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The Boston Phoenix To Russia, With Love

A cool -- and terrifying -- adoption story

By Linda Goodspeed

SEPTEMBER 27, 1999:  When I told my 15-year-old nephew a few years ago that I was going to adopt a baby, he replied, "That's so cool."

Yeah, it really is cool, I thought.

I didn't know just how cool it would be until I landed in Moscow last March and was hit by below-zero winds and snow blowing off the great central plains of Russia. It was bitter, bleak, and intimidating, but compared to what I'd been through already, it was nothing.

Russia was not my first choice of places to find a child. I knew there were plenty of abandoned children in this country -- right here in Boston, for Pete's sake -- in need of homes and a little love. What I didn't know was that adopting a baby domestically is almost impossible.

The child-welfare and court systems in this country promote foster care, not adoption, and children in state custody often spend years in foster care before becoming eligible for adoption. I spent nine months looking through the registry of eligible foster-care children: page after page of 12-, 14-, 15-year-old boys who had spent a decade or more bouncing from family to family. There were girls, too. Thirteen, 14, 16. Sibling groups that bureaucrats would not break up; minorities whom bureaucrats would not place in families of a different color. Childhoods lost forever.

If state-sponsored adoption is difficult, trying to adopt a child independently is even worse. Too many nightly newscasts and based-on-a-true-story TV movies of custody battles between adoptive and birth parents were enough to discourage me from this route. On television, the courts always seem to side with the birth parents -- fathers who didn't know they were fathers and never signed away their parental rights; mothers unaware or traumatized when they signed away theirs.

Going through a reputable private adoption agency is safer, but hardly more accessible. For $30,000, I could have written an autobiography and sent a picture of myself to put in a book for pregnant women who had agreed to give away their babies. But I wouldn't have bothered, because I knew I wouldn't be picked. I am single and I have a disability. That's two strikes against me, and you don't get picked if you have even one.

And so I found myself on a plane bound for Russia. It took me years and thousands of dollars and emotions to get there. I was two years into the adoption process before my daughter was born; by the time I finally got her she was two years old. The money I spent could have paid for a couple of years of college.

"Don't use the words 'legally blind' to describe your handicap," my caseworker advised me. "The words don't translate well. Say 'visually impaired.' "

"Okay," I said.

Actually, even though I have only a very small amount of central vision remaining in one eye -- less than 10 degrees -- it is highly usable vision, and I identify much more readily with the words "visually impaired" than with the word "blind," which for most people conjures up images of total darkness. (This is one of the myths about blindness. Very few people are totally blind; most "blind" people have some degree of light perception, visual acuity, or other residual sight.) I need to use a white cane to get around because the peripheral vision in my one seeing eye is so restricted. On the other hand, its central acuity is good enough that with proper lighting I can read a newspaper.

Reading children's books was my bigger concern. The Immigration and Naturalization Service, which must approve every overseas-adoption applicant, was more interested, however, in what kinds of gadgets and devices I was going to use to take care of a baby. The INS wanted bells and whistles.

I thought hard.

"Well," I said. "I know a lot of blind parents have told me they put little bells on their children's shoes when they start walking."

They loved it.

"And, of course, it's very important to be extremely well organized."

They seemed disappointed. Too simple.

"It's hard to anticipate everything I'm going to need," I finally said. "But I have a lot of resources, both blind and sighted. As problems come up, you just solve them."

When I was getting Masha's clothes ready to take to Russia with me on the trip to pick her up, I realized I needed some sort of system to keep outfits together, as I would be visually unable to put them back together if they became separated. I talked to my mom, and we came up with the idea of using plastic clothespins. A problem came up; we solved it. That's life. Visually impaired. Unimpaired. It doesn't matter.

You know you can't save the world, but you can't help thinking about the baby the US adoption agency searching Russian orphanages on your behalf didn't offer you because her head measurements were too small.

An overly small head can be associated with fetal alcohol syndrome. You soon learn all about this condition: how to plot head measurements on a graph; to look for "Cupid's bows" -- ears that stick out or are set too low. You learn how to convert grams into pounds and centimeters into inches.

You learn to overlook a diagnosis of perinatal encephalopathy on a child's medical history -- or rather, in Russia, you learn to worry when it's missing.

"In this country we use the diagnosis to mean brain damage at the time of birth," the doctor doing my medical consult told me. "Obviously, Russian doctors mean something quite different by this diagnosis, because it's on every medical record from Russia and Eastern Europe."

