News & Politics

Adopting a Russian Orphan

They are orphans, children from Russia who come here with nothing but dreams of a better life. They stay with families who might adopt them. It could be a summer vacation, or it could be a mom and dad.

Staff writer Brooke Lea Foster ( wrote about minority students at private schools in September.

Nancy Graham and her husband, Gregory, are waiting at National Airport with other parents. Nancy stares nervously at the gate while Gregory is practicing how to say "Are you okay?" in Russian.

"Is Ivan here yet?" Nancy's seven-year-old daughter, Jessica, asks for the second time. Jessica unfolds a drawing she brought for Ivan; it shows Mommy, Daddy, her three-year-old brother, Perry, and Ivan, a stick figure wearing a hat.

Jessica calls Ivan, who is nine, her big brother. Only she's never met him. Neither has Nancy or Gregory. None of the parents waiting to pick up a child knows much about the kids they're about to meet except that they're from a Russian orphanage.

"They're here!" yells one parent.

Nancy takes pictures with a disposable camera as Ivan and the other four children walk past the security gate. They're wearing red T-shirts and holding hands.

The families clap and cheer, which makes Ivan bury his face in his right elbow. Gregory walks up to him, bends down on one knee and says hello. He asks Ivan if he's okay. Ivan looks away. Jessica tries to get Ivan's attention, standing next to him and smiling, but he ignores her.

The group walks outside the airport into a July night. Ivan stares at a bus whining to a stop, then at a cop who sounds his siren at a double-parked car. He begins to cry.

An orphan with long blond hair tells a translator that it's scary not knowing English. Then the young girl puts her arm around Ivan and says, in Russian, "It's going to be okay."

It's the beginning of a six-week vacation that could change everyone's lives.

For many people, the desire to adopt an older child comes suddenly. Maybe they're inspired by a group of orphans singing at their church, or they read in the newspaper about how older children are less likely to find homes. Some families want to save a life, which is how they end up finding Washington-based groups like Kidsave International and the Bridge of Hope program.

Both programs match Russian orphans–Kidsave's Summer Miracles program also sponsors children from Colombia and Kazakhstan–with host families across America for a six-week summer vacation. The program appeals to families who want to "try out" adoption without having to commit to a child they don't know.

Families browse through pictures of orphans a few months before and choose a child. They're given a profile that includes some details–a child prone to nightmares or one who wets the bed. Nancy and Gregory chose Ivan because he looked like Gregory as a child.

The Russian children are told the trip is a reward for how well they did in school that year. But many know why they're coming; they've seen their friends in the orphanage get adopted after returning from America.

After a 12-hour flight, they get off the plane carrying nothing, not even a change of underwear, as they have no possessions. Overnight, they're thrust into America's middle class, a world of pool parties and backyard barbecues.

Kidsave founder and president Terry Baugh, who lives just off MacArthur Boulevard near the DC organization's offices, tries to ensure that every child returns to Russia with two prospective adoptive families. "If one falls through, we want to have a backup," she says. Ninety-five percent of the children hosted are eventually adopted, she says.

Many host families begin the summer intending to adopt the child coming to stay with them. Guest bedrooms are decorated with soccer posters and filled with toys and stuffed animals. But children who've spent considerable time in an orphanage arrive with developmental and emotional challenges, and the six weeks in America don't always turn out as planned.

Says Patrick Mason, director of the International Adoption Center at Inova Fairfax Hospital: "Host parents fall in love with a picture."

Families are warned that the arriving children may be skinny and pale. Sometimes orphans from the former Soviet bloc are so malnourished they look years younger than they are. One nine-year-old in the National Airport group looks six.

After they've arrived, the children and their host parents board a shuttle bus to Crystal City's Holiday Inn. A translator tells the parents that this initial meeting can set the tone for the next six weeks." First impressions are important," she says.

In a conference room on the hotel's second floor, each family chats with their Russian child through a translator. Many of the children stare at their feet. The conversation is forced and slow. Mostly the parents speak:

"I hope she wants to do Girl Scouts. I've only had boys so I've missed out on that."

"Tell him that this is a picture of our home and the yard he can play in."

"Tell us when you're ready to go home."

