It was a touching sight in the theater of the Russian Embassy. Onstage, nine orphans from Detsky Dom (orphanage) #18 of St. Petersburg danced and sang in homemade costumes. In the audience, former Russian orphans flitted through the aisles like towheaded fireflies, climbing on and off their American parents' laps, and sometimes sneaking up from behind to kiss them.
The performers, led by a born song-and-dance man named Alexey, who looked about 9, are hoping that they, too, might find homes in the United States. They were brought here by the Nightlight Foundation, which has been uniting wishful parents and homeless children for the past six years. If the matches are made, the children will leave their native land with the blessing of Mother Russia.
Some Russian nationalists express the view that orphans would be better off growing up in Russian orphanages than going to homes in America. But Ronald Stoddart, the president of Nightlight and a California lawyer who spent his career in adoption law until 1993, found a different post-perestroika philosophy. It was succinctly, and graciously, stated after the show by Svetlana Ushakova, the wife of the Russian ambassador. She told the assemblage, "Children need love and care and a family, and that they will find here in the U.S."
Since 1996, the Russians have made the exit of thousands of children from Russian orphanages relatively easy. Stoddart is proud of having reduced the cost to Nightlight parents ($18,000). He has a full-time staff in St. Petersburg that helps adopting parents get through the mill in a week. Would-be parents and children are introduced to each other by videos.
The tall, pleasant Stoddart (who can be reached, incidentally, at 714-990-5100) arranges between 70 and 100 matches a year. But Nightlight does more. It contributes to children who remain in orphanages and promotes adoptions by Russians. It pushes interested Americans to consider taking older children. Some of those children have been abused and neglected in Russia's economic hard times.
The foundation has had good luck. One case that went sour was of a teenager with a history of abuse, including rape, "who didn't fit in" with her new family. Another family on Nightlight's waiting list was happy to take her in.
Other countries have been sporadic in their acceptance of foreign adoption. They open and shut the door according to nationalist fevers. But the Russians have been steadily accommodating. They have a history of hating to admit anything, so it cannot have been easy for them to admit that Mother Russia cannot care for all of her children.
The Russian reputation for being difficult has been burnished in the Kosovo crisis, and the Russians have since behaved in a way that suggests they are sorry they helped make the peace. But about their needy children, they have been generous. Letting them go says they are putting the children's interests first, giving them a chance at a better life.
Another unexpected advocate of children's causes surfaced last week. The name of House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) is not one that leaps to mind on this issue. His title is aggressive. So are his nicknames--"the exterminator" for his former occupation, and "the hammer" for his fund-raising stance. He has ridden roughshod over the mild-mannered Dennis Hastert, the nominal speaker of the House, and his rhetoric is famously intemperate: his recent right-wing rant against gun control, for instance, and his assaults on President Clinton during impeachment and Kosovo. But when you hear DeLay talk about children, you hear a different person. He was measured and compassionate when he spoke a few days ago at the Heritage Foundation, and his outrage was directed at the right people--judges who send children back to abusive homes, social workers who bounce them around in foster care. He told a long, sad story about "Jason," a victim of all these bad practices. "Not surprisingly," said the usually super-judgmental whip, the child has taken to shoplifting, failing in school and drinking. He made a number of sensible suggestions about remedies.
DeLay doesn't just talk about forlorn children. He and his wife, Christine, a former schoolteacher who has volunteered as a court-appointed special advocate, have taken two teenage foster children into their home in Sugar Land, Tex.--a Hispanic brother and sister, both designated "at risk."
DeLay told his audience that he and his wife decided to go public about their admirable action, although he said he knew people would say he was doing it "for politics." Liberals who might say that should ask themselves if they could do what he has done. Children often bring out the best in people.