Adoption Brings Joy to One Family, Pain to Another
Larisa Dushko caught a glimpse of the soft curve of her firstborn baby's bottom, nothing more. It took her six years to even get her hands on a photograph, and she has never held her daughter's hand or touched her face.
At birth, doctors called the baby a "monster" too terrible for her parents to look at, and her own grandfather tried to have her "put to sleep." Unbeknownst to the parents, doctors in the southern Russian town of Novopavlovsk faked the girl's death and sent her to a Russian baby home like a bundle of unwanted goods.
Now the child is 6, a lovely girl living happily in America with her adoptive parents.
The 1998 Russian adoption, based on a falsified birth certificate and the forged permission of a fictitious mother, has wreaked despair on two sets of blameless, loving parents in Russia and the United States.
The American couple made a brave leap of faith and love when they went to Russia to adopt a disabled girl--a child they were told was unwanted. But this past summer they learned with anguish that her Russian parents, Larisa and Oleg Dushko, were desperately searching for the child they were told was dead, the baby they never willingly gave up.
Now a custody struggle looms, and one family's happiness will always be another's grief.
The story of Maria Bednova--"Maria the Poor"--is about how the tentacles of Russian corruption reached into the heart of an American family. It is a story about provincial prejudices, the stigma of disability and how little has changed in the Russian regions since the fall of communism a decade ago. The names of the adoptive parents and the child have been suppressed in this article to protect their privacy.
3 Years in a Baby Home
The central victim of the fraud in Novopavlovsk was the little girl, an infant born with a disease of the joints who never received the comfort of her birth mother, a child who lost her original family, culture and language, and who spent the first three years of her life in a baby home--even as her parents grieved bitterly over the "death" of their child.
Shortly after Larisa gave birth in the Kirovskoye Territorial Medical Unit in July 1994, her father intervened. Sidor Ivanov, then a powerful police official in Novopavlovsk, was terrified that the stigma of a disabled grandchild would ruin his name, so he
used his connections in the town hospital to have the baby sent away.
Tough and old-fashioned, he felt that it was his prerogative to make decisions for his daughter--and to keep the truth from her.
Still stuck in a reflexive Soviet mind-set, the hospital doctors were ready to do Ivanov a favor. Three days after Larisa gave birth, they told her that the baby had died. Then they illegally concocted an identity for the child and sent her to an orphanage for children younger than 5.
"I'd turn to the wall and cry, and walk and weep again," said Larisa, 26, recalling the day she was told her baby died.
Four and a half years passed.
On New Year's Eve 1999, Larisa's mother overcame her fear of her husband and broke her silence. She told her son-in-law, Oleg, 26, that the baby had not died. Larisa was pregnant with her second son, Artyom, and Oleg, fearing the shock would damage his wife or the child, kept the truth from her until March.
By mid-April, the couple had traced their child to the baby home in Stavropol, 116 miles away, and drove there immediately, expecting to collect an unresponsive, severely disabled child or to learn that she had died years earlier.
In one joyous minute they learned that she was a lively, intelligent, pretty girl who could walk despite her disability. The next moment, they had lost her again: She had been adopted by Americans more than two years earlier. All they took home that day was a small photograph. But the myth that the baby was a monster, which had long haunted Larisa, was dead at last.
An E-Mail Dialogue
After tracking down the American family, the Dushkos launched a months-long e-mail dialogue to explain that they never intended to give up their baby. The Russians spoke no English but, using a computer translation program, they conveyed the raw tragedy of their story through broken grammar and often clumsy vocabulary. At times, the child's American mother read their words through tears.
"Our child was taken away by rascally way. We actually can't tell you everything the incalculable suffering which we experience. Since then when we had learned the truth, our life has become a hell," the Dushkos wrote to the American parents on Oct. 1.
The Americans, moved by the story, agreed to send photographs, accept e-mail and letters and, "when the time comes and she starts asking questions about you, we will have those letters ready to share with her. I am afraid there is nothing we can say that will really relieve your heartache, but we want you to know that she will be loved by us her whole life," they wrote on Oct. 27. In subsequent days, they rejected the Russian couple's plea for a shared parenting role.
