"You chose your moment," says Maggie Riordan. "Later today I'm going to have the names of my birth parents tattooed on both wrists."
Maggie, 18, is the daughter of Margaret and John Riordan of Island Bay. She and her younger brother, Alexei, were adopted as small children from Russia in the 1990s. They are two of about 700 Russian orphans adopted by New Zealanders since the 1991 collapse of the USSR. They're all growing up.
Maggie - who chooses to use her middle, New Zealand name rather than her first, Russian name, Svetlana - remembers her beginnings. She was 4 when Margaret and John made the long, expensive trip to winter Russia, reams of paperwork behind them, to meet and later adopt her.
"I get flashes. I don't know if they're memories, or dreams about what it would be like or what it was. I'm not 100 per cent sure of what's true. Sometimes I'm outside the orphanage when it's snowing. I don't usually wake up happy."
Maggie's birth father is dead and her birth mother not contactable. "We don't know if she's alive. When people ask, I say they're both dead. And I do want to keep them with me, if only on my wrists." Thus she now has Sergei, her father's name, and Yelena, her mother's, etched on her body.
"It's her body and her choice," says Margaret Riordan. "She has a very strong feeling about her birth parents. We understand that."
Maggie, who went to Samuel Marsden Collegiate School - "really plutey" - and then Wellington High, where she was happier, never had a chance to talk to her birth mother while she was growing up and that makes her sad. But she loves her adoptive parents and country. She also has a tattoo of a kiwi and the date of her adoption, 1999.
"New Zealand's been different, not like a bad difference. I do love Wellington. It's home. I'm stable here. I'm not wanting to move. I've got a boyfriend. I love him to bits, and I've got good friends, cousins, and my nana. She's awesome."
Maggie went back to Russia as a child with the Riordans, to fetch her adoptive brother, but has not been back since and does not want to go. "I would, but if we can't find my mother I wouldn't want to go back. I probably won't go back to Russia. I don't think I could emotionally handle it."
Maggie's aim is to work in retail, or hospitality, or childcare. "I love children. It's so interesting how children see the world, really refreshing.
"I've been incredibly lucky with the adoption, but it's still very difficult. When you sit down and think where you come from, it's hard."
Like most other adopted Russian children she has lost her native language, although, as with other adoptive parents, there were early good intentions of fostering it. Maggie had Russian lessons when she was young.
"I've kind of lost my roots in a way. I can't speak Russian now. What my mum and dad did, we met a lot of Russian kids. We were the oldest. It's nice meeting more Russian people. You can sit and talk about your parents. It's nice to have that connection with Russian people."
Katya Cook, 15, and her little sister, Nadya, 11, are happily complying with the photographer's ideas for a picture. They've already shown him Katya's room, which is plastered with an impressive collection of Justin Bieber pictures.
"When she first heard him, she loved him," offers Nadya.
You wouldn't immediately pick these lively girls as sisters by birth, but they are. They are the adopted Russian daughters of Wellington city councillor Stephanie Cook. They live in Aro Valley. Nadya goes to Te Aro School and Katya is at Wellington Girls' College. Both schools, says Cook, have been "wonderful, responsive and pro-active" and a support in the girls learning English. Neither had been pre-schooled in Russia.
"Kiwi kids have a fundamental knowledge of words and numbers [when they go to school]. Nadya started school without any of that. Katya struggles from time to time. She's good at maths, but if she doesn't understand the words in the question she can't answer it." They both chatter, though, like any other Kiwi kids.
Cook's plan is to live, not too far in the future, on a modest lifestyle block outside Levin that she describes as "paradise". They go there for holidays now and the girls will go to school there.
'The girls really like the countryside," says Cook. "It was where they were from, Siberia, in the middle of nowhere, a tiny village. I think they sometimes find the city overwhelming."
"New Zealand is pretty good," says Katya, who was adopted when she was 9 and remembers Russia. "Sometimes you just look back. If friends ask me, I tell them the happy and sad version."
New Zealand, says Nadya, who was 4 when adopted and can't really remember Russia, is "awesome".
Cook, who doesn't intend to stand for council after this term, is a solo mother. That's not unusual, says CYF's director of adoptions Paula Attrill, although India and Russia are the only two countries CYF works with that will accept single applicants.