A waif of a girl with doe eyes looks up: "I'm not ready yet."

Sonja Twiford, a 36-year-old single woman, asks 12-year-old Svetlana if she likes horses. On the surface, Sonja and Svetlana couldn't be more different. Sonja is a pretty, girly type who works in sales at Qwest Communications. Svetlana is a tomboy, a tall and sturdy girl with boyish features. Svetlana says she doesn't like horses but she can't wait to meet Sonja's dog. In a few minutes Sonja and Svetlana are laughing as if they speak the same language.

On the other side of the room, Ivan is unpacking the toys and books that Nancy and Gregory piled into a red Spider-Man backpack for him. He grabs at a small flashlight. Nancy packed it so he wouldn't feel scared in his room at their Fairfax home. Ivan points it at the ceiling, then in the eyes of his friends from the orphanage, who want to know where he got it.

He runs back to the backpack and pulls out a throwaway camera. He starts snapping pictures of Nancy. He chugs a fruit punch. He pulls on sunglasses and poses. He grabs white high-tops off a table covered in donated clothes. They're two sizes too small, but he tries to cram his foot in anyway.

Nancy has the translator tell him she'll take him for sneakers tomorrow. "I wrote down a list of phrases in Russian," she says, tapping a little black book in her hand. "Now I'm too nervous to use them."

Nancy and the translator discuss what Ivan should call her. "He can call me Ms. Nancy," she says, "until he's ready to call me Mom."

Kidsave cofounder Terry Baugh's mission to help older orphans began in 1993 when she adopted her first child in Russia: "I saw babies in giant playpens sitting without toys, shaved heads. . . . Then there were the older children. There was one adult for every 12 to 20 kids. They had no stimulation, so they sat and stared."

Baugh was haunted by the children after she returned to Washington. Her colleague Randi Thompson was equally inspired after visiting an orphanage in Kazakhstan. In 1997, they decided to start a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping orphans find homes–and Kidsave was born.

Baugh had read about an adoption agency that brought a few Russian kids to America for a summer visit. The article said nearly all of the children were adopted. "We thought we'd try to scale it up," she says.

Two years later, they brought 177 kids to America for six weeks. At the end of the summer, nearly all found adoptive families. Since then, Kidsave has helped more than 1,000 orphans find homes. And the program has gained some powerful allies. Louisiana senator Mary Landrieu is an honorary director. Every summer, she meets with the orphans in her Capitol Hill office.

It has been a week since the children arrived, and this afternoon they're meeting for a social at a Chinese restaurant on Capitol Hill. The Russians look tanned. One little girl has a pink purse with PRETTY AS A PRINCESS stitched on it. Every few minutes she takes out her cell phone, a gift from her host family, examines it, and puts it back in her purse.

Nancy Apted, a host parent, shows Sasha, an elfin boy with red hair, how to use chopsticks. Ivan's best friend in the orphanage, eight-year-old Sasha came to America last year but didn't find a family. "I haven't bonded to him at all yet," Apted says. Then she whispers: "He's not really what I expected." She says her youngest son, Patrick, has already asked when Sasha is going home.

Some parents promise themselves they won't make any quick decisions about adoption. But from the moment a child steps through the front door, parents seem to wonder: "Is this my future child?"

Apted has her doubts about Sasha. He has lots of energy. He'll play ball, then grab toys, then ride his bike. "He needs constant stimulation," she says. "My kids aren't like that."

When several parents talk about how well their relationships are going, Judy looks envious.

"You're lucky," Apted says. Sasha doesn't seem to care about learning English. He won't look her in the eye. A translator told she that he keeps asking: "Do they like me?"

"Ma, ma," says Svetlana, who has an American flag bandanna on her head. She's following Sonja to a table in the back of the Chinese restaurant. Svetlana talks nonstop. Sonja has no idea what she's saying, but usually through improvised sign language they figure it out. Hands on the head means it's time to take a shower. If she pats her stomach, she wants to eat.

Most of the host parents don't speak Russian. They get by with about 20 Russian words and phrases. They rely on facial expressions, tone of voice, and touch. When things get confusing, they can call a 24-hour translator that Kidsave offers.

Sonja treats Svetlana like a little sister. She took her to a barn the other day to ride horses. Svetlana immediately started cleaning the stable.

