If anyone knows the joys and heartaches of adopting children from Russia, it is John and Amy Simmons.
Eight years ago, they adopted two girls sisters and a boy from the country, and then tracked down and adopted two of their daughters' siblings.
"We have had some amazing experiences," said Amy Simmons, "instantly falling in love with these children as we met them and feeling we were needed and we needed them."
Now, the Kamas couple are taking the long view of Russia's newly instituted adoption ban, which they see as part of a reformation process not unlike what the U.S. went through decades ago as orphanages closed and a child welfare and foster-care system took shape.
"We're not giving credit where credit is due," said John Simmons, 48. "Things are starting to evolve and children have more of a chance to get a home in Russia. … I think in the long run [the ban] is going to be a good thing for Russia."
Russia banned adoptions of children by U.S. citizens in January, citing instances of abuse and deaths of about two dozen children placed with U.S. families. The move was largely seen as retaliation for a new U.S. law that punishes Russians accused of violating human rights through travel and property ownership restrictions. The ban resulted in large demonstrations in Russia and widespread criticism from adoptive families in the U.S., but remains in place.
According to the U.S. State Department, since 1992 more than 60,000 Russian children were adopted by American families. UNICEF estimates Russia has more than 740,000 orphans, though the government puts the figure at about 654,000. Of those, about 128,000 are eligible for adoption.
The ban left about 50 families, including one in Utah, in a lurch. Their adoptions were nearly complete when it took effect, and they were counting on assurances from the Russian government that they would be able to bring their children home. Some, in fact, were able to leave the country last week; Jeana Bonner, of South Jordan, expected to arrive home with 5-year-old Jaymi on Tuesday.
The Simmonses have both personal and humanitarian reasons for pursuing adoption.
At age 15, Amy Simmons entered foster care because of physical and sexual abuse at home. Amy Simmons said she stayed with that family until she married John and, while her foster family had its own challenges, the experience spurred her interest in giving "a forever home" and loving family to a child in need.
They had three biological sons before that pledge led them to Jack, now 17, who has Down syndrome and was a month old and in state care in the U.S. when the Simmonses adopted him.
When Jack was 10, the couple traveled to Vladivostok, Primorsky Krai, Russia, to adopt two sisters Sarah, then 5½, and Celeste, who was nearly 3. While there, they were introduced to Denney, who was 18 months old, and were able to adopt him as well.
At the 2005 court hearing where those adoptions became final, the Simmonses learned Sarah and Celeste had five other siblings. For John Simmons, there was only one response: During the next 18 months, they tracked down three of those siblings, all girls, who were still minors.
One girl, they learned, was so severely damaged by abuse she'd been burned after their mother set her on a wood-burning stove and impoverished circumstances that she would never be capable of living outside of an institution. But Annie and Emily, who were 14 and 15, respectively, were available for adoption.
The older girls recounted a tragic childhood where beatings were common. The older girls were so filthy when they were removed from their mother's care that a social worker had to spit on the children's hands and rub off the dirt to discern their real skin color, John Simmons said.
Amy Simmons, 45, said Emily kept insisting they had to find a "baby sister" left behind when she was taken into state care, and Emily at first had a hard time believing that "baby" was Sarah and was already part of the Simmonses' family.
The Simmonses brought Emily and Annie home near the end of 2006, and the couple are the first to acknowledge there have been challenges.
Emily, now 21, was particularly affected by her childhood, and was both homicidal and suicidal, Amy Simmons said. After failing to get help from the Division of Child and Family Services to address Emily's needs, the couple pursued a criminal proceeding that allowed her to be brought into state custody. Emily now lives at the developmental center in American Fork, where, with the appropriate care, she has flourished.
"When you have a child in that much crisis and you can't get help, it's really sad," Amy Simmons said.
Annie, now 20, has severe intellectual deficits that "almost protected" her from comprehending the abuse she experienced, John Simmons said. They are still beaming over Annie's invitation to the junior prom at South Summit High School last year, where she was named first attendant. She participates in music, physical education and special-needs classes, and is the manager for the girl's volleyball team. Under Utah law, she'll be able to remain in school until she turns 22.
"We have learned a lot," Amy Simmons said, " … about helping kids cope with stress and helping them to discover the strengths in themselves and watch them take off."
John Simmons, who has returned to Russia numerous times during the past eight years, said he has seen a notable shift in attitudes about adoption. The country is creating cottage homes to replace large orphanages and adoption is much more accepted including the adoption of children who are not Caucasian, he said.
The number of Russian families waiting to adopt is around 18,000, John Simmons said, a fraction of the need.
"They are becoming more like we are that it's about a need to find homes for these kids," said John Simmons, who self-published a novel based on the family's experiences with Russian adoption titled The Marvelous Journey Home.
John Simmons has spent a lot of time "behind the scenes" at three orphanages and, while they are overloaded with children, the workers he met truly cared about the kids.
"I consider them on the same level as a good schoolteacher," John Simmons said. "I wish they had more resources, but I didn't feel like the children were being abused and [their lives] wasted."
That growing acceptance of adoption doesn't necessarily extend to children with special needs, though a group many U.S. families are willing and able to provide with homes, John Simmons pointed out.
But a lot of Russian children will age out of orphanages while the system is still evolving, which is "really bad news," he said, because many will end up on the streets.
Most of those children now struggle once they leave orphanages, but those able to become contributing members of society, Amy Simmons said, will "increase as they get a better system and can help kids at younger ages."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.