The tragic death of a 9-year old Russian-born boy, who was apparently alone in the Nebraska home of his adoptive American parents when it burned down last week, has triggered a renewed outpouring of media outrage in Russia and amplified calls for a ban on foreign adoptions.
It's an unpleasant diplomatic scandal that has recurred many times in recent years, even as the two countries have moved toward mutually agreeable rules for US-Russian adoptions, and Russia has vastly improved conditions over recent years for its own citizens who want to adopt one of the country's 130,000 institutionalized orphans or take in a foster child.
Anton Fomin was brought to the US by his Russian biological parents but was adopted by an American couple in 2008 after his father died and his mother was unable to care for him. He may have been locked in the basement, and was alone in the Davey, Nebraska house when it burned down on May 17.
The news prompted the Kremlin's ombudsman for children, Pavel Astakhov, to Tweet on May 21 that this is "yet another" example of a Russian child dying at the hands of possibly negligent or abusive American adoptive parents.
"This death raises many questions," Mr. Astakhov wrote on his blog, according to Russian media. "Either the boy was being punished [and for that reason was stuck in the basement during the fire] or he was neglected and got into the basement accidentally. Why the boy was locked in the basement and why he could not get out is something we will ask the US attorneys."
The US Embassy in Moscow was quick to point out in a statement that, since Anton was adopted in the US, this is not a case of international adoption. "The Department of State has no official role in this case," it said, adding that it is ready to "provide Russian officials with all available information and help them liaise with the Nebraska authorities."
Advocates: Russia needs to clean up at home first
Adoptions of Russian children by American families have steadily decreased, from almost 4,000 in 2005 to 1,079 in 2010. The number of institutionalized Russian orphans has declined sharply since then-President Vladimir Putin ordered measures taken to boost adoptions and fund foster families in 2006.
Boris Altschuler, head of the independent Center for Children's Rights in Moscow, says conditions have improved markedly since then, although the lack of professional support services for foster families has led to many children being returned to institutions.
"Our system of adoption is still very ineffective, and it needs a lot of improvements," he says. "We still have over 100,000 children who need homes. That's why every time Astakhov calls for banning foreign adoptions he's threatening to punish thousands of Russian kids.
"These tragic cases shouldn't be made the subject of international diplomacy. All the rhetoric that springs up is a bit of a cold war throwback, and it's disproportional to the problem. If we want Russian children to stay home, we should focus on improving conditions and eliminating abuses in Russia itself," he adds.
The US and Russia negotiated a bilateral agreement on child adoptions last July, but it has yet to be ratified by the Russian State Duma due to ongoing disputes over safeguards.
The Russian media has lately begun to focus on domestic cases of child abuse and parental negligence – coverage that was taboo in the past – which leads to as many as 2,000 child deaths each year.
"There are a lot of people in Russia who are opposed to foreign adoptions on nationalistic principle, and that is why these cases that happen abroad attract such resonance," says German Pyatov, a Moscow doctor and founder of the Murziki charity group that provides assistance to struggling orphanages.
"But we need to acknowledge that cruelty to children is a universal evil, and we have more than our share of it in Russia," he adds.
A US track record
As many as 100,000 Russian children have been adopted by foreigners since the collapse of the USSR two decades ago, and fewer than 20 of them have died as a result of negligence or abuse. But there have been a few high profile American cases in recent years that have drawn huge attention in the Russian media and led Astakhov to demand such adoptions be cut off.
Two years ago a Tennessee mother, apparently unable to cope with her adopted Russian son Artyom Savelyev, put the boy on a one-way flight to Moscow with a "to whom it may concern" note of rejection. Last week a Tennessee judge ordered the adoptive mother, Torry Hansen, to pay $150,000 in damages and an additional $1,000 per month in child support for the boy, now 10 years old and living in Russia, until he reaches the age of 18.
Another example that drew a firestorm of outrage in Russia was the 2009 death by abuse and malnutrition of 7-year old Russian-born Nathaniel Craver, whose adoptive American parents were sentenced last November to 16 months in jail by a Pennsylvania court.
"Russian fascination with cases like this is an echo of the 1990s, when things were really bad," says Tatiana Gurko, a family expert with the official Institute of Sociology in Moscow. "In those days there were few controls on international adoptions, and Russian children were almost literally being sold abroad. Those days are long gone, but people are still thinking in those terms. It really shouldn't be politicized."