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Boy's Christmas wish: Adoption of little brother caught in US-Russia spat

Courtesy Thomas family

John and Renee Thomas with their son, Jack, 7, who was adopted from Russia at the age of 3. Jack is hoping for his brother, Nikoly, now in a Russian orphanage, to join him in the United States.

This Christmas, the best gift 7-year-old Jack Thomas could get would be the arrival of his little brother, Nikoly, who lives in an orphanage in Kursk, Russia.


"When Jack is asked about his family, he talks about his brother," said his father, John Thomas, speaking from the family’s home in Minnetonka, Minn. "He always asks, 'When is he coming home?' We just tell him we’re waiting for the call."

Jack has been waiting several years, a long time for a little boy. What he doesn’t know is that a feud between politicians in Moscow and Washington could destroy his chance to grow up with his brother.

On Friday, Russian lawmakers passed a bill that would prohibit Americans from adopting Russian children, and if that bill is signed into law by President Vladimir Putin, it would cast doubt on even those adoptions already in the pipeline.

For John Thomas and his wife, Renee — and very likely hundreds of other expectant American families and Russian children — the latest political shift could mean a delay, a new hurdle or a brick wall.


The U.S. State Department and some high-level officials in Moscow have lambasted the legislation as punishing Russian children who need families in an effort to retaliate against Washington.

But the bill has gained ground amid a wave of nationalism, fueled by anger over a U.S. human rights bill singling out Russia and by several highly publicized cases of U.S. adoptions that ended tragically.

Since the end of the Soviet era in 1991, Americans have adopted about 60,000 children from Russia, making it one of the main countries of origin for non-domestic adoptions in the United States, according to U.S. government statistics. At the peak of the trend in 2004, Americans brought 5,862 children into their homes. In 2011, the number was down to 962 — a product of well-intentioned policy shifts, bureaucracy, corruption and other difficulties.

See the US Action Plan on Children in Adversity

European Children Adoption Services

Jack Thomas, at the age of 3, just before he was adopted from Kursk, Russia, by Americans John and Renee Thomas. He is now 7 years old and growing up in an affluent suburb of Minneapolis.

Even with foreign adoptions, which are allowed after giving Russians priority, Russia has an estimated 700,000 children living in institutions, nearly 80,000 of them orphaned, and the rest abandoned or taken away by the state because the parents were judged unfit to take care of them.

The Thomases have experienced the painful, stop-start nature of the Russian adoption process in their quest for Nikoly.

It was in December 2008, when they were finalizing their adoption of 3-year-old Eduard, whom they named Jack, that they learned he had a baby brother. They started the adoption application process for Nikoly as soon as they could, after a required waiting period.

Compliments of the Thomas family

Renee Thomas in December 2010 meeting Nikoly at an orphanage in Kursk, Russia. He was 18 months old at the time, and Thomas says she expected he would join the the family within a matter of months. Nikoly is now 4 and remains in institutional care in Russia.

A year later, John and Renee Thomas, who work as an attorney and a building contract negotiator, again flew to Moscow and then went by rail to Kursk to meet Nikoly, whom they call Theodore or Teddy. He was 18 months old. Renee Thomas says she thought it would take about the same amount of time to adopt him as it had with Jack, and expected to travel to Kursk sometime in the spring of 2010 to get him.

The Thomases are still waiting.

One of the reasons for delay, they say, is the horror caused by a woman in Tennessee who put her 7-year-old son, whom she had adopted in Russia, on a one-way flight to Moscow in 2010, with the explanation that the child was "mentally unstable" and she could no longer take care of him.

In another delay that Renee Thomas believes cost their adoption another year, the Russian government shut down adoptions for review and re-accreditation of all adoption agencies that work in Russia.

European Children Adoption Services

Nikoly in an undated photo taken at an orphanage in Kursk, Russia. (The red splotches on his face are believed to be a type of antiseptic.)

