Deputy Assistant Secretary for Overseas Citizen Services
United States Department of State
by Jan Wondra, FRUA National Vice Chair
Meet Michele Bond, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and overseer of the Office of Children's Services (USOCI), and you are immediately struck by the warmth of her twinkling blue eyes and the directness of her approach. She is petite, polished and purposeful; just the sort of person who gets things done. And she has a lot to do!
As one of the key members of the team negotiating the bi-lateral agreement with Russia on inter-country adoption, Bond's on-the-ground experience and understanding of the Russian psyche is being put to good use. Bond sat down with me while on a visit to Denver in late July; discussing progress on the agreement, key information that adoptive families need to provide to satisfy the terms of the agreement, and the importance of parent preparation and a supportive community to the success of adoptive families.
Her career at the U.S. Dept. of State has seen Bond rotate through assignments on several continents, including a stint in Russia, where the Russian's were amazed that she was juggling state duties and a foreign assignment, while raising four children. “They asked how I managed it all,” she chuckled, as we got to know each other over lunch. “I was about to explain the support structure, nanny, after-school care, supportive husband, but I started the list with the words 'washing machine,' and that's as far as I got. 'Oh...' they exclaimed, nodding their heads in understanding. 'She has a WASHING Machine!'”
Bond is cautiously optimistic regarding the progress on the talks on the bi-lateral agreement, which began in May. “Both the U.S and Russian governments acknowledge that all children have the right to grown up within a loving, family unit,” she comments. “Our aim is a bi-lateral agreement that protects this right. Obviously both Presidents (Obama and Medvedev) have publicly supported this goal in their Joint Statement.”
Solidifying an agreement between the two countries is not simply a matter of government work. Bond pointed out that the lack of parental reports by American adoptive families at key time frames (Bill, please confirm, 6, 12, 24 and 336 months?) is a major sticking point. While most families are proud and happy to comply, many others have not. “We need adoptive parents to understand how critical this is,” she tells me. “Russia doesn't understand why the the U.S. Government can't enforce this. Because of American privacy laws, these reports must be filed through the adoption agencies, not through our government. We can't even send out a note to agencies or parents, which is why we need FRUA's help to get the word out. There are hundreds of missing reports, most of them from families who worked with independent agents. Believe me, this does affect the status of the agreement.”
Bond is quick to remind us that this request is not merely bureaucratic paperwork. “Let me tell you a story,” she continues. “One orphanage I visited, has an entire wall that is is a photo album of the children. The new pictures are displayed like family. They enthusiastically pointed out the children to me, telling me where they live, exclaiming over how they had grown, how happy they look. The Russian people, and the people who have cared for your children in those regions and orphanages, genuinely care about your children. They want to know how they are doing. They worry about them when they don't hear.” Bond pauses and finishes quietly.“People should not view this as intrusive. Your children are dual citizens. They are American – and Russian. We need FRUA to help families understand that this isn't government interference. This is a reasonable request from a government that has entrusted precious children to you, to raise.”
The U.S. government is requesting that parents who have not filed their reports please do so immediately through their adoption agencies. One word regarding format: Americans, if missing a report, may be tempted to lump two or more reports into one. Don't. The Russians are sticklers for each report time frame being written separately, making it easier for them to check completed report files.
We discussed report content and the challenges that many of our families have faced. How, I asked, should families handle that in reports? Do the Russian want to know the truth?
“Yes,” Bond replied. “Families should be honest about children's progress. This needs to go into the record; children have challenges. What families do to help get their children the help they need is both inspiring and helps us provide a realistic picture of adoption.” She pauses. “ Perhaps if our report records were complete, including information that might not sound all rosy, Russians could believe the happy stories too. Right now, they hear the extremes; the tragic cases and it is harder for them to believe those that sound so successful. The Russians need to know the truth; they do not give us perfect children.” The mother of four smiles; “ No children are really, are they?”
Bond pointed out that State's role in inter-country adoption is not to help individual families, but to work with the other government to resolve issues that prevent adoptions from proceeding. “Parents should realize that even within the Dept. of State, there are hundreds of adoptive parents and adult adoptees. We are very sensitive to the things that cause delay and frustration; we've done what we can to streamline the process.”
Even the semantics of American health records have caused trouble in the past in some regions. She shared the story of traveling to a region to find out why they had suddenly began to reject American adoption referrals. It turned out the judge was upset because American health records usually have only one doctor's signature – the GP statement of good health. “ The judge asked, 'Why only one? There should be a statement from the bone doctor, the blood doctor, they eye doctor....the way other countries provided it,'” Bond explained that in America, one signature is better – it means good health.
We discussed the great need for better parental preparation; I advancing the FRUA viewpoint that every adopted child is a child of trauma as a base condition with which all adoptive parents must deal, sometimes along with other issues. Bond agreed. “There is great need for parent training before they become parents of an adopted child,” she noted. “Russian are quick to point out that European countries require more preparation than we Americans do. In France, for instance, adoptive parents are required to take a nine-month parenting course. No, coincidence on the length, of course,” she chuckles.
Bond stressed that the Office of Children's Issues is an excellent resource to adoptive families; especially in confirming the legitimacy of the adoption/agency resources. “Any agency that doesn't want their families to contact the U.S. State Dept. is raising a huge, red flag.” she commented. “If you're considering a school for your children and a school tells you it doesn't give children any homework, wouldn't you wonder? If people have concerns about their agencies, we want to know. There is a Hague Compliance Registry on our website. We do a receipt email to parents who register concerns and we investigate all concerns to get to the truth of the matter.”
The common agenda between FRUA and the State Department will take a practical turn this fall, as FRUA begins providing information materials and the FRUA Family Focus to adoptive parents in the U.S. Embassy parent waiting areas in Russia. The U.S. Embassies of other Eastern European and central Asian countries will follow later this year.
As we concluded our conversation, Bond emphasized that shared agenda.“The community provided by FRUA is so important,” Bond emphasized. “FRUA families know better than anyone the importance of a network of people who understand the challenges of adoption and the importance of putting the right resources together. Our goals are shared. “We are the institutional advocate and FRUA is an amazing parents' resource advocate. Together, we can help orphaned children find homes and adoptive families be successful.”