- - Tuesday, January 8, 2013

On Dec. 28, the Russian parliament and President Vladimir Putin implemented an across-the-board ban on Americans adopting Russian orphans. This was in retaliation for the Magnitsky Act, an American law signed by President Obama in November, which puts U.S. travel and financial sanctions on Russian citizens deemed by the American government to have violated human rights.

There is an orphan crisis in Russia, with more than 750,000 children “living” in orphanages and institutions. Nearly half of these children have diagnosed special needs and are warehoused with no hope for education or inclusion in Russian society. There is simply no life for disabled children there. Russia is decades behind the United States in understanding the potential and value of children with disabilities. Mr. Putin’s intent was to retaliate against the American government for calling out Russia on human rights violations. What he really did was prove to the world that there is no such thing as human rights in Russia. Its own orphans are nothing more than collateral damage in a political chess match.

As the mother of a child with Down syndrome, I know firsthand how tragic Mr. Putin’s decision is. Children should never be used as political pawns. Mr. Putin made a martyr of innocent 2-year-old Dima Yakovlev, turning his accidental death after being adopted by U.S. parents into a tragic legacy of shame. Mr. Putin defended his action, saying, “This country will not be humiliated.” His own children are paying for his ego. Sen. John McCain of Arizona argued, “To punish innocent babies and children over a political disagreement between our governments is a new low, even for Putin’s Russia.”

For decades, disabled children around the world have been hidden away in orphanages and mental institutions. At this time, the United States and Canada are the only countries that openly allow the foreign adoption of children with known special needs. Even Canada has restrictions on this. Closing adoptions off from American families is truly a death knell for the orphans of Russia.

Charitable nongovernmental organizations such as Reece’s Rainbow advocate for disabled children living in foreign orphanages and give them the only real chance they have of being adopted. They use the strength and real-time capability of social media to share the needs of these children. In only six years, Reece’s Rainbow has helped more than 900 children with Down syndrome and other special needs find loving, permanent, adoptive families in the United States and Canada. More than 250 of those are Russian children who otherwise would have been left in adult mental institutions. Orphans around the world are often left without adequate nutrition, medical care, education and the critical infant stimulation and love necessary for any child to develop properly. Children with special needs are transferred to adult mental institutions at the age of 4, where they regress and suffer profoundly.

The majority of Russian families will not adopt disabled children, despite efforts in recent years to expand a domestic foster care and adoption program similar to that of the United States. Few services or opportunities for disabled people exist in Russia at all. This makes it even more difficult for those Russian families who might be willing to take in a child with special needs to really consider accepting that challenge.

Fortunately, Robert Schlegel, a United Russia party deputy in parliament and a former leader of the pro-Putin Nashi movement, has proposed an amendment to the ban on U.S. adoptions that would exclude children with special needs. “There are children who need help, and until we can provide that help in Russia, we should allow somebody else to do that, no matter if those willing to help come from America or any other country,” he said. We can only pray the Russian parliament passes this amendment as fast as they did the original ban. The speed at which they did that is very telling.

The misconceptions many Russians have about Americans who adopt are truly astounding. Even recent news articles contain ludicrous and completely unfounded ideas about us, especially from educated, “worldly,” high-ranking government officials. These include suspicions that Americans receive subsidies to adopt internationally, or that we sell Russian children for body parts, sex toys or cannon fodder for the U.S. Army. These accusations are absurd. Americans adopt abroad because those children need families, not because the United States has a shortage of children. We have fought for decades to provide the disabled with rights and opportunities here in the United States: education, medical care, early intervention, inclusion and families. We do not get paid subsidies to adopt internationally. We do not mistreat children. We do not come to shame Russians or point fingers. We come because the Russian children, especially those with special needs, need urgent help. We come to change hearts and minds, to empower Russian citizens to step out of the shadows and demand more for their own children. We come in the genuine hope that in the near future, there won’t be a need for us to come anymore.

Maybe this adoption ban is just what these children needed. Maybe Mr. Putin turning his back on his own orphans will spark a revolution to turn the tide regarding the care and inclusion of people with disabilities in Russia. This is 2013. We expect reason, wisdom, compassion, commitment, courage and service from elected officials. We expect our leaders to put those in need first and foremost, always.

Mr. Putin must cease the empty war cries of nationalist pride and do right by the children of his country. He must accept help and new ideas when they are offered. Only then can he prove that Russia is truly a world leader, not just a world power. Mr. Putin has a valuable opportunity to leave his own legacy of service and compassion. He does not have to be just another Stalin.

Andrea Roberts is executive director of Reece’s Rainbow Down Syndrome Adoption Ministry.