Lost and Found

When Luz Ma and Graham Beasley decided to start a family, they never dreamed they'd go to Russia and back. But that was nothing compared to the journey that awaited them when Luz Ma decided to find her son's birth parents

Valentina Voronova wills away her tears as Delta flight 1692 begins its final descent into Charlotte on May 16. Her three young granddaughters, the littlest one on her lap, strain against seatbelts to peek out at the trees and American rooftops. Six thousand miles, fifteen time zones, and a lifetime of cultural barriers fall away in that moment. "We did it," Valentina murmurs to herself in Russian.

From left to right: Natasha, Valentina, and Katya Voronova; Graham  Beasley; Tanya Voronova,; and Luz Ma and Vladik Beasley in the  Beasleys' Charlotte backyard

From left to right: Natasha, Valentina, and Katya Voronova; Graham Beasley; Tanya Voronova,; and Luz Ma and Vladik Beasley in the Beasleys’ Charlotte backyard

 

On the ground below, a minivan presses toward the airport. Inside, a middle-class Charlotte couple lock eyes in wonder at all that has brought them to this point. In an instant of cosmic coincidence, Graham Beasley says to his wife: "We’re really doing it."

Tucked into the back seat is their son, Vladik. Born in Russia six years before, the little boy with pale blond hair and piercing blue eyes was abandoned by his single mother and whisked away as a baby to an orphanage in the faraway city of Vladivostok, where he was adopted by the Beasleys and brought to America before his grandparents and sisters knew he existed.

The fragile thread linking these two families on opposite sides of the globe could have easily broken right then, just as it has for tens of thousands of internationally adopted children in the past decade. And in truth, in the beginning that would have been just fine with fifty-seven-year-old Graham Beasley, a quiet, measured toolmaker who has lived in the same house for nearly three decades.

Graham had first come to parenthood with ambivalence. But his new wife, Luz Ma, a stunning woman twelve years younger with riotous curls and a will of steel, made it clear from their first few dates that she wanted to be a mother. He agreed to make her happy. When infertility pushed them toward adoption, the one thing he was sure of was he did not want an open adoption. It was one of the reasons they turned to Russia in the first place. "No birth family complications," he declared. "Who needs that?"

Sometimes, though, determined hearts can change minds.

"There they are!" shrieks Luz Ma as the escalators begin to deliver arriving passengers into the baggage claim area of Charlotte Douglas International Airport. "Stop drawing! Get the camera!" she commands as she breaks into a full sprint. A family friend who speaks Russian has been hastily writing a sign that reads: "Welcome to America" in English and in Russian. Another has been drafted to capture the reunion on video. The welcoming party’s ranks have swelled to ten.

The airport hallway is at once filled with noisy laughter and crushing hugs. The Beasleys speak only a few words of Russian. Valentina and her granddaughters, Natasha, ten; Tanya, nine; and Katya, almost two, speak little English. It seems not to matter. Valentina passes Katya to Luz Ma to hold so she can scoop Vladik into her arms. "I love you," says the fifty-four-year-old grandmother, reciting the foreign words she has practiced well.

Three years ago Luz Ma, originally from Mexico City, set this moment in motion by tentatively typing the words "Russian Family Search" on her computer. She knew from the adoption papers that Vladik was third born. That meant he had siblings somewhere. Maybe there was a family in Russia who wanted to know what became of him. She was certainly curious about them. She knew from some place deep inside her that she owed it to her son to try to find out.

She had no idea what she was getting herself into.

There are many reasons why parents choose international adoption. For older or single parents who don’t fit the requirements of domestic adoption or who may be less likely to be picked by birth mothers, it can be the easiest and sometimes only option. For others it is the joy of giving a home to a child languishing in an orphanage or desperate poverty. But there are also those who look overseas to avoid the openness of adoption in this country.

A generation ago American adoption was turned inside out when adult adoptees began to demand that long-sealed birth records — once thought to protect families — be opened so they could learn where they came from. Soon an entire way of thinking changed.