You memorize medical histories, visit medical libraries, search Medline for explanations of every word.

And what's not there can make the decision as hard as what is there, since you worry that there's something they aren't telling you. Other than the ubiquitous perinatal encephalopathy, Masha's only diagnosis was congenital myopia in her left eye.

Is that all? Nearsighted in one eye? I read the report over and over.

"Well, it could just be that she's healthy," a friend of mine pointed out.

You try to hold back a little. Just in case. But your heart expands every time you look at the pictures, watch the videos. Wait for the medical consult, you tell yourself. Wait for the answers from the orphanage to your questions about her gestational age; her birth parents' histories; her language and social skills; her comprehension level. Wait, wait, wait.

But you know this is the one. You begin to feel as if you might take off at any moment.

And then it happens. The naysayer.

"She's awfully cute," said a social worker involved in my quest to adopt. She had been sent the same packet of information about Masha that I had. "But I have some real concerns about her Apgar scores. I think they could mean mental retardation."

Of all the things to say to a prospective parent! I was devastated when I got off the phone with her. Four years, I thought. I'll never be able to adopt. I felt sick. I had to talk to someone else. I called every neonatal-care unit in Boston searching for a doctor, a resident, an intern, anyone to come to the phone right now to tell me a 6/7 Apgar score was normal, unremarkable, no problem, no sign of anything whatsoever except an incredibly normal, healthy infant.

Because of this woman, I now have a drawer full of studies and articles about the use and misuse of Apgar scores; about researchers who have tried unsuccessfully to correlate the scores with later neurological development; about the test's utter and complete lack of predictive value.

I became a walking encyclopedia on anything even vaguely related to Apgar. I can tell you who developed the test (Dr. Virginia Apgar), when (1952), why (as a quick and easy measurement of an infant's condition at birth), what the test measures (heart rate, respiration, muscle tone, reflex, color), how the test is scored (0, 1, or 2 for each of the five measurements). Bottom line: the Apgar score is a quick, convenient shortcut for physicians to use in assessing how a baby has come through the trauma of birth. Period.

My relief upon coming to this conclusion slowly turned into anger at the social worker's ignorance and insensitivity. I couldn't understand how anyone, especially someone working in the child-welfare field, could bandy about the words "mental retardation" without having any real idea what she was talking about. But the anger only lasted six or seven minutes. When you find the baby you're going to adopt, you don't have time or room for anger. There are too many other things to do, too many other emotions.

There are so many hurdles. After each one, you think the finish line is in sight. Then somebody moves it again. Sets up another hurdle.

Three years of fingerprinting, interviews, background checks, financial statements, references, home visits, paperwork, more paperwork, more interviews, faxes, FedExes, phone calls, notaries.

I strongly urge anyone who wants to adopt a child overseas to have a personal notary public, someone you can call on to witness your signature at any hour, day or night. I'm not kidding. Russia is eight hours ahead of us. They work while we sleep and sleep while we work. You should also live no farther than a day's drive from the state house. Not only does every signature on every scrap of paper have to be notarized, but every notary's signature has to be notarized. Only the secretary of state can do this. The seal is called an apostille. Just one of many new words you will learn. Others include I-600-A, I-171H, I-864. You'll get used to speaking in numbers, and in triplicate.

About two years ago I started overnighting everything. Hurry up, hurry up. Each hurdle had to be gotten over immediately because I was getting so close . . . to another hurdle. At one point I had to ask Senator Ted Kennedy's office to try to locate my application at the INS. (Kennedy actually has a staff person designated for this job because so many international-adoption applications get lost in that agency.) You think you've done everything, gotten every bit of paper, every reference, every notary, every apostille, and then there's a new request. A new power of attorney, another letter, another person to meet, a new document request, another hurdle.

The day the Russian judge was supposed to set my court date for the adoption, she instead asked me to furnish proof that I was not receiving a government pension. Never mind the financial statements, employer letters, and tax returns I had already supplied. I couldn't decide whether her request was because of my disability or my employer. I write and produce all the publications for a nonprofit consumer-advocacy organization called Health Care for All, a name with a certain socialist ring to it. The judge probably thought that I worked for some kind of government agency instead of a group that is trying to hold the government accountable. Having been so failed and betrayed by their own government, no wonder the Russians were suspicious.

