Why are other countries wary of American adoptions?

December 27, 2012

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he will sign a bill barring Americans from adopting Russian children, an apparent retaliation for an American law that places visa and financial sanctions on Russian officials deemed to have been connected with the death of Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky.

The law would mean the approximately 1,000 orphans who find homes in the U.S. each year and the 46 children who are already in the process of being adopted would remain in Russia.

Children look on in the Republican Hospital for Infectious Diseases in Ust-Izhora outside St. Petersburg, Russia, in this May 30, 2006 file photo. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
Children look on in the Republican Hospital for Infectious Diseases in Ust-Izhora outside St. Petersburg, Russia, in this May 30, 2006 file photo. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

Russia is not alone in its concerns. Elsewhere, other governments have also implemented stricter requirements for foreign adoptions over the past few years after finding that the Western appetite for orphans at best outpaced their supply -- and at worst led to widespread fraud.

Countless American and Russian children's advocates have decried the new Russian measure, saying it does nothing to improve the situation of the 740,000 orphan children in Russia. Only 18,000 Russians are now waiting to adopt a child. 

“They are cannibals. They kill the country and they kill the children," Boris L. Altshuler, the chairman of the advocacy group Right of the Child, said of the Russian parliament to the New York Times.

Though the bill is ostensibly a retaliatory measure for the recently-passed American Magnitsky Act, it's not the first time Russian policymakers have raised concerns over adoptions by Americans and other foreigners. 

Part of the issue seems to be an embarrassment over Russia's inability to care for all of its orphans.

"It’s shameful for Russians to admit that there are around 700,000 orphans in Russia.  And of course it’s very hard for Russians with the government to say that the country cannot take care of their own children," Natasha Shaginian, a psychiatrist who has worked in Russian orphanages, told PRI.

Several high-profile cases of abuse also haven't helped. Russian policymakers named the bill after a high-profile Russian adoptee, Dima Yakovlev, a toddler who was adopted by a Virginia couple and died after being left in a hot car for nine hours. And after a 7-year-old Russian boy was returned alone to Moscow in 2010 by his Tennessean adoptive mother, the outrage was so great that a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson temporarily announced a suspension of all U.S. adoptions.

"U.S. Mother Returns Adopted Russian Boy like Pair of Shoes," read a sample Pravda headline at the time.

Overall, Russian officials claim at least 19 Russian children have died while in the care of adoptive parents since the early 1990s.

Russia’s Children’s Rights Ombudsman Pavel Astakhov has called for a ban on foreign adoptions throughout this fall, saying that prospective foreign parents' pledges to care for the adoptees are "all lies."

To address some of the abuse concerns, Russia and the U.S. hammered out a bilateral adoption agreement, which went into effect on Nov. 1, mandating more screening for adoptive parents and greater scrutiny post-adoption, Ria Novosti reported.

The agreement was intended “to promote stronger safeguards for adoptive children and parents in the inter-country adoption process,” a U.S. State Department official said at the time.

China opened up to international adoptions in 1992, but in 2006 the Chinese government enacted a series of strict guidelines intended to limit an overwhelming number of applicants. As Time magazine reported:

Among the new regulations, adoptive parents are required to meet certain educational and financial requirements, and must be married, be under 50, not be clinically obese, not have taken antidepressant medication in the past two years and not have any facial deformities.

As a result, adoptions of Chinese children by U.S. citizens have dropped 50 percent between 2005 and 2008.  

And spurred in part by Madonna's high-profile African adoptions, several African countries have passed laws requiring prospective adoptive parents to live in the country for years before being able to adopt a child.

Other countries have stopped encouraging international adoption entirely after cases of middlemen coercing or bribing poor parents to give up their children to wealthy Westerners were brought to light. 

Vietnam, for example, stopped adoptions to the United States in 2008 because of these concerns. "While there are legitimate orphans in Vietnam, the corruption in the adoption process has become so widespread that [the embassy] believes that there is fraud in the overwhelming majority of cases of infants offered for international adoption," said a cable from the U.S. embassy in Vietnam at the time.

Ethiopia also began strengthening its oversight of adoptions and temporarily slowed adoption processing in 2011 after several reports of adoption fraud. 

So while Russia is certainly not alone in being wary of U.S. adoptions, it is a seemingly rare case of such a ban being prompted by political -- rather than humanitarian -- motivations. And though Russian officials have simultaneously proposed unspecific reforms to the country's child welfare system, it remains to be seen what exactly Russia will do for the thousands of children who could have had American homes.

"The authorities will have to prove that they will take care of children better than Americans," wrote Maria Eismont, a columnist for the Russian news site Vedomosti.

 

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Olga Khazan · December 27, 2012