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Originally published Saturday, February 15, 2014 at 6:12 AM

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U.S. parents still fighting to adopt Russian orphans

A year after Russia imposed a ban on adoptions by Americans, the Boehms, of Barrington, Ill., are one of an estimated 230 U.S. families in 38 states who have already met and bonded with children in Russian orphanages. Do they keep fighting to adopt the children, or do they give up?

Chicago Tribune

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CHICAGO — Others seeking to adopt children from Russia may have lost faith or moved on, but for one Illinois couple, abandoning the toddler they already refer to as “our daughter” is unthinkable.

“There’s a Russian saying that hope dies last ... and we’re not giving up hope,” said Garrett Boehm Jr. of Barrington.

But a year after Russia imposed a ban on adoptions by Americans, he’s also realistic. The Boehms are one of an estimated 230 U.S. families in 38 states who have already met, cuddled and bonded with children during trips to orphanages in Russia.

Since returning, Boehm and his wife, Heather, have made multiple trips to Washington, meeting with State Department and Russian officials. They have channeled their energy into petitions and pleas to lift the suspension, widely considered retaliation for a U.S. law imposing sanctions on Russian officials accused of human-rights violations.

So, what now? Caught in a global political spat, with little evidence that Russia will soften its stance, do they stay the course or move on? After investing more than $45,000 and traveling some 5,600 miles to spend three days with Anna, now 2, do they put away her photos and start over with another country?

“It’s hard,” Garrett Boehm said. “She’s sickly and has a tough time breathing. But she craved touch, whether it was from me or Heather. ... If she was given a loving home, she would thrive. This is political football, when it should be about little kids who deserve better.”

If anything, relations between the United States and Russia have curdled even more in the past year, aggravated by everything from gay rights to the perceived American mistreatment of Russian adoptees. Now, with the spotlight on the Sochi Olympics, families hope that the fate of 260 orphans will also grab some attention, said Boehm, an attorney.

The Boehms, both 40, met the toddler they named Anna in a Siberian orphanage on Thanksgiving weekend 2012. The couple already had a positive experience five years earlier when they adopted their then-16-month-old Alek. Now they hoped to bring home a sibling.

“Alek asks us, ‘When is Anna coming home?’ We gradually had to tell him we just don’t know. He’ll ask: ‘Why doesn’t she get to come home, but I do?’ You try explaining that to a 7-year-old,” Garrett Boehm said.

It’s no easier for Claire Concannon, 47, a single mom who lives in Chicago. Or for Lara and Ed Nusbaum, of Naperville, Ill., ages 44 and 58, respectively, who sought to adopt two Russian brothers.

All had been vetted — including background checks, fingerprinting and home studies. Their dossiers had been stamped “approved” by the Russian government, and all had gone overseas to meet their “match.” While they were waiting for court dates to make a return trip and finalize their adoptions, the plug was pulled Jan. 1, 2013.

Now, the cribs, car seats and toys have been returned. “The boys’ bedroom is just storage,” Lara Nusbaum said. “I can’t even walk in.”

Different time

It wasn’t always that way. Since 2000, Americans have brought home about 41,500 orphans from Russia, which quickly joined China and Ethiopia as a country from which U.S. families typically adopt children. Unlike the U.S. foster-care system, in which it can take years to terminate biological parental rights and many of the children are older, these countries offered babies with shorter waits.

Nationwide, many adoption providers had robust Russian programs, including The Cradle in Evanston, Ill., which placed 78 Russian children with U.S. families in 2006.

But even in the best of times, navigating the Russian bureaucracy became increasingly difficult. The kids often differed in age from their birth records, and many had special needs, especially related to fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

Moreover, the cost of adoption was hitting the $50,000 mark, which included multiple trips for extended stays, interpreters and other fees. The cost was out of reach for most Cradle families, President Julie Tye said. In 2009, four years before the ban, the agency terminated its Russian adoption program.

“It was a tough decision for our staff and for our board,” Tye said. “We saw adoption as a great opportunity for these kids ... and a mission that we wanted to pursue. But we just couldn’t.”

In recent years, the Russians’ mistrust of Americans increased, too. The 2010 headlines swirling around the Tennessee mom who sent her 7-year-old son back to his native country alone, along with the 2008 death of a Virginia toddler adopted from Russia and mistakenly left in a hot car, didn’t help.

Finally, the story of adoptee Max Shatto, a 3-year-old fatally injured in his Texas backyard while his mother ran into the house to use the bathroom, was all Russian officials needed to show Americans are unfit to raise their offspring.

Coming just three weeks after the ban, “the Kremlin jumped at the opportunity to try to turn Max Shatto’s tragedy into a public-relations victory,” wrote the Moscow Times, Russia’s only English-language daily. Texas prosecutors later ruled the death an accident.

“This is not a child-welfare issue ... it’s about political considerations,” said Tom DiFilipo, CEO of the Joint Council on International Children’s Services, an international nonprofit focused on youth advocacy.

Even so, the parents seeking to adopt from Russia banded together, throwing themselves into seeking a resolution. They lobbied officials in Washington and took out a full-page ad in The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper. They drafted a plan giving the Russians greater post-placement oversight.

In June, in advance of the G-8 Summit, they wrote to President Obama, asking him to discuss the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin and “find a way out of the political morass for a few hundred wounded children.”

Despite the fact that the letter was signed by 154 members of Congress, the affected families have heard nothing.

Secretary of State John Kerry has raised the issue with Russian officials, a State Department official said.

DiFilipo, who has been engaged with U.S. and Russian authorities, conceded that no real movement has occurred for months.

“I have nothing credible to give these families hope,” he said from his Alexandria, Va., office. “But at the same time, I can’t stomach telling them to give up.”

Renee Thomas, mother to 8-year-old Jack, has even taken her cause to Moscow. When the ban was imposed, she and her husband were weeks away from adopting Jack’s biological brother, a fact they thought might give them an edge.

“Until Obama and Putin can agree, there’s nothing we can do,” said Thomas, who returned to her Minnetrista, Minn., home late last month.

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