The last time the Romano family saw its potential adoptive son Yura, it was in an orphanage in the St. Petersburg area of Russia.
They showed him cellphone pictures of his biological brother Bogdan, whom the Romanos had already begun the extensive process to adopt as well.
“Yurah was like ‘Oh! Bogdan!’ He was like kissing the phone, trying to talk to him on the phone,” Pam Romano said. “It was heartbreaking.”
Pam and her husband, Mark Romano, of Jefferson first met Bogdan when their family participated in an orphan-hosting program in Hall County in 2010. Bogdan was just 4 years old, and he returned to Russia thinking he hadn’t found a family during his time in the United States.
“My heart was really broken for him, because he’s in a special-needs orphanage,” Pam Romano said. “He’d probably live his entire life behind institution walls.”
In September 2011, the Romanos began the grueling process of adopting Bogdan, including the completion of a home study and several background checks. In Russia, Bogdan’s paperwork soon revealed he had a brother, Yura, who had been labeled an invalid.
Bogdan, who is now 9 years old, and Yura, who is now 7 years old, have been in orphanages together and apart throughout their short lives.
“We prayed about it and we felt like the boys had been through enough trauma and we didn’t need to separate them again,” Pam Romano said. “Whatever condition (Yura) had, we felt God would equip us and prepare us for it.”
The Romano family, including daughters Jamie, 14, Joy, 16, and son Ryan, 19, traveled to Russia in November 2012 with the belief they would bring their new sons home within the next year.
But in December 2012, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law a bill that banned all adoptions of Russian children by Americans.
For Pam Romano, who had already prepared two rooms in her house for Bogdan and Yura, the move is more than just another development in geopolitical strife.
“For the longest time I couldn’t even bare to look in there,” Pam Romano said. “If I did go in there I’d cry and pray.”
The bill, which became effective Jan. 1, 2013, effectively canceled 46 pending adoptions, including those of children who had already met their adoptive families and believed they would soon be going home to live with them in the U.S.
According to Romano, the ban affected three families in North Georgia in addition to her own.
The Romanos recently agreed to participate in a documentary investigating the plight of those families. The project will serve as a senior thesis for Ksenia Strelets, a Russian native of Volgograd, who is completing her master’s degree at the Academy of Arts University in San Francisco.
The documentary is a complex project for Strelets, 25, who was motivated to make it after her own experience as a Russian living in the United States.
“I know how it is important to have this ability to go to school here, to have all these opportunities, unlimited opportunity honestly,” Strelets said. “When I heard about this law happening, obviously I was really touched because I thought it was so wrong to do that.”
According to Strelets, the Russian people’s opinion of the ban is complicated.
“It’s really hard to tell because everyone has their own opinion, and a lot depends on the media and propaganda,” Strelets said. “People who have been here and met American people are actually really against the ban, but of course a lot of people are supporting it because they just don’t understand what’s going on.”
In Russian houses of government, the ban was called the Dima Yakovlev Act. Dima Yakovlev was the birth name of Chase Harrison, a Russian orphan who died of heatstroke in 2008 after his American adoptive parents left him in a parked vehicle for nine hours.
American critics of the ban see it as a political move, after President Barack Obama signed the Magnitsky Act into law in December 2012. The Magnitsky Act prohibits Russian citizens who have been accused of human rights violations from traveling to the United States and owning property or other assets here.
Strelets doesn’t know if making the documentary will incur the wrath of Russia’s government.
“We also plan to interview some Russian politicians, so it’s going to bring us closer to the Russian side as well,” Strelets said. “For me it’s important to connect the dots from Russia to here.”
There were an estimated 600,000 orphans in Russia in 2013, the first year the ban was in effect. Kids like Bogdan and Yura who are labeled as having special needs are more often turned over to orphanages because of the belief the state is more equipped to care for them than their biological parents.
North Hall-based adoption attorney Judy Sartain was said she was dismayed when she heard of the ban going into effect. Sartain frequently referred her clients looking to adopt internationally to Russia, as she has observed Russian children are particularly quick to assimilate into American society.
As the mother of two Russian adoptees — Hannah, 13, and Stephen, 11 — she would know.
Proponents of the adoption ban claim Russian children are now being adopted by Russians, but on Sartain’s many trips to Russia to adopt her children, she witnessed economic conditions which led her to believe that isn’t happening.
“Stephen has two biological brothers who are being raised by their grandparents,” Sartain said. “They told their daughter ‘We can’t afford another one,’ so she placed him in the orphanage for adoption.”
On one particular trip to adopt her son, Sartain was invited to her translator’s house for dinner. After learning Sartain already has three older biological children, he and his wife were surprised by her desire to adopt another child.
“They asked me, ‘How do you afford to feed them and send them to school?’” Sartain said. “I explained that school was free here, and what’s one more mouth to feed? To them it was a big deal. I can imagine that it would be.”
A student at North Hall Middle School, Sartain’s daughter Hannah loves hair and makeup and the ABC Family cable network show “Pretty Little Liars.” She has the same interests as American teens and the same curiosities of all adopted children.
“(Being adopted) really doesn’t affect us because I know I’m really their daughter,” Hannah said. “There are curiosities with your birth mom and everything, like you want to know who she is. My mom said we can go back to Russia one day and see if we can find her with one of the programs they have.”
Next year Hannah will begin taking classes at Lanier Career Academy to help her fulfill her dream of becoming a cosmetologist. She sees her life as an example of all the opportunities kids can have in the United States.
“It makes me feel really sad because I got the chance, like I’m in a wonderful home, and they’ll never get that chance unless the ban gets lifted,” Hannah said. “They don’t have the experience to come to America and have a wonderful life.”
The Romano family has been petitioning various government officials since the ban went into effect, with little to no success.
“We really thought our government was going to fix this,” Pam Romano said. “We thought ‘Surely they’ll go to bat for us. Surely they’ll negotiate for these kids.’ And what we learned is that they weren’t.”
Romano is one of several adoptive parents who will travel to Washington next week to lobby government officials yet again.
U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, has met with the Romanos, and while no action has been taken by the U.S. government to recover even the Russian children who had already met their adoptive parents, he said he remains somewhat optimistic.
“At the end of the day this is about little boys and girls,” Collins said. “This is about families willing to open up their hearts and lives to give them a better outcome, so I think there’s nothing more important from a governmental perspective than making sure that if we have people who want to help others, then we should do everything we can to make that happen.”
A large part of the campaign the Romano family has undertaken in the past two years — participating in Strelets’ documentary, lobbying government officials, speaking to reporters — is because it doesn’t know what Bogdan and Yura have been told about why their pending adoption was put on hold.
“We want to leave a trail of evidence for them, so if we never get them home, they know we fought for them,” Romano said. “They know we advocated for them.”
For Pam Romano, it’s still all about the orphan boy kissing the cellphone picture of his brother.
“They haven’t seen each other for a year and a half now, and they’re very attached to each other,” Pam Romano said. “They will be apart forever unless they’re adopted together.”