Covington — For Amy Cuevas, the most wrenching moment in adopting her children from Russian came when she had to leave them behind after an initial meeting, before returning to finalize the adoption in court and bring them home.
She and her husband, Stephen, experienced that separation when they adopted their daughter Julia, now 41/2, and again just three months ago when they brought home their 2-year-old son Alexander.
“You’ve fallen in love with them at that point,’’ Cuevas said as she watched her children bounce around the living room of her Covington home, giggling and playing with their toys.
That’s one reason why the Cuevas family and others who belong to Louisiana Eastern European Adopting Families are distressed that Russia has banned U.S. adoptions, a law that went into effect Jan. 1.
According to news reports, about 50 U.S. families had their adoptions derailed by the new law. But Cuevas points out that it takes about a year to complete an adoption, and there are likely many more who were somewhere in the process.
Families who have adopted children from Russia also feel keenly what the ban will mean for those children who are left to languish in orphanages, an estimated 600,000 to 700,000, according to Paula Falgout, of Slidell, who adopted her youngest child Peter from Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East in 2003.
Falgout, the daughter of Southern Baptist missionaries, has twice returned to St. Petersburg on mission trips to orphanages. Culturally, she said, children in orphanages are stigmatized —- Russians believe that there is something wrong with the child that prompted their birth families to give them up. There’s also a space issue — Russian families with small living quarters may be reluctant to expand their families, she said. And there are cost concerns, too. She chose to adopt from Sakhalin Island, just north of Japan, because her family were missionaries in Japan and she had an emotional connection to that part of the world.
It was also one of the few places in Russian that only required one visit, and Falgouts were able to adopt Peter as an infant, something that hasn’t been allowed in Russia for years. More recently, babies had to be on an adoption registry at least nine months before being available for international adoption, giving Russian families the first opportunity.
But the island is remote, and unless children there are adopted by a local family, it’s unlikely a family from the mainland will go to the expense of traveling there, Falgout said.
“Part of what’s driving me is, if circumstances were different, my child would still be in an orphanage,’’ she said.
For those who aren’t adopted, she said, the future is a grim one. Every Aug. 31 is considered graduation day, when children who have turned 16 age out of the orphanage. They are given a small bag with a few necessities and bus fare, Falgout said. The lucky ones go to trade school, but after a lifetime spent in an institutional setting where everything is scripted, they have poor social skills and are ill-equipped to make decisions, she said.
Of those who age out, 30 percent become vagrants, 20 percent become criminals and 10 percent commit suicide, Falgout said, citing Russian government statistics from the book, “Adopting in Russia.’’
The ban, passed by the Russian parliament and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin, was in retaliation for a U.S. law that denies visas to Russians accused of human rights violations.
The ban may give Russia a sense of nationalism, Falgout said, “I understand that, but it doesn’t change anything for the children who are condemned to a life in the orphanage,’’ she said.
Amy Cuevas said that in both of her adoptions, they were asked to bring clothing and items like antibiotic ointment and other medicines.
She wonders how the orphanages will fare now, without that influx of help.
Families have seen adoption from Russia gradually become more difficult. Terry and Laura King, of Diamondhead, Miss., adopted their two children Sasha and Mariya from Yakutsk in Siberia nine years ago last month — a place that Terry King described as the coldest inhabitable place in the world.
At the time, that region allowed adoptions after two visits. The Cuevas family, who adopted from Chita in Siberia, were able to make two visits for their daughter, but by they time they adopted little Alexander, the Russian government had put in place a 30-day waiting period, which necessitated a third visit — or a lengthy stay.
The Cuevases said that the change followed a high-profile story about a family putting their adopted Russian child on a plane to send him back. Such stories have been widely reported in Russia, families said.
Laura King said that the number of children adopted from Russia has fallen off in recent years. According to the U.S. State Department website, 45,112 Russian children were adopted into U.S. families between 1999 and 2011. But the number last year was 962.
The Kings, who lived in St. Tammany Parish when they adopted their children, said that there were 5,000 Russian children adopted by American families in 2003, the year they brought Sasha and Mariya home.
“It’s a horribly tragedy,’’ Laura King said of the ban. “It’s people’s lives that they’re affecting.’’
Cuevas said that she and other families felt a profound responsibility to follow every rule so that families who followed them would be able to adopt. Even families who adopted 10 to 15 years ago feel affected by the ban, she said.
“It’s sad for the families that have already legally adopted, sad for the children, and it seems to be in retaliation for something that has nothing to do with adoption,’’ Cuevas said.
The fact that their son was adopted so close to the ban makes it especially difficult.
“I almost feel guilty, I’m so thankful this didn’t happen to us,’’ Cuevas said. “People focus on the babies, but there are older kids, too. The chances of being adopted after age 4 are drastically reduced.’’
Sasha King, who will soon turn 14, was nearly 5 when he was adopted and in need of eye surgery that would not have been possibly if he had been much older. His parents remember being told by the orphanage workers that he would go outside to “look for the white car’’ that had brought his parents for their first visit with him.
“I’m not really happy about it,’’ Sasha said. “I think it’s good to have Russian children come to America, like me.’’