Earlier in the week, they went to Target and bought socks, shirts, cargo pants, and underwear. Sonja also bought a skateboard and drawing supplies for her guest. Afterward they went to McDonald's, and Sonja's stepmother, who is Latvian and speaks Russian, spoke with Svetlana about her family.

"My father was very sick, and he passed away six or seven years ago," she told them. "My mother always drank. She still comes to the orphanage drunk and bangs on the windows and yells. I stopped going outside because I was tired of it."

When they got back to Sonja's Potomac Falls townhouse, Svetlana folded her new clothes and put them in drawers. She stacked her new toys. Then she went into Sonja's office and gave her a hug. "Thank you," she said–in English.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Soviet economy collapsed with it. Jobs grew scarce. Widespread depression led to widespread alcoholism. Some parents could no longer afford to care for their children, which is how so many–now about 700,000–ended up in institutional care. In an orphanage, a child is guaranteed food and a bed. If no one from the child's family is able to provide long-term care, the orphanage will work with the courts to terminate parental rights, making the child available for foreign adoption.

Russia is second only to China as a source of children for Americans to adopt. One adoption specialist says white Americans are drawn to Russia because they're able to adopt white children. Last year, the State Department issued visas to 5,865 orphans. Of those from Russia, 80 percent were under age four. Only about 8 percent were over age nine.

Older children are sometimes considered "damaged goods" and are often overlooked by adoptive families. Regardless of age, international adoption carries a price between $20,000 and $30,000. Some agencies drop fees a few thousand dollars to spark interest in older children.

Russians are ambivalent about American adoptive families. Since the early 1990s, 13 Russian children have died at the hands of American adoptive parents, two in the Washington area: A woman from North Carolina fatally beat her two-year-old before driving to Manassas, Virginia, where the child was pronounced dead. A couple in Harford County was charged with starving to death their eight-year-old adopted son.

Some Russian lawmakers proposed a moratorium on American adoptions, which was rejected over the summer. Others said tougher screening was necessary. Adoptive parents currently are subject to questioning before a judge on one of their two required trips to Russia. Otherwise, the process is fairly standard: extensive paperwork, a background check, approval by the US Immigration Service, and a home visit by a licensed social worker.

This summer, Kidsave placed 73 Russian children with families in eight states. In the weeks leading up to their arrival, host families buzzed about the proposed moratorium on adoptions. What if they fell in love with a child and–though it's rare–the Russian government didn't allow the adoption?

In a subdivision OF brick homes in Loudoun County, Patty sits in her home office while her children play by the pool. She adopted 12-year-old Paul from Bulgaria at 21 months, ten-year-old Nicolas from Russia at five years, and seven-year-old Cristina from Bulgaria at three.

Patty, who asked that her name and those of her children be changed, hosted Nicolas through Kidsave in 2000. Nicolas was what she'd expected: scared and stiff. When she took off his shoes the night he arrived, she saw he wasn't wearing socks; his shoes were so small that his toes were swollen.

Nicolas loved the grocery store. He'd never seen so many choices. Patty bought bananas, apples, oranges, and cherries and left them in a big bowl on the kitchen counter. He'd eat nonstop. Sometimes he'd bring fruit to his room and hide it.

Patty and her husband recognized the hoarding behavior–it's typical of orphans. Even at 21 months, Paul would hide food behind his back while in his highchair.

Nicolas was rough around the edges. At a picnic, he punched a boy when the boy tried to get his bubble blower back. But Patty felt sorry for him: "Imagine growing up in an institution where you had nothing. Anything you had, you had to fight for. They don't know what 'yours' and 'mine' means."

After spoiling Nicolas with toys and outings, Patty hated the idea of sending him back to an orphanage. "I'm the person who wants to take home every stray kitten and dog from the shelter," she says. Being in a family might transform Nicolas, she thought, so she adopted him.

Families who've adopted after taking part in Kidsave's Summer Miracles program often refer to those six weeks as "the honeymoon period." By law, every child needs to return to the orphanage while the adoption is pending, and it can take six months to a year before a family brings a child home for good. Once the child is adopted, parents may notice things they hadn't before–and behavior can deteriorate.