By the 1990s so-called "open adoption" was emerging as the preferred method. Many adoption professionals touted the benefits of birth families having a presence in adopted children’s lives.

But not all adoptive parents embraced the concept. Many worried about bringing birth families into their lives. They wondered if it would be too confusing for everyone. The distance, language, and cultural barriers of an international adoption made open adoption seemingly impossible.

In their hometown of Svetlogorye, Tanya, Katya, Boris and Natasha 
with a package the Beasleys sent to them

In their hometown of Svetlogorye, Tanya, Katya, Boris and Natasha with a package the Beasleys sent to them

 

Since the early 1990s more than 250,000 children have been adopted by Americans who have traveled to such places as China, Korea, Guatemala, Ukraine, Russia, and, more recently, Ethiopia, to build families. In North Carolina there have been more than 5,500 international adoptions in the past ten years.

At the peak of international adoption, Americans adopted 22,000 children in 2004 alone. Among them was Vladik Beasley.

Yet just when the trajectory appeared unstoppable, it stalled. For the past few years the number of international adoptions has declined. Some foreign governments cooled to the idea of losing their children. Requirements tightened and quotas were imposed. Other countries, such as Guatemala, Cambodia, and Vietnam, closed to Americans amid allegations of fraud on both sides.

Advocacy groups like UNICEF also became more vocal in their opposition to international adoption except as a last option. They alleged that the huge demand for healthy babies coupled with astronomical fees pocketed by adoption facilitators was contributing to baby brokering. Poverty-stricken birth mothers, the groups claimed, were being tricked or coerced by adoption workers into giving up their children.

They also complained that although international adoption may offer loving families and opportunities in a new land, children’s languages, cultures, and heritage are being forever lost. Whenever possible, critics said, children should remain in their own countries.

It was amid these shifting sensibilities that something extraordinary began happening. About five years ago, a handful of international adoptive parents — not unlike the pioneers who pried open domestic adoption thirty years before — went looking for their children’s birth families. Using the scant information from adoption papers, they surfed the Internet, traveled overseas, or hired foreign "searchers" to try to kindle relationships.

The idea gained steam in Internet-fueled adoption circles. Parents saw searching — even if just for a photograph to later give to their child — as a way to learn more about their children, including medical histories. They also saw it as their hedge against inevitable questions to come: who am I? Where did I come from?

No statistics exist for these international searches because they are simply too new. Still, the owner of one of the few search services that have sprung up recently says she has helped 1,200 families in the past four years. About 80 percent have found a member of the birth family. Of those successes, about half have led to some kind of communication, ranging from a letter or e-mail to a reunion.

There is little doubt the number will only grow as thousands of internationally adopted children grow into adolescents and young adults each year.

David Smolin, a law professor at Cumberland Law School in Birmingham, Alabama, and an adoptive father of two Indian children, is an advocate for international adoption reform. While often outspoken against some current practices, he sees these searches as "generally positive," both in forcing more transparency in the process and as a chance for everyone involved to move forward with their lives.

Truth, he says, will always trump a lifetime of wondering no matter what the result. "The fact is children come from somewhere. When you adopt a child there will always be strings to another family."

Nadezhda Borisovna Voronova was born March 6, 1981, the second child of Valentina Voronova and Boris Alexandrovich Voronov, near the small, rural mining town of Svetlogorye on the far eastern edge of Russia.

A smart, happy child, she was especially close to her brother, Yuri, only eleven months older. But when Yuri died as a teenager from meningitis everything changed.

Nadezhda began to stay out late with friends, and her grades slid. One day when Nadezhda was fifteen she simply disappeared, taking only a change of clothes and about $40. Valentina and Boris panicked. They found their daughter 300 miles away, living with friends and going to school in the town of Ussuriysk. They begged her to come home but she refused, saying it reminded her too much of her brother. Reluctantly they let her stay.

