exposing the dark side of adoption
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The siblings they left behind


Ruslan Pettyjohn lives in a home with a pool, plays on a soccer team, goes bike-riding with friends and has two doting parents. He seems to have everything a 13-year-old American boy would want.

Except he doesn't have his big sister, Olga.

When Ruslan was adopted from Russia nearly four years ago, she was left behind in their village, sweeping floors and living in a condemned building with broken windows and no running water. She looked after him for years in the orphanage after their birth mother died. To give him a better life, she signed off on his adoption.

As international adoptions have soared, American parents are dealing with an unintended consequence: siblings torn apart. More parents are searching for their children's biological relatives, hoping to help them reconnect with their roots. Some want to adopt the kin; others just want to visit.

Now families are working together to seek a U.S. immigration fix, such as a visitor program, that would allow brothers and sisters to see each other. They're getting help from Empire Bay Group, a Washington consulting firm, in approaching members of Congress.

"We're committed to creating a path" for relatives to come to the USA, says Joan Knipe, Ruslan's adoptive mother. She and her husband, Steve Pettyjohn, of Scottsdale, Ariz., didn't know about Olga Lukinova until Ruslan's adoption was nearly complete. He didn't speak English, so he couldn't tell them.

They have tried to adopt her, but so far, she has been denied visas. She lacks the formal schooling to qualify for a student visa and the financial assets for a tourist visa. Now they are seeking special permission because they're running out of time. For her to be adopted, Arizona state law requires her to enter the USA by her 22nd birthday, May 25.

"She doesn't know how to ride a bike. I could teach her," says blue-eyed Ruslan, who clings to pictures of Olga when his mother reads Harry Potter to him at bedtime.

To help other families in a similar plight, Knipe last year founded Save Orphaned Siblings, a non-profit group that has attracted about 50 families with children adopted from Russia.

"We're just a group of moms who want to get some laws changed," says Johanna Babcock, a kindergarten teacher who adopted two boys from Russia. "We want to get these kids here."

Her younger son, Sergei, 8, adopted at 2, has two teenage sisters in Russia. She found out about them when she got his final adoption papers and tracked them down. "I felt when I met these girls, they are the missing piece," says Babcock, of Locust Valley, N.Y. "My boys don't understand why they're not here."

Obstacles abound

The families face obstacles. Many say they can't get visas for relatives to visit the USA because the relatives often don't have enough assets to assure authorities they would return to Russia.

"Congress didn't create any special category" for adopters' relatives, says Tony Edson, deputy assistant secretary for visa services at the State Department. An application to adopt an orphan from another country must be filed by the time the child is 16 unless a younger sibling has already been adopted, in which case the age limit is 18. Once in the USA, foreigners may be adopted as adults, depending on each state's law.

Another obstacle is a new Russian process for accrediting adoption agencies that has left most American agencies waiting for approval to be able to send orphans to the USA, says Thomas Atwood, president of the National Council for Adoption. He says the Russian government has been restricting international adoption, prompted partly by the few but horrific cases of Russian kids adopted by Americans who later abused them.

The number of U.S. adoptions from Russia rose dramatically between 1992 and 2004 but has since fallen markedly.

Legal obstacles have left the Pettyjohns desperate. They're requesting a special kind of visa, known as "humanitarian parole," that the Department of Homeland Security grants in rare cases for what it calls a "very compelling emergency," such as medical treatment. Their first application was rejected, but they're filing a second one.

"I do believe this is life or death," says Knipe, a director at Caremark, a pharmaceutical firm. She says Olga has been sick twice this year with respiratory infections and is so thin that size 0 pants are baggy.

When Knipe mails Olga clothes or English-language tapes, they're stolen, Knipe says. She is careful not to send much money because she doesn't want Olga to be a target of thieves. She wants to educate Olga and give her a family. Olga's mother died at 33, and Knipe doesn't know what happened to the father. Two other brothers were adopted by a relative and stayed together.

Russian orphans are exposed to "shocking levels of cruelty and neglect" and carry a lifelong stigma that results in many ending up homeless, according to a Human Rights Watch report in 1998. The report says 95% of children in orphanages have a living parent, but many families are too poor or abusive to take care of their kids.

