Adoptive father feels the 'pain' of those caught in squabble

by Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Some 15 years ago, John Hern admitted to being on “pins and needles” as he and his wife awaited the adoption of their Russian-born child, a then 4-1/2-year-old boy they would name Michael.
 “I was nervous as a cat,” said Hern, chief executive officer of Clark Hill in Detroit. “You just never knew if something might go wrong at the last minute.”

Such a premonition now has come true for many American couples that have been unwittingly caught in the middle of a tit-for-tat diplomatic squabble between the U.S. and Russian governments.

Last week, in an apparent retaliatory slap at American criticism of Russian human rights abuses, the Russian Parliament approved an immediate ban on adoptions to the U.S. Passage of the ban reportedly has sparked widespread criticism in Russia, which has struggled for decades to meet the demands of its foster care and orphanage systems.

“I can only imagine the pain that many couples are now experiencing,” Hern said this week in a phone interview. “From the outset of the adoption process, it is a very emotional experience as you prepare to welcome a new member into your family, not to mention all the time and resources that you’ve invested in making it come about. Those factors, of course, are secondary to your desire to adopt a child, to give that boy or girl all the love and support that you can provide.”

Hern and his wife, Ann, a University of Michigan Medical School grad with a dermatology practice in Troy, speak from experience, having adopted four Russian children. Their journey to parenthood was “not a straight path,” Hern admitted in an earlier interview with The Legal News.

After they were not able to have children of their own, Hern and his wife elected to go the adoption route, eventually hooking up with a Downriver agency that specialized in placing Russian orphans in American homes. It was love at first sight for his wife when they saw a video clip of a young Russian boy who exuded spunk and charm.

“Here was this young boy, prancing around, singing a song, very much off-key,” recalled Hern, a 1982 alumnus of the University of Notre Dame. “But there was something about him. For my wife, that video was it, sealing the deal.”

Fifteen years ago last spring, the couple made the long journey to Moscow, followed by a 5-hour van ride to an orphanage in the Russian hinterlands. There they were united with their first child, Michael. It would be a trip they would repeat three more times, first for Margaret and then Jack and Patrick.

“Speaking for my wife, I don’t believe either one of us ever felt at ease until we lifted off from Moscow on the way back home,” said Hern, who grew up in the Houghton Lake area and earned his law degree from U-M Law School. “It was only then that we could feel a sense of comfort that this little boy or this little girl was truly ours.”

Their children – now 20, 18, 16 and 14 years of age, respectively – quickly assimilated into the American way of life, leaving behind their native tongue and the scarcity of basic necessities in an orphanage setting.

“They came from a world where food, clothing, heat, and hot water were not readily available, certainly nothing to be taken for granted,” Hern said of his adopted children. “In fact, the first time we saw our son Michael he was wearing girl’s clothes because that was all that was available.”

Now, Michael is a lance corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps, awaiting his second deployment after enlisting in the armed services a year ago. His sister, Margaret, is a freshman at Siena Heights University in Adrian, where she is a member of the lacrosse team. Their brother, Jack, is a sophomore at Grosse Pointe South High School, while the youngest of the siblings, Patrick, is an eighth grade student.

“My wife and I are very blessed to have them as our children,” Hern said of the four siblings, two of whom reportedly came from the same biological mother. “They have brought such joy into our lives.”

Hern may have received an early indication on Michael’s trip “home” to the U.S. more than 15 years ago. On the flight back, somewhere over the Atlantic, Hern was taken ill. He moved to the back of the plane to spread out, hoping not to disturb the slumbers of his wife and new child.

“Before long, it was clear that something was really wrong with me and I asked for help,” Hern recalled.

The flight crew put out a plea for a “doctor on board.” A young physician, seated in the front of the plane, made her way to the back to help out. The doctor was a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the U-M Medical School, and was valedictorian of her class at Traverse City High School.

She was well known as a “brainiac,” someone well qualified to diagnose any medical problem.

“The doctor, in this case, was my wife,” Hern said with more than a hint of a smile. “She was able to determine pretty quickly that I was suffering from appendicitis. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much that could be done over the middle of the Atlantic.”

Upon landing several hours later, Hern was rushed to the hospital, where he spent the next five days recovering from an emergency appendectomy after his appendix had burst.

By the time of his release, Hern was welcomed home by a wife and young Russian boy who was quickly picking up the English language. The young sprite was about to adopt an old American saying, “Like father, like son.”

“Those first few days at home, I was hobbling around the house, holding my side,” Hern said. “It didn’t take long for Michael to do the same, walking around slowly, holding his side. If it didn’t hurt
so much, I would have laughed.”