CRANBERRY TWP — With the door set to close on Russian adoptions by U.S. citizens because of a foreign policy dispute between the two nations, one township couple is grateful to have completed its second adoption from Russia before the process ends.
On Dec. 29, just one day after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law banning the adoption of Russian children by Americans, Laurie and John O'Rourke brought home 14-month-old Amelia O'Rourke from an orphanage in Perm, Russia, a city of about 1 million residents located 700 miles southeast of Moscow.
The couple in 2010 adopted a son, Andrew, now 4, from an orphanage in St. Petersburg.
Both adoptions were fraught with difficulty, but for different reasons, ranging from social climate to vague adoption procedures and the stress wrought by the process on adoptive families.
“We had the same agency and adopted from the same country, but had two completely different experiences,” Laurie said.
“With Andrew, we were really lucky. From filling out the application to walking in the door with him, it was exactly nine months. For Amelia, start to finish, it took about 18 months.”
The family of four lives at the end of a cul-de-sac in the township, where John is a project manager for PPG Industries and Laurie is employed in accounts receivable with National Rehab Equipment.
She has slipped comfortably into the role of working mom.
“I don't even remember life before. Your priorities change, and life is about them now,” she said.
Andrew is also adapting well to the role of big brother.
“(Amelia) is just fascinated by him,” Laurie O'Rourke said.
Laurie was born and raised in Butler, while John is from New Jersey, but his family bounced around due to his father's work as a salesman for Goodyear. The couple met while both were students at Duquesne University. After getting married in 2005, they moved to Bethel Park.
“We decided we wanted to start a family and settled on Cranberry Township, since most of my family remains here in Butler,” Laurie said.
“We weren't successful in having biological children, and we knew we wanted kids, so we looked into adoption.”
The O'Rourkes consulted with family and decided upon intercountry adoption, choosing Pittsburgh-based Adopt-A-Child, which focused solely on Russian adoptions, partially because of the finality of such a path.
“We don't like the (U.S.) adoption laws, specifically, that the birth mother can change her mind after you already have the child,” Laurie said.
Russians get the first opportunity to adopt children born there, but many of those children have had little interest in their domestic adoption so they meet prospective American families.
“After some time, the agency will call with a potential match and ask if you want to go to Russia to meet with the child,” Laurie said.
The O'Rourkes had to wait four months to meet Andrew, and had to wait two months to meet Amelia.
“You have a picture, and it's amazing the instant connection you feel. You get excited and get your hopes up, then have to wait again,” John said.
Welcome to Russia
After arriving in Russia, the O'Rourkes stopped by the ministry, then headed to the orphanage.
“You have to get in so many visits before your next court date. We were there (on first trip to Russia, to adopt Andrew) for a week,” John said.
During the visits, the O'Rourkes said they looked for developmental milestones during play times, as well as to see how the children interacted.
“You don't see much of the orphanage. They sort of keep you away from the other kids, even where yours might be sleeping,” John said.
The couple's first visit to Russia in 2010 also presented a bit of a culture shock as they were warned by the adoption agency to avoid looking into people's eyes or smiling at strangers.
However, that caution did not fit those Russians tied to the adoptions, who seemed to genuinely want the children to have a positive future.
“(Intercountry adoption) is not cheap. You just hope some of that money is going to help these other kids,” John said.
“Also, I think the adoption process, even within Russia, differs based on the city and the judge.”
Andrew was adopted in St. Petersburg, a popular tourist destination where ideas and attitudes from Western culture are more easily embraced, and judges can be a bit more independent-minded in their rulings. Amelia was adopted from Perm, where lingering distrust of Americans from the Cold War era remains and, according to John, judges seem more likely to follow the Kremlin's directives to the letter.
There and back again
After deciding to proceed with each adoption, the O'Rourkes flew home from Russia and had to wait eight to 12 weeks for a second court date, this one finalizing the adoption and setting a mandatory waiting period in which the adoption may be challenged and the child's travel visa must be approved.
“Once your waiting period is up, there's a date set when you get to take your child from the orphanage,” Laurie said.
“With Andrew, it was only a 10-day waiting period (after initial court approval), so we just stayed in Russia.”
However, Amelia's travel visa took 30 days to process, so the couple returned to the U.S., then flew back to Russia a month later when it had been approved.
“For various reasons, the adoption process is much quicker with a boy,” John said.
When the waiting period ends, adoptive parents are free to pick up their child from the orphanage, then apply for a passport for the child, which can take several days, before they can fly back to the U.S.
The O'Rourkes experienced difficulty during both adoptions.
In 2010, when they adopted Andrew, the couple flew to St. Petersburg just two days after a Tennessee woman, Torry Hansen, sent her 7-year-old adopted son back to Russia by himself, sparking outrage among officials there.
“They told us there was just a 50/50 chance we would even get a court date (to adopt Andrew). But, we had to go there, in case they did not cancel it,” Laurie said.
“With (Amelia's) adoption, we were not worried at all. We already had been approved by the Russian court, and we had most of her documents. I think the worry here (in the U.S.) was much greater than in Russia,” she said, referring to passage of the law banning the adoption of Russian children by Americans.
The family, Andrew included, left for Russia on Dec. 21, 2012, and they picked up Amelia at the orphanage on Dec. 25 — Andrew's fourth birthday, in addition to being Christmas — then received her passport on Dec. 26. That night, the family flew to Moscow and had Amelia examined by a doctor connected to the U.S. Embassy.
The O'Rourkes applied for their daughter's passport on Dec. 27 and, late that evening, Putin signed the law banning U.S. adoptions from Russia.
“On Friday morning (Dec. 28), we went back to the U.S. Embassy to interview with U.S. officials so we could get (Amelia's) visa,” John said.
“You could tell a lot of people there were very nervous. But the U.S. Embassy told us there was no legal way Russian officials could prevent us from (flying out of the country with Amelia) and, if they did, step aside, then contact the embassy. At that point, our family was e-mailing us to get out of the country as fast as we could.”
Coming to America
Both Andrew and Amelia O'Rourke arrived in the U.S. to big welcomes, then the challenges of acclimation into a new society and family structure began.
“For both of them, we kept their names and appearance a secret until we arrived home.” Laurie said.
One of the first things that struck the O'Rourkes upon adopting their children was just how much they ate.
“The doctor explained that the sensation of being full is alien to them at first,” Laurie said.
John said the children were used to sitting quietly, alone, for long periods of time, and each adjusted differently.
“(Andrew) was energetic from Day 1. Amelia's just now starting to get the idea that, if she makes a noise, we are going to come. It was amazing to see her personality change with increased interaction,” he said.
Both children also had to get used to having a father, a novelty not lost on Amelia as she toddles over to touch her dad's face before testing her climbing skills on a nearby bookshelf.
“They don't see men often at the orphanage. They even warned us about that,” Laurie said. “Over even a short amount of time, though, it's amazing what a difference the attention and nutrition make.”