Nicolas lit matches in the house and ripped arms off dolls. He and his brother developed a secret language and would talk about Patty; that's how orphans talk about caretakers. One night Steve peed on his brother while his brother was sleeping.

At school, Nicolas was far behind his classmates. For every three or four months a child lives in an orphanage, most lose one month of cognitive, psychological, and emotional development. Patty learned that some adopted children fare better than others. Children who are adopted from countries with foster-care systems, like Korea and Guatemala, transition into families more easily than children who've lived in institutional settings in China and Russia.

The first few years, Nicolas would snuggle next to Patty in bed. They'd say a prayer for his Russian mommy. He'd tell Patty that he loved her. Now the ten-year-old won't look at her, let alone hug her, when she visits him at school.

A therapist told Patty it wasn't uncommon for troubling behaviors to surface later: "Layers start to come off, and the shell comes down. He doesn't know how to handle these feelings." Counseling revealed that Nicolas's stepfather burned the bottoms of his feet on a radiator if he was bad. Nicolas watched porn as a young boy with one of the orphanage's caretakers.

Patty's two other adopted children aren't without challenges. Paul and Cristina have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Paul has an auditory-processing disorder and isn't as mature as other 12-year-olds. Cristina has had to have speech therapy.

Patty loves Nicolas too much to regret adopting him. But looking back, she had no idea what she was getting into. Says Patty: "You think all you have to do is give them love. My whole goal was to put a smile on their face. But that's not always possible. When I get tired, I have to remind myself that they didn't ask to be adopted."

It's been two weeks since the Russian children arrived at National Airport, and Nancy has memorized the Russian word for danger, which she's about to yell.

Ivan is standing on the kitchen counter trying to grab a truck off of the refrigerator. "Vanya!" Nancy says. "Get down."

"It's been a real roller coaster," says Nancy, deputy editor at AARP magazine. "A lot of other parents have said the same thing. One minute I'm optimistic that we'll adopt him, and then there are days when I'm like, 'No way!' "

The Kidsave trainings warned Nancy that Ivan might not attach to her right away. Many orphan children aren't nurtured. Caretakers turn over so quickly that children have no one to bond with.

Ivan is constantly challenging Nancy's authority, and she isn't sure he even wants to be adopted. She thinks he's trying to tell her: You're not my mom.

On the metro earlier, a Russian woman spotted Ivan with Nancy and talked to him. Ivan told her that he was having a good time but that he missed Russia and his mother. Ivan's birth mother gave up her parental rights a year before. His great-aunt put him in the orphanage after realizing that he hadn't been to school in several months and wasn't being fed.

Nancy's learned bits about Ivan since he arrived. He likes doing somersaults on the couch and singing "E-I-E-I-O." He wants to be tucked into bed and enjoys puzzles. He'll let Nancy tickle him and calls her "Mommy," but he isn't very affectionate.

"I was well prepared for that," she says. "If any of these kids automatically acted like he loved me, I'd be suspicious. It would be cute, but it wouldn't have any meaning."

Nancy struggles with figuring out what Ivan wants, what he's saying: "Something is always lost in translation."

One night, Ivan handed her a DVD broken in half. He'd destroyed Perry's favorite episode of The Wiggles. Nancy was upset; why would Ivan do something so malicious? She yelled at him and told him to sit in the time-out chair. She asked Ivan, "Why did you do it?" He was silent. After ten minutes, Ivan went to his room and got into bed.

Nancy asked seven-year-old Jessica, who was watching TV, why Ivan would break the DVD. "He tried to watch it," Jessica said.

That's when it dawned on Nancy. He'd broken the DVD by accident.

Besides examining internationally adopted children for hints of disease, pediatrician Patrick Mason advises families on helping orphans transition socially. A child who has always shared a room may be afraid to sleep alone. He may have trouble controlling his food consumption or interacting with siblings.

Mason founded the International Adoption Center at Inova Fairfax Hospital in 2001 to meet the needs of the growing number of children adopted from abroad. He says Washington has one of the highest adoption rates in the country. There are more than 50 licensed agencies in the region.

Mason's staff tests children for learning and developmental disabilities, often referring children who need psychotherapy to Ron Federici, an expert on the postinstitutionalized child.