A couple of weeks after the adoption agency offered me Masha, I had the privilege of meeting the minister of education for Masha's region of Russia, a small republic named Mordovia. He was visiting Boston.

Vasily Vasilyovich was a very sad man, sad for his country, sad for the children who have so little future there. Mordovia is an autonomous republic about the size of Massachusetts located about 400 miles southeast of Moscow. It has a population of one million people, including 2000 orphaned children in 16 orphanages. Another 2000 children are in foster care. Those are the lucky kids. There is also an untold number of homeless street children. In Russian, through an interpreter, Vasily Vasilyovich spoke movingly of his native land, the people, the school system ("not so democratic as here; we have more-strict discipline"), and most movingly of all, about the children. Even children in intact families who make it all the way through the country's excellent school system, taking advantage of its free universities, have few opportunities, job-related or otherwise, when they finish.

"It is a very difficult situation," he told us. "Very hard on the teachers who are no longer being paid."

With so many Russians unable to feed their own children, let alone adopt abandoned children, Vasily Vasilyovich had finally, reluctantly agreed to allow Mordovian children to be adopted internationally. (Countries establish their own adoption procedures and requirements for adoptive parents.)

But first he wanted to assure himself that children adopted by families in other countries would be getting good homes. Last fall, he traveled to Boston and Florida to visit schools, hospitals, museums, and Disney World, and to meet American families who had already adopted Russian children and others waiting to adopt. I made a point of going up to him to show him pictures of Masha and to talk to him about my disability.

"I hope I can impress upon you," I told him through an interpreter, "that even with a handicap, if you have a strong family and friends, access to medical care, and opportunity, you can live a very full and active and productive life."

Little did I know that those words would come back to haunt me.

Saransk, where Masha was born, is a tired, rundown, hopelessly depressed settlement of 300,000. Despite its size and its stature as the capital of Mordovia, it's hard to call Saransk a city. There's no center, no downtown, no stores, no supermarkets, no theaters, no nothing. Just three-, four-, and five-story cinder-block apartment buildings, factories, and government-office buildings strewn along a mishmash of crumbling, unplowed roads.

The morning my brother David and I arrived, via overnight train from Moscow, our translator, Olga, asked me what I was going to wear to court. I told her I had brought a pair of slacks and some winter boots. (No way was I going to bring a skirt and high heels to the Russian interior in the middle of March.) Olga was appalled.

"You must make a good appearance in court," she said. "Russians put a lot of emphasis on clothes. It's not like America. Haven't you noticed how many people wear fur coats?"

I nodded. We had.

Olga quickly went through my wardrobe.

"No, no, no," she said, shaking her head at everything I pulled out. "None of these will do. You must buy something."

"Are the stores open on Sunday?" I asked, having just arrived and not yet knowing there are no stores in Saransk.

"We'll go to the market. It's not far from here."

We shuffled over an icy snow-covered path to an outdoor market. It was freezing. Olga went from stand to stand, stopping at the ones selling skirts and shoes. I tried on a couple of pairs of shoes, holding on to Olga as I stood on one foot on an icy incline in front of a small stand. Olga said I could try on the skirts, too, but I was too cold to go behind the booth. I held one up to my waist. It was a long black silk skirt with a slit up the back and two long, hideous silk tie things in the front.

"I'll take it," I said.

"Don't you want to try it on?" Olga asked.

I shook my head. "It'll fit. How much?"

She bartered with the shopkeeper and then selected some rubles from my hand.

The skirt was so small that I couldn't zip it up in the back. Luckily, it had those tie things, and I arranged them to cover up the zipper. With nylons on (Olga refused to let me wear knee socks), the shoes were so big that they flapped when I walked.

"You look very elegant," Olga whispered in court the next day.

"Thank you," I said, hardly daring to breathe lest something slip.

Later in the week Olga took David souvenir shopping and they visited more outdoor markets, including an open-air meat market. Fresh slaughtered meats were spread across tables set up in the snow. No refrigeration, no ice, no packaging, no signs, just the butchered animal's head to advertise the table's contents.

Had David visited this market earlier in the week, we might have eaten a little more cautiously. Russia is not noted for its cuisine, haute or cold. There were only two restaurants in Saransk, and every item on both menus contained cabbage. There was only one hotel (the "Gulag," David called it; we couldn't pronounce the Russian name). We were the only guests in the whole place. "I feel like I'm in a Stephen King movie," David said as we checked in.

