We had driven about 50 miles down asphalted roadways potted with deep holes when we turned onto a dirt road that led us several miles through the woods. “Is this safe?” I whispered to Greg. The interpreter overheard and reassured me, “This is the way. We have never been here but we were told it was in the woods.” I thought to myself, this is the most faith I’ve ever had to have…trusting these strangers we had met only the day before to drive us into the most secluded woods I’ve ever seen. I didn’t feel that I knew them well enough to trust them yet (later they would become our dear friends). Suddenly, the woods opened up and we parked next to what I thought was an old, abandoned, cinderblock warehouse. “Here we are. This must be it,” said our interpreter.
My mind tried to process people living here. It was so gray. So gloomy. There were three buildings. One large L-shaped structure and two long rectangular buildings that reminded me of the German concentration camp bunkhouses I’d visited as a college student in the 90’s. Surely this was a mistake. Our son was not living here…nobody could live here. My eyes caught a group of children in thick grass to the side of one of the buildings and I knew we were at the orphanage.
We stood outside for a few minutes while our driver went to the L-shaped building to make sure we were in the right place. As we walked around the grounds, a young girl ran up to Greg and held her arms up. Instinctively, he picked her up and she squealed with delight. She was blond, painfully thin, and very pale. I noticed the children playing and couldn’t believe how skinny and pale they all were. They looked almost transparent…gray like the backdrop of the decrepit building where they lived. A worker hurried over when she noticed the child in Greg’s arms. She took her quickly and shooed the other children inside quickly. The squeals of the little girl would be the only sounds of children we would hear for the rest of our visit.
The director greeted us and led us to his office. Clearly, he was suspicious of us. He told our facilitator that no visitors had come to the institution in seven years. The last visitors? A couple that thought they wanted to adopt a child with limb differences. The only other child ever looked at from this institution for adoption. He didn’t tell us the outcome and quite frankly, I was too afraid to ask questions just yet. The director and his wife would later become friendly, but we knew that their suspicions of us choosing to adopt a child from their facility were strong.
We were given information about Kirill. They didn’t know much about him…he had just been transferred two months earlier. They called in the social worker with medical records, she read off answers to our questions…or told us they did not know. We were hurried. It was apparent they were as nervous to have visitors as we were nervous to be visiting. The total time we had to speak with them was maybe fifteen minutes before we were ushered through a dark hallway, up a flight of stairs, to room that was prepared for us to meet our son. The walls were painted institutional green which matched the tiled floors. Occasionally there were faded paintings of cartoon characters on the walls. The stairs were in poor condition. Paint chips and pieces of sheetrock littered the floors. We passed a child in the hallway that was strapped to a standing device. No adults were to be found. He was standing, alone, in the dark. As we passed him I touched his hand and whispered hello. He barely moved. My heart ached for him. His silence was echoed throughout the building. How could there be ninety-eight children in this place? You could hear a pin drop. Doors to all of the rooms were closed as we walked down the hall. Occasionally a curious worker would come out and stare at us, wondering why we would visit.
The room where we visited with Kirill had obviously been prepared. Blocks stacked meticulously, an elephant stuffed toy, a few plastic stacking cups…all brand new. I believe everything we saw that day was a show. The room had a large television, four computers, and some soft furniture for children. It was a stark contrast to everything else we saw when we walked through the institution. We were told the computers were donated by the government. They looked so new…I do not believe they had ever been used.
We heard footsteps and our son was ushered through the door. He was so tiny. I kept reminding myself that he was four years old. He was the size of an infant no more than twelve months old. He was wearing girl’s clothes and shoes. His head was shaved. He smelled of urine and infection. His ears and eyes were matted with green discharge. His hands were covered in sores and blisters from sucking them. His eyes were hollow and bluish-purple all around. He walked but clumsily. He mostly just let us hold him and didn’t move. He didn’t make any noises except for a very primal, guttural grunting noise. He showed no interest in the toys we had brought and acted as if he didn’t really know what they were or what to do with them.
I tried to hide my surprise at his condition. The pictures we had from when he was in the baby house looked so different. His eyes sparkled in those pictures. There was nothing behind his eyes now except vacancy.
We were allowed to feed him lunch. When the tray was placed in front of him, he attempted to grab and shove large pieces of break in his mouth. The orphanage worker grabbed his hands and chastised him. It punched me in the gut…he was starving.
I patiently broke up pieces of bread, soaked them in broth, and fed him. He choked on every bite. The worker tried to explain to us that he was learning to eat. We later learned he was bottle fed at the baby house. He had never had solid food. When he was transferred, one worker had the responsibility of feeding thirteen children with intensive special needs. It struck me then…he hadn’t eaten in two months. The children were given food in the institution but if they didn’t know how to eat, they were out of luck. Survival of the fittest.
The next day we visited again. Kirill was wearing the same clothes. Urine and feces had soaked through his diaper onto his clothing. I held him close. I didn’t care. How would I leave him at the institution when it was time for our visit to be over? This was the last time we would see him for nine long, agonizing months.
As we drove back to the city, I asked our Russian facilitator, “why is this institution so far outside of civilization?” Her response was that the government did not want people to see the children with disabilities. Her exact words: “they hide them away”. She went on to say that she had never seen a person with Down Syndrome before we came to adopt Kirill. I asked her more about what she knew of the institution we had just visited. I discovered it was actually called the Bobrovsky Institution for Mentally Retarded Children. She told us it was for children ages 4-18. “But I didn’t see any older children there; the oldest looked maybe ten?” I questioned. Our facilitator explained that these type institutions don’t get much funding from the government for medicine and other necessities. Therefore, the children don’t live to be very old because they die before they reach older childhood.