The Dushkos are now planning action to overturn the adoption. The American parents declined to be interviewed for this article.
The case, a cautionary tale for Americans adopting in Russia, is not isolated. Police in Stavropol, the provincial capital, are investigating two other foreign adoptions: Two local women have been arrested for allegedly taking bribes from foreigners to speed up the delivery of adoption documents. And three Americans were detained as they tried to leave Russia in April with two adopted children; they were interrogated over payments they had made but were allowed to leave with the children the following day.
The Wrath of a Family
To find their daughter, Oleg and Larisa Dushko had to face the wrath of a prideful family and defy the elite clans of Novopavlovsk, population 23,000.
For six years, the subject of the family "freak" who supposedly died a few days after birth was taboo among their relatives. On Oct. 4, at her brother Sergei's 37th birthday celebration, Larisa smashed the taboo in a toast before about 15 relatives.
"I said, 'I want you to know that I gave birth to a very beautiful girl who was sent to a baby home. She was sick and she was adopted by some Americans . . . and they're treating her and she got a bit better,' " Larisa recalled in a recent interview. " 'I propose a toast to these people who have done so much for your niece and my daughter.'
"My brother kept trying to silence me during the toast. He interrupted, saying, 'Let's think of those who are alive.' I said, 'She is alive.'
"He flew into a rage and threw plates on the floor. . . . He lunged at me, but the men there stopped him."
The two people who decided the baby's fate from the start were the leaders of two powerful clans and old friends. Ivanov, 61, Larisa's father, was an Interior Ministry lieutenant colonel in charge of traffic. Zhermena Sukhina, 50, a gynecologist, still controls access to health care along with her husband, Anatoly Sukhin, chief doctor of the town's only hospital.
Vasily Balditsyn, editor in chief of the Stavropolskaya Pravda newspaper, explained the Soviet-style provincial clan culture and the relationships between local establishment figures like district administrators, police, tax officials, doctors, traffic police and factory chiefs:
"Their relationship is mostly based on the principle, 'I do a favor for you, and you do one for me.' They resolve all their problems within the town by a simple phone call to a clan member who will always help out whether or not it is quite legal. And he knows that, in a similar situation, he will likewise get help. In such cases, money rarely changes hands."
Sukhina said that she and the other doctors in the Dushko case had no reason to steal the child. But maternity doctor Nina Radchenko, who admitted to falsifying the hospital papers, said there was a motive: to help the baby's powerful grandfather, Ivanov. "We just decided to do him a favor," Radchenko said.
Soon after the baby's birth, Oleg said, he received a call from Sukhina. "She said, 'Your wife gave birth to a monster, and this monster is in pain.' She said it would not live long and the shorter time it lived the better. She said in most cases people give up babies like that.
"When she speaks, it's as if she's giving orders," he said.
Sukhina said the baby could not swallow, had no joints, had severe heart problems, one leg shorter than the other, poor brain circulation and a large birthmark disfiguring the face, according to Ivanov and the Dushkos.
"Who needs a baby like that?" Sukhina said in a recent interview at her home. "Of course it was a freak. It looked terrible. None of the joints would bend. Just because the face looked OK doesn't mean it was not a monster."
Ivanov went to Sukhina's house the night of his grandchild's birth, weeping and drinking vodka and tea for six hours.
"She said, 'Let's put it to sleep.' . . . Maybe I thought it was illegal, but I trusted her," Ivanov said.
Sukhina's recollection is different: "He came to me and said, 'Zhermena Konstantinovna, can we do something to destroy this baby?' " Sukhina said. "I said, 'Are you out of your mind?' "
Ivanov said he approached anesthetist Vladimir Berezhnoi several times at Sukhina's suggestion, asking him to give the baby a lethal injection, but Berezhnoi refused. In retrospect, Ivanov said he felt bad about what he did.
"But I had neighbors and they had a freak and it was in a wheelchair and looked like a monster. And for 30 years they went past my window, and I thought, 'Why should my children suffer like this?' "
In the days after the birth, Larisa repeatedly asked to see the baby. Dr. Radchenko told her no. "She said that the girl looked so terrible it was better not to see her because you would never want to have a baby again," Larisa said.