Jane Aronson, a pediatrician who has visited orphanages in many countries and runs the non-profit Worldwide Orphans Foundation, says re-establishing sibling ties makes "a huge difference" for adopted kids, who often struggle with questions about their birth parents.

"The more adoptees are connected to their roots, the better they are," says Aronson, who adopted a boy from Ethiopia and another from Vietnam. "Every parent who adopts feels guilty about a child left behind." She says she's 55, but she would adopt her sons' siblings "in a heartbeat," if she could.

People adopted as kids from Korea, which sent more orphans to the USA than any other country in the early 1990s, are now going back as adults to find relatives.

In the USA, there has been a growing sensitivity in the past 25 years to keeping siblings together in foster care or adoption, says Barbara Holton, project manager of Adopt US Kids, a federally financed program that promotes domestic adoption.

"Brothers and sisters who've lost everything don't need to lose each other as well," says Holton, who adopted two children from Korea and one from Vietnam in the 1970s, when there was less push to adopt U.S. kids.

Holton says her family recently returned from Vietnam, where she looked for the orphanage her 32-year-old son came from. It was gone, along with all records. She says it was a sad moment when they realized he'd never find his relatives.

'Fraught with potential pitfalls'

Still, re-establishing such ties is not for "the faint of heart," Holton says. "It's fraught with potential pitfalls," she says, including the possibility that the adoptive parents could get scammed.

Ronald Federici, a neuropsychologist and author of Help for the Hopeless Child, says he has seen too many naive American parents being extorted for money by the relatives of their adopted children. "The majority of the cases I've dealt with have been disasters," he says. In some cases, he says, the adoptees are traumatized again when they find out their siblings are living on the street or their birth mother doesn't want to see them.

He says one client, a stockbroker, sent $5,000 a month to a Romanian orphanage to help the siblings of his adopted children but later found out that the orphanage director was pocketing the money.

Federici says reunions can be valuable for children like Ruslan who were adopted when they were older and had clear attachments to a sibling. But he questions the value for kids adopted so young they don't remember their original families.

"It's not always the healing, holistic factor some would think," says Federici, who knows where all the siblings are of the seven children he adopted from Eastern Europe. He says his kids, now 18 to 25, have "no desire" to meet them, although one visits her birth mother in Belarus.

Some adoptees push their parents for answers about their pasts. On Mother's Day 2000, then-first-grader Tatiana Kirkpatrick tearfully asked what her birth mother looks like. Mary Kirkpatrick, who had adopted the girl from a Siberian orphanage when she was 18 months old, says she felt hurt at first by the request but later understood. She hired a freelance reporter for his investigative skills and spent $2,400 to track down the woman, whom Tatiana has since met.

In 2003, Kirkpatrick launched Russian Family Search, a non-profit effort to help others locate relatives. She now has three full-time reporter/photographers and three part-timers in Russia who do the work. Kirkpatrick charges families only what the reporters charge her, typically $500 to $600 per search if several are done at the same time. She's working on 50 requests now and expects to receive 200 this year. They take four to six weeks.

She has helped find dozens of people, including Olga. Since Kirkpatrick and Knipe both live in the Phoenix area, they frequently meet to coordinate efforts, hoping to assist families adopting from other countries, too.

Knipe and her husband, who have no other children, originally planned to adopt a child from foster care in this country, which has about 114,000 kids waiting for adoption. A friend suggested they give parenting a brief try first. They agreed to host a Russian child visiting their area in a three-week cultural-exchange program.

Three days after Ruslan landed on their doorstep, Knipe says, her husband came to her in tears, saying, "We have to adopt him." Ruslan returned to Russia, and nine months later they followed. They went back last year to visit Olga.

"I knew when we were all together for two weeks, we were a complete family," Knipe says. They arrange to call Olga, who has no phone, at the orphanage every other week. Knipe has promised her that regardless of whether they can adopt her, "I'll always be your mother."

They've called, written and met with members of Congress, requesting help to rescue Olga. And they wait, with a bedroom in their house painted in light blue and white, Olga's favorite colors.

Knipe says Olga and Ruslan need each other: "These two will seek each other out for the rest of their lives."

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2007 Sep 4