In addition, the Thomas’ dossier has gone before a series of judges in Russia, some of whom have rejected it without a stated reason, and others setting forth requirements that they are not able to meet under U.S. law. Even so, there are Russians trying to help them run the gauntlet, and they figured the problems would get ironed out.

"We expected to be traveling soon" to get Nikolai, said John Thomas.  

Just last month, when a newly negotiated bilateral adoptions agreement came into effect, designed to smooth out the process and help safeguard adopted children, things appeared to be looking up.

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"These adoptive parents have really been through the ringer," said Johnson. "This was a bilateral treaty signed by our two governments. We really celebrated it. I thought we could turn our attention to other countries. But we’re really back to Russia again."

Kids pay in human rights spat
The ban that passed the Russian parliament grew out of a dispute over human rights.

On Nov. 16, the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act passed by a landslide in the U.S. House and Senate. Magnitsky was a 37-year-old lawyer who exposed massive fraud allegedly committed by a group of Russian officials. He was arrested and died in police custody 11 months later under suspicious circumstances. Among other things, the bill denies visas and freezes assets of the Russian officials implicated by Magnitsky.

The new U.S. law sparked an angry reaction from Moscow and fueled popular anti-American sentiment.

Russian President Vladimir Putin claims the U.S. is "poisoning ties" between the two countries with a law that bans Russians who abuse human rights and is backing a Russian draft law banning adoption by Americans. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.

Vladimir Putin said that the law singling out Russia "contaminates our relations."

Russian legislators then drafted a bill to counter the U.S. law, with provisions restricting organizations and individuals linked to the United States.

Just before the first vote in the Duma, the proposed ban on American adoptions of Russian children was tacked on as an amendment. The legislation was named after 21-month-old Dima Yakovlev, a Russian boy who died in Virginia after his adoptive father left him alone in a hot SUV for nine hours.

Americans may lose right to adopt Russian kids

After the Duma approved the legislation on Friday, the U.S. State Department registered its disapproval.

"If Russian officials have concerns about the implementation of (the adoption) agreement, we stand ready to work with them to improve it and remain committed to supporting inter-country adoptions between our two countries," said acting State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell. "The welfare of children is simply too important to be linked to political aspects of our relationship."

The bill is now heading for Putin’s desk for his signature.

Compliments of the Thomas family

John Thomas and his son, Jack, who was adopted from Russia at the age of 3, in an undated picture taken at their home in Minnetonka, Minn.

Opponents of the ban are still hoping that the president will veto the bill, despite his comments while campaigning for re-election that U.S. adoptions should no longer be allowed. More recently he has remained silent on the issue.

Over the past week, Russian opponents of the ban have launched petitions and small protests at the parliament building, and several high-level officials have registered strong opposition to it, including Russia’s foreign minister and education minister.

Johnson of the National Council for Adoption says he’s hoping the domestic opposition will dissuade Putin from signing the adoption ban into law.

"One good thing that’s happening … is a movement brought on by Russian citizens and the foreign minister who has spoken out against this legislation … saying it’s not the right way to stick it to America,” he said. "Hopefully more politicians will feel comfortable speaking out."

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Barring that, he said, he hopes Russia will at least make provisions to finalize the adoptions that are already in process.

"There is a precedent … to negotiate pipeline cases," he said, citing examples in Guatemala and Kyrgystan. "But given the animosity that Russians feel towards this, I hope that’s not a conversation we have to have."

For the Thomases, despite politics, the adoption effort is now in overdrive. They understand that Nikoly, who turned 4 in June, could be moved at any time — and in fact may have been moved already to a Russian institution for children as old as 18.

"That's major," said John Thomas. "That's where bad things start to happen."

For Renee Thomas, her greatest fear is that the boys will not be allowed to grow up together. But she tries to stay positive for Jack.

"This morning as I was making him breakfast, he said 'Mom, wouldn't it be great if we woke up Christmas morning and Santa left presents and Teddy under the tree?' My response was 'Let's hope for next year.'"

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