Don't End Their Hope of a Home

(In June, Marina, Nearly 1, Lives In An Orphanage In Southern Russia While Texan Ellen Butki Waits For Her Adoption To Be Processed./courtesy Ellen Butki)
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, September 16, 2005

When Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the White House today, he and President Bush are expected to discuss such global issues as the environment, trade agreements, nuclear weapons and terrorism. But I hope that at some point they get around to talking about Alexei, Katya, Roma, Misha and Victoria.

Alexei and Katya are just two of the 50,000 children who have been adopted from Russia by American families since 1991. Roma and Misha are just two of the estimated 30,000 kids who are living homeless on the streets and in the train stations of Moscow. They, along with more than a dozen of their friends, are the subjects of "The Children of Leningradsky," a wrenching documentary that will be televised on the Cinemax cable channel Sept. 28.

Victoria is my own daughter, a lively, beautiful 3-year-old whom my husband and I adopted in the Karelia region of Russia a year ago. And while I can't always speak for her at even this early age, I feel confident that she would join the thousands of families urging Putin to resist recent efforts in his country to curtail or even stop international adoptions.

American adoptions in Russia have undergone understandable scrutiny since the 2003 murder of 6-year-old Alex Pavlis by his mother and the death this year of 2-year-old Nina Hilt, allegedly at her mother's hands. Both had been adopted from Russia. (This week's news about 11 children found living in cages at their adoptive parents' home has also raised valid concerns, though the children weren't from Russia.)

Alex and Nina's deaths, like those of any children, biological or adopted, are inexcusable. But if they underscore the importance of beefing up Russia's already conscientious post-placement examinations of American adoptions, these rare events shouldn't be used as an excuse to halt them entirely. Too many young lives are at stake.

When we met Victoria, she was receiving outstanding care at a small orphanage in Sortavala, just a few miles from the Finnish border. "Skazska," as the woefully underfunded institution was called, was a severe, barracks-like structure set in the middle of the bustling town. But its joyless exterior belied the warmth within, where the orphanage's tireless director used ingenuity, compassion and brilliant husbanding of resources to create the safest, healthiest, most loving environment possible for her charges.

Victoria, who was placed in the orphanage after being left at a hospital as an infant, enjoyed such good care in Sortavala that we had no qualms about leaving her there while we waited to become her legal parents.

Victoria and the other children at Skazska were the lucky ones, likely to be adopted by loving parents in Russia, America or Europe, and having been given a strong early foundation by their caregivers. But it's only a twist of random fate that separates them from the children of Leningradsky, whose lives consist of begging, prostitution, glue-sniffing and early death. With so many children needing homes throughout the Russian Federation, it's difficult to see the logic in cutting off a crucial path to safe, secure and loving homes.

But that's precisely the effect of some of the measures recently adopted and proposed by Russian legislators. Fortunately, just last week the Duma turned down a call for a complete moratorium on international adoptions. But in January it passed a law that increased from three months to six the time a child must remain in a federal database before becoming eligible for international adoption. Meanwhile, a reorganization of government practices has meant that several agencies have lost their accreditation to work in Russia. What's more, some officials have demanded that the United States enter a bilateral agreement granting the Russian government access to adopted children, which would abrogate a multilateral agreement awaiting ratification by the Hague Convention.

The concern of Russian citizens regarding the future of children born in that country is understandable; as my husband and I participate in post-placement evaluations regarding Victoria, we are grateful for the continuing dedication to her welfare by the people who gave her such a promising start. But rather than make it more difficult for families like ours to make good on that promise, the Russian government could take more positive action.

Instead of calling for a bilateral agreement, it could continue to work toward the swift ratification of the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, which would provide federal oversight of international adoptions as well as strict professional standards among agencies, government officials and courts. The treaty also addresses comprehensive pre- and post-adoption parental counseling and reporting.

And it could end the practice of independent adoptions in Russia. According to the National Council for Adoption, independent adoption agents are not subject to the same rigorous requirements as accredited agencies, which means there can be giant loopholes in screening, accountability and transparency.

Of course, even the most reputable agencies can do better in assessing prospective parents and keeping track of them once they've brought their children home. The abuse, neglect or death of even one child is cause for profound grief and reflection. Still, it would be not just a shame but a tragedy if, as a result, Russia inadvertently created more Romas and Mishas, and fewer Alexeis, Katyas and Victorias.

The writer is a movie critic for The Post.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company