Adoptions from Russia face a chill
Approvals for American parents have slowed by a third so far this year.
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Child-care professionals say that, while domestic violence and corruption may be painful realities in cases, Russia's orphans are being used as a political football by nationalist politicians.Skip to next paragraph
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"About 2,000 Russian children perish each year in domestic violence, yet this attracts no media outrage," says Boris Altshuler, head of Child's Rights, a Russian NGO that works with children. "This is a top-level political game, to which children are hostages. Some powerful forces in Russia want to undermine [President Vladimir] Putin's policies of closer cooperation with the West."
Mr. Altshuler says the harsh review of agencies was uncalled for because most of the high-profile instances of abuse - including the Pavlis case - occurred to children adopted through a loophole in Russian law that permits "independent" adoptions.
"In some regions the process is dominated by middlemen who advertise on the Internet and charge high fees," he says. "They don't face the same legal and documentary requirements as international agencies do, and this has been the source of most of the problems. Our nationalist politicians talk about the need to control Russian children living abroad, but say little about the need to control this mafia at home."
Foreigners who adopt through accredited agencies typically pay about $20,000 in agency fees, travel expenses, and legal and translation costs. According to one expert, agencies usually make a donation to the originating orphanage, but never in cash. The financial outlays made by foreigners are one of the key controversies, since adoption is supposed to be free under Russian law.
Following the Pavlis case, nationalist Duma deputies succeeded in cracking down on foreign-based adoption agencies and revising the family code to make international adoptions harder.
Ms. Ostanina says the main reform demanded now by the Duma group, which includes dozens of leading lawmakers, is the conclusion of "bilateral treaties" that will empower Russian officials to follow and intervene in the lives of children who've been adopted by foreigners.
"If these deputies get their way, I'm afraid international adoptions will just come to an end," says Natalya Shaginyan-Needham, executive director of New York-based Happy Families International, which was reaccredited after the recent review. "A child adopted by an American family will become a US citizen. There are privacy issues. This seems to be just a way to chill the process."
Child-care experts here say domestic adoptions have halved over the past decade, with just 6,000 Russian orphans taken in by Russians last year. "There is a lack of public information, which feeds widely believed stereotypes about orphans being genetically flawed, or destined to become hooligans," says Eric Batsie, Russia director of Kidsave International, an advocacy group that runs a partly US-funded project to promote domestic adoptions.
Russians say the process is no easier for them than it is for foreigners. Svetlana Sorokina, a TV news anchor who adopted a girl two years ago, says she searched for more than a year and endured a maze of obstacles. "Even with all my contacts as a journalist I found it very difficult," she says. "Our state does nothing to help."
The Education Ministry, the main target of criticism, is fighting back. This week it launched a Russian-language website (www.usinovite.ru) that will provide access to a database of 260,000 Russian orphans, along with information about adoption and a list of accredited agencies. Officials say an English-language version may be added. In an accompanying statement the minister, Andrei Fursenko, warned that "all too often, unfortunate orphans are being used as a pretext for unscrupulous political campaigns. Suffering children shouldn't be the subjects of such speculation."
But many professionals say the atmosphere is unlikely to improve soon. "International adoption has become such a hot potato here that anything that comes up, like the Pavlis case, will lead to more trouble," says Ms. Shaginyan-Needham, whose agency sponsors projects to promote domestic as well as foreign adoptions. "Many of us in this field are Russians ourselves, and we wish Russian children could stay at home as much as anyone else does. But there is no alternative to foreign adoptions for now, and if they end, it'll be the children who suffer."
The number of international adoptions continues to rise in the United States. 22,884 visas were issued to orphans in 2004 - up from 17,718 five years earlier.
Top 10 countries For US
1. China 7,044
2. Russia 5,865
3. Guatemala 3,264
4. Korea 1,716
5. Kazakhstan 826
6. Ukraine 723
7. India 406
8. Haiti 356
9. Ethiopia 289
10. Colombia 287
Source: US Department of State