The hotel was the nicest building in Saransk -- a 30-year-old concrete structure surrounded by a high barbed-wire fence, with a linoleum-tiled lobby, two walk-up floors of rooms, and a large empty bar and game room with a scuffed-up pool table. We had a two-room suite with a three-channel TV, on the second floor. It had a balcony and 30-year-old plumbing -- modern by Russian standards -- that smelled so moldy every time we turned on the water that we eventually gave up trying to shower. There wasn't a shower curtain, anyway. Later we learned the hotel was a government hotel built to house visiting Soviet officials from Moscow.

With the government in chaos and the city's once-bustling factories at about 10 percent capacity, no one comes to Saransk anymore. No one, that is, except American families wanting to adopt abandoned Russian children. On the flight over to Russia, there were 18 American families, counting us, on their way to pick up children. There were at least 10 babies, counting ours, on the flight back. It's even nicknamed the "baby flight."

Living in Saransk must be what living in the old American West was like -- rough, freewheeling, and incredibly bumpy. The orphanage where Masha spent the first two years of her life was located about 40 miles outside of Saransk, accessible (barely) via a narrow, two-lane, washed-out road bordered on both sides by eight-foot snow banks and vast expanses of snow-filled fields. The road was so bad it couldn't be traveled at night, so the first time we visited Masha -- Russian law requires all adoptive parents to see their prospective children before the official adoption -- we had to time our trip for after her nap and before the sun set.

The orphanage was a two-story wood-frame building in a small hamlet. Entering it, I was struck by how quiet it was. Four staff members, all dressed in white coats, greeted Olga and me and led me upstairs to a large empty room. I recognized the room from the videos of Masha I had received. I sat on a low bench along one side of the room. The women sat unsmiling. I felt I had dressed all wrong again. I asked the director, a woman in her late 30s, how many children lived at the orphanage. She replied, "Fifty-five. All under the age of three."

I was stunned.

After a few minutes of strained chitchat in which I described Masha's new family and her room at home, the director asked if I would like to see her.

"Yes." I could hardly breathe.

My back was turned toward the door as I talked to one of the orphanage doctors (a woman, of course -- the country has the most highly educated and professionally employed women in the world). Behind me, I could faintly hear a steady, slow thump, thump coming up the stairs. The thump, thump drew nearer. I turned.

"Eta oo mama," the orphanage director said. Holding the director's hand, Masha steadily made her way toward me. I'd known she was small from the videos the adoption agency had sent me, but I caught my breath at just how tiny she really was.

"Eta oo mama," the director said again.

From the 30-word list of phonetic Russian I had memorized before leaving Boston, I knew the director was telling Masha, "This is your mama."

Masha stopped in front of me and raised her arms. I gathered her into my lap.

"Mama's here," I whispered, crying. "Mama's here."

Ordinarily, a Russian court hearing on a foreign adoption lasts from one to three hours. It's not a rubber stamp, but it's pretty close, thanks to the intense screening of adoptive parents done ahead of time.

My court hearing in Saransk lasted eight and a half hours.

At lunch the five of us sat subdued and depressed. Igor and Ilya, my two Russian adoption advocates, scowled as only Russian men can. "I cannot say what the judge will do," Ilya said, shaking his head.

Igor was equally pessimistic. "It did not go well this morning," he said.

Olga just sat limp, too tired from all the testimony of the morning even to eat. My brother David put his arm around me and asked how I was holding up. Despite having had nothing to eat or drink since we got up that morning, not even a glass of water (can't drink the tap water), I had no appetite. I ordered a cup of black coffee and listened as the others critiqued the morning session.

"It's fine that you have an active and productive life," Igor told me. I winced, thinking about how hard I had tried to impress Vasily Vasilyovich with my productive life back in Boston. "But this isn't about you," Igor continued. "This is about how you're going to take care of a child. That's what the court wants to hear. They are not convinced this adoption is in the child's best interests."

"He's right," David said. "You have to tell them how you're going to take care of Masha."

Ilya nodded. "It's all up to you, Linda."

We had been in court since 10 that morning. It was now 2:30 p.m., and we were due back in court at three. The restaurant had stopped serving lunch, and all we could get was a half a slice of thick toasted bread topped with some orange-colored tomatoes, ham, and cheese. By the time the food was ready, it was time to leave. But we had our strategy.

