For local families, proposed Russian adoption ban hits close to home

  • Posted: Thursday, December 27, 2012 12:40 a.m.
    UPDATED: Thursday, December 27, 2012 12:58 a.m.
Sarah Hensley and her 14-year-old daughter Samantha look through a small album at their home in Salisbury. The album contains the limited amount of photos from the Sarah and her husband Michael trip to Russian in 2000 to adopt a young 13-month-old Samantha. Photo by Jon C. Lakey, Salisbury Post.
Sarah Hensley and her 14-year-old daughter Samantha look through a small album at their home in Salisbury. The album contains the limited amount of photos from the Sarah and her husband Michael trip to Russian in 2000 to adopt a young 13-month-old Samantha. Photo by Jon C. Lakey, Salisbury Post.

SALISBURY — Surrounded by perturbed passengers on a series of flights from Moscow to Washington, D.C., the newly named Samantha Jelena Hensley screamed mercilessly for the entire trip.

A few hours later, a Cabarrus County doctor told Michael and Sarah Hensley their new 14-month-old daughter had a serious ear infection that had gone virtually untreated since birth.


“In Russia, it would have been a death sentence,” Michael Hensley said. “In due time, it would have killed her.”

On Wednesday — almost 14 years to the day since Samantha was given to a Russian children’s hospital — she sat with her parents in their Salisbury home, looking through baby pictures and Russian documents.

Samantha had never seen some of the photos.

Just hours earlier, Russia moved toward finalizing a bill prohibiting U.S. families from adopting Russian children with a unanimous vote in the Parliament’s upper house.

The bill, which is widely seen as retaliation for an American law that calls for sanctions against Russians deemed to be human rights violators, now requires only the signature of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

With the signature pending, dozens of Russian orphans close to being adopted are expected to be blocked from leaving the country.

“For those families, it would just be devastating,” Michael Hensley said.

‘Strong ones live, weak ones die’

For the Hensleys, adopting Samantha was a nearly two-year venture.

It was February 2000 in the small Siberian town of Nizhny Tagil. As was custom in the adoption process, the Hensleys had spent several days working tirelessly to bribe city officials and deliver gifts to the personnel responsible for facilitating the adoption process.

After mountains of paperwork — and thousands of dollars later — the couple brought home a small infant girl with wispy red hair. They had only seen her on a brief home video the orphanage sent. The baby footage had been recorded over a war film.

“We thought she was a red-headed child,” Sarah Hensley said. “But it was malnutrition.”

After about a month in the U.S., Samantha’s hair turned a brilliant shade of blonde. Doctors later confirmed her poor diet was to blame.

Unlike out on the streets of the blue-collar town, the Hensleys were welcomed into Samantha’s orphanage.

The staff was friendly, but severely underfunded and resources were hard to come by.

Children were fed apple sauce, potatoes and oatmeal.

The children’s doctor, who also served as the orphanage director, informed the Hensleys the facility no longer had food for the children.

Sarah Hensley gave them $300 — enough for six months of food for the starving orphans.

They also brought toys, clothing and children’s Tylenol.

For the staff, the Tylenol was worth more than gold, Michael Hensley said.

“Like the doctor said, ‘The strong ones live, the weak ones die. We don’t have any medicine,’ ” he said.

As they prepared to leave, the doctor said they couldn’t take the child’s ragged clothing.

“They hand you basically a naked baby from Russia,” Sarah Hensley said.

‘Still haunted’

One year after the Hensleys returned, Scott and Amanda Bosch, of Denton, landed in Volgograd with the same hope for success.

The couple had already waited three more months after a misplaced document by one of the agencies cost them their court date and $3,500 in travel tickets.

Once in Russia, the Bosches bused nearly six hours to Elista, Kalmykia.

Outside the orphanage, the temperature was about zero degrees, the Bosches said. Inside, it was 20.

The orphanage kept the infants in the only heated room in the complex.

There, Scott and Amanda met their future daughter, Katie, for the first time.

With part of the structure crumbling, the couple never figured out how the room was heated. The town, they said, was “beyond poor.”

“The orphanage itself was literally collapsing,”?Scott Bosch said. “It was a cinder-block building that was falling down.”

The Bosches counted themselves lucky after finding Katie, who at 8 months old was much younger than they anticipated adopting.

They later learned Katie was available because she was of Asian ethnicity and unlikely to ever be adopted.

In her orphanage, roughly 80 percent of the children were Asian.

“I’m still haunted by those children,” Amanda Bosch said. “I wanted to bring every single one of them home.”

The lucky ones

During the Hensleys’ time in Russia, they stayed mostly in private homes and were advised not to speak to anyone on the street. Photos also were discouraged.

Military guards carrying AK-47s greeted them with stern faces when they emerged from the plane. Foreigners were viewed as a threat, they said.

Despite having his bag checked several times already, an airport official told Michael Hensley his bag weighed too much.

After a few dollars, the weight seemed fine to the official. She wasn’t the last person they paid during the process.

Fear was already rising among adoption organizers in Russia in February 2000, the Hensleys said.

One helper told Michael he feared the election of Vladimir Putin, who would certainly restrict adoption practices.

Putin has since required adopters to visit Russia twice during the adoption process — essentially doubling the travel cost and limiting the possibility for financially restricted families. The practice continues today.

On Wednesday, all 143 members of the Federation Council voted to cease adoption programs for Americans.

Tens of thousands of children have been adopted by U.S. families in the past 20 years.

There are about 740,000 children without parental care in Russia, according to UNICEF.

“If they change that policy, these children would not have a future,”?Sarah Hensley said. “That’s the sad thing.”

For both families, the adoption process was emotional. And missteps along the way could end in thousands of wasted dollars.

But each said the adoption seemed almost preordained and has strengthened their faith.

“People have said, ‘She’s so lucky to have you guys,’ ” Amanda Bosch said, “when really we’re the ones who are lucky.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.

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