Cook, 59, was married briefly long ago, but there were no children. She always wanted to have a family.
The catalyst was a newspaper feature. "I read an article you'd written, eight or nine years ago, about international adoptions. I remember physically lying in bed, reading this article, and the context stayed with me. I kept thinking about it, that I'd do something, thinking I'd wait until the next council elections to see if I had a job. Once the election was over I started the process and nearly two years later they came home. I was 50 when I started and 52 when I became a mum."
Cook had a shocking struggle to adopt her girls and tells a long tale of emotional turmoil, including being interrogated by Russian secret police, being told she could not adopt and finally having this refusal overturned in a Russian court.
She visited Siberia three times - "In my $10 boots from Number One Shoes, brilliant" - and, spent more than $50,000, a typical outlay, before she finally left Russia.
"Was it stressful? I went down to 45 kilos and my clothes started falling off. I kept it from the girls, saying I was fine. One thing I was clear on had to be that they trusted me from the get-go . . . that they knew everything was under control."
"It feels like they've been with me forever. I look back on Russia and it feels almost like someone else's story. It seems so natural for them to be here with me. It felt like that from very early on in the piece."
Family stories don't come happier than Cook's. She was expecting the girls to at least get homesick after a few months, but they didn't. "It never happened. They continue to be happy. They bound around. It's quite tiring, really. Katya's a teenager, but there's no surly back- chatting teenage stuff. She's still an absolute delight and a happy child.
"I think there are probably some deep moments. She occasionally talks about Russia, but she's still very much in the here and now, that Russia was then and wasn't nice. Nadya doesn't remember. She hadn't been in the home long."
Cook doesn't pretend it hasn't been hard work at times. "For the first two years I was completely exhausted all the time. I was exhausted when we came home. There was no honeymoon period. They were coming in at 5am saying where are we going, what are we doing, we're hungry. It continues to be hard work. Being a single, working mum is always hard work."
The Dominion Post interviewed and photographed Vladimir Miller just over two years ago, without reference to his background. He was heading towards finishing his National Certificate in Amenity Horticulture at 19 and was preparing for a horticultural career. He was particularly interested in nursery work.
"You have a teeny, tiny seed, put it in the ground or put it in your potting or seed mix and in 50 years it's a huge tree. From something so small to becoming such a big thing is pretty impressive," he said at the time.
His mother, Anna Miller, reports that Vladimir finished his horticulture apprenticeship with Wellington City Council and is now in Australia working as an intern for Youth With a Mission (YWAM). This year, Miller says, he hopes to make several trips to Papua New Guinea to use his gardening skills in projects there. Last year he was part of a YWAM team working with the World Health Organisation in Papua New Guinea distributing medication that treated thousands of people for lymphatic filariasis, which can turn to elephantitis.
The Millers also adopted their daughter, Victoria, from Russia in the same year as they did Vladimir, 1996. She was 17 months old, he was 4. She works in Lower Hutt. The Millers' own, oldest child, Scott, is teaching English in Japan. "It is true that it takes a village to raise a child and we are fortunate to have excellent family, friends and others who have contributed many ways over the years," says Miller.
Not every parent with children adopted from overseas wants to talk about how the children are getting on as they age. Anuschka Meyer and Labour leader David Shearer have two adopted Russian children, now teenagers. Meyer says its one thing to talk about them when they are small (which she has) and another when they are older and their father is in a prominent position.
John Banks has three grown adopted Russian children and declined to talk, although he, too, has talked proudly in the past. His daughter Natalia, aged 21 in 2008, said her life had been a "fairytale" and that if Banks and his wife, Amanda, had not adopted her and her two younger brothers, Sergei and Alexei, she would probably have been living in squalor on the streets of St Petersburg.
Similarly, Wendy Hawke will not talk about her children, the first Russian orphans to be adopted into New Zealand. Hawke is the director of Intercountry Adoption New Zealand (Icanz). Icanz is accredited to handle adoptions in India, Lithuania, the Philippines, Russia and Thailand, once CYF has deemed individual applicants suitable.
