Thursday, May 22, 2008
Our Day in Court
The court proceeding today was a very familiar experience to any reasonably good, practicing Catholic (like myself): very formal, robes and uniforms, flags and seals. Shut up, sit down, stand up, recognize authority, recite a speech, sit down again, listen to a lecture, stand up again. We were really surprised at the apparent effectiveness of our speeches, so I'll reprint them here for posterity's sake, as well as to provide an example for future families to reference.
I have to say that Laura and I were both extremely tense beforehand. Even though we both recognized that this would be largely judicial theater, we still had a single subjective judge who could either approve or disapprove the entire adoption, with no realistic opportunity for appeal. Our lead coordinator, for all her phenomenal expertise and professionalism, was over-the-top worried about several issues. In particular, she didn't really understand our military lifestyle, or us living abroad in Germany as US citizens. For all I know, she thinks I live in a quonset hut with a bunch of other guys, and that I only see my family for a few minutes through a chain-link fence for a few minutes each weekend. You know, just like the (Russian) movies. So, over the last few weeks, we absorbed quite a bit of self-inflicted worry and agnst.
However, court today was just fantastic. We wrote our speeches last night, and rehearsed saying them over and over until we knew them verbatim (more or less) without referencing notes. We filed into the judge's chambers (not a courtroom) this afternoon after stewing in the waiting area for a while. We were joined by our lawyer, a social worker, a doctor representing the baby house, and our phenomenal interpreter Oxana. Around the judge's desk sat the (uniformed) prosecutor and a legal secretary writing the transcript.
After a few preliminaries, we were asked if we would like to make any statements. I stood up and made mine, and was then followed by Laura -- transcripts are below. We would pause after each sentence, allowing Oxana to translate. Apparently, our speeches and our delivery of them really hit the mark. Afterwards, the judge just seemed in such a great mood, as he cracked several jokes. We didn't get asked any tough questions, which really surprised us. It just seemed to set the tone for a very smooth remainder of the proceedings.
I had a second (much shorter) speech planned as well, basically thanking everyone for showing up, and the Ministry of Education for inviting us, the baby house for their tremendous care and love, and to the people of Kazakhstan for their warmth and generosity. However, due in part to my own misunderstanding of where we were in the proceedings, I basically skipped this entire part.
Laura's made her speech after mine. I was really impressed with Laura's delivery and poise. I have the better part of 15 years of experience at trying to sound like I know what I'm talking about in front of other people, so there's a lot of things about public speaking that I take for credit. I'm certainly no expert myself, but Laura did impressively well.
Our room's doctor, Dr. Love, made a statement on behalf of the baby house staff that really sealed it for us. Finally, we felt like all that we'd done during our stay really paid off. She spoke warmly of our performance as parents, how we'd showed affection and attention to all the kids (not just our own), and how we'd organized a large donation drive to raise needed goods for the baby house. We were quite humbled and impressed by Dr. Love's strong recommendation and validation.
The judge tells us all to go out to the waiting area and cool our heels while he deliberates. We do, and our whole team is high-fiving and carrying on like the home team just won the Superbowl. They are so confident that this is in the bag, that everyone takes off (!) except for Oxana, our interpreter. After a few minutes, we get called back in, and the judge reads the formal verdict, that approves the adoption. Apparently, we didn't react strongly enough, so he motions to us that now is the time to celebrate with a "yahoo!" hand motion (not kidding).
I ask if I can shake his hand, and I do. He gives me a very long and meaningful handshake, as he tells me that he was a Ensign of Submarines in the Soviet Navy. I allow a joke and tell him that I am too tall to work on submarines, which makes him chuckle. We're about to leave, and then he asks us all to sit down in his chamber.
This is the point where the entire proceedings take a slight but completely unexpected detour from anything we'd expected. He proceeds to give us a very glowing review of our speeches, and discusses at length the importance of balancing both the professional and personal life. Oxana said later that she'd never seen anything like this. He even joked that he'd like to share a beer with us, but couldn't, as it would be considered corruption. Again, not kidding.
After having been through this today, if there is any advice that I could offer other families following in my footsteps, it would be to take the speech seriously. In our case, because we put a lot of thought and work into it, it made the rest of the proceedings easy.
Other thoughts, especially for those who will travel down this road behind us:
I tried to be flattering and respectful in an honest way, without sounding ingratiating or superficial. Thus, my comments about the quality of baby house care and the fairness of the legal system.
I erred on the side of formality, simplicity, and drama. In my case, the only ears that mattered were a wise old man with many years of experience in law, bureaucracy, and procedure.
