She has memories: A tiny girl, out on the street, hungrily eating from trash cans. Then the orphanage, sent there with her older sister. Finally, the smiling American parents taking both girls on an airplane to Los Angeles. A week later she was at Disneyland, wearing a little hat with mouse ears.
Today, nearly 23 and having grown up wrestling with her own identity — American or Russian? Julia or Sasha? — she watches uncomfortably as officials from both countries spar over adoptions.
“It’s like two parents arguing in the living room,” she said, “while the children sit in the corner.”
Americans have adopted more than 60,000 Russian orphans since 1992, and Custer grew up in a family of five of them. In March 1995, her parents, Jean and Clark Custer, adopted a 13-year-old Russian boy. That July, they adopted Sasha and her sister, who was 10. In 2001, with Sasha pleading for a younger sibling, they adopted two boys, ages 13 and 5. Later, they hosted a Russian girl who was adopted by others but remains like a member of the family.
“We went from a quiet household of two to one humming with activity,” said Jean Custer, who called the adoption of five children from Russia a blessing and a privilege.
“Not many people know what saints they are,” Sasha said of her parents.
When Russia banned further American adoptions in December, the rhetoric was harsh, with official after official accusing Americans of abusing Russian adoptees, turning them into indentured servants and even killing them — 19 reportedly have died. Russia named the law banning adoptions after a Virginia toddler who died in a hot car when his father forgot he was there.
The oratory was wrenching for families like Custer’s and appeared to disregard the realities of orphanages here, where children usually get decent physical care but little in the way of quality medical treatment or good educational opportunities.
“I think it would be a tragedy to ban American adoptions of Russian children,” said Jean Custer. “I know that Russians love their children, but if they don’t have the means or desire to adopt the orphans themselves, it would be selfish to deprive those children of loving parents and homes.”
Those who grow up in orphanages, she said, too often face bleak futures.
“It’s painful for my family,” said Custer, a warm, animated young woman. “They adopted Russian children, but now Russians don’t accept it. It makes me angry that Russians paint Americans as demons.”