Finding Home How one family found joy through the changing horizon of international adoption

By Brittany Simers

“Someday, I want to be in the Olympics.”

Being an Olympian gymnast for the United States is the current aspiration of seven-year-old Carly Anne Yue Yi Russell of Mammoth Spring, Arkansas.

Thanks to international adoption, she just might have the chance to make her dream come true. However, some children waiting to be adopted may now see a narrower chance at gaining a better future due to the closing window of international adoption.

Carly has not always been able to call America home. Mammoth Spring natives Steve and Sandy Russell decided they wanted another child and sibling for their six-year-old son, Logan, in 2002. After having some trouble conceiving a child, they became interested in adoption.

“We discussed domestic adoption, but there were some things about that we weren’t quite comfortable with,” Mr. Russell said. “So we decided to go with international adoption.”

International adoption became a trend soon after World War II. Americans, especially, were enthusiastic about the idea of providing homes to European children who had been separated from their families under horrific circumstances. After the onset of the Korean War in 1950, international adoptions by Americans only increased. At least 50,000 international adoptions occurred from 1948 to 1969 largely in concordance with Holt International, an adoption agency established in 1956 for the adoption of “war orphans” primarily from Korea.

Many Americans were touched with the inspiration of adopting internationally for humanitarian reasons. The onset of the Vietnam War in the 1970s gave Americans similar reasons to adopt. In 1975, President Gerald R. Ford gave orders to troops for a special mission known as “Operation Baby Lift.” The series of rescue operations brought nearly 2,000 Vietnamese children to the United States to be ultimately adopted into American families. This era in international adoption sparked much controversy over the ethical implications of Mr. Ford’s actions. Nonetheless, international adoption continued to grow in popularity.

Following the 1980s into the 1990s, the trend of international adoption in America detonated as if it were a bomb. News headlines and stories were drenched in details surrounding the international adoptions by high-profile celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Madonna. Many communist countries and those which had previously been closed to international adoptions from other countries, particularly those such as Russia and China, opened their doors to the process in the 1990s. From the 1990s to the early 2000s, the number of international adoptions by Americans reached its peak. According to the U.S. State Department, Americans adopted internationally approximately 23,000 times in 2004. As of 2005, China ranked as the top country Americans adopted from, numbering almost 8,000 times. In 2013, there were just slightly over 2,000 Chinese children adopted by Americans. Astonishingly, the number of international adoptions by Americans in 2014 totaled 6,441, a record low that has not occurred in the last 30 years, the department said.

Just as the trend of international adoption imploded upon American culture across several decades, it nearly came to a halt in just under the course of one decade. The factors contributing to the decline of international adoption in America are ambiguous. Some of these factors occurred in the past and some are ongoing. However, a majority of the responsibility can be attributed to recent changes in the international adoption process, regulations, relationships and societal intercountry shifts.

Identical to what many American families trying to adopt internationally experienced shortly after the turn of the century in 2000, the Russells met face to face with the factors pointing to the decline of foreign adoption. According to the Russells, even though the road of international adoption was more difficult to navigate than it might have been in times past, the journey to Carly was well worth the twists and turns.

Beginning the Journey to International Adoption

Carly could have still been in China had the receptiveness of Russia toward international adoption not majorly altered the Russells’ plans. The Russells were in the middle of the process of adopting from Russia in 2003 when a political disturbance aggravated the already weak relationship between Russia and the U.S.

“We first looked at the Russian program because we had some friends who adopted from Russia and had great success there,” Mr. Russell said. “In fact, all of our papers were actually in Russia, and we were ready to be matched with a child there when the Russian program was shut down.”

He was referring to a bill President Vladimir Putin signed into action, banning all Americans from adopting from Russia. The bill was officially enacted in 2012, but its winds were already disturbing adoptions taking place around the same time as the Russells were hoping to be matched with a Russian child. A 2012 Russian poll concluded 56 percent of Russians supported the bill, while it was opposed by 21 percent. The poll also revealed supporters seemed to hold a common conviction that “American families are dangerous, cruel and at times, violent.” The bill was later named the Dima Yakovlev Law after the name of a Russian child who died after being left in a vehicle in the heat under the care of his adoptive American parents. Mr. Putin’s bill received much criticism from Americans, declaring U.S. parents were not abusive and that Russia was only depriving its orphans of what could be better living conditions. Others said the bill was strictly political revenge in response to President Obama’s Magnitsky Act, which placed restrictions on Russian citizens who were convicted of violating human rights.

Despite the reasoning behind Mr. Putin’s bill, it drastically changed the landscape of foreign adoption and complicated many American families’ dreams of adding another member to their homes. The Russells were shocked after learning they would not be adopting from Russia, but faith told them the slight change would not end their chances of adding to their family, Mrs. Russell said.

