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Health, Science, Environment

Commentary: This Small World was propelled by a large heart

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 8, 2009 - Philosopher Martin Heidegger concluded that the only thing one human could give to another was care. All other offerings were consequences of that primal sentiment.

His observation explains why the show tune from Annie portrays an orphan's plight as "the hard-knock life." For these kids, the primary care-givers are no longer in the picture, if they ever were. That said, it's harder to be orphaned in some places than it is in others.

Hard-knock Life In The Motherland

According to NPR, there were about 800,000 orphans in Russia as of 2007. Almost 95 percent of these are "social orphans," meaning that one or both of their biological parents are still living but are unwilling, unable or unfit to provide the care the children require. Harsh poverty creates many of these waifs but so do alcoholism, drug abuse and criminal life styles -- it's hard to be an attentive parent from prison.

About 15,000 orphans "graduate" from the system each year. Depending on the respective institution and the province in which it is located, the youths are released between 15 and 18 years of age.

As reported in Russian Life, Interior Ministry statistics indicate that 10 percent of orphanage graduates commit suicide, 30 percent are arrested for criminal violations and 40 percent are unemployed, homeless or both. Though there is obviously the potential for overlap in these categories (an unemployed person, for instance, could commit a crime and thus be counted twice), it's clear that the figures do not argue well for successful integration to civil society.

Russian law, incidentally, provides that each emancipated orphan be furnished with a state-supported apartment upon release. Given economic realities, that promise remains more wishful thinking than practical fact. Many graduates turn to prostitution to survive.

In A Small World, One Child At A Time

When we hear of human misery on this scale, most of us shake our heads, sigh, and then order another beer. The more religious may mutter a hurried prayer; others may send a few bucks to a charity, hoping to pay someone else to worry about the problem. A rare few care enough to actually do something to alleviate the suffering.

Two who did care enough to do something were Dr. Viacheslav "Slava" Platonov and his wife, Dr. Yelena Kogan. In 1992, the two physicians, both of whom are Russian immigrants, founded the Small World Adoption Foundation of Missouri Inc. (SWAF), a licensed, not-for-profit corporation now located in Chesterfield.

For the past 17 years, they've struggled with governmental bureaucracies both here and abroad to unite needy children with loving parents. Understandably, extensive background checks are required. Prospective parents must demonstrate that they are of sound moral character, have the financial resources to provide for a child and are in sufficiently good health to care for one.

Cooperation from foreign authorities -- primarily in Russia and Ukraine -- is at best uncertain. These officials, of course, have legitimate concerns regarding the welfare of the child. The people who run the orphanages are not cruel, they merely live with a cruel reality: too little funding, too many children in need. Nonetheless, they are genuinely concerned that they are not delivering their charges into harm's way.

There is also the matter of national pride. Imagine the hue and cry in the domestic press if large numbers of Russian couples were traveling to the U.S. to adopt native-born children to be raised as foreign nationals. The Russian press is no different and the rules of the game often change in response to the prevailing political winds.

Despite the myriad difficulties involved, SWAF has managed to bring over 2,000 young orphans to American homes. Yet, as with any human enterprise, there is always the potential for conflict. A former SWAF director has alleged that Platonov had mismanaged agency funds.

I have never met this woman, never heard her side of the story, and thus cannot comment authoritatively about the charges she brings or her motives for bringing them. I can, however, report a few easily verifiable facts about the agency.

SWAF is a licensed adoption agency accredited by the state of Missouri, Russia, the Hague Convention and the National Council on Accreditation. It has sent tens of thousands of dollars and agency staff abroad to improve conditions in the orphanages there. Its current Board of Directors is composed exclusively of parents who have adopted through SWAF. They serve without pay.

For 10 of the 17 years of SWAF's existence, Platonov received no compensation whatsoever for the thousands of hours of work he put in. For his first salary, this board-certified anesthesiologist was paid the princely sum of $20,000 a year. That works out to just over $384 a week -- or about what he could have earned in an hour practicing medicine. There's also the matter of the 2,000+ kids his agency has saved from life on the streets.

Some People Care Too Much

I only met Platonov once, and that was a brief encounter. My second wife and I were having dinner with her sister and brother-in-law at a restaurant Platonov owned. As my sister-in-law and her husband had adopted through SWAF, Platonov stopped at our table to say hello.

He struck me as jovial and robust -- the kind of man who greets friend and stranger alike with a broad grin, a meaty handshake and a slap on the back. I remember thinking that he seemed like an upbeat guy who had the world by the tail.

Alas, first impressions and outward appearances rarely tell the whole story. Last month, Platonov lost what was reportedly a long battle with recurrent depression. His body was found in his condominium; police ruled the death a suicide.

Before he died, Platonov sent a letter to the SWAF staff. In it, he assured them that he was guilty of no wrong-doing but advised that he was "very tired and depressed" for reasons not associated with the agency.

It was the closing line of this sad missive that got to me. It read simply, "I am sorry. ... And please try to keep SWAF alive." Here's a man standing on the threshold of his own mortality and his last words are an entreaty to his friends to continue the mission he started to care for the defenseless -- a task the agency staff is determined to accomplish.

...

At the funeral, my ex-wife -- who went to work at SWAF after our divorce -- spoke with Platonov's 22-year-old daughter. By all accounts, she was the quintessential daddy's girl. She told my ex that she hoped someone would let people know that her father was an intelligent and compassionate man who cared deeply about the children.

I've tried to do that, Anastasia. May he rest in peace and live always in the hearts of those who loved him.

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon. 

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