Children More than one million orphans are waiting for a home in Russia, but adoptions by Americans are down by half
Adoption and foster care are only starting to emerge as a part of family life in Russia. Relentless media attention on the 13 deaths of Russian children in America has led to tougher policies for foreign adoptive parents. Meanwhile, the orphans wait.
For years, dozens of American parents held new babies and waited in line outside Moscow’s American Embassy for the last step in a grueling bureaucratic process, and then the final flight home.
The foreign adoption journey has become even longer.
Of the tens of thousands of babies that left Russia like this over the last decade, 13 ended their lives tragically, killed by the neglect or abuse of their adoptive American parents.
When Russian politicians discuss adoption, these incidents loom larger than the 60,000 successful cases of Russian orphans finding homes in the United States since 1992. The Russian government has passed ever more restrictive policies on foreign adoption while trying to encourage more Russians to adopt.
Anastasiya and Pavel Dobrovolsky live on the outskirts of Moscow, with a highly unusual family by Russian standards—of their seven children, four are biological, one is adopted, and two are fostered.
Their home is full of colorful Ikea furniture. “It has become a wonderful trend among our friends to become foster parents,” Anastasiya Dobrovolsky said, adding that there are many Russians interested in adoption. But not enough, and that is at the heart of Russia’s troubles as it tries to help families care for orphans at home, rather than encourage foreign adoption.
Nastya Savelyeva, 15, is sick with leukemia. She been adopted and abandoned three times. When Nastya was six years old she witnessed her mother’s death at the hands of a drinking buddy.
First, Nastya’s uncle adopted the girl, but after three months changed his mind and returned her to an orphanage.
Nastya was adopted by a second family and once again called her parents “mom and dad.” After less than a year they too abandoned Nastya when they learned she had cancer. Her adoptive father put her in his car and took to a children’s oncology hospital. There he told them he could not afford to pay for treatment. Later, in intensive care, Nastya learned from her grandmother that her new father had abandoned her, and survived two years of chemotherapy in hospital. She was adopted and abandoned once more.
“At some point I decided to stop calling them mothers. Even if I get adopted by an American family my decision is not going to change,” Nastya said.
The foreign adoption industry has been drying up in the last four years, as a result of both rapidly changing public opinion and official policy. Yet the latest social polls by the Levada Center, for example, showed that only nine percent of Russians support the idea of foreign adoption. After stricter restrictions were put in place, 1,000 more children were left in orphanages.
Sergey Markov, a member of parliament, explained the motives for making changes in federal law: “Public opinion might be unfair sometimes,” he said. “We are aware of the fact that hundreds of children die every year from family violence in Russia. Anyhow, public opinion and the overwhelming discussion in Russian mass media about Russophobe attitudes in the West did influence our policymaking: we will harden bureaucratic rules for adoption to better protect Russian orphans adopted by foreign families.”
The United States still leads among countries adopting Russian orphans, but the numbers are rapidly changing. American visas issued to Russian orphans drops by about 20 percent every year; the number of Russian orphans obtaining families and homes in the United States fell from 5,865 children in 2004 to about 1,800 in 2008.
A few years ago, 200 adoption agencies worked on Russian territory; this year only 69 agencies managed to obtain accreditation and 40 of them are American. Gina A. Brockmeyer, International Program Director of Adoption Services, Inc., has adopted six children from Russia.
“I dealt with adoption from Russia through the Gorbachev and Yeltsin years. It has never been as hard to adopt a child in Russia as now. We tell our clients that until the day their children are at home in America, anything can happen to the paperwork,” Brockmeyer said.
Thousands of orphans have gone from Russia to America and there are many more positive examples than negative, she believes. “We are very concerned about government attempts to tighten up the system, both for the adoptive parents and children being adopted,” Brockmeyer said. “Russia might get to the point where they stop international adoption completely.”
The costs of adopting a child from Russia can be more than $50,000. Apart from multiple medical certificates, parents now have to hire an accountant to audit their income and housing and get a state police or FBI report on their criminal record, whereas before it was enough to get a local police report. The program has changed from one to two trips to Russia, and the final stage can take weeks. Parents report to court and a judge makes the final decision.
Meanwhile, the Russian government has introduced legislation to inspire domestic adoption, foster homes and patronage care. With about one million orphans waiting for parents, adoption has become one of the top priorities for Russian policymakers.
