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What's next for Russian orphans and U.S. families?

Published December 27, 2012 9:46 am

Adoption • Utah agencies don't offer programs in Russia.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

As agencies across the U.S. wait to see whether Russian President Vladimir Putin will sign a law barring U.S. citizens from adopting Russian children, Dellory Matthews is among those calling foul on that country's use of politics to trump the needs of its more than 740,000 orphans.

"It appalls me to see that they would stoop to this and use children as pawns in their political games," said the Salt Lake City resident, who spent six years in Moscow and Vladivostok in the 1990s and subsequently adopted two Russian girls while working in international adoption.

The upper house of Russia's Parliament on Wednesday unanimously approved a bill to ban adoptions of Russian children by U.S. citizens. Putin has two weeks to act on the law, but most observers expect him to do so earlier since the proposed law aims to halt all U.S. adoptions as of Tuesday.

The ban is retaliation for a new U.S. law that punishes Russians accused of violating human rights through travel and property ownership restrictions. Called the Magnitsky Act, it is named for Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer and whistle-blower who was arrested after he accused law enforcement and customs officers of stealing millions of dollars in tax funds. Magnitsky, 37, died in 2009 after a year in a Moscow jail. The cause of death was a heart attack, allegedly caused by torture, although that has not been proven.

Putin has voiced support for the adoption ban, which Russian lawmakers named after 21-month-old Dima Yakovlev, who died in Virginia in July 2008 after being accidently left in a locked car for nine hours by his adoptive father.

The father was later cleared of negligence.

Relations between the U.S. and Russia also were inflamed in 2010 when a Tennessee woman sent a 7-year-old boy unaccompanied on a flight back to the country six months after adopting him, describing the child as unmanageable. Some Russian officials said exams showed nothing physically wrong with the boy, but Russian media reports said his mother was an alcoholic who lost custody of him in 2008 and that the boy may have had serious psychological issues, such as fetal alcohol syndrome.

That case led to an agreement, in place since Nov. 1, that provides increased oversight of adoptions in hopes of curbing abuse and death of Russian children in the United States. In the past two decades, an estimated 19 of 60,000-plus Russian adoptees have died in the U.S., according to various media sources.

But the ban would unravel that agreement. It also would leave stranded 46 children who were poised to leave the country to join families in the United States, The New York Times reported.

Pavel Astakhov, Russia's children's rights commissioner and an advocate for in-country adoptions, told news agencies Wednesday there was "no need to go out and make a tragedy out of it."

"At the beginning of 2012, we had 12,900 Russians on the waiting list, who wanted to take children to their families," Astakhov told the Echo of Moscow, a radio station, on Wednesday.

The New York Times said the adoption ban comes amid a series of setbacks in the relationship between Russia and the United States. Those setbacks include an order that the U.S. Agency for International Development cease operations in Russia, termination of a joint effort to dismantle nuclear, chemical and other nonconventional weapons, and a new law requiring nonprofit groups that get financing abroad to register as "foreign agents."

Matthews, who understands the need and the challenge awaiting prospective adoptive parents, accepts the necessity of tighter requirements and added oversight after adoption-related abuses but said the current reaction is "totally inappropriate." That was much the same reaction of a U.S. State Department official.

"It is misguided to link the fate of children to unrelated political considerations," said department spokesman Patrick Ventrell.

There were 962 Russian children adopted in 2011 by U.S. families, the most taken in by any foreign country. That number was down sharply from the 5,862 adoptions in 2004, when adoptions from Russia peaked. Most foreign adoptions in the U.S. are of children from China, 2,589 adoptions, and Ethiopia, 1,727.

In Utah, 128 children were adopted from foreign countries last year, according to the U.S. State Department. A spokesman was not able to say how many, if any, of those children came from Russia.

In 2010, the department provided The Salt Lake Tribune with data showing that between 1998 and 2009, 281 children from Russia were adopted by Utah families.

Matthews went through a court process full of stops and starts and intense grilling before the adoption of her daughters, then ages 7 and 9 ½, was final in 1999. Afterward, she experienced problems common in adoptions of older children. Today, the family has a good relationship with one daughter, while the other never really bonded and is "very distant."

A grandson, now 15, was adopted as an infant from Russia and has some fetal alcohol issues but no bonding problems, said Matthews, a board member of Golden Dawn Adoption Assistance, which provides grants to help families adopting children with special needs.

The thought of adoptions coming to a full stop for U.S. citizens is particularly upsetting, Matthews said, when she thinks about the countless trips she has made to orphanages and the questions from children asking, "Did you find a mommy for me today?"

It appears that no Utah-based adoption agency is currently offering programs in Russia.

"It is a high-risk country to place from because of the potential problems with the children," said Kathy Kaiser, executive director of Wasatch International Adoptions in Ogden. Those problems include fetal alcohol syndrome, "a lot of damaged children, the usual orphan issues that children living in institutions have [but] on steroids."

Russia has intensive placement requirements, she added, including that adoptive parents receive 80 hours of training — 30 hours of which must be face-to-face. But there is no one qualified to do such training in Utah, Kaiser said.

Kent C. Parke, executive director of West Sands Adoptions in St. George, said his agency also has opted not to offer a program in Russia because of the complicated process.

"We've looked at it a bunch of times, but ... Ethiopia and China are so much more reliable and cheaper," he said. "With Russia, the waits, multiple trips, I've heard so many horror stories, the more I learned about it the more I didn't think it was for us. As an adoption agency, when we promise someone we're going to help them adopt a child and then you have all these roadblocks, that makes it difficult for everybody. We're sticking with what works."

brooke@sltrib.com

The Associated Press and other wire services contributed to this story. Putin says he will sign anti-U.S. adoptions bill

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday he will sign a controversial bill barring Americans from adopting Russian children, as the Kremlin's children's rights advocate recommended extending the ban to the rest of the world.

The bill is part of the country's increasingly confrontational stance with the West and has angered some Russians who argue it victimizes kids to make a political point.

The law would block dozens of Russian children now in the process of being adopted by American families from leaving the country and cut off a major route out of often dismal orphanages. Russia is the single biggest source of adopted children in the U.S., with more than 60,000 Russian children being taken in by Americans over the past two decades.

"I still don't see any reasons why I should not sign it," Putin said at a televised meeting. He went on to say that he "intends" to do so.

— The Associated Press