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Adopted from Russia with love

A Tarpon Springs couple brings three sisters from overseas. The family has adopted four girls from Russia in a year's time.

Three Russian sisters, from left, Anna, Tatiana and Natasha gather around a birthday cake for Yulia Casson, 6, who arrived in the Casson family's home a year ago. [Times photo: John Pendygraft]

By BRYAN GILMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 13, 1999


TARPON SPRINGS -- Natasha, 11 but slight for her age, sits awkwardly in her pretty new black-and-pink, polka dot dress and black shoes.

This girl with the creamy skin and cropped blond hair is a little less likely to smile or laugh than are her little sisters. Reserved but poised, she also seems to notice twice as much as the three other girls. She is especially sweet to her new little sister Yulia, 6.

In this house in Tarpon Springs, Florida, United States of America, from her perch on the sectional sofa, Natasha can see the swimming pool in the back yard.

Whether or not she can comprehend it on her second full day here, this is her home.

The last place she lived was an orphanage in the Krasnodar region of Russia, where the sheets were gray with filth, where she spent the past five years of her life with no mama or papa and separated from her sisters. The workers had planned for her to stay to care for other orphaned children even after she grew up.

"She is very sensitive, very delicate," Dan Casson observes. "She said she would do anything to come here. Scrub floors. Clean windows."

Natasha did not have to earn her new home.

Dan and Renae Casson, a Tarpon Springs couple, went to Russia and promised Natasha last week that they would be her mama and papa. There was another gift: They also adopted Natasha's two sisters, who had been in separate orphanages for the last few years.

With new dresses and new shoes of their own, Anna Christa, 7, and Tatiana Renae, 10, sat at the other end of the sofa from Natasha on Sunday afternoon.

Asked in English what they think of this change, of being together again, the girls cannot understand the question.

Through a Russian translator arranged by the Times, the girls still shyly decline to answer deep questions about their feelings about leaving Russia.

It must be difficult for them to adjust to so many new things so suddenly, someone says.

The translator, -- Larissa Cornelius, who left behind a life in St. Petersburg, Russia, for one in St. Petersburg, Fla. -- stops translating.

"No," she says emphatically. "It is like coming from the darkness to the paradise."

"I like cookies," Natasha finally tells the interpreter.

She and Tatiana say that they love to ride the bicycles that were waiting when they arrived.

American breakfast cereal beats porridge, the girls agree. And they prefer the warm weather here.

"It snows," Tatiana says of Russia. "Very cold."

The girls cannot wait to try out the swimming pool.

"Swim, have a suntan," Anna says.

Tatiana chimes in:

"When we swim in the swimming pool, the dog is going to jump in and lick our cheeks."

When the grownups finally turn to talk among themselves, as grownups will, the girls slide off the sofa cushions one by one. This new place has lots of toys: Rugrats dolls, headbands, puppies. They seem to play with them all at the same time -- the house is strewn with them.

"That is what they will do, play, play, play," Cornelius says, remembering how her own son played like a child until he was 16 after moving to the United States.

Before long, Natasha, Anna and Tatiana are grinning, squealing and tickling each other and Yulia Casson, the daughter the Cassons adopted from a Russian orphanage a year ago.

Dan Casson is 49. Renae is in her 50s but declines to give her age. Each has two grown children from a previous marriage.

The couple had been married 10 years when they decided they wanted to raise children together. They settled on international adoption because countries such as Russia have many orphans, and because the adoptions are absolutely final.

They went to Russia last year intending to adopt Tatiana, but were told she was "not ready." So they chose Yulia instead.

When they planned to return for Tatiana, they learned she has two sisters. They stretched their money and decided to adopt all three.

But diplomatic obstacles threatened the second trip. First there were terrorist bombings in Moscow, which prompted the Cassons to delay the journey for several weeks.

When they finally went, they got a colder reception from Russian officials than they had experienced during the first trip. People they dealt with required more cash gratuities for their cooperation.

A judge refused to sign one of the girls' papers for several days saying he did not have time. The Cassons were forced to wait until he finally picked up his pen, and then they had to reschedule their flight home.

On the way home, the Cassons finally learned that relations between the United States and Russia had deteriorated because each country had accused the other's diplomats of spying during the time the Cassons were traveling.

While in Russia, Dan and Renae used the services of Amrex, an adoption liaison company that provides translator guides.

But when they got on the plane bound for the United States, they had to make the 13-hour trip with the girls, show them this new place called Florida and feed them chicken nuggets, all without being able to converse with them.

They plan to enroll the girls in school here and expect them to pick up English quickly, as Yulia did. (Yulia says she can understand her new sisters when they speak Russian, but she is reluctant to reply in Russian.)

"The first three months are generally the most difficult because of the language barrier," said Tedi Headstrom of Jacksonville- and Largo-based Tedi Bear Adoptions, an agency that specializes in international adoptions and helped the Cassons adopt all four girls.

For now, the Cassons are getting to know their new daughters by observing them and communicating in sign language.

Anna is impish and playful. Tatiana is sassy and confident, the leader of the three. When asked what is most important to know about her, she declares in Russian that she is "learning the language."

Cornelius sees how the girls already luxuriate in the riches and freedom they have suddenly acquired, how they get one pretty thing and ask for another. She fears they are getting spoiled, she says quietly.

But a few minutes later, Dan and Renae Casson take advantage of the visiting translator's presence and lay down a few house rules, something they have not been able to do using sign language.

"The street that we live on, the cars go very fast," Dan says, as Cornelius fixes on the girls' eyes and translates. "You could get hurt."

The girls are told they are not allowed to ride their beloved bicycles in the street. Mama and Papa will take them to the Pinellas Trail or to a park where there are no cars.

Also, as alluring as the pool is, the girls may not go onto the lanai without Mama or Papa.

The girls are quiet for a few minutes, seemingly a little stung by these restrictions. But they slowly cheer up and begin to play again, a little more quietly than before.

"It's just total chaos, and it's going to be hard," Dan Casson says, but he grins widely as he speaks. "It'll be that way for two or three weeks. But it'll calm down."

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