As adoption crisis intensifies, U.S.-Russian relations deteriorate

Putin bans Americans from adopting Russian kids

By Nicholas Nehamas

An abandoned two year-old Russian boy living in a hospital in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk waits for a family to adopt him. (Reuters)

On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill banning Americans from adopting Russian children. The law will take effect on January 1, 2013.

How did international adoption become as grave a threat to U.S.-Russian relations as nuclear weapons and the Syrian civil war?

It’s a story we’ve been following this year at Latitude News, a story of nationalism and corruption, of hope and the promise of a better life — but most of all the story of Russia’s estimated 650,000 orphans. Because of drug addiction and alcoholism in Russia, many of those children now find themselves living in the country’s — generally dismal — state orphanage system. Unfortunately for the kids, domestic adoption is relatively rare: families in Russia adopted just 7,400 children in 2011. Foreigners adopted almost half that number.

Over the last 20 years, families from other countries have become a major outlet for abandoned Russian children. According to State Department data, Americans have adopted more than 45,000 Russian kids since 1999.

The problem is that most of those children face lives of horror and degradation in the U.S. — at least if you believe Pavel Astakhov, an outspoken lawyer and Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights. In July, Astakhov (who has called for an end to all foreign adoptions) tweeted that American families abuse 28,000 adopted Russian children every year. Other members of the Russian government have claimed the children are being used as “slaves,” fodder for organ transplants or future soldiers against the motherland.

Yes, really. Of course, they never offer any evidence to back up their outrageous accusations, even though there are very real problems in the international adoption industry.

And why should they present evidence to substantiate their claims? It’s clear that adoption has become a tool for nationalist politicians to rile up anti-American sentiment. It’s also revealed a cultural divide in Russia: public polling has shown that younger, more educated Russians tend to oppose the adoption ban — which they’ve dubbed the “Scoundrel’s Law” on social media websites — while older people living in the provinces largely support it.

Russian orphans trapped in geopolitical struggle

But Russian fears over the treatment of “their” children in America aren’t coming out of the blue.

In 2010, Torry Hansen put her seven-year-old adopted Russian son on a plane from the U.S. back to Moscow, saying he was psychotic and that she couldn’t take proper care of him. The case caused an international incident and almost led Russia to outlaw U.S. adoptions that year. Previously, in 2008, an American man accidentally killed his Russian toddler, Dima Yakovlev, by leaving him in a parked car for nine hours. In total, Russian officials say 19 adopted Russian children have died in America since 1991. Over a similar time period, Sky News reports that more than 1,500 have died after being adopted by Russian families.

The current adoption ban is named after Dima Yakovlev. But its actual impetus is Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who was beaten to death in a Moscow jail in 2009 after exposing an alleged police embezzlement ring. In early December, the U.S. Congress passed a bill known as the Magnitsky Act, which criticized Russia for Magnitsky’s death.

Pavel Astakhov at a press conference in Moscow. (Reuters)

In an e-mail to Latitude News, a spokesman for the Russian Embassy said the adoption ban was in direct response to the Magnitsky Act. The ban is actually an amendment attached to a larger bill, unofficially known as the “anti-Magnitsky Act,” which places sanctions on American officials associated with our prison at Guantanamo Bay.

The U.S. State Department has called the ban — which was opposed by Russia’s foreign minister and a number of high-ranking officials — “politically motivated.”

While politicians take advantage of the adoption issue, children suffer. Astakhov, a former television show host, has been in the center of the controversy since his appointment as Russian’s commissioner for children’s rights in 2009. Astakhov had also been a vocal critic of Putin’s authoritarian tendencies before then, but changed his tune after joining the government.

In September, Christy Cameron, one of our readers and the mother of two adopted Russian boys, wrote to us about Astakhov’s accusations:

I believe that for each case of abuse, there are thousands of loving U.S. families doing our best to give our special needs Russian children the best possible life they can have. Does Mr. Astakhov ever visit any of us?

The shady side of inter-country adoption

After talking with Christy, Latitude News launched an investigation into a common problem faced by many American parents who want to adopt in Russia: unknowingly taking in children with special needs. One of Christy’s sons, Jesse, suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome, but the Russian orphanage and American adoption agency she dealt with didn’t know — or didn’t tell her — about Jesse’s special needs. It took years to get Jesse the diagnosis and care he needs. You can read the full story here.

While Jesse now leads a happy and fulfilling life, some children face even more severe problems, such as Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), which makes it difficult for adopted children to form relationships with their new parents. In a story for Latitude News, Tina Traster, a journalist and author, wrote about raising an adopted Russian daughter, Julia, with the condition. Tina and Julia managed to overcome the obstacles and connect as mother and daughter, but not all parents are able to.

A few choose to send their children to a care facility in Eureka, Montana known as the Ranch for Kids. The ranch has received positive reviews in the American media for its innovative treatment of troubled children. But that didn’t stop Pavel Astakhov from traveling to Montana in June and accusing the ranch of being abusive and a “trashcan for unwanted children.” Latitude News checked out Astakhov’s claims and found them to be unsubstantiated. But we did discover that the ranch’s owner, Joyce Sterkel, has refused to acquire a license needed for it to operate. The state of Montana is currently suing Sterkel to make her close the ranch down. You can read more about the controversy here.

Whatever way you look at the current conflict between Russian and the U.S., one thing is certain: international adoption is big business today. There’s a demand for babies and toddlers in the western world, which creates opportunities for unscrupulous and criminal operators.

Over the last twenty years, extensive child-trafficking and child-selling have been documented in Romania, Guatemala, Vietnam, Pakistan and other countries. The U.S. Congress is considering a law that would ensure all American adoption agencies adhere to standards set down by the Hague Convention, a global treaty that governs inter-country adoption.

In a statement to Latitude News,  Sen. John Kerry, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, called the legislation a “common sense reform that improves the integrity of the international adoption process.”

The Senate approved the bill on December 5, 2012. It is still waiting for a vote in the House.

For orphans in Russia, it’s too little, too late, as Congress and Putin continue to squabble.

As Laurie Penny, a British journalist, writes in The Guardian: “Perhaps this is how the Cold War really ends: not with a bang, but a series of petty policy disputes that savage individual lives and leave both countries looking sordid.”