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American parents united Five years since Russia banned adoptions by U.S. families, this San Diego couple is still fighting to bring home their girl

Lera at the Petergof orphanage on December 28, 2017
Lera at the Petergof orphanage on December 28, 2017
Elena Lukyanova / Novaya Gazeta

In December 2012, thanks to the Dima Yakovlev law, the Morris family of San Diego, California, didn’t have enough time to complete the paperwork to adopt Lera, a Russian girl with Down syndrome. The law, which bans U.S. citizens from adopting children in Russia, left another 30 or so American families in a similar situation. The families responded by creating their own association and suing Russia in the European Court, but they were only able to win monetary compensation. Five years after Russia’s “anti-orphan” law took effect, the Morrises are still fighting to adopt Lera. Maxim Yarygin, a journalist at Ekho Moskvy v Peterburge, met with Lera at an orphanage in Petergof and spoke to the American family that hasn’t given up.

Just three miles from the famous Peterhof fountains and from Vladimir Putin’s residence in Strelna, on a run-down road surrounded by wastelands and abandoned buildings in the Petrodvorets region on the southwestern outskirts of St. Petersburg, you’ll find an orphanage for children with developmental disabilities. On the way to the institution, the other journalists and I stop at a store to buy some sweets as holiday gifts.

A single-story building located behind an iron fence, the orphanage has been painted in the colors of a rainbow. The sidewalks to the building are all covered in ice, and we have to drive in the snow tracks left by other cars.

“Who are you here for? What group are you from?” asks a woman who opens the front door when we arrive.

After learning that we’ve come to see Lera, the woman calls one of her colleagues and says, “Some relatives are here.” It’s not true, but before we can blink her remark about visiting relatives has spread across the entire facility, and we’re already being led grandly into the recital hall.

“Come in. Come in… There might be seats in the front row,” they whisper to us. There are no empty seats, and we have to sit on the floor. We’re surrounded by a bunch of well-dressed adults — teachers and parents (many of whom have sent their children here because they can’t manage them on their own). Many of the children are in wheelchairs.

The children and their teachers are performing Evgeny Schwartz’s “A Tale of Lost Times.” Lera, now 12 years old, has a part in the show. Five years ago, this girl with Down syndrome was supposed to be adopted by an American family. But Russia’s ban on U.S. adoptions took effect just a few days before the Morrises would have claimed Lera, marooning her on the outskirts of St. Petersburg.

Elena Lukyanova / Novaya Gazeta

Undone by lawmakers

Katrina Morris is a housewife living in San Diego, California. Forty-nine, she’s spent much of her life raising her four children. Her husband, Steve, works as an engineer. The couple has four kids: three sons (two of whom are already adults) and a 10-year-old daughter they adopted in the United States in 2010. In 2012, the family decided to adopt a child from Russia: Lera.

In July 2012, the Morris family flew to Russia to meet Lera in person. Katrina says she wanted to adopt a child specifically with Down syndrome.

‘“We knew we could provide the proper care and comfort because I’d worked with such children before,” Katrina explains. “I know they have great potential, when given everything necessary for their rehabilitation and education. We decided to adopt a child from Russia — I’ve always loved Russian culture, plus there are very few children with Down syndrome whom you can adopt in the United States. Almost everyone who doesn’t terminate their pregnancies after learning [about the diagnosis] ends up raising these kids themselves. But we knew that the situation in Russia is different.”

According to data published by the newspaper Kommersant, up to half of all mothers in Russia who give birth to babies with Down syndrome end up giving the children away for adoption. In Soviet times, this figure was significantly higher.

In October 2012, the Morrises filed all the required adoption papers with the St. Petersburg city court. On November 26, the court then returned the documents, giving the American couple until December 30 to correct a few mistakes.

It wasn’t until December 19 — Lera’s birthday, in fact — when Catrina learned about the legislation that would ban U.S. adoptions in Russia. When President Putin signed the law on December 28, the Morrises still thought they’d be allowed to finish the process they’d already started with Lera. After all, the adoption had been underway since before legislators even proposed the “Dima Yakovlev law.”