She learned her little girl's fate when a janitor told her to collect her things and move out of the maternity unit because her baby had died.
"I cried that I gave birth to a monster and now I had nothing," Larisa recounted.
'Maria the Poor'
Doctors dubbed the Dushko child Maria Yuriyevich Bednova--"Maria the Poor." They illegally issued a document certifying that the baby was abandoned and also faked a death certificate, which they gave to Larisa, Sukhina and Radchenko said.
"Yes, it was a violation. We brought this trouble on ourselves. Legally we can't be totally clean," said Radchenko, who said she is sorry for her role in the deception.
In addition, someone forged a fictitious mother's consent to the adoption.
Radchenko and Sukhina said Larisa saw the baby, then decided to give her up but would not sign a statement relinquishing her.
Sukhina said the hospital routinely falsified documents like the death certificate.
"It's called a holy lie. We have a right to issue fake documents when it's done for the benefit of the patient," she said. "Does your system in America work purely legally, or do you have a humane attitude?"
In fact, the hospital was not legally entitled to issue the false death certificate. Sukhina was reprimanded for it by her husband, the chief doctor.
Larisa "knew all along that the baby was alive," Sukhina said. But Raisa Pozyabkina, chief of the maternity department in the Pyatigorsk Hospital 30 miles away, who has treated Larisa extensively since 1995, said she was obsessed with the death of her disabled baby.
"She always spoke of her first baby as a baby who died, or rather a monster who died. I can swear on the Bible that Larisa never knew her baby was alive. Don't believe anyone who tells you otherwise," she said.
In late October, after the Dushkos told their story on Russian television, Sukhina issued a letter repudiating the couple's story to the local newspaper, Golos Vremeni. The letter was signed by 33 hospital staff members. But two doctors whose names appeared said the signatories were called in by Sukhina or another senior member of the medical staff, given a plain sheet of paper with no letter attached and ordered to sign it.
Both doctors disagreed with the letter and requested anonymity, fearing dismissal. "People are afraid of her [Sukhina]," one of them said. "They're afraid of losing their jobs."
After learning of her daughter's fate, Larisa confronted Sukhina. The doctor, she said, told her, " 'It's no secret that Americans adopt such freaks only for their healthy organs, which they transplant. Forget about it. The girl is dead, and that's it.' "
Larisa is tormented by the knowledge that her daughter was abandoned in a baby home, desperate for love and help--while Larisa's father knew the child was alive and sent not a single kopeck.
In April, after the baby home director gave her a photograph of her daughter at age 3, Larisa took it to her father, who was ill in a hospital. He glanced only briefly at the pretty, smiling face, then threw the picture down on his bed.
" 'What now?' " he challenged his daughter, she recalled. " 'Shall we declare this to all the world? Shall we ruin ourselves? Why did I meddle in this business?' "
"I suddenly realized with horror that he could have done this thing," Larisa said. "He sat with his head down, saying nothing, and I was screaming at him, 'Father, say something! Explain yourself!' "
Ivanov's actions cost him his daughter's trust. During an interview, admitting the part he played, the retired policeman's eyes filled with tears at the thought of that lost trust. He swallowed hard, unable to speak.
Querying the Agencies
The Dushkos set about finding the family that took in their child. They sent e-mail to many U.S. adoption agencies seeking information, and on July 5, Linda Perilstein of Cradle of Hope in Maryland confirmed that the agency processed the adoption.
Perilstein forwarded a brief, unsigned e-mail from the adoptive parents: "Please allow us to raise her with peace and tranquillity." Contacted by The Times, she declined to say whether her agency had investigated the case and refused to take any other questions.
It was a technical slip, from the records of a Russian court adoption hearing that was supposed to have been closed, that revealed the American family's name.
But it was a common name, so for three days Oleg sat at his computer scanning the Internet, getting advice from kind strangers in the United States and Canada. After sifting through thousands of similar names, he found what he was looking for, the name, phone number and address of the American mother.
The Dushkos broke their long story into six chapters and sent it to the American parents over the month of October.
