MODESTO, Calif. — Tim and Diana Walker returned to their California home from Russia with their new daughter, Sasha, on Dec. 16, just days before that country shut the door on similar adoptions to the United States.
"We were so thankful to have been able to get her home before it all blew up," Diana Walker said.
On Dec. 26, the Russian Parliament's upper house voted unanimously in favor of the measure to ban adoptions to U.S. families, and President Vladimir Putin signed it two days later. The bill, which took effect Jan. 1, is widely seen as the Kremlin's retaliation against a U.S. law that calls for financial and visa sanctions against corrupt Russian officials.
Dozens of Russian children who were close to being adopted by U.S. families are blocked from leaving the country. More than 60,000 Russian youngsters have been adopted in the United States during the past 20 years. There are about 740,000 children without parental care in Russia, according to UNICEF.
The bill has sparked criticism from U.S. and Russian officials and people in both countries, who say it victimizes children living in the squalor of orphanage life.
"I saw that it was in the works, but I never thought it would happen," said Audrey Foster, founder and director of program development of Family Connections Christian Adoptions in Modesto, which has facilitated many Russian adoptions. "It breaks my heart, because who is suffering? The children. It doesn't make a big difference in politics."
Family Connections has placed more than 400 Russian children into adoptive homes since 1992, when the country opened its doors to international adoptions. The most adoptions were in 1996 and 1997, when the non-profit agency placed 64 Russian children each year, about a third of its annual placements for foreign and domestic adoptions.
After that, Foster noted, the numbers dropped as Russian adoptions became more costly, involved more red tape and required more frequent trips. Before that, a couple had to travel once to Russia. Now, it's three times before an adopted child is allowed to leave.
Taking a big leap
Family Connections facilitated the Walkers' adoption. Sasha, 7, joined the couple's five biological children — Kaylee, 20; Christian, 19; Ashlynn, 16; Emilie, 13; and Levi, 6 — at their home in Waterford, about 10 miles east of Modesto.
Diana Walker said adoption "wasn't even on our radar" until she traveled to Haiti to help after the devastating earthquake there in 2010.
"I spent Mother's Day in Haiti in an orphanage with about 65 little boys who slept on the ground and under cars in the courtyard," she said. "God opened my eyes to the plight of orphans in the world and how they're kind of warehoused."
After she returned home, Walker saw photos and information about orphans in Eastern Europe on the Internet.
"Orphans with special needs age out of their baby homes at about age 7," she said. "If they have spina bifida or Down syndrome or cerebral palsy or things like that, they are put in institutions for mentally ill adults for the rest of their lives."
The Walkers felt God urging them to adopt a child, even though the $43,000 cost and the time and emotional commitment made it a big risk, "like jumping off a cliff." The Walkers had a family meeting about adding a sixth sibling through adoption. "They were all completely supportive of it," Diana Walker said.
The family found Sasha on an Internet-based ministry that specializes in special-needs children in different countries. "We were looking through all the profile pictures, and when we got to (Sasha's) picture, there was a collective gasp," Walker said.
Sasha's medical needs include a severe cleft palate — closed with surgery when she was 2 — and heart problems, which weren't obstacles as far as the Walkers were concerned.
New 'Mama' and 'Papa'
In May 2011, they began the long process of bringing Sasha home from St. Petersburg, where she lived with 60 other orphans. It included medical and psychological exams for each member of the family, interviews by social workers and "a mound of paperwork," Walker said. Everything had to be notarized and then taken to Sacramento to be apostilled, which means a state official has to verify for foreign countries that the notary was certified in California. Every signature had to be verified, which costs $20 a page, and there were hundreds of pages, Walker said.
The Walkers expected to meet Sasha for the first time in December 2011, but the United States and Russia were working on a bilateral adoption agreement then, so adoptions in St. Petersburg and parts of Moscow were put on hold. That agreement was put into place a month before the ban was enacted.
