AMERICAN FORK — This Christmas was special for the Fillmore family as it welcomed 4-year-old Hazel, a little girl from Russia with Down syndrome, into their home only an hour before the holiday began.
But parents Heather and Jeremy Fillmore weren't sure it would happen after nearly a year of effort to bring young Hazel to their home, and they were heartbroken to learn that Russia is a step closer to finalizing a ban on Americans adopting Russian children.
On Wednesday, the upper house of the Russian Parliament voted unanimously in favor of an adoption ban that President Vladimir Putin has indicated he will sign. Putin and members of the Parliament call it a legitimate response to new U.S. sanctions on Russians deemed to be human rights violators.
There are about 740,000 children without parental care in Russia, according to UNICEF. In the past 20 years, Americans have adopted 60,000 Russian children, some of whom are now being raised by families in Utah.
It took about 11 months for the Fillmores to bring Hazel home from Russia. She arrived at Salt Lake City International Airport at 11 p.m. Christmas Eve.
“It’s been tough, but worth it, and to have her here and be part of our family, it’s now great,” Jeremy Fillmore said. “We feel like we’re complete and we’re excited to have her.”
Children with disabilities are placed into institutions when they turn 5 years old, and they are taken off of a database of orphaned children, so it makes it almost impossible to find them a permanent home, the Fillmores said. At the institutions, the basic needs of the children are met, but they are given no education or attention, they said.
They found Hazel through a website that advocates for children with special needs called Reece’s Rainbow Down Syndrome Adoption Ministry. She was the second girl they adopted from Russia with the help of the website. Anya, who is now 7 years old, was adopted in March 2011.
With their five children, plus Anya and now Hazel, they say they have much to be grateful for this Christmas season. But other families approved for adoption are currently going through a 30-day waiting period, and it's unclear how a ban will impact those efforts.
“It takes months and months to gather all the paperwork, and you turn it in to them and they are kind of on their own timetable,” Heather Fillmore said. “We went on our first trip in May and didn’t return for court until November, and it was because the judge was on a vacation for a lot of the time.”
Russian children's rights ombudsman Pavel Astakhov told the Interfax news agency that 46 children who were on the verge of being adopted by Americans would stay in Russia if the bill is approved — despite court rulings in some of these cases authorizing the adoptions.
“We know a lot of families who have already been to Russia and have met their children," Heather Fillmore said. You just don’t know how, you feel like they’re your children, and the thought of them being locked away in an institution for the rest of their lives is almost hard to even bear.”
If the ban goes forward, children with special needs will have no hope, the Fillmore said.
“It’s just sickening,” she said. I don’t even want to believe that it can happen because it’s very personal to us. We know many families who are in the process to go to save these children from a horrible life. It just doesn’t make any sense that the children are the ones that are suffering because of retaliation in politics.”
Contributing: Associated Press
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