WASHINGTON -- Joelle Ziemian sat biting her nails in a waiting room at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. She had flown to Russia to sign final adoption papers for a 3-year-old orphan named Alina. Then, all she would need was a U.S. visa to bring the girl home to Washington.
But a few blocks away, the upper house of the Russian parliament had just passed a bill banning all further American adoptions, and Russian President Vladimir Putin was threatening to sign it. Ziemian and 12 other American families waited for hours, terrified that they would lose the children they had worked for years to adopt.
“There was so much anxiety and tension in the room. It felt like the last days before the Berlin Wall fell,” said Ziemian, 50, a public relations specialist.
Ziemian had spent several years navigating the slow, expensive Russian adoption process. She had appeared before judges, answered hundreds of questions about her home and habits, filled out endless paperwork and spent more than $60,000.
She had journeyed three times to a grim orphanage in Krasnoyarsk, a remote Siberian city where the girl had been abandoned by her parents as an infant. With each brief visit, she said, the silent, somber child grew more talkative and excited to see her, and Ziemian’s heart melted.
“I realize it’s a cliche,” she said, “but I just knew this was meant to be.”
Putin did sign the law Dec. 28, barring all American adoptions from Russia. But miraculously, Alina’s visa came through just before the ban went into effect on New Year’s Day.
Ziemian rushed to pick her up, then headed straight for the Moscow airport, fearful they might be stopped. The immigration inspector seemed to take forever, but finally he waved them through.
Fourteen hours later, Ziemian landed at Dulles International Airport in Virginia, carrying a sleepy little girl -- one of the last Russian orphans to come to the United States.
Many other prospective adopters, and the Russian children waiting for them, are now in limbo. The unexpected ban caught hundreds of adoptions mid-process, causing confusion and panic. The State Department announced that it would try to persuade Russian officials to permit a final batch of long-pending adoptions to be completed, but there has been no official response.
One couple in Virginia, who asked not to be identified for fear of jeopardizing their adoption case, said they were terrified of losing the little boy they have journeyed to Russia five times to visit. They’ve spent more than $100,000 on travel, adoption fees and other expenses -- and they think of the child as their son.
“We first met him five years ago, and the process dragged on for a long time,” said the wife, adding that the couple had been told last month that their case was “looking positive” and that they might get a court hearing soon. After their repeated visits, she said, “he is very bonded with us and he calls us Mama and Papa. People who have visited him say he keeps asking when we are coming to get him.”
Adoption advocates have been counseling such families not to speak out publicly against the Russian legal action or adoption process, in hopes of saving as many adoptions as possible in cases where the children and parents have met and formed attachments.
But other area families who successfully adopted Russian children in recent years said they were appalled and angered. The ban was partly a response to U.S. sanctions on Russian human rights abusers and followed reports that a handful of children, among more than 50,000 Russian orphans who came to the United States over the past decade, had died in accidents or cases of abuse.
Some adopters called the ban a callous political stunt that would harm needy children.
“This is a tragedy, because it hits the most innocent victims. It makes me wish I could have scooped up every child we met over there,” said Joan Brierton, 45, of Washington, who brought home a year-old boy from Moscow last year. She and her husband have enjoyed watching him thrive, and they feel sorry for families who might have lost that chance. “Every day we think: It could have been us.”
Adoptions from Russia have become increasingly complex and controversial in the past several years because of growing nationalist sentiment, increased efforts to spur local adoptions and the reports of fatalities in American homes. Several recent adopters, including Ziemian, said they had been grilled by Russian judges, asked to provide extra documentation and told of extended waits.
After Russia opened its doors to American adoptions in the 1990s, demand soared and peaked in 2004 with 5,800 children brought to the United States, making it one of the most popular countries for overseas American adoptions. But by last year the number had fallen to fewer than 1,000, and some agencies said the process had become so onerous that they stopped handling Russian adoptions.
“At first it was relatively simple. You went to Russia, met the child, did some paperwork and brought the child home,” said Irene Jordan, an official with Adoptions Together in Baltimore, which placed more than 700 Russian children between 1992 and 2010. But over the years, she said, “things became more difficult and expensive. Finally we had to close the program.”
Several adoption experts said that child death and abuse in American adoptive homes were extremely rare and had been sensationalized in Russia. They also said there was misunderstanding and unfair criticism of U.S. policies that offered tax credits to adoptive families.
“There were only about 19 serious incidents of abuse or death out of 50,000 adoptions,” said Tom de Filippo, an official with the Joint Council on International Children’s Services in Alexandria, Va. Moreover, he said, many American families were willing to take in older, troubled or disabled children that Russians did not want to adopt. “What drove this ban was simply nationalism,” he said.
Many adoptive families said their Russian wards arrived with medical problems or were withdrawn at first, but that they developed into happy and healthy children. Some couples returned to adopt a second Russian child, and others helped adoptees with disabilities achieve remarkable success.
Tatiana McFadden, 23, was born in Moscow with spina bifida and was not expected to have a long life. A Maryland family adopted her in 1995, and she grew up to be a champion athlete, winning numerous medals in Special Olympics and other international sports competitions.
Alina has an eye problem that was never treated in Russia. Ziemian says it might have been the reason her parents left her in a public stairwell with her birth certificate pinned to her blouse, or the reason several Russian families rejected her before she was made available for overseas adoption.
But the little girl has already made herself at home in the townhouse that Ziemian filled with toys, art supplies and a miniature piano. Last week, Alina smiled impishly as she picked out crayons and practiced saying each color in English.
“Puppal,” she said, looking up at Ziemian for approval. The new mom beamed with pride and gave her a hug.
“She’s learning English so fast,” Ziemian said. “I just keep thinking, what would have become of her if that visa hadn’t come through?”
When Ziemian got up to turn off a teakettle, Alina followed, clinging to her skirt. For a while, they glued leaves onto a poster and Alina giggled with delight. Then she tugged at Ziemian’s hand, wanting to dance. Spotting Ziemian’s photo ID on the floor, she picked it up and brought it over with a huge smile on her face.
“Mama,” she said.