In the last decade of economic boom, middle-class Russians were financially able to take good care of orphans they welcomed into their families. They find that orphans may need extra medical care, development or language services.
The Russian government pays from $150-300 salary each month per child to foster parents. (Some states have allowed families to take up to nine foster children.) Tatyana Tulchinskayais, director of Here and Now, a humanitarian fund coordinating groups of volunteers to over 20 orphanages in Russia, suggests money is not enough: “State fees are a great incentive, but after a few months foster parents realize it is too hard... We see many cases when children go back to the orphanages.”
Parents like Anastasiya Dobrovolsky, who lives in a beautiful, bright home, have enough resources and love to take care of several foster children. But most Russians still live in small apartments and struggle with employment and healthcare.
There is a long way to go, with many problems to be solved before domestic adoption takes the place of foreign adoption, admits Elena Mizulina, head of the Family, Health and Child Care Committee: “It is a thicket of issues, starting with a lack of control over child abuse; we hear of family crime only when it is time to take parental rights away. We policymakers have to agree on many different aspects, including ratification of Hague Convention on Inter-Country Adoption. We still have no consensus on that.”
The good news is that the Russian and U.S. governments have renewed dialogue on adoption and are working together on ratification of this important convention.
On May 28, RIA Novosti, the Russian Information Agency, held a video bridge between the United States and Russian officials to discuss the issue of Russian child rights protection abroad.
Michael Bond, a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Overseas Citizens Services, said the U.S. implemented the policies of the convention in April 2008, which led to more protection of children’s rights: Russian children adopted in the U.S. become American citizens but also keep their Russian citizenships. Teachers working with adopted children are obliged to report on their health, Bond said. In an interview with “Russia Now,” Deputy Mizulina expressed hope the Russian government would soon come to consensus and ratify the convention, allowing ongoing foreign adoption even as domestic adoption grows: “Every Russian bureaucrat has been a child, and almost all of us are parents. So we will do everything we can to make children’s lives happier both at home and abroad.”
Russian Officials Speak Candidly
Head of the Family, Health and ChildCare Committee, State Duma
“Russia will never forbid foreign adoption. We value every child and we realize that a majority of Western parents do make Russian orphans happy. Russia has about one million orphans under the age of 18—that is our problem, and we will use every good opportunity to help these children obtain care. Last year, about 85 percent of new orphans went to patronage or foster homes. Some Russian regions have gone as far as allowing nine children per every patronage or foster family... Some parents turn out to be unprepared to live with children and give them back to orphanages. Adoption is the rarest form of care that most Russian parents can afford.
Foreign adoption is one of the issues we discuss with Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s advisers; Russia should ratify the Hague Adoption Convention. The ratification of the Convention is no harm for Russian orphans. On the contrary, it defends Russian children’s rights abroad.”
State Duma Deputy
“The job of Russian members of parliament is to protect the rights of our citizens; the fate of Russian orphans abroad is one of the themes keeping us busy. Last spring we expressed outrage over the acquittal of an American parent, Miles Harrison, in the death of his Russian adopted son. Following the tragedy of this 18-month-old, we asked Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to speed up the process of concluding bilateral international treaties on adoption. The father left the boy shut in a car for nine hours.
Of course, there are thousands more cases of children falling victim to abuse and violence here in Russia than abroad. Public opinion might be unfair sometimes: we are aware of the fact that at least 3,000 children die from family violence in Russia every year.
Finally, we hear of cases where Russians cannot adopt because a bigger price is offered by Western parents. Such business worries us.”
Deputy Minister and Member of the Committee on Women and Family
“In less than five years, 13 Russian children were violently killed by their adoptive American parents. We consider that sadism and want to put an end to international adoption. Most agencies that deal with exporting children in Russia are extremely corrupt. Last year, we gave license to only 10 agencies—nine American and one Italian. Another 40 are waiting, but I personally think they should not be licensed.”
“Russia is coming back morally and economically. We are now capable of taking care of our orphans. Considering our demographic crisis, it would be ridiculous to send our children—with all their potential—abroad. In 2006, the government adopted a new law to inspire Russians to take children from orphanages and receive about $300 per child. We also now pay foster parents wages. Parental work has to be appreciated. Russia can handle its own orphans; the number of adopted kids in Russia is growing.”