When we finally returned nine months later, he was taller, but thinner. His bones were visible through the shirt he was wearing. His condition had obviously deteriorated. The blank stare at changed into a full-body shell that hid the beautiful boy inside. He wouldn’t smile or make eye contact. He would barely let us touch or hold him.
After that visit we had our court hearing. We endured five ours of intense questioning by a Russian judge and prosecutor. They questioned our motives. They questioned how we came to choose a child that was “not capable of anything” and would “never become a productive citizen.” We explained our love for children with special needs and our experience caring for individuals with disabilities. We provided information about the schools and therapies Kirill could have in America and how we would make sure he got the best possible care. We testified that we had discussed adopting a child with special needs even before we were married and we had been preparing for Kirill to be our son. We were not approaching this decision lightly nor were we uneducated about the challenges we would face. Russian experts (a psychiatrist, a social worker, and the minister of children’s services) were brought in to testify on our behalf and stated that he would be much better off in our family than he was in an institution. The equivalent of the Russian health department testified about the conditions of the institution where Kirill was living (or dying). There were several areas where the facility failed to meet standards. But in the end, were denied our adoption. The reason given? According to the judge, Kirill was “socially inadaptable” due to his “level of backwardness.” She told us, “I will approve you for another child. But this child should not live outside of an institution.”
Two months later, after appealing to the Russian Supreme Court, we were granted our adoption in a precedent-setting hearing, and allowed to bring Kirill home. When we picked him up, we knew he was ill. He was covered in scabies. You could smell the infection coming from his body. He wouldn’t eat or drink. He was a very sick child. The embassy doctor advised us to call our doctor stateside and have her ready to evaluate him immediately upon our arrival home.
When we got to the U.S., we went straight to our pediatrician who told us, “had you not gotten him out, I believe he would have died within six months in this condition.” He had to be sedated to clean all of the infection from his ears & nasal passages. He was given strong antibiotics for several months to treat the infections in his eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and intestines. He had parasites. He was malnourished…five years old and nineteen pounds. Down syndrome was really the least of our worries.
For several weeks, Kirill sat in a corner of our kitchen and would not move except to suck his thumb, bang his head, or rock and moan. I would try to interest him in toys but he didn’t know what they were or how to play with them. I prayed for God to help him come out of his shell. Slowly, he did.
We still have a long way to undo the damage done by Kirill’s institutionalization. He has been diagnosed with sensory processing disorder; probably as a result of the extreme neglect he faced in the institution. We don’t know about what conditions he was in prior to being transferred, but we do know the conditions in the institution from which we adopted him. Even if he was at a “good” baby home, a year in the institution would undo any progress he might have made.
So we focus on the victories instead. We focus on the redemption of Kirill’s life and the progress he HAS made. He has gone from wearing twelve-month-old baby clothes to a children’s size five. He has grown from nineteen pounds and thirty-one inches long to forty-five pounds and 43 inches long. He can walk, run, and jump. He loves animals, Sesame Street, and swinging. He has learned how to play with toys. He loves to give hugs and kisses. He loves food and can feed himself with utensils and drink independently. He uses sign language to communicate. He has come a LONG way. But had we not adopted him, I believe he wouldn’t be alive, much less a happy, thriving six-year-old boy.
We also focus on the children and our Russian friends we left behind. Our facilitator has become a passionate advocate for orphaned children with disabilities. She is one of the most hard-working people I know and she puts all of her heart and soul into her job as an adoption facilitator in Russia. She lives to see these children placed in loving homes. She has kept in close contact with us and cares about Kirill’s progress. It breaks her heart that U.S. adoptions may be ending in Russia. In fact, I think of all of our Russian friends as I’m writing this. I don’t want them to feel that we are critical of them at all. It’s not Russia. It is the evil in the hearts of the men who make the laws in Russia. Moreover, it is the king of all lies, Satan who is behind it all. America certainly doesn’t have it all figured out either. But I do believe that children with disabilities have an opportunity at a better life in a family than they do in an institution.
Let me reiterate this: the hearts of the Russian people we met are not reflected by their president. The institution, at least the one we saw, was not run by horrible people. They do the very best with the little bit that the government affords them. Remember, all of these institutions are all government-run. In Kirill’s institution, one worker was responsible for the total care of thirteen children. Think about that for a moment. Imagine thirteen children with intensive special needs. Now imagine being totally responsible for all of their care…bathing, changing diapers, feeding, clothing, and giving medications…there is no time for love, nurturing, or play. The director and the social worker at Kirill’s institution loved and wanted the best care for the children, but they couldn’t provide it with what they were given by the government.
You might ask, “Why can’t Russian families take care of the orphans there?” Russian citizens cannot adopt these children even if they wanted to. There is no place for them in society-no handicap accesible facilites, no special education programs, no jobs, and no medical care. Institutions are the only options for these children.
I’m thankful that no matter what happens with Russian adoptions, God is sovereign. He holds the heart of Putin in his hands and can change it if he wills (Proverbs 21:1). But he also isn’t surprised by this turn of events. He is still on the throne, not Putin, even if it seems that Putin is in control. He is not. Evil cannot win out against God. It’s impossible.