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Russia adoption confusion rattles U.S. families

/ Source: The Associated Press

For the Zukors in Maryland, and hundreds of other families across the U.S., there were anxious and confusing moments Thursday as reports surfaced — and then were questioned — regarding a freeze of adoptions from Russia.

"You've got to expect the unexpected," said Christie Zukor, who along with her husband, Ken, adopted four siblings from Russia in 2007 and has a pending application to adopt their 15-year-old half-sister.

They are among an estimated 3,000 U.S. families in various stages of adopting children from Russia.

Word spread quickly through that community Thursday that a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Andrei Nesterenko, said adoptions by Americans had been suspended pending U.S.-Russian negotiations on an adoption treaty. Russia has stepped up demands for such a treaty following last week's incident in which a Tennessee woman sent her 7-year-old adopted son back to Russia on a plane by himself with a note saying he was violent and severely mentally ill.

Within hours after Nesterenko's briefing, the reported suspension was cast into doubt. Russia' Education Ministry, which oversees international adoptions, said it had no knowledge of a freeze. So did a spokeswoman for the Kremlin's children's rights ombudsman.

‘Conflicting information’
In Washington, the State Department at one point said there was no suspension, then said it was seeking clarification from Russian officials. "Right now, to be honest, we've received conflicting information," department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.

The State Department is sending a high-level delegation to Moscow next week to discuss the controversy and a possible adoption agreement.

"There are many thousands of Russian children who are not adopted by Russian families," Crowley said. "We have the same objective as Russia has: to find loving, safe and permanent homes, some of which would be here in the United States."

For the Zukors, who live in Havre de Grace, Md., a suspension could dash their hopes of traveling to a Russian orphanage within the next two months to bring home 15-year-old Marina, the half-sister of the three girls and one boy they adopted in 2007.

"We have no doubt we'll bring Marina home one day — though it may not be as soon as we would like," said Christie Zukor. "But I don't know how patient I'd be if this was my first adoption."

Holly and Brian Shriner of Shawnee, Kan., fit that "first adoption" profile. They started trying to adopt from Russia in May 2008, and last December were given approval to adopt two sisters, ages 2 and 3, whom they have visited in an orphanage near the city of Tver.

"We absolutely fell in love," Holly Shriner said. "We feel we left pieces of our heart and soul in Russia when we left them. We're now trying to finish the process and give them the family they deserve."

‘Other children could be hurt’
The Shriners had hoped the adoption would be complete within the next month or two, but the furor over the Russian boy's return to Moscow has created uncertainty.

"The thought of our two girls continuing to remain in an orphanage without loving parents because of the action of one woman — it's so hard for me to comprehend," Holly Shriner said. "It breaks my heart to think thousands of other children could be hurt."

The boy's return — with little supervision or explanation, aside from the note from his adoptive mother — outraged Russian authorities and the public. The Tennessee woman claimed she had been misled by his Russian orphanage about his condition; many Russians have wondered angrily why she has not been charged with any crime.

Holly Shriner said she and her husband have been reminded throughout their application process — which has included seminars and courses — that adoption can be daunting.

"From the very beginning, we were never promised rainbows and sunshine and birds singing all the time," she said. "It's hard. No one along the way has said anything other than that."

Help with post-adoption challenges
Shriner said she takes comfort in the availability of a nearby social worker who has offered to help with any post-adoption challenges.

"I expect we will have a bump, or two, or 12, along the road," she said. "You just have to figure out how to work through those."

Christie Zukor, a stay-at-home mom, said a social worker provided by the adoption agency had helped her and her husband cope with four new members of the household.

"It saddens me that this woman from Tennessee made such a poor choice," Zukor said. "It's impossible that she didn't have resources. For her to spoil it for everybody — I just hope it doesn't happen."

‘We feel very fortunate’
In Chicago, Heather Boehm said she and her husband, Garrett, have had a good experience since adopting a son, Aleksander, from Smolensk in 2007. The boy, now 3½, has some speech delays and sleep problems, but she said, "We feel very fortunate."

The couple submitted paperwork to Russia earlier this year for a second adoption.

Boehm, an attorney for abused and neglected children before she became a stay-at-home mom, said Aleksander is "pretty much a typical American child now," although she has learned how to prepare Russian dishes like borscht.

"I hope with all my heart that the United States and Russia sort this all out," she said, "because I know many, many adoptive families in the United States who have just wonderful success stories."

Julie Garten and her husband, Jay Garten, of Shakopee, Minn., plan to adopt an 18-month-old boy from St. Petersburg, Russia, but don't have fixed timetable yet.

"It's definitely trying," Julie said of the uncertainty. "You cry a lot, you pray a lot."