Two years. That's how long Sandy Deede and her family have been struggling with the red tape of the Russian adoption system, ever since they fell in love with Vova, a 12-year-old Russian orphan who visited them at their upstate New York home.
All foreign adoptions are now on hold in Russia. And due to Moscow's sweeping "reorganization" of the rules – fueled by a nationalist political drive to halt the practice altogether, say critics – it looks as if the Deede family's wait will continue.
"It's frustration with a capital F," says Ms. Deede. "Vova is just over there in Russia waiting and wondering why we're not coming to get him. How do you explain bureaucracy to a child?"
For US adoptive parents, Russia ranks third (after China and Guatemala) as the country of origin for the most orphans adopted. American families adopted 3,706 Russian children in 2006, down from 4,594 and 5,865 in the past two years. This year, those numbers could drop even more dramatically.
A year ago, there were 89 accredited foreign-based adoption agencies; this week, the last of them saw their accreditation expire. Officials say that 76 agencies have filed documents for reaccreditation, and are at varying stages on a treadmill that now requires them first to register as nongovernmental organizations under a new law. Adoption agencies were previously licensed by the Ministry of Education, but now their applications must also be vetted by the ministries of interior, justice, foreign affairs, and health.
"It's a whole new process, based on a government decree passed last November," says Sergei Vitelis, an official with the Ministry of Education and Science. "We do not yet have a single case where all the ministries have given their approval; as soon as we have, we'll start issuing licenses."
Russia has some 700,000 institutionalized children, about 260,000 of whom are officially listed as orphans available for adoption. Last year alone 140,052 children were placed in orphanages, according Russia's official Statistics Service, while 7,742 were adopted by Russian families and 6,689 by foreigners.
Some Russian adoptees abused
Defenders of the government crackdown say it's about improving accountability and providing safeguards for Russian children who are adopted abroad. They cite claims that at least 14 Russian kids adopted in the US and Canada have died over the past decade, victims of parental abuse. Earlier this year a group of nationalist and Communist deputies attempted to pass a bill in the Duma – the lower house of parliament – to halt foreign adoptions, but failed to gain support from the pro-Kremlin majority.
"We wanted to pass a moratorium on international adoptions, but our colleagues at the foreign ministry told us it violated international practice," says Nina Ostanina, deputy head of the Duma's commission on family affairs. "What we want now is to obtain bilateral agreements with countries that will enable us to be able to follow the adopted child's life abroad. As of now, Russian embassy workers are denied such access."
Some critics believe that nationalist politicians may be using the adoption issue to embarrass Putin and push Russian politics in an anti-Western direction. "Very strong, very dangerous forces are behind this [campaign to end international adoptions]. They want a new Iron Curtain, a new Cold War," says Boris Altschuler, director of Children's Right, a Moscow-based NGO that monitors conditions for children. "It's very possible that all these bureaucratic obstacles are, at their roots, really political ones."
For the agencies, including many that have worked in Russia for more than a decade, the new rules come atop almost two years of escalating restrictions. In 2005, a forced reregistration of all foreign agencies caused a similar shutdown in adoptions, but the bottleneck magically disappeared after 7,000 American families waiting to adopt Russian children signed an open letter to President Vladimir Putin, which was published in the central newspaper Izvestia.
Are delays due to anti-Americanism?
"We've been going around this circle for years now," says Natasha Shaginian, executive director of the New York-based Happy Families International adoption agency, whose Russian accreditation expired last May. "The government keeps making the same problems with the accreditation process. Ministries keep coming up with new requirements, which makes it harder and harder. We've got many families waiting, some for two years, and there's nothing we can do."
Ms. Shaginian also cites what she calls political pressures. "Anti-Americanism is growing in Russia very fast," she says. "If anything happens with a child in the States, it creates a huge scandal here in Russia. For American agencies working here, the situation is ... difficult."
Kremlin-sponsored efforts to increase adoptions by Russian families are beginning to work, some experts say. For the past two years the numbers of domestic adoptions have exceeded foreign ones, though both combined remain a tiny sliver of the total number of Russian orphans. "The system for adoption in Russia is still very far from ideal," says Valeriya Pavlova, head of the Russian office of Kidsave International, which works with orphans. "Obviously it would be better if children could stay in their native land, but the key thing should be to get them into a family, whether in Russia or America, where they can have a chance for happiness."
The Deede family adopted two Russian children about a decade ago, using the Happy Families agency, and say they encountered few problems then. "We went to Russia, passed all the tests, filled out the paperwork, and had our children within nine months," says Mrs. Deede.
One of those children, Marina, now a young adult, says she can't understand what's going on in her former homeland. "There've been thousands of children who've been happily adopted; why would they stop that over a few cases where something bad happened?" she says. "If they were going to stop everything, why would they wave a child in front of us? We fell in love with Vova, and now they're saying we can't have him?"
[Editor's note: The original version had a different headline.]