Jeff and Kate Conrad know how lucky they are to have their 5-year-old son, Ryan, in their lives.
They also realize that, if they hadn’t started the adoption process from Russia when they did, he might not be part of their family.
In December, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law that banned adoptions from his country to the United States.
The law stunned the international adoption community and shattered the dreams of many American families hoping to bring home a Russian child.
“It could easily have been us,” said Jeff Conrad, whose son has lived with him and his wife in Buffalo since April. “Thank God it wasn’t. Our prayers were answered. ... I just feel very, very sorry for those other families.”
It’s upsetting, he said, to think of all the other children he met at the “children’s home” where Ryan lived, who now may never be placed with a family.
“I’d take them all home, if I could,” he said.
The ban ends two decades of adoptions to the United States from Russia, where an estimated 700,000 children have no parents. About 60,000 Russian children were adopted to American families during that time.
International children’s advocates have decried the ban. They point out that ending adoptions to the United States punishes the children, particularly those with special needs, who probably will never find a home with Russian families, who are hesitant to see adoption as an option.
Due to Putin’s ban, about 500 Russian children who already had been matched with American families will not be allowed to come to the United States. The fate of 46 children whose adoptions already were cleared by the Russian court system remains unclear.
It’s widely understood that Putin signed the new legislation ending the U.S. adoptions as retaliation against an American law that placed sanctions against Russians who are considered human rights violators.
The Russian ban also followed highly publicized cases of American adoptions going wrong, including the 2008 case of a Russian toddler who died after being left by his father in an overheated car. Then, in 2010, a mother who couldn’t handle her adopted 7-year-old son sent him back to Russia alone on a plane.
Those cases led to new, tighter regulations ironed out in a bilateral agreement in November.
That’s why the sudden ban “was just quite a shock to the international adoption community,” said Judy O’Mara, adoption director for Baker Victory Services.
The Western New York organization has assisted hundreds of families with their adoptions through international agencies by conducting home studies and follow-up visits.
O’Mara pointed out that it’s unclear what will happen to the four dozen families who had already met their children and were waiting to bring them home.
“We’re hopeful that the Russian government will allow the 46 families in process to proceed and receive their children,” she said. “Families would be devastated if they’re not allowed to proceed with the adoption as planned.”
Back when the Conrads were going through the adoption process, they often worried that it could fall through at any moment.
In the middle of the process, they learned that they would be required to take not two but three separate trips to Russia to bring home a child.
But they happily complied and dutifully completed a long list of other tasks, including providing stacks of paperwork about their health and proof they had completed parenting classes.
They learned through their adoption agency, Families Through International Adoptions, that they had been matched with a child Nov. 3, 2011. Baker Victory handled their home study for the agency.
They were to fly to the Rostov region, about 500 miles south of Moscow, where they would meet with a child. They had to be there Nov. 20.
They didn’t know the child’s name, or even the child’s age or gender.
But the Conrads were more than happy for the opportunity.
On their first morning in Rostov-on-Don, an interpreter met with them and told them about the child – a 5-year-old boy.
At first, the boy was very guarded, but he seemed to warm up to the couple as they gave him little toys and shared Cheerios and animal crackers with him. They got his medical information and had a doctor in the United States make sure there weren’t any major concerns.
They met with him every day for a week and then returned home for another round of paperwork.
The couple returned in February to go before a medical board and then the courts.
When the boy first saw them, he again was shy. But on the morning before the court date, the Conrads stopped by.
“He was smiling ear to ear,” Jeff Conrad said.
After a 4½-hour court session, a judge signed off on the adoption.
Kate Conrad returned in April with her parents to bring Ryan to Buffalo.
He’s thrived since coming to Western New York. He’s going to kindergarten at Trinity Catholic School. He loves pizza and is crazy about the family’s St. Bernard. He adores Santa Claus and Darth Vader, and enjoys playing soccer and hockey.
The Conrads feel they’re a complete family now.
“Absolutely, yes,” Jeff Conrad said.
Another Western New York family knows the feeling.
Every time Amy wraps her arms around her 4-year-old son, Ivan, she knows how lucky she is.
“It’s so chilling to me to think we might not have our son,” said Amy, who asked that her last name not be published because her family must undergo three years of follow-up visits to meet Russia’s adoption regulations.
With the ban now in place, Amy can’t help but think about the 80 children at the orphanage where Ivan lived.
She remembered a little boy who grabbed her leg and called her “mama.” A little girl danced for her and her husband.
“They also wanted to leave with a family, too,” she said. “Your heart hurts for these kids.”
Ivan has thrived during his first three months in Western New York, his mother said. He is enjoying fresh fruit and vegetables, and has gotten medical care he couldn’t get in Russia, including hernia surgery and an operation to correct vision problems. He is set to have his tonsils removed soon, too.
“We’re able to provide him with the care that he needs to be a healthy boy,” Amy said.
Amy understands why Russia was concerned about the safety of its children in American families and agrees that stricter regulations were in order.
She hopes Russian politicians understand that the vast majority of American families taking in Russian orphans are loving parents who cherish their children.
“We do have to keep children safe,” she said. “We were all in support of that. It’s just a shame that at this point these families are being caught in the political crossfire between Moscow and Washington politics. ... There are so many children in these institutions. They could have the safety of a loving home.”
Another New York family was not as fortunate as Amy and Doug.
A New York City woman who was working with International Assistance Group and Baker Victory had just been matched with a 1-year-old girl, Kira, and was planning to meet her next month. The woman, who holds dual citizenship in Russia and the United States, spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The ban destroyed all hope that she would even get to meet the beautiful red-headed girl.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she said.
While she had not seen Kira in person, she had been given photos that she placed throughout her home. She watched a six-minute video over and over.
“We watched it every day. Then out of nowhere, Mr. Putin makes this decision,” she said.
The woman understands the Russian perspective to some degree. Russians were rightly outraged by the adoption fiascoes that made the news, she said, and politicians in the United States may have gone too far in imposing sanctions over the human rights violations.
But she believes it’s unfortunate that Russia’s estimated 700,000 orphans will have to pay for political squabbling. Including little Kira.
The disappointing turn comes after many other heartbreaks for the couple. The couple was matched with a different little girl about a year ago, but that fell through when a Russian couple adopted her domestically.
Now, with Russian adoptions ending, they don’t know where they will turn.
The woman said that because she is 46 and her husband is 55, many countries won’t adopt to them.
She said she has not stopped looking at the photo of little Kira, even though she knows Kira will not come home to her.
“For us, there is definitely no hope.”