Soon they heard she had moved in with a man twenty years older. Within a year she was pregnant at age seventeen. Her first daughter, Natasha, was born September 6, 1998. A few months later Nadezhda asked her mother to take care of the baby because she was overwhelmed and out of work. "Of course," Valentina said.

Just over a year later, a second daughter, Tanya, was born. Nadezhda said both girls had the same father, but Boris and Valentina were not sure. Everything about their daughter had become cloaked in evasion. When Tanya was about five months old, Nadezhda again asked her parents to help and turned over her second child as well.

Valentina and Boris pleaded with their daughter to change her ways. On a rare visit, Nadezhda peeked in at her sleeping daughters but did not wake them. "Those girls don’t need me," she said and left. Boris and Valentina were losing their daughter to a shadowy life they knew nothing about.

"I had hope in my heart for a long time," Valentina says. Boris gently suggested they could love their daughter but needed to let her go. "She’s not coming home," he said. "Let’s raise these girls as if they are our own." They became a family of four again.

Boris and Valentina are the kind of couple who seem opposites but actually balance each other. He is guarded and imposing; she is small and elaborately expressive. His reserve counters her optimism and front-loaded emotions. They are, in many ways, like Luz Ma and Graham.

Little did they know that on April 30, 2003, in the isolated port city of Vladivostok, their daughter gave birth to a third child named Vladislav Victor, or Vladik for short. Nadezhda never revealed the identity of his father.

When Vladik was about four months old he was left at an orphanage. To this day it is unclear who brought him. One story is that Nadezhda left him there. Another version is that an unknown woman dropped him off a few days after Nadezhda had asked her to baby-sit and never returned. For about three months Vladik lived in a stark, cement institution called Children’s House No. 2. Then one day an American couple arrived.

Luz Ma and Graham Beasley sat alone in a stifling orphanage office, crying. "What have we done?" they asked each other.

Moments before, an irritated orphanage worker left, carrying the sick baby boy they decided they could not adopt. "Don’t you love him enough?" she had snapped.

It was December 2003, and less than a week earlier they had arrived in Russia from Charlotte with no information other than the promise from a Texas adoption agency that a baby would be waiting for them. They jumped at the chance for a child.

The couple had married in 2002 after meeting at a mountain-biking club in Charlotte. Graham could not believe his luck that such a woman could share his passion for the sport. After the wedding they tried immediately to have a baby, but Luz Ma could not get pregnant. Three artificial inseminations later, there was still no child. In vitro fertilization was the next logical step, but they declined. It would cost nearly $15,000 a try and still only offer them a 25 percent chance of success. They turned to adoption.

As with all things, Luz Ma threw herself into the process. She did the research and made the plans. Secretly, Graham wondered if infertility was a sign that parenthood was not meant to be. Then one night he went to a Southern Piedmont Adoptive Families of America meeting in Charlotte. The speaker sounded as if he were speaking directly to Graham and Luz Ma. "Every thirty days our house was filled with tears and sadness," the adoptive father said. "Now there are only happy sounds."

The Beasleys first considered domestic adoption but worried a birth mother would not choose them or, worse, take back the baby. Luz Ma thought of adopting from her home country of Mexico, but adoptions there are notoriously unpredictable. In the end they chose Russia because it would be the quickest. As they embarked on the series of flights that would take them to Germany, to Moscow, and finally to Vladivostok, one thought amused Graham: "Whoever dreamed that growing up in the Cold War I would be going to Russia to get my baby?"

They were led into a large office where a giant bulletin board was filled with photos of happy Russian children who had been adopted. Custom called for the adoptive parents to present the orphanage with a potted plant as a gift. In the dead of Russian winter every windowsill, every desktop, every inch of hallway was overflowing with greenery. It was comforting to think so many families had been made in this office.