Neither Mason nor Federici sees orphans during their six-week stay–legally, they're not allowed. Parents find them once they've brought the children back to America to adopt.

"They'll come to me and say, 'This is not the child I hosted for six weeks,' " says Federici. "I say, 'You can take a kid out of an orphanage, but you can't take the orphanage out of a child.' "

Programs like Kidsave have their critics. Meghan Hendy of the Joint Council on International Children's Services, an umbrella group for 225 organizations, says some adoption counselors worry that children's emotions are being toyed with. Are the kids given hope of a better life only to have it snatched away?

Several orphans, who were later adopted, told Federici and Mason that their caretakers back home told them they had better be good and get themselves adopted in America–or else. "There is a lot of pressure put on these kids," says Mason.

Baugh, Kidsave's cofounder, understands the concerns. In the beginning, training offered to host families was minimal. Today, Kidsave's social workers spend a 12-hour training session (of the six-week program) warning families that older adopted children come with challenges.

If Baugh and her staffers sense that a family is unsure, they'll discourage them from adopting. "The worst thing that could happen is a kid gets adopted and they get here and it doesn't work out," says Baugh.

According to the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse, about 25 percent of all adoptions of children over the age of ten are disrupted or don't work out. Baugh says Kidsave's rate is 2 percent: "We're finding these children homes."

Svetlana had never seen the ocean and never owned a bathing suit. So a few weeks into her stay, Sonja took Svetlana to Bethany Beach. After they stopped in a surf shop to buy Svetlana a boogie board and a bikini, they walked over to the beach.

Svetlana stopped and stared. "On the other side of that ocean is where you live," Sonja's stepmother told Svetlana in Russian. "How far?" Svetlana asked without taking her eyes off the large expanse of blue.

She ran her fingers through the sand, giggled when the water touched her toes, and made her way into the ocean. "Ma, Ma, come in the water," she yelled in Russian to Sonja. She didn't get out of the water until it was time to leave.

That night, Sonja and Svetlana snuggled in bed and watched a documentary about sharks. Svetlana put her arm around Sonja. "I love you, Ma," she said.

Because Sonja is unmarried, she agreed to host Svetlana as an advocate: She wanted to help the girl find an adoptive family but hadn't wanted to adopt her herself. But Sonja noticed that parents coming to Kidsave-sponsored picnics and pool parties were drawn to the little girls with sweet angelic faces. They looked right past Svetlana.

Sonja was reconsidering her decision not to adopt, but being a single mom made it hard.

She began to wonder, Can I raise her on my own?

Nancy's mother worried that her daughter was taking on too much when she and Gregory agreed to host Ivan. The couple had enough on their plate, already working full-time jobs and raising two young children. Nancy knew her mother was right. But she couldn't resist. She wanted a big family.

A few weeks into Ivan's stay, Nancy told her mother she might want to adopt him. Her mother was against it: "You don't even know what kind of character he has."

"You know more than you do about an infant," Nancy told her. If Ivan were adopted, he'd come to America two grades behind where he should be. He'd have to learn English.

Nancy and Gregory had adopted Perry and Jessica, both Americans, at birth. Knowing so much about Ivan before adoption could only prepare them for what was to come.

Ivan seemed to be loosening up after three weeks. He laughed when Nancy put a towel over her head and pretended to be a "babushka," or a Russian grandmother. If she mangled a Russian phrase, he'd put his pointer finger to his temple and draw circles in the air to tell her she was crazy.

"Mommy, Mommy," he'd say before jumping into the pool or pumping his legs on a swing. There were times when he'd jump into her arms and give her a hug. Ivan vied for Gregory's attention.

Nancy turned 50 in August, and her friends and family threw her a party. A few days later, Ivan came downstairs with something behind his back and told Nancy to close her eyes. When she opened them, he handed her his gift. Ivan had covered an empty plastic toy package with stickers.

His only dollar bill was tucked inside.

In previous years, Baugh asked host families to decide if they wanted to adopt three weeks into the summer visit. Families felt pressured. So this summer, families had two weeks after the kids left to make their final decisions.