“We were disappointed and sad because we were so close to getting a baby, but we knew God had a plan and that everything would work out as it should,” Mrs. Russell said. “And it did.”

Mr. Putin’s bill was one of the major factors contributing to the start of the decline in international adoption rates. As a matter of fact, up until the ban was established, Russia was usually regarded as a top contender among the countries America adopted from most, the Bureau of Consular Affairs and U.S. State Department said in a 2015 data report. Even at all-time lows, China still ranked first in 2015 as the country America adopted most from, followed by Ethiopia, Ukraine and Haiti.

After hitting a peak rate in 2004, international adoption by Americans has steadily decreased. As of 2013, the top five countries Americans adopted from were China, Ethiopia, Ukraine, Haiti and Uganda.

Not letting a kink in their plans to lower their spirits, the Russells started searching for alternative countries where they might find the newest member of their family.

“Sandy suggested we try China,” Mr. Russell said.

“We were disappointed and sad because we were so close to getting a baby, but we knew God had a plan and that everything would work out as it should,” Mrs. Russell said. “And it did.”

After learning of other locals who adopted from China in the past, the opportunity to adopt from China seemed to be an open door, Mrs. Russell said.

“We spoke with them and got information about the agency they used,” she said. “They used an agency out of Colorado, and that agency specifically deals with Chinese adoptions. In fact, the owners are Chinese, and they had come to America just helping a friend adopt from China. After seeing a need, they decided they would help others, and it has just grown from there.”

The more the Russells learned about Chinese adoptions, the more confident they became China was the country in which they would find their new son or daughter, they said.

“We got interested in that program and decided that was the perfect way to go,” Mr. Russell said.

Waiting as the World Changes ...

After officially making the decision to look into adopting from China, the Russells contacted Chinese Children Adoption International (CCAI), the adoption agency in Colorado that had been recommended to them by locals. Despite its name, CCAI currently provides Americans with international adoption aid for other countries besides China, including Bulgaria, Ukraine, Latvia, Haiti and some domestic cases. The Russells immediately started the process of filing an application to adopt from China.

“At that time, they told us it would probably take a year to get all of our paperwork in order and all the things we had to do,” Mrs. Russell said. “Once we got that finalized and our papers arrived in China, they would give us a login date. The wait time from the login date of that time was 9 ½ months, and we were really excited about that because that’s basically the length of a pregnancy.”

However, a wait of what was supposed to be the duration of a pregnancy turned into a span of five years.

Domestic adoption is not an easy or quick process. International adoption is a different process altogether and has another set of standards and criteria set forth to parents. Adding to the intricateness of the international adoption application process, the Hague Convention attached a new level of complexity to international adoptions such as the Russells.’

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Hague Convention or Hague Adoption Convention can be simply defined as “an international treaty that provides important safeguards to protect the best interests of children, birth parents and adoptive parents who are involved in intercountry adoptions.”

The Hague Convention went active on May 29, 1993. Many countries signed with the treaty right away. The U.S. became a Hague Convention member in 1994, but it did not become operative until 2008. The Hague Convention contains a lengthy number of rules and regulations, but its main focus is to provide healthy intercountry adoptions for children all over the world. The treaty was created for the purpose of aiming to decrease cases of abuse, trafficking, mistreatment, abduction and other harmful situations that can occur within international adoption.

Following any plan of protection, there are extra steps created to eliminate any undesired circumstances or danger. The Hague Convention created a need for deeper background checks on individuals wanting to adopt, and adoption agencies were strongly recommended to be Hague-accredited.

These precautions have caused many adoptive parents to experience setbacks and delays when filing for the adoption process. The process can now take longer not necessarily because there are adoptive parents violating regulations, but often because officials can fall behind on approving the proper paperwork and background checks. Such delays in the adoption process, which likely was the case in the Russells’ adoption, can obviously be prolonged for some time. Americans looking to adopt internationally today are strongly recommended to know the Hague Convention membership status of the country from which they are wanting to adopt. When dealing with member countries, agencies are also urged to be Hague-accredited so that all parties are involved with the treaty. The ongoing Hague Convention’s stipulations have slowed adoption processes and ultimately, the yearly rate of completed international adoptions by Americans.

Fortunately, the wait for news of an adoptee match finally came to an end for the Russells.

Introducing Feng Yue Yi, the Perfect Match

What started out as a normal day in October 2009 ended as a day that forever changed the Russell family’s life. After months turned into years of waiting, they received a phone call about their new daughter, Feng Yue Yi.

After learning they had been matched with a Chinese baby girl in an orphanage, the Russells began making their travel plans to leave for China. People who are adopting internationally do not usually have many travel options, Mr. Russell said.

“We didn’t have any choice of when we were going to travel,” he said. “We had to get whatever flights were available and whatever seats were available. We just took what was there.”