A nurse breezed in and presented the Beasleys with a six-month-old baby boy named Denis. They were charmed by this beautiful blond baby but wondered why his ears were oddly mismatched, a possible marker for medical problems. When they asked about his ears an orphanage worker suddenly appeared with a second baby boy. Which one? she demanded. The couple was horrified. It felt like picking fruit at a grocery store. The second baby could not make eye contact and clearly had profound health problems. They chose Denis. They told themselves parenthood comes with no guarantees. He would be their son and they would love him and get him any help he needed.

Then a diaper change revealed a troubling hole near the base of his spine. Just a birthmark, the orphanage assured them. They could take him to a doctor if they wished. The Beasleys knew no one and didn’t speak Russian. That afternoon they found a doctor in Vladivostok who was willing to run some tests. He told them in broken English the baby was probably severely retarded and had spina bifida, a serious birth defect in which the spinal cord does not close properly and can cause paralysis.

At midnight they logged on to the Internet at their hotel and sent an e-mail with a picture of the baby’s spine to a doctor in Minnesota who specializes in international adoption. Adoptive couples are often advised to have an American doctor standing by to review a child’s medical information. Doctors don’t tell a family if they should or should not adopt, they only assess the risk. The Beasleys were told Denis was high risk.

They could not sleep nor eat. Their agency had warned them this might happen, especially with a so-called "blind referral" where no advance information is available. But like virtually every adoptive couple, the Beasleys were certain it would never happen to them. The two other American couples they had met in Russia had already been presented with healthy children. When the Beasleys called their adoption agency, they were reassured that turning down a referral did not make them monsters. No one, the agency said, should ever adopt a child if they were unsure.

As nighttime turned to dawn they looked to each other for hope but found none. If they refused the referral, what would become of the little boy? To this day they are haunted by his face. Later that next morning they returned to the orphanage. The director, a social worker, their adoption facilitator, and translator all argued the doctors were wrong. "You are taking him, yes?" they asked over and over. Each time the Beasleys repeated the word they could barely speak. No.

As they sat alone in the office, all of those happy pictures of adopted children now felt like a rebuke.

Then a caretaker burst in carrying another baby boy. "This is Vladik," she announced briskly, plopped him on Luz Ma’s lap and walked out again.

The difference was astounding. At seven months his serious blue eyes seemed to take in everything. He grabbed at Luz Ma’s necklace and the toys they held for him. He smiled and babbled. He got on all fours and rocked as he tried to motor himself across the floor. Without a word the Beasleys knew they were finally a family. They returned to the United States the next day to begin the waiting period required in Russian adoptions.

On February 4, 2004, on their second trip to Vladivostok a Russian judge pronounced the adoption official.

At the time adoptable children had to be on a national databank for at least four months so a relative could be found or a Russian family had the first chance at adoption. Yet in this case it was not until after Vladik left for America that an official from the orphanage called Boris and Valentina in Svetlogorye to tell them their grandson had been adopted. They refused to say where he went.

"But we didn’t know," Valentina wailed. "We would’ve taken him."     

By then it was too late. 

 

Vladik Beasley thrived in America. His new home, a three-bedroom Cape Cod in Commonwealth Park, soon was overrun with all things Fisher Price. Framed portraits lined the walls and Crayon artwork covered the refrigerator. As Vladik grew from baby to toddler to little boy, he proved small for his age but startlingly bright. He went to Montessori preschool; he took swimming lessons, gymnastics class, and art lessons. He spoke English interchangeably with Spanish. His parents surrounded him with people from Russia, Ukraine, and the Republic of Georgia. Still, something nagged at his mother.

"I knew one day he will ask questions," said Luz Ma. "I wanted to have the answers."

In early 2006, Luz Ma logged on to an Internet bulletin board to check in with other families who had adopted from Vladivostok. She was stunned to read about someone who found their child’s birth family. Could people really do that?

Luz Ma learned that a woman in Arizona named Mary Kirkpatrick had started a service to help families search in Eastern Europe. Luz Ma called and found immediate kinship. Kirkpatrick had not only searched and found her daughter’s birth mother in Russia, she and her daughter had gone to Russia for a reunion.

