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Destinations, Dreams and Dogs - International adventure with a fast-track family (& dogs) of Old World values, adopting the Russian-Italian-American good life on the go…!

Reducing the Risk of Russian Referral Roulette

100_5046.JPGLike most of us who adopt, you either want to be a parent, or you want to help a child in need. Both are noble aspirations.

To reach this goal, you will need to run the gauntlet of gauging whether or not a particular child is destined to be yours. Because some families are able to accept any child. Because many more prefer a reasonably healthy specimen.

For those who are newbies to the international adoption world, Russia does not allow “child shopping”. Instead, the officials give you a referral of a specific child. You then accept or reject, after visiting for several hours, or for several days. This may be your only referral, or you may receive another one on this trip, or on a later trip. Entirely up to the local officials and How They Play the Game.

What does a prospective adoptive parent need to consider in a referral? In order to not go nuts in the process, pretend that you’re playing a simple family board game, high stakes though it may be. It’s your turn to roll and consider whether or not to lay your cards and money on the table. Pay attention to the following points:

Babies and Toddlers:

1. Eye Contact–with people, places, or things. Not always encouraged in an institution where time is scarce, and demands neverending. Sing, roll a small ball, clap your hands, or drop a book if you must. The baby’s eyes should go in that direction.

2. Crawling or other mobility. This takes practice and developed stomach, arm, or leg muscles, so it does not tell the whole story. What you observe now, will not necessarily be predictive of the future. This could, or could not, Mean Something.

3. Communication–whether listening, babbling, or speaking. Might not be fully developed, but hopefully they are trying to communicate in some way when you catch their interest. Try not to be boring. Swinging a nearby cat by the tail to add excitement is not an option. Bring blowing bubbles, a squeaky toy, or bright stacking cups. Observe.

4. Steadily Progressing Growth–in head, height, or weight. Problem is, not all measurements are performed or recorded accurately, particularly with babies that squirm. You may not get the guaranteed answers you are seeking in this area. Take three steps back and lose a turn on the next roll of the dice.

5. Family History–did the birth mother smoke or drink? (Does it snow in Siberia, I ask you?) Accept drinking as a given in Russia. How much damage the alcohol did to a baby in utero is a matter of how much she drank and at what point in the pregnancy. Remember that Russian peasants do not keep prenatal diaries.

6. Funky facial characteristics–take photos under various lighting conditions. A missing philtrum (the indentation above the lip), narrow eyes, and a thin upper lip could indicate Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) which means birth defects and permanent brain damage. However, facial features only present when the mother drinks on the 20th day of pregnancy, so this merely confirms, whereas the absence of it does not deny, FAS. Brain damage can occur by drinking during pregnancy after this date, as well, but there will be no obvious facial characteristics. You have just fallen down a deep chute on the baby board game and there is no ladder to climb up.

7. Medical Records–even if they are limited or incomplete, reviewing the medicals with an international adoption (IA) doctor may definitely help. The physician will give you a high, medium, or low risk rating. Based on information with as many holes as Swiss cheese, you will need to create as complete a picture as you can. It’s similar to putting together a puzzle with 50% of the pieces missing. Good luck with that.

Assessing Older Children:

1. Interact–talk inside the orphanage, walk outside, throw around a nerf ball or frisbee–anything that involves parents and child, preferably facing one another. Activities that require the head being down (coloring, puzzles, drawing, beadwork) are not helpful if they are solitary endeavors. Aim for a give-and-take, easier said than done. BTDT. Observe facial expressions and behavior–reserved is okay, raucous is not, smiling is better than sneering, you get the idea. Look for fair impulse control, coloring inside the lines, hand-eye coordination, and being able to list in alphabetical order all of the former Russian satellite states.

If you are tired or jet-lagged when you meet an older child, it makes no difference: thou shalt not zone out. Rouse thyself to give this child your best evaluation–their very life hangs in the balance. Thou canst sleep tomorrow on the plane home (unless someone next to you has just adopted a holy screamer-!).