The couple met Sasha during a one-week trip in June, when they were given the official referral from Russia to adopt her. The Walkers traveled to her orphanage in St. Petersburg, about 400 miles northwest of Moscow. They "recognized Sasha immediately" as she rode up on a tricycle wearing a little red rain jacket and carrying a little red bag.
"When she opened it, it was full of ladybugs she had collected," Diana Walker said. "It was so cute."
An interpreter helped them communicate with Sasha. One of the first questions they asked was if she wanted to join their family.
"She said 'da' immediately," Walker said. "She called us Mama and Papa right off. She'd been in the orphanage since birth."
When the couple had to return home, Walker said, "it was awful." With tears and a choked voice, she told of leaving her scarf with Sasha. "I had sprayed it with my perfume and I wrapped it around her neck and told her to wear it when she missed her mama. I told her we were coming back."
The couple had to wait five more months to go back for their second trip, which included a Russian court hearing. "They gave us a Halloween court date," Walker said. "My husband says it was the scariest Halloween ever."
The two-hour hearing was intimidating, the Walkers said. The judge, who spoke no English, "wanted to know if we could afford to care for another child, if we understood that she was an invalid and had special needs, and why we wanted to adopt her since we already had five healthy children," Walker said. "She (the judge) wanted to make sure that no living relatives wanted her, that we were the only family who had ever inquired about her."
Russian law criticized
There is a 30-day waiting period after the court approves a family, "so even though no one had shown interest in her for seven years, we had to wait another 30 days" before returning to Russia to begin the final process to bring Sasha home, Walker said. They arrived in Russia on Dec. 1 and spent two weeks in St. Petersburg and Moscow to get Sasha's passport and visa and finalize the adoption. While they were there, the lower house of Russia's parliament passed the ban on U.S. adoptions.
"We heard a lot of news reports over there," Walker said. "People were really upset about the (U.S. law against corrupt Russian officials). They said it had thrown them back into the Cold War days."
There also has been stiff opposition to Russia's adoption ban. Moscow's Novaya Gazeta newspaper, well known in the country for its critical and investigative coverage of Russian political and social affairs, reported that 100,000 people had signed an online petition against the bill, which many call the "Scoundrel's Law."
"I have a lot of friends who have been waiting almost two years (to adopt a Russian child), and they're now being told they may never be able to bring their children home," Diana Walker said. "We have one friend who was supposed to be bringing her child home on Jan. 10, and we know people who have just returned after meeting their child for the first time.
"This is all about political maneuvering. Basically, they're taking the lives of special-needs orphans, the most vulnerable people in their country that they should be protecting, and allowing them to be pawns. These kids will just languish and die. It's like (Russia) abandoned them twice."
Tim Walker, a U.S. postal worker, said Russia's new law was "horrifying."
It's hard to believe, he said, that "the only motive of the new law was to hurt children. I can't imagine how gut-wrenching this must be for families who were bringing their children home in just days. I can only hope that they will allow the families and children who are in process to complete their adoptions. But that doesn't help the (orphans) still living there."
'A great faith-builder'
Tim Walker said Sasha has been a wonderful addition to their family, and he would do it again in a heartbeat, despite the huge toll on their time, finances and emotions.
"We were 100 percent in our hearts that it was the right thing to do for us and for her," he said. "It's been a great faith-builder in our lives."
As for Sasha, she seems delighted with family life and is quickly learning English. She tells visitors, "I love you," and shows off her counting skills from one to 20, leaving out only the number 15.
She loves the bicycle she received for Christmas — a machina she calls it in Russian. Sasha shares a room with Emilie and likes sleeping with a night light on.
She has no idea how close she came to missing out on life with her new family.
"I've vacillated between total thankfulness and some guilt," Diana Walker said. "Putin keeps saying he's going to reform the way Russia takes care of its orphans (and) give their people incentives to adopt them. I would love for that to change. We (Americans) aren't the answer to Russia's problems with these orphans. But that doesn't mean that you harm these children in the meantime.
"We're thankful for the miracle (of Sasha) and praying for another miracle for the rest of them."