Not everyone thought this was a good idea. Luz Ma’s family in Mexico was worried the Russians would want Vladik back. And as the Beasleys began to read more Internet accounts of foreign birth-family searches, they realized not all came with happy endings. It is not uncommon for birth mothers to be alcoholics or prostitutes. Sometimes they are uninterested in the children they gave away. Others agree to communicate with the American family only to then ask for money.

The Beasleys pushed ahead anyway. No matter what they found, at least they would be able to tell their son something about his other family. They would never be able to replicate Russia in Charlotte. Even the tiniest morsel of information could keep Vladik connected to his heritage.

After gathering every clue they could find in Vladik’s adoption papers, they forwarded the information to Mary along with $35 to begin the process. Kirkpatrick hired a detective in Moscow to track down the names and phone numbers of Vladik’s birth family. Most people in Russia could be found in a central registry, a throwback to the Soviet era.

The detective, who insists on anonymity, turned over the search to a photojournalist in St. Petersburg named Alexander Belenky. Kirkpatrick likes using journalists for the first phone call or knock on the door because they know how to follow a paper trail and have a knack for getting reluctant people to talk.

At first he could not find Nadezhda. He did, however, find her parents when he called the mining company in Svetlogorye, one of the town’s biggest employers. By chance both Boris and Valentina had worked there.

"Do you know you have a grandson in the United States?" His tone was cautious on the phone. He has done about eighty of these first contacts. He never knows what the reaction will be. Not everyone wants to be found.

"Is he alive?" Valentina asked, "Is he OK? Is he happy?"

Ever since they got the call from the orphanage nearly three years ago, they had prayed for a little boy they did not know. "Please, God, help our grandson have really good parents …"

Valentina and Boris grew up on the other side of the Cold War. For most of their lives they knew little about Americans except to think they could not be trusted.

Two months later, in August 2006, Belenky had scheduled a number of other searches for adoptive families in eastern Russia. The Beasleys paid him about $600 to stop in Svetlogorye with a fistful of pictures of Vladik and a letter. "We are very lucky to be his parents. We love him immensely," the letter read. "We are taking very good care of him. We want him to be the happiest kid ever. …"

Valentina closed her eyes and sent another message skyward, "Thank you, God, for a lady like Luz Ma. It is the best choice for our Vladik."

"I speak Russian," Vladik says as he hangs upside down from the sofa in the Beasleys’ living room. He is explaining how he communicates with his sisters during their May visit to Charlotte when they don’t speak English.

"You do not speak Russian," says ten-year-old Natasha in perfect English, complete with rolled eyes and a large dose of big sister annoyance. Some things are universal.

Later she commands flawlessly: "Vladik! Time out!" The day before, Luz Ma had tried to explain that in this country misbehaving children are sent to a corner in something called "time out." Natasha’s English is better than she lets on. "Boys," she sighs out of the earshot of adults, "sometimes they bug me, but I am glad to have a brother." Valentina, too, has expanded her repertoire in two weeks. "Luz Ma and Graham is very good," she says, punctuated with a thumbs up.

This summer’s trip to the United States is not the first time the two families have come together. After Belenky’s search in summer 2008, a flurry of translated emails followed as Luz Ma and Valentina tried to recapture lost years. They traded photos and Luz Ma began sending packages of American clothes and boxes of Cheerios to the girls. Before long a new, incredible plan emerged.

In December 2006 the three Beasleys flew to St. Petersburg, Russia, to meet Boris and Valentina and Vladik’s two sisters for a four-day visit. It seemed safest to meet on neutral ground where Belenky could act as translator or run interference if there was trouble. The Beasleys are thought to be the first and possibly only adoptive family in Charlotte to have made such a journey.

As they flew across the ocean toward Russia, Graham tamped down his fear that it might not go well. Even though the adoption was binding, he had memorized the phone number and address of the American consulate in St. Petersburg — just in case anyone tried to take Vladik away.