Many families who've adopted a child after taking part in Kidsave's program adopt again. One couple adopted a Russian boy and a girl they met in 2002. A few years later, they went back to adopt their daughter's best friend. A family who adopted four children after they visited one summer agreed to adopt a fifth child, Sasha, hosted this year.

Some families fall so head over heels for a child that they change their life plans. A couple in their twenties surprised Kidsave's staff this summer when they announced they were adopting a sibling pair they hosted from Colombia. "These children were meant for us," one mother said.

There are many rewards that come with adopting an older child, Baugh will say. You're giving a child a home and a family they otherwise wouldn't have. During his first few months in America, one little boy threw up every time he got in the car. He feared his family would bring him back to the airport and send him away. Today, he's a happy and well-adjusted child, Baugh says.

She told one family deciding whether to adopt: "You just have to decide how you want to spend your life."

A week before the children are set to return to Russia, they're invited for a tour of the Russian Embassy on Wisconsin Avenue. They're gathered in the grand ballroom, an ornate room with gold tables and four tiered chandeliers. The cultural attaché's assistant remarks that the children already look American. "Ivan looks like JFK Jr.," she says.

In the last few weeks, Nancy began worrying that Ivan wasn't the right fit for her family. He pulled hard on the dogs' ears and one day put his hand over Jessica's mouth in the pool.

What if he had a mean streak? If a host family feels a child isn't working out, they can decide to have the child removed from their home for the duration of the summer. Ivan's best friend, Sasha, switched families after he tried to push his host mother's son down the stairs.

Nancy decided she was overreacting. In the last couple weeks, Ivan hadn't defied her as often, and she noticed that he shared her sense of humor. And Jessica and Perry loved Ivan.

At the end of the tour, a couple of host parents tell Nancy how much of a difference she's made in Ivan, which nearly brings her to tears. Nearby, Sonja watches Svetlana pose for pictures with two friends.

Sonja's feeling guilty about not adopting Svetlana–so guilty, she pledges that she'll send her money in the orphanage and pay for her to go to college when she grows up.

It has been a tough week. Sonja's stepmother was babysitting a few days before when Svetlana burst into tears. Another orphan had told her that Sonja wasn't going to adopt her. The girl had heard the escort from the orphanage talking about it.

Host families spend so much time figuring out whether they want to adopt a child after six weeks that they don't always consider how the child feels about them.

When a translator asks Svetlana about whether she'd want to live with Sonja forever, Svetlana's eyes well up. She nods "yes."

Svetlana is at Olga's house for a play date along with another visiting orphan, Alina. The three are best friends back home. Here Olga's bedroom is filled with stuffed animals, Barbies, Polly Pocket toys. All three lie on the floor on their stomachs, their heads next to the speakers of a boom box playing the Titanic soundtrack.

They're going back to Russia tomorrow morning.

Olga says she hasn't grown close with her family. She likes the mother, not the father. "Yes, I want to be adopted," she says. "What would I do back in Russia? But I want to be adopted by another family."

Alina feels the same way about her host family. "I don't really care for them," she says. "I'm bored there. How can I tell them? I don't speak English."

The first week they were here, many of the visiting children met Gia, a 16-year-old Russian orphan who came to America three years ago through the program. Gia is blond and tan with long eyelashes. She just finished her sophomore year at a Montgomery County high school.

Gia didn't like the family she started with during her six-week summer stay. She switched families during the six weeks and felt like she'd found a home.

But several months later, a different family came to Russia to adopt her. They said they met her at a Kidsave pool party.

"I didn't want to go," she says. But she knew if she stayed in Russia she'd have a bleak future. Many children who age out of the orphanage turn to drugs, crime, or suicide.

Two years later, Gia says her adoptive parents are fine, but she doesn't love them.

Nancy is trying to figure out what she should pack in Ivan's suitcase. She doesn't want to send him back with too many toys. She was told he'll need warm clothes in winter, and Nancy wants to leave some things in Ivan's room so they're here if he comes back.

While Nancy is fairly sure she wants to adopt Ivan, Gregory is reluctant. He feels they have their hands full with Jessica and Perry, and he knows Ivan's going to take work. He told Nancy he'd adopt Ivan for her; it would make her happy. But Nancy doesn't want him to agree just to please her.