On Jan. 5, 2010, the Russells departed on the trip they had been wanting to make for what seemed like an eon of time. They spent about 24 hours in airplanes on the way to their first destination in China, Mrs. Russell said.

“We went to St. Louis to Chicago, and we flew from Chicago to San Francisco,” she said. “We arrived in Hong Kong, and we were very tired.”

These three photos were the only pictures the Russells received of Carly from the orphanage where she was located prior to traveling to China. Photos courtesy of Steve Russell.

Maybe it was anxiousness or just coincidence, but the Russells beat their agency contacts to the Hong Kong airport in spite of their exhaustion, Mr. Russell said.

“We actually ended up landing an hour earlier than when they thought we were going to be there,” he said.

The thought of getting to see their daughter, whom they had already picked out an English name for, kept the Russells running on adrenaline. According to Mrs. Russell, naming their daughter was a process their family wanted to consider with careful thought.

“We had some ideas for names, but we waited until we saw her picture to decide,” Mrs. Russell said. “We just felt she looked like Carly. Anne is a family name, and we wanted to keep her Chinese name because it is who she is.”

In the Chinese culture, last names are written first, so the Russells decided to drop that portion of Carly’s Chinese name. Just a few days after the Russells’ arrival in China, Feng Yue Yi officially became Carly Anne Yue Yi Russell.

“We had some ideas for names, but we waited until we saw her picture to decide,” Mrs. Russell said. “We just felt she looked like Carly. Anne is a family name, and we wanted to keep her Chinese name because it is who she is.”
A Welcoming Like No Other

According to the Russells, their firsts sights of China in Hong Kong were a surprise. The conception that China is one polluted, dirty mass was proved false right away, Mr. Russell said.

“Hong Kong is a modern city,” he said. “Everything was very clean and very pretty. It was a very nice place to be.”

It is quite ironic that the capital city of one of the leading economic countries in the world is a stark contrast to the country’s policies regarding families and children. The Chinese government mandated a one-child policy for Chinese families in 1979 in hopes of reducing its heavy population. Chinese tradition used to place more value on boys than girls, primarily because they were seen as better and stronger employees in the workforce. For years, this ideology combined with China’s one-child policy led to the abandonment of baby Chinese girls.

In 2013, the Chinese government announced the one-child policy would be relaxed and then ineffective in 2016. Chinese couples can now have two children. According to CCAI directors Joshua Zhong and Lily Nie, this relaxation has shifted the scale of international adoptions.

“The impact of China becoming the world’s second-largest economy has not only lifted millions of people out of poverty and created the largest middle-class population in the world, but it has also resulted in something absolutely remarkable: a gradual elevation of the status of females, a dramatic decrease of abandonment of girls and a rapid increase of domestic adoption,” Mr. Zhong and Mrs. Nie stated in a CCAI publication.

Even though this relatively new cultural shift sounded beneficial to Chinese orphans, especially female orphans, it created a new need for adoption of a new sector of adoptees: those with special needs.

According to the Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI), the depletion of China’s one child policy decreased the amount of healthy Chinese babies in orphanages and increased the number of special-needs children available for adoption.

One way the Chinese government is currently trying to popularize the international adoptions of special-needs children is by selling a shorter wait to be matched with a child, the DAI said.

Over 98 percent of adoptees registered with the CCAI today are considered special-needs children, Mr. Zhong and Mrs. Nie said.

“You will find hardly any healthy children in China’s orphanages today,” Mr. Zhong and Mrs. Nie said. “Large numbers of handicapped children have been abandoned as a result of their birth parents’ fear of social discrimination and the outrageous medical costs that can easily bankrupt any family. They live in beautiful but loveless facilities, without any hope of a loving family in China.”

While the drop of China’s one-child policy allowed for more domestic adoptions within the country, the need for international adoption did not go away. Although it is not publicized often, the need for growth in international adoption is perhaps stronger than ever for children with disabilities.

At the time of Carly’s adoption, the one-child policy was still in place, so more Chinese baby girls such as Carly were readily available for adoption.

Continuing their journey to Carly, the Russells realized the conception of China being polluted was not completely wrong.

“We arrived in Nanchang, and it was a very different feel,” Mrs. Russell said. “We got off the plane, and immediately, when we were going into the airport, we saw Chinese soldiers with guns.”

It was in Nanchang, China, where the Rusells received Carly.

“Carly actually came to us the second day we were there in Nanchang,” Mr. Russell said. “So we actually had her from the second day forward.”

While the Russells were there to welcome Carly, they were welcomed by the city’s citizens warmly, Mrs. Russell said.

“Everywhere we went, we got a lot of thumbs-ups and smiles,” she said. “Our guides told us that the Chinese people are very happy that the babies are being adopted and getting families and getting out of the orphanages.”