“For the next four months, U.S. government representatives were calling us, saying that they were trying to settle the adoption issue with Russian officials. But in April 2013, they told us, ‘We’ve ceased negotiations. You can adopt a child from another country, but not from Russia.” Then came the official response from the Russian government: the Morrises’ adoption application had been “returned to the database.”

Asking Putin for a Christmas miracle

Next, Katrin Morris turned to the Russian charity group “Downside Up,” which helps families with children who have Down syndrome. She asked the organization to find a new family for Lera, but was told that it would be virtually impossible, as children with her condition are rarely ever adopted in Russia. And so Katrina and Steve decided to keep fighting for Lera.

The Morrises weren’t the only Americans told at the last minute that their adoption of a Russian child would be denied. Another 30 or so U.S. families were in the same process when Vladimir Putin signed the Dima Yakovlev law. Despite Moscow’s adoption ban, these couples are still trying to help the children who would have joined their homes. Together they’ve formed an organization called “Parents United,” where they collect money and try to lobby U.S. officials and public groups to campaign against Russia’s law, or at least push Moscow to allow them to complete the adoptions that were already in progress by December 2012.

Parents United has written letters to Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. In December 2013, for example, the Morrises and other families asked Putin to let them complete their adoptions as a “Christmas miracle.” “We met beautiful Russian children whom your government chose for us many months ago. We fell in love with these children. We held them in our arms and they conquered our hearts. We feel paternal love for them, we dream about hugging them again, and celebrating the New Year together. As a parent yourself, you know the joy and depth of fatherly love,” said the American parents’ letter to Putin.

They never got a response.

Parents United sued Russia in the European Court of Human Rights — and they won. In January 2017, the court ruled that Russia’s legal system violated their right to due process when it simply suspended all adoption cases involving Americans in December 2012. The ECHR, however, lacks the authority to restart the adoptions.

“We were awarded about $3,000. But it’s not money I need. What I want is for Lera to find a home and a family,” says Katrina.

In December 2013, the Morrises and several other families released a Christmas video featuring footage of their meetings with the Russian children they hoped to adopt. In 2016, these families were the subject of a documentary film titled “To the Moon and Back,” which was screened for the U.S. Congress. The Morrises say they’re prepared to fight until the end, which comes in four years, when Lera turns 16 and becomes too old to adopt by U.S. law.

Heartbreak and missed opportunities

Every year, the Morrises send presents to the Petergof orphanage for Lera and other children in her group, as well as the staff. They’ve never brought the gifts in person; Katrina says Russian officials have warned her that coming face to face with Lera again would violate the ban on American adoptions, so she always sends the packages through friends and acquaintances. This year, she sent dolls to all the girls and also packed a checkered dress and ballet slippers for Lera.

The holiday performance ends and the students are organized into their groups. The children are seeing us for the first time, but some run up for hugs.

Then we see Lera. We’ve never met before, but she knows that our group has come to see her. Lera has difficulty speaking, but she clearly understands what she hears. She immediately looks into the giant package we’ve brought and starts to pull out gift after gift. The girl wastes no time grabbing the dress that’s meant for her and asks for help putting it on. It’s a perfect fit. Then she runs into the playroom and collects a pile of new and old toys, which she tries to hide under a large rug.

Elena Lukyanova / Novaya Gazeta

“As soon as I saw this law [banning U.S. adoptions], I said it would hurt the most vulnerable kids the worst,” Asikritov says. “They’re almost never adopted in Russia, and they could find good homes abroad. We had this one American family that took a boy with Down syndrome. We’re still in touch. I’ve seen how he’s developed and changed. He even looks like his siblings in this family.”

“I keep up with a lot of people who adopted children from Russia. Most of them are doing very well,” insists Katrina Morris. “Some of them face special challenges, including Down syndrome, but these kids learn well, they can read, and they go to school with other children. My heart aches when I think about how much Lera has missed because we weren’t allowed to adopt her.”

Story by Maxim Yarygin in St. Petersburg, translation by Kevin Rothrock