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Thursday, March 17, 2005 08:29 am

Coming home

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Jeff and Toni Elston, and their children, Reagan (top middle), Riker (front left), and Roman
PHOTO BY GINNY LEE

Like any proud parent, Jeff Elston happily shows off pictures of his three children. Many people know that he and his wife, Toni, went to Ukraine to adopt two of them. But when they try to guess which is the couple’s natural child, they’re usually wrong, he says. Riker, who looks exactly like Jeff, is adopted.

The Springfield couple wanted their biological son, Roman, to have a sibling. When several pregnancies ended in miscarriages, Toni’s doctor advised the couple to stop trying. They decided to adopt — but outside the United States. Friends of theirs had adopted a Ukrainian girl, and that experience was positive, Elston says. “And also I thought it would be easier than an American adoption — no visits of birth parents and all of that,” he recalls.

The Elstons’ first trip, however, in June 2003, was unsuccessful. The couple didn’t warm to the children they were shown. They returned four months later and came back with Riker and Reagan. “We thought two would be much better than one — and we could afford it,” Elston says.

Two international trips and the related expenses totaled about $25,000. But neither Jeff nor Toni regrets the money that was spent. “Five-year-old Roman loves his brother and sister so much, we could not believe it. He kisses and hugs them before going to bed every night, though nobody told him to do it. I don’t think it is possible to love one’s blood siblings more,” Elston says.

And yet there were moments when the Elstons wondered whether they’d made a mistake. After the adoption was completed, they took Riker, who was 6 years old at the time, and Reagan, then 8, to a rented apartment in Ukraine, and the kids acted out. “They spit at each other, yelled, ran all over the place,” Elston says. And the trouble didn’t stop in Ukraine — the children had to adjust to a new home in the United States.

“Once I got a call from school that my son [Riker] was pulling the ears of another boy,” Elston recalls. “I had to explain that it is a birthday tradition in his native culture — like our spanking at birthdays. And there were many other things — like, it is OK to stay really close to somebody there, but here we give a person some space around. And, of course, they had to learn English.”

The children have adjusted quickly. Today, the kids talk nonstop in English about their favorite American musicians, cartoon characters, and foods. But speak Russian to them, and they look confused and uptight. “They say they forgot the native language,” Elston says. “Recently we watched the tape which we made in their orphanage, and they could not even name any of the children, though they remembered their faces.”

There may be a logical explanation for the fact that these kids have forgotten their pasts so quickly: Those memories are just too painful. What good do they have to remember from over there? Father, who disappeared from their lives? Mother, who gave up her rights because she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, care for them?

Four-year-old Riley Elliott’s first reaction to her new home in America was “Wow!” What else could an orphan girl from Ukraine say on walking into a room filled with balloons? Kim Elliott blew up more than 100 to make her new daughter feel welcome in January 2002. What Riley didn’t know was that Kim and her husband, Steve, had to sell their house and move into a rental to bring her here. That was the price they were more than willing to pay after seven unsuccessful years of trying to have a child.

“We just didn’t expect the expenses to be that high,” says Steve Elliott. “Altogether, we spent about $25,000. First we had to change adoption agencies and lost some money there. We suspected them of doing some things under the table. Second, we had to travel from one orphan’s place to another and stay in Ukraine longer. Some children were in really poor physical or mental health. For example, a 3-year-old was only learning to walk. . . . And I can understand this position of [Ukrainian] officials: All good children should stay in the country.”

The Elliotts were disappointed and getting ready to return when their American adoption agent informed them about a girl in the city of Simferopol. “When we saw Riley Alexandra, we knew there was something different about this girl. She had such beautiful sparkles in her eyes, was playful and friendly. She liked my wife from the first minute, though she was suspicious of me,” he says. “I can understand that — there were not many males among orphanage staff.”