The Russells were travelling in a group of parents adopting with the CCAI agency. Once the Russells and other adopting families settled into their hotel and received word that the orphanage would be bringing their children to the hotel, it was not long at all before the Russells were standing in the same room as their daughter. Carly was simply handed to the Russells once she arrived. The surrealism of the day they had all been waiting for took control of the moment, Mr. Russell said.

Sandy, Logan and Steve Russell pause for a family picture with their new addition, Carly Anne Yue Yi Russell. Photo courtesy of Steve Russell.

I had imagined there would be some little ceremony, but they just handed her to us,” he said. “That was it.”

Just as a mother remembers the few moments following the birth of a child, Mrs. Russell recalled the interactions between her family and Carly after she was handed off to them.

I had imagined there would be some little ceremony, but they just handed her to us,” he said. “That was it.”

“There were lots of happy tears,” Mrs. Russell said. I guess I expected her to be screaming and crying and not wanting us to hold her, but she was perfectly fine. We just couldn’t believe we were finally holding her for the first time.”

Adjusting to Life and the Ultimate Homecoming

The Russells had to start adjusting to life with a new baby right away in unfamiliar territory. Even though she was under a year old, Carly started expressing herself right away, The Russells said.

“We had been told in all our training they [the adoptees] would typically like one parent over the other, and in my mind, I just thought Steve would be okay with that, and it would be fine,” Mrs. Russell said. “I never considered I would be the parent she didn’t like, but in fact, that was how it turned out. She did not like me very well at first.”

According to Mr. Russell, one of the first lessons Carly taught Mr. and Mrs. Russell was how to find solutions to some of the parenting challenges that can occur in international adoption.

“So I carried her for the rest of the trip, pretty much,” Mr. Russell said.

The Russells and other adopting families finished their time in Nanchang and Guangzhou, China, completing government-mandated procedures that had to be done before the Chinese children could be brought to the U.S. Some of the procedures included a series of physicals and immunizations for the children, signing more paperwork and documents, and taking an oath of citizenship for at the U.S. Embassy, Mrs. Russell said.

“After 17 days in China, we were ready to bring our family home,” she said. “We were very tired, but we made it home. We just kind of settled in.”

After being told they could likely experience some transition problems with Carly, the Russells did not know what quite to expect bringing a Chinese baby home to Arkansas. However, Carly showed no signs of any complications, the Russells said.

“She was just a baby coming home,” Mr. Russell said.

Since she was nine months old, Carly began learning words and speaking mechanisms right away. She still showed no hindering signs to her learning ability, contrary to what some people thought would occur, Mrs. Russell said.

“They did tell us she would have a language delay, but she did not,” Mrs. Russell said. “She was just very smart and curious and has always been a happy baby. We went back to just enjoying her and being home together all as a family.”

Having to readjust as a family and to a culture is a huge part of international adoption. Upon the Russells’ arrival back to Arkansas, neighbors commonly expressed their misconceptions about Carly in public, which were often humorous, Mr. Russell said.

“A lot of people we ran into were very curious and would ask kind of odd questions,” he said. “They wanted to know if she wanted to eat rice all the time. They had this stereotype of a Chinese person.”

Through international adoption, the Russell family gained a new source of happiness, and Carly Anne Yue Yi Russell was introduced to a new life. Photos courtesy of Steve Russell.

Since then, Carly has broken any stereotypes that existed. In addition to being an avid gymnast, soccer player and swimmer, she spends most of her time at school with friends or making art.

“We feel like we’re the ones that are blessed because she’s added so much joy to our home,” Mrs. Russell said.

Living the New Normal

International adoption by Americans creates opportunities for children like Carly to come to the U.S. and pursue a life with rights, freedoms and chances they might otherwise never have. In a way, Mr. and Mrs. Russell potentially saved Carly from a life full of restrictions and hopelessness.

Even though the number of international adoptions Americans are carrying out significantly decreased over the past decade, the number of children needing a home did not, especially in China, Mr. Russell said.

“Today, the orphanages are filled with handicapped children or children that need an operation of some kind to correct something like a cleft palate or something that’s really easy to fix,” he said. “These are children who need good homes though, just like the healthy girls did a few years ago. If you’re considering adoption from China, be aware that there are children there that need your help healthcare-wise and also just for a family.”

Due to changes within countries’ infrastructure, the development of new global regulations and diplomatic issues, the terrain of international adoption is not as smooth as it used to be. Despite the multiple setbacks and changes in their plans to adopt internationally, every mishap had a purpose, Mrs. Russell said.

“It was just God’s way of helping us to complete our family,” she said. “We would highly recommend international adoption to anyone who’s considering adding to their family because we feel like it truly is a blessing.”

As for Carly, she is happy right where she is in life.

“I’m proud to be an American because my family is American,” Carly said.

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