Thou shalt also not wear jeans on the plane lest thy suitcase never arrive. Wear business or business casual attire if you must, in bright, happy colors to convince your child that you are a good person. This is how I ended up meeting my first child in an electrified, Pepto Bismol shade of fuchsia boucle’ wool suit. A bit over the top in my opinion, but much better than a Mickey Mouse pin that someone had suggested (???). So not me, but then so was the whole idea of parenthood. A small splash of color goes a long way. How did we get onto clothes?

2. Interpret–don’t go into a deaf-mute or giggly routine. Speak with the child through your interpreter, or learn some Russian. Then talk and digest/interpret the information. Ask questions about their favorite school subjects, sports, etc. Share briefly about your family, home, or city. Show a small photo album to leave with them there. Get the child’s reactions. Talk about expectations and how America is not all “padarkee” and “pechenyee” (gifts and cookies). Don’t be surprised if the gab-fest grinds to a halt. Few orphanage children have ever been asked for their opinions, nor been spoken to by an adult in a respectful way, nor been tutored and coached by Miss Manners. Most institutionalized children will appear and act much younger than their chronological age. If you are able to converse for more than two minutes, high five! Win an extra turn to roll again.

3. Investigate–the child’s school and medical records. You have a right to ask to see these. Talk with the child’s teachers and ask about paying attention, study skills, grades in various courses. With older children, when the effects of FAS become apparent around school age, not many parents employ an IA physician, but you can if you feel it would help. Read over the medical records with your interpreter. Realize that you will have never heard of such diagnoses, and jot them all down to look up online at night. Not that your remote region has internet. Forget about asking for a photocopy, since the majority of orphanages have never seen such a machine. Ask orphanage workers what are the child’s strong points in terms of character and behavior. If they respond with silent scratching of the head, or lots of hems and haws, it is not a good sign….

Should you stay up sleepless most nights in Russia, don’t fret. This is a major decision. You may feel that you cannot make a decision such as this without proper sleep, but, as you will soon discover, most parenting is done with little sleep. Whatever you do, refuse to take a sleep aid, or you could be like Steve Martin in “Father of the Bride Part II” as his wife and married daughter are ready to give birth, and he finally zonks out… precisely when they need to rush to the hospital.

You might be at the end of your rope, but do not show any emotion of the negative or particularly crazed variety while in the midst of this info-gathering mission. Think “poker face” in this highest-stake game of your life. Have steady and firm resolve no matter who tries to jerk you around, from top officials to crooked adoption coordinators. I can tell you that crazed doesn’t always get you what you want. How I am privy to this knowlege is open to speculation. Staying calm, cool, and collected earns you an extra turn at the dice.

Listen, kids do not end up in orphanages through positive life events. We know that. But, abuse and neglect are not the end of the world. Keep in mind that children are resilient, much like a big bungee jump–after the low point, they will spring back up. …And down again… and up again. Eventually, what once scared the beans out of you, seems not that bad at all. Helping another human being, particularly an innocent child, to come to wholeness, is a beautiful thing. Not everyone is cut out for the role. Recognize your own limitations and strengths.

When they come home, you will need to have: equal parts Mother Theresa, an army drill sergeant, a caring therapist personality, combined with a rugged disciplinarian outlook. Be willing to stay awake at night, and on guard during the day. Much like a hurt animal may scratch and bite when you are only trying to help, this may be the child’s first response. There will come the time when the boy or girl is going to need to talk and talk, and you will have to drop everything to listen. Parenthood pays well, but also costs a lot. Be ready to invest.

Within a few months, occasionally a few years, it gets better, and becomes normal, and happy, and healthy. There may be some rough spots on the way home, yet eventually you arrive. You do not think of this as an “adopted child”, but as “my child”.

It was a roulette game, a craps shoot, one that’s becoming harder to win in terms of healthy referrals from Russia. But it can still be done. You have to be willing to play in order to win the game.

For us, it took nerves of steel and knees of prayer. I think we’ll be going back for more. All we need now is some of that Monopoly play money and we’ll be ready to jump into the game again.

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