The Elliotts, like the Elstons, were inspired to go to Ukraine after seeing the happy example of friends who had adopted their children there. Riley adjusted well to the family, learned English in no time, and inspires only pride in her parents. She does not remember her life before she came here and forgot her native language completely, though Steve still remembers some words he had learned to communicate with her: “ ‘Beautiful,’ ‘darling,’ ‘frightened,’ ‘grandmother,’ ‘grandfather,’ ‘a dog,’ ‘to pee,’ ‘to poop’ — altogether, about 10 or 12 words.”

The Elliotts have since adopted another child, this time a baby girl born in the United States. They had hoped to reunite Riley with her older brother in Ukraine, but he was adopted three months before Riley and now lives somewhere in Spain. They don’t know the identity of his new parents, leaving almost no chance that the two siblings will meet again.

Riker, Reagan, and Riley are among thousands of children from former Soviet republics who have ended up in the West. State Department records indicate that U.S. citizens adopted 5,209 Russian children in 2003 (the number is based on the number of immigrant visas issued to orphans coming here). That is second only to the number of children adopted from China, which was the source of 6,859 children.

My native Kazakhstan came in fifth place (825 adoptions in 2003); Ukraine was sixth, with 702. Every year, U.S. citizens adopt about 20,000 foreign orphans — and the number has been climbing steadily. Children from Kazakhstan are popular in Hawaii because many of them are from mixed marriages. Kristine Altwies Nicholson, president of Hawaii International Child Inc., told the Honolulu Advertiser, which reported on the trend, “For many adoptive couples who are mixed, this is the perfect and only solution to adopt a child who looks like the product of their union.”

But over there, in the nations of the former Soviet Union, there is criticism of these foreign adoptions. The governments of most of the 15 ex-Soviet republics have taken steps, at one time or another, to put restrictions on international adoptions.

Byelorussia is the most recent example. Its president announced in November 2004: “International adoptions are a shame on the nation. We need our kids and are able to raise them without help abroad.” To adopt a Byelorussian child today, foreigners must obtain the personal permission of the minister of education, which is not easy — almost impossible, in fact — to get.

 In Kazakhstan, debate over the issue arose in 2002. An outright ban on international adoptions was proposed by parliamentarians, some of whom claimed that rich foreigners were buying children, perhaps to abuse them or harvest their organs. After the formation of an investigative committee, the members visited Irish families who had adopted Kazakhstani children. The conclusion was positive: The investigation revealed once-orphaned children who had found families.

Still, most of the population simply doesn’t get it.

Why do those rich Americans travel halfway around the globe, fight with a foreign bureaucracy, spend tremendous amounts of money, and express their love for skinny, frightened, unruly children?

In the ex-Soviet republics, there is a strong desire for the “continuation of family.” A couple will do everything possible to give birth to a child, even at the risk of the mother’s life.

And when that doesn’t work and they decide to adopt, they’ll look for a baby and do what it takes to hide the fact the child was adopted. Forget the notion of an open adoption; they are sure that it would be too stressful for a child to know the truth about his or her birth parents, let alone meet them. So to have Americans show up and profess love for children they’ve just met is difficult for many people to understand.

At the same time, the economic conditions in much of the former Soviet Union are so harsh that many children are given up and sent to orphanages because a parent or guardian simply lacks the means to support them. How else to explain the tremendous number of children in orphanages?

For example, my native Kazakhstan, with a population of 15.4 million, has 100,000 orphans. Many of them live in crowded and primitive conditions.

The Elstons and the Elliotts say that for the most part, the places they visited look nice, but I am sure only a few are like that. I am reminded of a Russian proverb: “Don’t leave your garbage outside your house.” Foreigners and journalists don’t see the abusive conditions that many orphans must endure. Many children run away, preferring life on the street as homeless beggars.

Families such as the Elstons and the Elliotts have provided loving homes for a handful of children abandoned in their own countries. Children such as Riley, Reagan, and Riker are truly lucky.

Unfortunately, there just aren’t enough Americans for all the children left behind.

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