A US government delegation will arrive in Moscow next week in an attempt to restore trust and clarify the rules for international adoptions after a Tennessee mother triggered a storm of controversy by sending her 7-year-old adopted son home to Russia with a "to whom it may concern" note of rejection.
Moscow on Thursday moved to suspend all US adoptions until the US agrees to a list of new regulations on international adoptions, and accepts that Russian authorities will have some oversight powers over its children -- even after they have been adopted into US homes.
"Further adoptions of Russian children by the American citizens, which at present has been suspended, will only be possible in case such an agreement is reached," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Andrei Nesterenko said Thursday.
The US Embassy in Moscow said it did not yet have formal notification of a suspension of adoptions to the US.
The plight of Artyem Savelyev, who turns 8 on Friday, has garnered an outpouring of angry media attention in Russia. His apparent abandonment by his adoptive American mother has been condemned from every side, including Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who called it "a monstrous deed," and US ambassador to Russia John Beyrle, who said in a statement that he was "shocked ... and very angry that any family would act so callously toward a child that they had legally adopted."
Artyem's adoptive grandmother escorted the boy onto an international flight to Moscow last week, carrying a note from adoptive mother Torry Hansen, of Shelbyville, Tenn., that said she was sending him back to Russia because "This child is mentally unstable. He is violent and has severe psychopathic issues.... I was lied to and misled by the Russian orphanage workers and director regarding his mental stability."
Many Russian politicians called for a ban on all international adoptions in response to the scandal, and Russia's Ministry of Science and Education, which supervises international adoptions, quickly suspended the Russia-based activities of the World Association for Children and Parents (WACAP), the nonprofit corporation that assisted in the boy's adoption by Ms. Hansen last year.
Is compromise possible?
In the past, isolated cases of abuse of Russian children in American adoptive homes led to lengthy disruptions and even one significant shutdown in foreign adoptions. But experts say that, despite Thursday's temporary suspension, a compromise might well be reached to avoid derailing the entire process this time.
"Everyone was in a state of shock when this story broke, and journalists made it into a big sensation," says Alyona Senkevich, Russia coordinator of the Arizona-based Hand-in-Hand adoption agency. "But people are calming down and realizing that such things, awful and unsupportable as they are, do happen. Many Russian families find they can't cope and give back their adoptive children. I hope that a solution will be found."
Nina Astanina, a member of the Russian State Duma's committee on family, women, and children, on Wednesday introduced a draft law to set a moratorium on adoptions of Russian children to the US until a special bilateral agreement on adoptions is signed between the two countries. Mr. Medvedev has also called for such an accord, and the suspension announced Thursday appears to be an official response to that pressure.
"This is not about Artyem Savelyev's story – the reasons are deeper," says Ms. Astanina. "There has to be a certain state policy, our children have to be protected, if necessary, they might even be returned to their Motherland."
The new adoption agreement should include conditions under which Russian authorities will authorize all adoptions and the adoptive parents will agree to follow strict regulations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week.
Experts say the essential Russian demand is that adoptive children would retain their Russian citizenship until the age of 18 and that Russian authorities -- through consulates abroad -- would have some powers to supervise the welfare of the children in their adoptive homes. This idea has not been acceptable to the US in the past, but some version of it will likely come under discussion in the talks next week.
The US delegation, headed by principal deputy assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs Michael Kirby, will be under considerable pressure to come to terms with the Russians. Around 22,000 people have already signed an online petition, sponsored by the Joint Council on International Children's Services, an independent advocacy group, that asks presidents Medvedev and Barack Obama to take action to punish those guilty of child neglect while preserving the opportunities for thousands of American families who are hoping to adopt Russian children.
Russia has almost 800,000 children in state custody, the vast majority of them "social orphans" who have been abandoned by or taken away from still-living parents. Only a small fraction are adopted or placed in foster homes each year.
"I would say to American families that are in the process of adoption, not to worry too much," US Ambassador Beyrle said in a statement Thursday. "We're working on this and we really don't think that this will have any long-term effect on the ability of American families to adopt here."
But Artyem's case has undeniably touched a raw nerve in Russia, and not only nationalistic politicians are calling for an end to foreign adoptions.
"I think our departments that supervise cases of adoption are not working well," says Tatiana Gurko, head of family research at the official Institute of Sociology in Moscow. "They still allow foreign firms that sell [Russian] children to work here.... When a child is adopted by a Russian family, at least we can exercise some control, but how can we control the situation abroad? There is a very high chance of psychological incompatibility in the case of [foreign] adoption," she argues.
Foreign adoptions safer than Russian ones
Other experts say that, as tragic as Artyem's case is, statistics show that foreign adoptions are safer than Russian ones.
Ella Pamfilova, chair of the Kremlin's human rights council, says she opposes making Artyem's case into a political distraction. "I know that isolated cases of cruelty to our children adopted in US excite our public opinion," Ms. Pamfilova says. "Measures do need to be taken to prevent such abuses, but we should not switch all attention abroad. The situation with children, adoption, and orphanages inside Russia is much worse. I do not understand people who shed crocodile tears over the fate of our adopted children abroad and fail to notice what' s happening here in our own country."
Some experts say that child abuse is an epidemic that goes largely unnoticed by the Russian media. "In 2008, there were 126,000 cases of violence against children here in Russia, and 1,914 children died, often due to the fault of parents," says Albert Likhachyov, chair of the Moscow-based Children's Foundation, an independent public organization. The case of Artyem is scandalous, but it should not be a cause for freezing international adoptions."
Others argue that the focus on international adoption agencies, which have undergone rigorous checking by Russian authorities in recent years, should not distract from the failure of US-based child protection services to spot and deal with Artyem's case.
"Where were these [US] services?" says Boris Altschuler, head of the Center to Protect Children's Rights, an independent Moscow-based advocacy group. "Why does it seem like this mother had no one to turn to for help?"
Adoption agency responds
The adoption agency that handled Artyem's case, WACAP, which is based in Renton, Wash., has facilitated almost 500 adoptions from Russia over several years. The organization has posted a lengthy response to questions about its work on the Internet, including details of the due diligance it performs on prospective parents and its follow-up procedures.
The agency's Moscow representative, Yekaterina Bridge, says Russian law prevents her from discussing details of Artyem's case, but she says that the Russian authorities have acted competently and she hopes that the emotional media storm won't lead to long-term consequences for foreign adoptions in Russia.
"The process [of international adoptions from Russia] is well-governed and very civilized," she says. "There is a possibility that the process can be derailed, or we could face a ban or moratorium. If you have such a reaction from the mass media and society, it's natural to expect such a consequence...
"But I have so many cases in front of me of children from Russia who have been raised in good American homes," she continues. "In all social work, there are negative examples, but we are changing the lives of children and bringing nations together. I hope we will still be able to do this work."