Russia's proposed ban on US adoptions: What would it mean for orphans?

Children's rights advocates say there's nothing wrong with efforts to reduce international adoption – if those efforts are focused on strengthening families and encouraging domestic adoption. Russia, however, has a long way to go to find domestic families for its orphans.

Vladimir Konstantinov/Reuters
Orphan children have a meal at an orphanage in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, December 19. Russia's parliament initially approved a bill banning Americans from adopting Russian orphans on Wednesday in reprisal for a U.S. law punishing alleged Russian human rights violators in a row that has strained bilateral relations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin says he will sign a ban on US adoptions of Russian children – a move that would close off a major avenue by which orphans in that country find their way into families.

Supporters of the bill, passed by the parliament before Christmas, say it's designed to promote domestic adoption and to put an end to alleged endangerment of children by their adoptive parents in the United States. The bill is also a retaliatory measure, in response to an American law that imposes sanctions on Russian officials deemed to be human rights violators.

"I still don't see any reasons why I should not sign it," Mr. Putin said at a televised meeting Thursday, adding that he "intends" to do so.

But statistics suggest that the move might be putting politics above practicality, when it comes to finding alternatives for thousands of youngsters now growing up in institutions rather than in families. Children's rights advocates say there's nothing wrong with efforts to reduce international adoption – if those efforts are focused on strengthening families and encouraging domestic adoption. Russia, however, has a long way to go to find domestic families for its orphans.

About 120,000 orphans are listed as up for adoption in a Russian government database, while only 18,000 Russian families are signed up to become adoptive parents, according to numbers cited by The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and other sources.

"These children have already lost the chance to be adopted by a Russian family," before they are considered for US adoption, says Jennifer Phillips, an adoption supervisor at Lutheran Social Services in Rocky Hill, Conn. It's unclear, she says, whether Putin can succeed in getting more orphans placed with Russian families.

Even before any ban takes effect, Russia has been slowing the pace of international adoption. In the US, adoptions of Russian children totaled just 962 in 2011, down from nearly 6,000 in 2004, according to the US State Department. Despite the decline, the US remains the top foreign destination for Russian orphans being adopted internationally.

And despite the decline, only China and Ethiopia outranked Russia in 2011 as a "country of origin" for international adoptions by US parents. If Putin signs the ban, the move would not only block new adoptions but also cast doubt over US adoptions from Russia that are currently under way.

“There is terrible irony in the fact that America’s decision to speak out against human rights violations may cause the Russian government to deny many thousands of Russian orphans the possibility to grow up in loving, adoptive families,” says Chuck Johnson, president and CEO of National Council for Adoption in Alexandria, Va.

The Russian bill came in response to a US law that stemmed from the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in jail in his country after being arrested by police officers whom he accused of involvement in a $230 million tax fraud. The law prohibits officials allegedly involved in his death from entering the US.

UNICEF, the UN agency focused on children, issued a statement Wednesday that, without mentioning the proposed ban, calls on Russia to put children's interests first.

“We encourage the government to establish a robust national social protection plan to help strengthen Russian families," UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake said. "Alternatives to the institutionalization of children are essential, including permanent foster care, domestic adoption, and inter-country adoption."

Many child-welfare advocates say the first resort for children up for adoption should be to place them with families in their country of origin.

The State Department has been working with other nations (including Russia) and with adoption agencies to ensure that protections are in place for children and parents alike – to guard, for instance, against children moving to an adoptive family overseas without their birth parents' approval.

The Russian news media, however, have focused attention on cases of US adoption that have apparently gone awry. The new legislation is named after Dima Yakovlev, a Russian toddler who died in 2008 after his adoptive father in the US left him in a hot car. The father was found not guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

Russia's children's rights ombudsman, Pavel Astakhov, said Wednesday that 46 children who were about to be adopted in the US would remain in Russia if the bill goes into effect. On Thursday, he urged Putin to extend the ban to other countries.

"There is huge money and questionable people involved in the semi-legal schemes of exporting children," he said in a post on Twitter.

"This is cynicism beyond limits," opposition leader Ilya Yashin responded via Twitter. "The children rights ombudsman is depriving children of a future."

The State Department says it has "expressed concern to the Russian government that, if signed into law, this legislation will needlessly remove the path to families for hundreds of Russian children each year."

Some of the 60,000 young people adopted from Russia by US families have also joined the fray. University student Sasha D'jamoos has written a letter to Putin urging him not to sign the ban.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this story.

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