Orphans left to suffer in US adoption spat with the Russians

Putin decision means couples who thought they were taking children home are left waiting.

MOSCOW // Gabriel, a four-year-old Russian boy with Down's syndrome, can count in English the days before he joins the couple from the US that he calls mama and papa. He does not know a political tit-for-tat between Moscow and Washington is putting his adoption at risk.

He thinks he will soon fly to Idaho with Rebecca and Brian Preece, but the courts have halted the process, and the president, Vladimir Putin, says Russian children should be brought up in Russia, as a matter of pride.

A new law stopping adoptions by people from the US, which came into effect on January 1, too late to stop Gabriel's, the Preeces thought, was in response to US legislation intended to punish Russians accused of breaching human rights.

The problem, campaigners say, is that most orphans with disabilities never find parents in Russia. Often American or other foreign parents are their only hope for a life outside Russia's mostly poorly funded orphanages.

"We have his clothes all laid out on the bed upstairs that we were going to dress him in to pick him up, his little snowboots and his snowsuit and his 12 layers of clothing to stay warm," says Mrs Preece, her eyes brimming with tears.

"We talked about going for a car ride today and then getting on an airplane together," says the 34-year-old American from Boise, the Idaho state capital, sitting in the lobby of a Moscow hotel with husband Brian.

The couple, who had carried out the legal procedures to adopt Gabriel, were on their way to court this week when they were told that their case was on hold.

"We were told the judge received something from the supreme court yesterday telling her not to sign the final decree until further instruction," Mrs Preece says.

Mr Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was quoted as saying in late December that six children whose adoptions had been approved by courts would be able to go to the United States, while those whose cases were still pending would stay.

The Preeces, who own a fireplace business, were thought to be among the first group. Another couple, the Bonners, also thought they would soon be able to take home five-year-old Jaymi, who also has Down's syndrome. Their case was frozen too.

"It seems that we are almost just numbers that are thrown out," says Mrs Bonner, who is bringing up two daughters in Salt Lake City, Utah, with her accountant husband.

"We just want to show that the children that we have grown to love, and all of the orphans here, they are not numbers, they are children. They love and deserve to be loved, and there are families that can provide that for them."

The two couples, who did not know each other before, have their own biological children at home. Both have a child with Down's syndrome.

More than 650,000 children are orphans in Russia, and 110,000 of them lived in state institutions in 2011, official data shows. There were about 7,400 adoptions by Russian families that year, compared with 3,400 adoptions by families abroad.

US families adopt more Russian children than those of any other country, with more than 60,000 cases since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, including 962 in 2011.

Tens of thousands of people protested against the law in Moscow on Sunday, saying vulnerable children were being used as pawns in a political battle.

"Legally, he's our child and he's stuck. He is a political hostage," says Mr Preece. "They are not political pawns, they are kids. They need moms, they need dads, they need brothers and sisters," he says.

But Russian legislators say 19 Russian-born children adopted in the US had died in the past decade.

"We don't want to sell our children or harvest their organs or any of these ridiculous rumours we hear about. We want to give a family to a child that needs one because we are members of a family and we know what that means, and that's all we want," Mrs Preece says.

"We are extremely, extremely heartbroken. Our son was expecting us to come today. He knows he is being adopted into a family. He calls me 'mama' and my husband 'papa' ... politics mean nothing to us; our families are what are important, and we are just trying to complete the process," she added.

The two mothers say they would stay in Moscow to fight to take the children home.

"I wasn't planning on this. This wasn't a thought last week," says Mr Preece. "I planned on being in a pool with them tonight, swimming with them. That's what I was planning."

Both Gabriel and Jaymi were given up by their biological parents and have met their adoptive families several times in orphanages in Moscow.

"It's something that starts slow. When you first see their picture, you start imagining them in your life and your family and opening your heart to them," says Mrs Bonner.

"It's a very vulnerable place to be, to say, 'We're going to love you', and even though we don't know the end result yet, we still are going to do that. And the more we visited her, every time we came back, that grew and grew," she added.

The Preeces hope they will still be able to tell Gabriel that they will be together soon.

"We'll just let him know that we are still here, we're still his mama and papa, and we just have to wait a little while for that plane, right?" says Mrs Preece.

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