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Columbia couple cherishes Russian-born son, adopted before door closed

Tuesday, December 24, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:30 a.m. CST, Tuesday, December 24, 2013
A law, signed in 2012 by Russian President Vladimir Putin, prohibits U.S citizens from adopting Russian children. Mark and Danette Robb of Columbia, who adopted Luke Konstantin Robb from Chelyabinsk, Russia, when he was 3 years old, dislike the ruling. Dannette Robb says when she heard the news she thought of "the children in orphanages who might never know the love of a family and the parents who long for children. Luke is now 8.

COLUMBIA — When 8-year-old Luke Konstantin Robb drew a picture of the orphanage where he used to live in Chelyabinsk, Russia, he had a whole box of crayons in front of him but chose only one color: gray.

The drawing depicts a massive gray building with big windows and a very small door. The gray lines in front of the house signify snow.

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"I lived in Russia for three years," he wrote on the front of the drawing. "I saw two angels, they were boys they gave me food."

At age 3, Luke was adopted by Mark and Danette Robb, who live and work in Columbia. Mark sells real estate, and Danette stays home to take care of Luke and his 5-year-old brother, Isaiah. She also does a little work from home with a local nonprofit group that helps local refugees transition to U.S. life.

But adoptions such as Luke's are a thing of the past.

On Dec. 28, 2012, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law prohibiting U.S citizens from adopting Russian children. It was called the Dima Yakovlev Act in memory of an adopted Russian child who died in an overheated car in Herndon, Va., in 2008.

The law was widely seen as government retaliation for the Magnitsky Act, signed by President Barack Obama in protest of the treatment of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died at age 37 in a prison there after being denied medical attention. He'd been investigating a massive tax fraud by Russian government officials and police. The Magnitsky Act imposed sanctions on anyone involved in Magnitsky's treatment or the alleged tax fraud and for "other gross violations of human rights in the Russian federation."

Some polls in Russia showed significant support for the ban on U.S. adoptions because of several high-profile cases of mistreatment of Russian children in the U.S. But there were also protests, dubbed the "March Against Bastards," which broke out in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other Russian cities.

The law, in essence, bans adoptions like Luke's. According to the Russian Department of State responsible for the protection of children's rights, there were 654,000 children living in orphanages in 2012. Of that number, 84 percent were not considered actual orphans because they had living parents.

Danette and Mark Robb were saddened by the news of the ban on U.S. adoptions. Danette remembers calling Mark and crying as she told him the news. She thought of the children in orphanages who might never know the love of a family and the parents who long for children.

The Robbs call their two adopted children their greatest blessing. If the process in Russia had not been so lengthy and expensive, they would have loved to return to the Chelyabinsk region and adopt another child from Russia. People of great faith, they believe that God told them where their child was and showed them that every path led to Russia.

'He was our son'

The agonizing process that resulted in Luke becoming their son was a "blind adoption." That means that after applying, they had no information about their future child. But from the first moment they saw 10-month-old Kostya in the orphanage, they knew. "He was our son, no question," Danette said. 

The Russian adoption process was difficult and costly. The Robbs themselves had to undergo medical examinations in Russia as they waited for a court date.  

It was another two years after they met Kostya before they were able to bring him home. The Robbs found it emotionally agonizing to know that their son needed them and they couldn't go get him.

More obstacles arose after the news about cases of abuse of adopted Russian children in the U.S. appeared in Russian media, and it slowed the process of adopting Kostya. Finally, on Dec. 3, 2007, they went to court, and Kostya officially became Luke Konstantin Richard Robb.

And still it would be another 10 days before they could leave the country, thanks to more Russian bureaucracy. On Christmas Eve 2007, they were home. When little Luke saw the Christmas tree, decorations, food and presents in his new house, his first words were "doma, doma" ("I'm home, I'm home" in Russian). 

Not a seamless transition

Despite bureaucratic difficulties with the adoption process, the Robbs fell in love with the people of Russia, the children and the country's captivating landscapes. The orphanage, though run down and in need of major repair, was very clean. The orphanage workers and doctor in charge were kind to the American parents and tried every way they could to help them.  

Luke's parents want him to know all about the culture, the beauty of Russia and the people. They celebrate Russian Christmas together and began attending Russian language classes together. Luke reads books of Russian fairytales in English and keeps small souvenirs such as Russian wooden-colored spoons, pictures of birch trees and nesting dolls in his room. 

He adapted amazingly well, his mother says, considering he'd spent his first three years in an orphanage. But it wasn't a seamless transition. He had issues with food and tried to gorge himself and hide food for later.

He would get frustrated when his new mother didn't understand what he wanted. He would wrap his head in his blanket and rock violently when he was trying to sleep. He would beg to not be put down for naps and for bedtime saying, "ne spat, ne spat!" ("don't sleep, don't sleep"), then he would sweat profusely when it was time to put his head on the pillow.  

Now almost 9, he still rocks himself to sleep. 

But he's a busy boy. He attends Christian school, hunts with his father, brother and their retriever Tango, shoots a rifle and a bow and plays on football, baseball and basketball school teams. He likes to read the Bible and some pretty serious books for his age, such as the one he read about President John F. Kennedy.  

Surrounded by his family, he smiles for the camera as his portrait is made for this story, and his troubled past isn't at all obvious in his smile. 

Danette and Mark Robb have a message for other couples who still want to adopt children from Russia, and this is it: "It is not easy. You have to be strong and steadfast and to not be easily deterred from your child.  The blessing far outweigh the trials."
Editor's note: Yulia Shandurenko works as an assignment desk editor at Russia's information agency Photo ITAR-TASS and wrote this story in November when she visited the Missouri School of Journalism as part of an international exchange program for young journalists, organized by International Center for Journalists in Washington, D.C.
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed

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