Aaron and Jenny Moyer are loathe to let Russian lawmakers dash their hopes. The US couple had nearly completed the adoption of a Moscow orphan with Down syndrome when Russia banned it. Now they have one last chance.
Aaron and Jenny Moyer came to Moscow to fight for an orphan with Down syndrome. The couple from Gainesville, Georgia, had seen their efforts to adopt four-year-old Vitaliy flummoxed by Russian politicians who pushed through an adoption ban for US citizens in the final weeks of December. That wasn't about to stop them.
"Once I realized it had been signed, we were just in shock," says Jenny, standing in front of the Duma, Russia's parliament, where the law was passed through at record speed. "And it was heartbreaking, and we cried and prayed and kind of have grieved. But not necessarily because we thought it was over, just that it would be harder now."
The Moyers, who are in their early 30s, began their effort to adopt a child from Russia in March 2012. They already had two biological children and adopted a baby girl in Florida last year. From other adoptive families they heard about an orphan crisis in Russia - and that it was especially difficult for children with special needs.
Their religious beliefs made them take action, they say.
"I actually remember thinking: 'What if it was my kid over there,'" says Aaron. "I imagined his face on a child without a mom and a dad in an orphanage. And I just started crying. I remember I was unloading the dishwasher, and Jenny told me the story, I was bawling."
In Russia, children with special needs or severe illnesses often end up in orphanages - either because their families don't or can't take care of them. Today there are around 650,000 orphans in Russia - and every fourth is a child with special needs or who suffers from an illness.
After months of bureaucracy, the Moyers finally met Vitaliy for the first time in October in an orphanage.
"They brought him in, and the first thing he did was come up to us and he patted us on the head," says Aaron. "From this moment on, he just warmed up to us and he would call us 'Mama' and 'Papa' and give us hugs and kisses and light up when we came into the room. We were told that after our first set of visits he is more proud, that he stands taller and his health has improved, because he knows he belongs to a family."
But the ban put a stop to the adoption. It also brought the Moyers back to Russia in January in the hopes a judge would rule that Vitaliy's adoption could continue under the law that was in force when they started the process.
No place to grow up
Domestic adoption has become more prevalent in Russia, but most Russians are reluctant to take on children with special needs, says Valeriy Panyushkin, a Moscow author and journalist who has worked with children's charities for more than 15 years.
For children like Vitaliy, adoptive parents from abroad are the only hope, he says.
"In Russia these children very likely will never be adopted and they won't get proper medical treatment," says Panyushkin. "They will be in an orphanage until the age of 18, and then they are transferred to a home for the elderly or a neuropathic hospital - in short, to a madhouse. And then let's say, for example, at 20 they will die of pneumonia. In those places, people don't live for long."
Over the past 20 years Americans have adopted around 60,000 Russian children. The biggest wave of adoption took place during the 1990s, when pictures of starving children in overcrowded Russian orphanages shocked people in the West.
These days, the conditions in orphanages are much better, especially in big cities, says Panyushkin. However, lack of attention and insufficient long-term medical treatment are still huge problems.
Even so, Russia's children's rights ombudsman, Pavel Astakhov, has already started promoting a ban on all foreign adoption.
"The ban is not an action taken against Americans," Astakhov told DW. "It's a natural step for any normal state. The time has come for us to take care of our orphans ourselves. I think it's an overdue decision. And in Russia, we are made this way: In order to change something for the good we first have to cut the cord. We need to burn all our bridges, so that we have no choice."
Last month tens of thousands took to the streets of Moscow to protest the ban. Russian state TV depicted them as supporters of child trafficking. Surveys show that the majority of Russians are in fact pro-ban - and Jenny Moyer has heard that, too.
"I am not sure politically how to speak to that, I am not a politician," she says, "I am just a parent."
Back in the US, Jenny and Aaron find themselves in limbo. The Russian court first delayed and then dropped their case. They were notified that Vitaliy would soon be transferred to an institution for older children.
Now all their hopes lie in the European Court of Human Rights: Four American families have filed complaints with the court challenging Russia's adoption ban.
Moscow, however, is unlikely to give way. On Monday (18.02.2013), Ombudsman Astakhov wrote on Twitter that a three-year-old onetime Russian boy named Maxim had been given psychotropic drugs over a long period of time and was then beaten to death by his adoptive mother in Texas in late January.
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