But from the first happy tears in the St. Petersburg airport, the two families blended seamlessly into one. At their center was the boy they shared. "It was as if we always knew them," Valentina says. "I saw everything in their eyes, the love and warmth they had for us. I’m still amazed by it."

The Beasleys paid for the Russian family’s tickets to travel from the eastern coast across Russia to St. Petersburg. The Charlotte couple is far from rich. But they have always lived frugally and could pay the cost of the tickets out of savings and cashing in airline bonus miles. Belenky arranged two separate apartments, but almost instantly all seven moved into one. Conversation was accomplished by a few key words in both languages memorized from phrase books as well as elaborate pantomimes. The children did what children everywhere do on vacation: they jumped on beds, made up games, and watched movies on the DVD player the Beasleys brought.

Vladik was at first wary of Boris, fearful of the bushy mustache and tall fur hat. But in his quiet way the Russian won over his grandson with sideways winks and tickles. Soon they were fast friends.

On the first day of sightseeing, the two families traveled to a historic cathedral. The priest there, a majestic character with a long, flowing red beard, learned of the unusual family reunion in his midst. He gathered them in a circle and said in Russian: "Never before have I heard of a family so blessed. With such a blessing comes responsibility." They knew then this would not be their last time together.

In fall 2007 Luz Ma traveled alone to Russia with the hope of meeting Nadezhda. It was not to be. After a series of dead ends, Belenky finally located Vladik’s birth mother working as a waitress in Ussuriysk. She was at turns embarrassed and agitated at being found. Curious at first, ultimately Nadezhda showed no interest in her son or the American family who adopted him. She wanted no contact. By then she had a fourth child, Katya, whom she also asked Valentina and Boris to raise.

"I try not to judge her," says Luz Ma. "I wish I could talk to her. I have so many questions I’d love to ask. I don’t understand how she could do what she did but I am also very grateful to her. Thanks to her I have Vladik."

In the past few years American adoptive families have started to venture overseas to meet birth families. But it is still almost unheard of for a foreign birth family to come here. Graham jokes his wife invented the phrase "All things are possible."

Earlier this year Luz Ma urged Valentina to begin gathering the necessary documents to get a visa to the United States. What seemed improbable became reality. Smiling photos of the two families together plus letters of reference were presented to the American consulate in Vladivostok. It was surprisingly easy to gain permission. Boris would stay behind to tend to their small farm while Valentina and her three granddaughters would come for a visit.

Again the Beasleys financed the trip. Luz Ma scoured the Internet for travel deals, so it cost only a few thousand dollars. The Russians’ visas allowed them to stay in America for six months. Valentina and Tanya returned home after only two weeks. Natasha has stayed in Charlotte until August with her little sister Katya to get to know their brother better and learn English.

Valentina’s visit was over much too soon. The Beasley calendar sagged from the weight of activities: Vladik’s T-ball game, sightseeing, a combined birthday party for Vladik and Katya, a visit to Vladik’s school, a trip to Myrtle Beach, a steady stream of curious visitors.

On one Saturday night, a dinner party is in the making. Spanish, English, and Russian words meld into a pleasant din. Russian dumplings simmer on the stove next to Mexican spaghetti. Outside, Graham hovers near a grill where he cooks pork chops. In the backyard, children play tag. "Get me, get me," Natasha and Tanya squeal at their brother.

When reminded of how once he wanted none of the complications of an open adoption, Graham snorts derisively. But his eyes tell of a man whose life has turned out better than ever imagined. "Never say never."

Graham got special permission to escort Valentina and Tanya to their gate at the airport on June 4. As the time to departure dwindles, they pull together in a hug; three heads in a tight circle. Everyone around them seems to disappear. "I have to go to work," Graham finally, reluctantly.

The good bye is quick and without tears. To do otherwise is too painful.

Dosvidania. Until the next time.

Jenny Deam is a freelance writer living outside Denver. The award-winning former reporter for The Denver Post has written for Parenting, Good Housekeeping, and 5280.