Yes, I was adopting Masha alone, but no way was I in this by myself. My brother's presence was testament to that. I had spent the morning talking about myself. In the afternoon I would tell the court about my family -- all of them: biological, work, church, friends, neighbors, community.

We arrived back at the courthouse feeling considerably more confident and optimistic, only to be greeted by a surprise witness. When the man was introduced as an eye specialist, I thought he was there to talk about Masha's nearsightedness. A good part of the morning's testimony had focused on her health and my willingness to adopt a child with a known defect.

God, these people are thorough, I thought.

But when the mystery witness was further identified as the chief of the glaucoma department at the local hospital, my heart sank. These people really are thorough, I thought. My underlying eye condition is glaucoma. This wasn't about Masha; this was about me.

For the next hour I described to the court the history and prognosis of my eye condition and what I can and can't see. The glaucoma specialist listened and then offered his opinions and impressions of everything I said. I felt it was not going well. How can you make 10 glaucoma operations, one cataract surgery, three laser procedures, no sight in one eye, and tunnel vision in the other eye sound like no problem?

Forget the past, I wanted to shout. For 13 years my eyes have been stable: no drugs, no surgery, no change. Nyet, nada, nothing.

Finally, the prosecutor in the case who was there to represent Masha's interests asked me to walk over and open the door to the courtroom without using my white cane.

"When Linda opened the door, I knew everything was going to be all right," Igor said later.

Not quite. I had convinced the court that my disability did not prevent me from opening and closing doors. I still had to convince a skeptical judge and hostile prosecutor that my disability would not prevent me from raising a two-year-old. After the glaucoma specialist left, I again stood up, and, in two-sentence intervals so Olga could more easily translate, told the court about my family -- Masha's family. I told about my work family, how my co-workers had raised more than $200 to give to Masha's orphanage. I described my friends and their generosity and interest, my neighbors, my plans to hire a Russian nanny to take care of Masha during the day when I was working so that she could keep her language and I could learn it. Finally I sat down. Ilya asked if my brother David could also address the court. The judge, a woman of about 60, nodded, and David got up and told her that initially our family had had the same concerns as the court about my adopting a child.

"But we talked about it, and we're behind her 100 percent," he said.

When the judge called for another recess our side milled together, not quite high-fiving, but close.

"We're a second-half team," David said.

"More like ninth inning," Igor said.

"Fourth quarter in basketball," Ilya added.

Actually, overtime was more like it. When the judge at last ruled the adoption final, at 6:30 p.m., it was dark, the courthouse long since deserted. We hugged each other and posed for pictures under the court seal. At dinner that night, we celebrated with vodka, Russian style: straight up.

The day after our marathon court hearing, we again made the wild ride over the stagecoach road to the orphanage to pick up Masha forever. About halfway there, we narrowly averted a head-on collision with an oncoming double bus. Russians are notorious for their driving. Fortunately, our driver was skillful, and we just squeaked past. But we got caught in the ruts, and the back part of the double bus slid into our lane, smashing into the side of our car. By the time the military came to investigate and write up a report on the accident, we had held up traffic in both directions for more than two hours. The sun was low in the sky; reluctantly, we turned around and headed back to Saransk.

Don't worry, Masha, I thought. We're going to get you. It's just taking a little longer than usual.

Halfway back to Saransk, we met another car sent by Igor and Ilya, who had heard about our accident. We clambered out of the first car and into the second, and again took off for the orphanage. It was nearly 4 p.m. when we arrived. We had several documents that needed to be signed and exchanged, so David went to get Masha while I stayed with the director and Olga to complete the paperwork.

Masha had no clothes of her own to wear leaving the orphanage. I had been warned that this likely would be the case and had brought everything she needed. She couldn't even take her doll with her. With 54 other kids all under the age of three, many of them handicapped, the staff obviously did not want to part with anything.

We presented our gifts, clothes, toys, and treats for the kids, some personal items for the staff, and the $200 in cash my co-workers had raised for the orphanage, took down the address of the orphanage to send pictures and letters and clothes for the kids we couldn't bring with us, and then posed for a quick picture. The three staff members who were there came down to say goodbye to Masha, taking turns holding her and talking softly to her in Russian. She was quiet. The only tears were in the eyes of the adults. We then took her and left.

Our entire stay had lasted less than 15 minutes. We got back into the car and headed homeward.

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