Everything you do at the baby house during the bonding period is watched and judged, and can be used to your favor (or not) during court. It paid off big for us. As a Dad with a few years of experience, I just can't pass up other kids at an orphanage without reaching out to them in some way, even if they aren't my own. I always tried to calm crying babies, or get down on my knees and enthusiastically high-five all the pre-school-aged kids when I saw them outside. Those were the real heart-breakers, old enough to know who parents are, and that some have them and some don't. One out of a group would always point to me and say, "Papa!"
My coordinator insisted that I put in the bit about a deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan being highly unlikely. I didn't really want to, but I relented due to my coordinator's experience. Saying that it is highly unlikely that I'll deploy is something I certainly can't promise with any degree of certainty. To be perfectly blunt, it's a bullshit thing to say, and the judge (as a former military officer himself) recognized it as that. He laughed out loud, and rightfully so. In hindsight, it is the only part that I wish I'd left out.
I tried to use the speech to answer potential questions before they got asked. Family background? Check. Job description? Check. Why adopt? Check. Why Kaz? Check.
Again, I just can't say enough about how easy the proceedings seemed relative to our expectations. We'd heard so many stories about mean judges, tough questions, and scary proceedings. We are so thankful that our experience defied our expectations.
Bob's Court Speech
Good afternoon, Your Honor. My name is Bob Sims, and this is my wife Laura. We have a 5 year old biological son, Jack, who is back home with his grandmother right now.
My great grandfather was a farmer all of his life, and his son was an electrician. His son, my father, was a police officer for many years, and then after much education had a second career as a university professor. I grew up in Texas, as part of a large and loving family that worked very hard to give me both opportunity and responsibility.
For 15 years, I have been both a husband, and a US Army officer. I have a university degree, with special training and certifications as a Computer Network Manager. I currently work at a large NATO headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. My job is in a technical facility, and is not in any way espcially dangerous. My work as a Major is primarily with civilian contracted technicians. I do not anticipate moving in the near future, and a mission for me to either Iraq or Afghanistan is highly unlikely. My pay and compensation is over $__K USD per year, and this includes a large housing allowance. We currently have a long-term lease on a large, 4-bedroom house near Stuttgart.
I have always dreamed of sharing the opportunity and responsibility that I have with my children. Our son Jack was born in Germany 5 years ago. However, since then, the doctors have told us that we cannot have any more children biologically. We would like to adopt from Kazakhstan because of the internationally-recognized high quality of baby house care, and the high standards of fairness in the legal process.
Thanks to the invitation of the Ministry of Education, and the loving care of the baby house staff, our dreams became reality with the little boy we met there, Stanislav Firstov. We fell in love with him at first sight. He is very strong and bright, and healthy, and he is very quick to smile and laugh. We know that he will be a perfect fit into our family and our hearts. Already, his grandparents, and aunts and uncles and cousins, and his older brother look forward to meeting him. My son's great-grandfather turns 100 years old this year, and I would like very much to give him another grandson.
In closing, I have the greatest admiration and respect for both your position and your wisdom. I come before you to humbly and respectfully ask that you grant this adoption request, as I cannot imagine life without this wonderful little boy, who I already consider as my own son.
Your Honor, I thank you very much for your time.
Laura's Court Speech
I am Laura Sims, 37 years old, and have been married to Bob for 15 years. We have one biological child, Jack, who is now 5 years old and in Kindergarten. Before having our son Jack, I trained and worked as a dental assistant. We are fortunate that my husband earns a very comfortable income which allows me to stay home and be a full time mother.
After the birth of our son, my husband and I tried for 5 years to have another child. Our doctors have told us that it is not medically possible for me to have more biological children. Our son Jack has asked us many times about when he can have a little brother. Jack is very happy that we have found Stanislav and is eager to teach him everything he knows.
When we met Stanislav, my husband and I felt an immediate connection to him. He is a very happy, well adjusted, curious child and we believe that he will fit perfectly into our family. Stanislav has the same beautiful blue eyes as our son Jack and has the same blond hair as Bob's sister. He smiles a lot and laughs often with us.
Stas is also very easy to calm down when he is upset. He prefers that I calm him when he is upset and wants to go to me when he is tired. During play time, Stas likes to laugh and play chase with Bob and practice his walking while holding Bob's hands. During our bonding time, we fell in love with his sweet personality and talk of Stanislav with pride as if he were already our son.
This child is the answer to our many prayers over the years. I dream of him every night and hope that you will let us be his parents. I very much would like to adopt this child and I cannot imagine my life without him.