"They're grown up. I don't talk about my own children. It's not my right to talk about my children in public. It's different with little children. And, no, they won't talk to you. They're tired of people thinking of them as curiosities. They just want to get on in life."
Even the smoothest overseas adoptions are challenging. Every parent spoken to talks of challenges. Vladimir's mother says there are "many challenges and difficulties along the way".
"Most worthwhile things in life are challenging. It's a pretty unusual thing to transfer a child from a deprived situation to a normal family."
Yes, they had problems with attachment disorder. "You deal with it the best you can. There was very little help at that stage. It was trial and error. You were pretty much sorting it out with research and reading books. But many children in life have attachment disorder, through death, or divorce, or premature birth, any separation from a normal family situation. It's like having a baby. You can't understand it till you're in the middle of it. You might think it's all going to be wonderful, for the first three minutes. Getting sorted can take years."
Adoption has not been all smooth sailing for the Riordan family either.
"Maggie has had a lot of issues so we have too," says Margaret. "These children have a different personality and a different history. We've had rough patches, but she's grown up to be a lovely young lady.
"People with a 'natural' childhood have issues, too," she adds.
Of course she's right. But while some overseas adoptions have proven challenging but ultimately very fulfilling, some have been nightmares.
None of the failures here, though, have had the worldwide publicity that followed last year's report of an American woman who adopted a Russian boy and then found it so difficult she sent the 9-year-old on his own back to Moscow on a one-way flight with a letter saying he was disturbed and violent and she didn't want him any more. A Tennessee judge ordered her to pay US$150,000 and an additional US$1000 a month in child support until the boy was 18.
CYF admits there are a handful of overseas adoptees in its care in New Zealand, but cannot give an exact number.
The son of a Christchurch family that adopted two Romanian children found their son, by 10, was sexually abusing his sister and other playmates. The family eventually split in order to keep both children. The boy was diagnosed as having post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and attachment disorder - the latter, along with fetal alcohol syndrome, is the most worrisome of potential prospects for parents of such children. The boy is now in his 20s and his parents, who did talk anonymously of their experience a decade ago, declined to contribute for this article. His mother did say the situation is now good.
Also in Christchurch, an adopted Russian orphan, who had spent the first two years of his life tied to a potty and suffered from attachment disorder, embarked on a raft of offending as a teenager. Late last year he was sentenced, at 19, to home detention after being freed from prison. The judge said he enjoyed the reputation of being the leading youth car thief in Christchurch, he ordered psychological therapy and noted the young man's psychological damage was severe and ongoing.
Not long after Cook's "horrendous and scary" Russian experience adopting her girls, CYF declined to do any more sifting and stamping of prospective adoptive parents of Russian children, a situation rectified in 2011 after Moscow granted Icanz - until then operating with difficulty and the best intentions but not rubber-stamped to do so - an official permit to run an adoption programme.
New Zealand was also accredited to the Hague Convention in 1997 and, although Russia is not a contracting state, Attrill says it is "alongside" and there are better regulatory processes. Attrill says there have been seven adoptions approved since the programme recommenced.
Couples adopt from Russia, she says, because they can't form a family or altruistically want to help a child in an overseas country. And the possibility of adopting a New Zealand child is limited. In the 1960s, when disapproval generally accompanied the birth of children born out of wedlock, there could be 4000 a year up for adoption. Last year there were 74 domestic adoptions.
There are a possible 800,000 children in state care in Russia. Attrill says in New Zealand there are about 4000 children in care and more than half of them are with extended family. In Russia, state care is likely to be an orphanage. The Hague Convention, says Attrill, requires countries to allow inter-country adoption only when solutions in the birth country have been exhausted.
"I think," she says, "that adopting children from overseas is one of the most challenging things to do. The kids have had a really tough start to life. They're often from violent and abusive backgrounds with parents into drinking or taking drugs. Something's gone terribly wrong for the state to pluck them out of their family.
"I haven't adopted children from overseas, but it must be hugely rewarding. From time to time it doesn't work out and when it doesn't, CYF is called on to help resolve issues.
"It's tragic for the child if it breaks down. They're not only without family but in a foreign country. The stakes are high. Children from another country's care system - the last thing you want is for them to bounce into another care system."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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