"Now you know almost everything about us," the Dushkos wrote on Oct. 25. "We want to ask you one question: What would you do if you be we? . . . We think about Maria and our life all the time. If you can understand us, our life without Maria is impossible."
"We are so very sorry for you and your situation. It is a very, very sad story," the Americans responded two days later. "You asked what we would do in your situation. Well, we think that we would feel betrayed and angry. We would probably go in search of answers just as you have done. We would experience every emotion, just as you have. In the end, we would want what is in the best interest of our daughter. We would want her to be where she would receive the best medical treatment for her condition, which we feel is here."
There is no cure for the child's affliction, arthogryposis, but surgery helps to lengthen tendons and increase joint flexibility. At night, the little girl wears casts to stretch her tendons. Although she can walk now, a wheelchair may be necessary later in life.
"We are sure you became good parents for Maria, you love and cherish her," came the Russian response on Oct. 31. "But we love Maria too. We were bereft of her by deception. . . . We want to be in her life and do everything that we can for her. Therefore we thought and we think that Maria has four parents. If Maria is with you and we will come into her life, then Maria would not suffer."
They proposed an arrangement in which both families lived side by side in Russia or America, sharing equal parenting rights while the child carried their two surnames. The Dushkos have two sons, Konstantin, 4, and Artyom, a year old.
Responding two days later, the Americans rejected the joint parenting proposal.
"We do not feel that there is any quick or easy solution to this situation. I think that we must all consider much before we turn our lives upside down, much less these three children involved."
In response to the Dushkos' pleas to tell Maria they never gave her up, the Americans replied that it would be too disturbing for a 6-year-old child.
"We do not feel that it would be in her best interest to tell her that this contact has been made. This has been a very emotional time for us, and we feel that we may need to take a bit of a break from writing so many letters back and forth," they wrote Nov. 13.
About a week later, communication broke down after the Americans received a copy of the newspaper letter that Sukhina organized to repudiate the Dushkos' story. In an e-mail to the Americans on Nov. 21, the Dushkos said the letter was a fabrication "initiated by people who helped steal our baby from us in the hospital."
But the attorney for the American couple, Drew Whitmire, said his clients are now suspicious of the Dushkos. "They don't know who to believe. All they can tell you is that they love their child and want to keep their child. They're scared that someone is going to walk in and take their child," he said.
A Chance to Overturn
Moscow attorney Yelena Lvova, a leading adoption specialist, said that prospects of overturning the adoption in Russia were good because the documents in the case were clearly forged. However, to recover the child, the Dushkos would also have to take action in a U.S. court.
American attorney Ben Bruner, a specialist in adoption and international law, said that he believes the Dushkos could challenge the adoption in a state court but that the cost of furnishing witnesses and evidence would be huge. By Russian standards, the Dushkos lead a comfortable life, but without a sponsor they would not be able to afford the legal costs of such a trial in the United States.
In late November, the Supreme Court in the American family's home state overturned a domestic adoption in which the child had lived for four years with adoptive parents. In that case, the court found, the biological mother lied to the biological father, telling him the baby was stillborn.
Larisa and Oleg Dushko now see the joint custody idea as "utopian" and "stupid."
"I was ready to do anything, to eat dirt, to give all my money to the [Americans] in order to meet them halfway and make a compromise, but we realized it's impossible. Now we're going to court with a clear conscience knowing that we told them everything and we were fair and honest with them," Larisa said.
"I know that the [Americans] are excellent people. I am grateful to them for what they have done for Maria. And I know that they love her dearly. But so do I. And I am her mother."
Describing how she imagined her first meeting with her daughter, her voice collapsed and she wept.
She pictures herself and Oleg walking together, both holding their daughter. She sees the American couple walking close by, one of them holding her son Konstantin's hand, the other carrying baby Artyom.
"I'd like to see this picture in real life, very much indeed," she said.
Both families are deeply religious, and both tried to communicate their hopes and desires in their e-mail. But the Dushkos were hurt when the Americans, just before Thanksgiving, explained the holiday as a time "when we give special thanks for all that we have been given by God."
"The way I read that," Larisa said, crying, "it means that God stole her from us to give to them. But it just can't be true. It cannot be."
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Sergei L. Loiko of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.