They're both so overwhelmed with the decision that they can't decide if they truly want Ivan or if they're just feeling bad about sending him back to an orphanage. "I realized today I've never really talked to him," says Nancy. She wants to ask a translator to dinner with them that evening. "I want to ask what his favorite color is and what sports he likes, what he likes in America. I want to tell him how special we think he is."

Nancy tells Gregory how rewarding it would be to watch Ivan develop. If they had three, she knows there would be fewer resources to go around. She'd have to give up her dream of sending her kids to Harvard. But she believes she and Gregory could turn Ivan around.

Gregory has been waiting for a sign from Ivan that he wants them. Nancy says Ivan's too closed-up to be so forthcoming.

Says Nancy: "He's just such a clever, clever boy. You can't get to know a child who has so much potential and wants to be in a family and then just walk away."

On Svetlana's last night in America, she and Sonja stayed up until 3 AM watching Home Alone 3. "I don't want to leave," Svetlana told Sonja. "I don't want to go back to Russia."

Near the Delta counter at National Airport the following morning, Sonja hugs Kidsave president Terry Baugh. Sonja's eyes are red and puffy: "I had no idea what I was getting into when I picked her up." Terry asks Sonja if she found anyone interested in adopting Svetlana.

"What about me?" Sonja says. It seemed possible: Russia allows single women to adopt. Last night, her stepmother offered to move in with Sonja and be a nanny to Svetlana. It's the help Sonja believes she needs.

By now, all of the other host families are gathered. Nancy is videotaping Ivan. "Say, 'Bye-bye, America,' " she tells him. Ivan waves at the camera. He and his friend Sasha are listening to Russian pop music on a Walkman.

Nancy gives Ivan a photo album filled with pictures of him miniature golfing, swimming in a pool, flying a kite. He flips through it, stopping on some photos to tell Sasha about his summer adventures.

As the families are about to walk the children to the gate, Nancy grabs a translator and gets Ivan's attention. She seems desperate: "Can you tell him that we joke around a lot but that I really care about him and that he's come to mean a lot to me."

Ivan smiles, looks away, puts his head down.

"Tell him that I'm really sad he's leaving."

Ivan looks like he's about to hug Nancy but he smacks his friend's arm instead. A few minutes later, Nancy forces a hug on Ivan, and he all but falls on top of her. Jessica stretches her arms around the two of them.

The families follow the children to the security gate. Ivan is one of the first through, and Nancy and Gregory don't look away until his red Spider-Man baseball cap disappears around a corner. Then Nancy holds her hands over her eyes. Her lips quiver. Jessica jumps in Nancy's arms and sucks her thumb.

"Is he coming back?" Jessica asks.

The translator moves close to Nancy, placing her hand on Nancy's shoulder.

"No matter what you decide," she tells her, "the important thing is that you gave him a wonderful summer. This is not the type of decision that you can say, 'Let's have a cup of coffee and flip a coin.' Till the day you die, this decision will affect your life."

One month after the children left, 18 of the 25 orphans had families proceeding with adoption. Only eight of the 22 families were adopting children who stayed in their homes. "It's like a dating game," says Hiliary Jenkins, Kidsave's program coordinator. "You never know who is going to match well."

Kidsave is talking with families about adopting three others. Three Russian children, including Svetlana and Ivan, don't have any prospects.

Sonja wants to get married before she adopts a child. But she has vowed to send Svetlana clothes and school supplies. If Svetlana is adopted by another American family, Sonja says she'll visit. If she isn't, Sonja promises to pay for Svetlana to go to college.

Nancy wants to help Ivan, too, but Gregory didn't feel close enough to adopt. Nancy was devastated, but she told a friend, "I'm not going to risk my marriage over this."

Instead, Nancy and Gregory decided to adopt a baby–from America. Gregory believes raising a child from infancy will be less disruptive.

Nancy is thrilled; she wants a bigger family. But she misses Ivan. She keeps a picture of Ivan, Jessica, and Perry on her desk. "They look like a family," she says.

Nancy worries about how the boy will feel when he finds out they aren't adopting him–though two other families had expressed interest in him.

"He's already been abandoned by his mother," Nancy says. "I would hate for him to feel like this is a second abandonment."