relations between the United States and Russia, and the bitter fight over adoptions. No doubt, given the time-consuming process, she might well have died before finding a home in Texas. But there are many, many other children just like Daria, said Boris Altshuler, an advocate here for children and families. Those children, he said, would live longer and better lives if Americans could take them home.

“One child has already died,” Altshuler said. “Others have been left with no hope of any future. This is totally barbaric.”

About 300 American families were trying to adopt orphans when the ban took effect. The prospective parents have been fighting for exceptions to it — not one has been granted — and Daria’s death has given their campaign new urgency.

Victoria Ivleva-Yorke, a Moscow journalist and activist who is helping U.S. families challenge the law in Russia and in the European Court of Human Rights, thought of a 4-year-old Moscow orphan, also with Down syndrome and a heart problem, who had been sought by Americans. They could offer better treatment than available here, she said.

“We told the Russian court that he could die at any moment,” she said. “There was no sympathy.”

In Nizhny Novgorod, Tatyana Bezdenezhnykh, head of child protection for the region, dismissed reports in the Russian media that Daria would be alive if the ban had not been imposed. Yes, she said, children with Down syndrome had died recently, but no one had wanted to adopt them. The Burrows family — still undergoing the approval process for adoption in the United States — did not exist for Russian officialdom despite the Reece’s Rainbow informal Web site matchup.

Yes, Bezdenezhnykh said, the region had two little girls with Down syndrome who were close to adoption when the ban took effect — Vasilisa and Olga. They are as healthy as can be expected, she said.

Some of the prospective American parents were just beginning the extensive paperwork and home studies, and others had nearly completed the process when the ban took effect. Those who were adopting special-needs children found themselves in particular agony. Who else would love them?

Death rate is unavailable

Gina Coleman, a 32-year-old hospice social worker from Salt Lake City, had expected to have a 3-year-old girl who is HIV-positive and developmentally delayed home in March. When Coleman first met her last fall, the child was frightened by the unaccustomed attention. “She was crying and shaking, and her heart was pounding,” Coleman said. “I picked her up, and we played in the music room. In five minutes, she would have left the orphanage with me. She was grabbing on to me, so desperate to be loved.”

When Russians imposed the ban, they repeatedly cited reports that 20 Russian adoptees had died in the United States — where 60,000 Russian children had been adopted in the past two decades.

In Russia, the death rate for orphans is unavailable. “They are not counted,” said Altshuler, who heads the Children’s Rights organization. “They are hidden in the general rate of childhood death.”

Officials said they would overcome the reluctance by Russians to adopt by providing support for families and would also improve care for the disabled, who have almost no chance of adoption by Russians.

“They passed the ban in a week,” Altshuler said. “Now it’s been nearly half a year, and nothing else has happened. They are not in a hurry at all to help orphans.”

Kickstarter campaign

Mil and Dianna Wallen of Woodstock, Va., who had promised a lively 15-year-old named Maxim that they would bring him home from the orphanage where he has lived since infancy, are part of a petition drive on Change.org to win a reprieve of the ban. They already have more than 65,000 names — from the United States and Russia.

The Wallens had been visiting the orphanage, in the city of Chelyabinsk, for years on behalf of their church, trying to help make life more comfortable there. They just sent $4,000 to buy the children summer clothes.

“But they live in a group, not a family,” Mil Wallen said. “They don’t get the nurturing and love of a parent.”

Their petition was inspired by Sarah McCarthy, a British filmmaker who took up the cause after making a documentary, “The Dark Matter of Love,” about the powerful effect of family love on child development — and the damage caused by the lack of it. McCarthy has launched a Kickstarter campaign on behalf of the 300 orphans and lobbied Congress to get involved.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), an adoptive mother, sent a letter signed by about 150 members of Congress to President Obama, asking him to press the adoption issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I understand they have Iran and Syria on their minds,” McCarthy said, “but I think it’s shameful these children aren’t being talked about.”

Heidi and Brad Burrows, who live in Mount Pleasant, Tex., with their seven children, ages 9 to 20, have one daughter with cerebral palsy. They mourn the child they thought would be their eighth.

“She captured my heart with only a few pictures and a short video,” Heidi wrote on her blog when she heard that Daria had died. “I have imagined her with us so often. . . . She is loved and she will never be forgotten.”

 
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