A demographic crisis and violent deaths spur a renewed effort to keep adopted children in their homeland.by Irina Titova 18 April 2012
ST. PETERSBURG | Almost two years after Ana was born in 1994, she still couldn’t walk. She was small, pale, and would cry for hours at night from pain in her legs.
Doctors told her Russian mother that Ana suffered from cerebral palsy. The woman, who already had an older daughter, was ill-equipped to deal with a seriously ill child amid the harsh economic situation her country and family then faced. She put the girl up for international adoption, hoping Ana would get the medical help Russia could not provide.
At the time, children like Ana had little hope of being adopted by a Russian family. But she was lucky. An American couple, Diana and Bob (they asked that their last name not be used in order to protect Ana’s identity), had decided they wanted to adopt. They already had a son but had tried and failed to have a second child. Their search brought them to Russia and, ultimately, to Ana.
In the past decade, about 32,000 children were adopted from Russia by Americans, according to the U.S. State Department. Those adoptions reached their peak in 2004, at 5,862, but have been declining yearly ever since. In 2011 only 962 took place.
Now Russia is seeking to reduce those numbers even further – and casting doubt on its continued role as a source of children for international adoptions – in light of the country’s shrinking population and controversial deaths of Russian children adopted abroad.
“We must aim for the majority of Russian orphans to find their new families in Russia,” Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said in March. Although most children adopted abroad go to loving families, Putin said, “there are also blatant, tragic cases of the death of Russian children in adoptive foreign families.”
He called for foreign adoption to “become the rare, exclusive case.”
In March 2008, 14-month-old Nikolai Emelyantsev, a Russian child adopted by Fyodor and Kimberly Emelyantsev in Utah, died of a skull fracture. His mother subsequently admitted in court that she had thrown Nikolai to the floor.
A few months later, 18-month-old Dima Yakovlev died after his American adoptive father left him in a locked car for nine hours, in mid-summer, in a Virginia parking lot. A court ruled the death an accident.
But it was the story of 7-year-old Artyom Savelyev – whose adoptive mother, Torry-Ann Hansen, sent him back to Russia by plane alone in 2010 – that caused the most strain, prompting Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to order a temporary freeze on American adoptions of Russian children. The two countries have agreed on tougher rules for such adoptions, including a requirement for potential parents to receive psychological training and for adoptions to be arranged only by agencies accredited by the State Department.
Although there is currently no official, nationwide freeze on adoptions, the State Department has alerted Americans that “local departments of education and some judges in Russia have instituted a de facto freeze on adoptions to the United States. In some instances we are told that local departments of education have refused to provide referrals which are necessary for agencies and families to schedule court dates.”
Putin blamed the tragedies on low standards required of adoptive parents and the inability of protective services to intervene on behalf of a child.
According to the website of the Russian ombudsman for children, Pavel Astakhov, 19 Russian children have died of homicides or accidents in American adoptive families since 1992.
Meanwhile, more than 8,000 children were returned to orphanages from Russian adoptive families in 2009 alone, and more than 3,000 cases of abuse of adopted children were reported, Alina Levitskaya, director of the Russian Education and Science Ministry’s child welfare department, told an international conference on child cruelty in November 2010.
“In 2009 at least 24 people who adopted or fostered children [in Russia] were convicted of crimes that caused either death or harm to the health of those children,” Levitskaya said, according to the Rossiyskaya Gazeta newspaper.
“Unfortunately, our society doesn't react the same way to those statistics as it does when a sad case happens to a Russian child abroad,” she told the conference.
Svetlana Agapitova, children’s ombudsman in St. Petersburg, said the Russian authorities do not plan to freeze foreign adoptions, as there are not enough native families waiting to adopt the country’s orphans.
Instead, she said, officials are trying to limit the process to accredited and trusted agencies, making it possible to monitor a child’s life and well-being. The Russian Education and Science Ministry lists at least 79 foreign adoption agencies that are accredited to cooperate with Russian agencies. Agencies not on that list tend to work with private mediators, and the children involved are often lost track of.
Marina Levina, president of St. Petersburg charity Roditelsky Most (Parents’ Bridge), said Russian families are more reluctant than foreigners to adopt sick children, especially those with serious illnesses such as HIV, hepatitis, or Down syndrome. Levina said cutting back on foreign adoptions could mean more Russian children would remain in orphanages.
According to government statistics, 40 percent of people who grow up in Russia’s state orphanages commit crimes after they leave, 40 percent become alcoholics or drug addicts, and 10 percent commit suicide. Only one in 10 manages to adapt to normal life.
Levina said foreign adoptions present their own difficulties; as parents and children get to know each other, they’re also having to adapt to strange and sometimes troubling circumstances. For the child, there is the matter of a new country, a new culture, a new language, even new food. “In some cultures people are not as emotional as Russians and that may also be a difficult moment for an adopted child whose new parents are reserved by nature,” Levina said.
Under such circumstances, misbehavior is understandable, she said, but it adds to the stress on adoptive parents.
“Adopted children may cry a lot at first, wake up all through the night, and even kill animals before they calm down after a long while. That may really drive adoptive parents crazy,” Levina said.
Levina recounted the experience of a Russian family who adopted a child who had witnessed his biological mother being stabbed to death. “For a year and a half that child used to describe to his adoptive family in detail the scene he had witnessed,” she said.
Levina, who has an adopted daughter of her own, said thorough social and psychological training for adoptive parents is crucial – a service that many adoption agencies do not provide.
The procedure for foreigners to adopt Russian children is already considerably more difficult than for Russians, who have priority.
Foreigners can adopt only after a child has been in care, unclaimed by his or her parents or any Russian adopters, for at least six months. Russians pay no fees to adopt, and might even be paid to do so. (Some regional governments provide one-time payments of up to $10,000 to adopters.) Foreigners, on the other hand, can pay $40,000 to $50,000 for an adoption, experts say.
The process usually takes one to three months for Russians, compared with about 18 months for foreigners, who must have their paperwork translated and authenticated.
In 2010, 11,157 Russian children were adopted, about 70 percent of them domestically. That is a significant shift from 2005, when Russians took in only 43 percent of 16,432 adoptees.
In 2010, the other 30 percent of children went to families in the United States (1,016), Spain (792), Italy (686), France (304), and Germany (150), according to the Russian Education and Science Ministry.
Adoption, whether foreign or domestic, is not necessarily the best solution, said Joanna Rogers, project director at the St. Petersburg charity Partnership for Every Child. Rogers said the government needs to make a priority of keeping children with living parents out of orphanages.
According to Roditelsky Most, more than 74,000 children were taken from their parents and sent to live in orphanages in 2006. About 4 percent were the victims of child cruelty, another 10 percent faced threats to their life or health from their parents, 13 percent were abandoned in maternity wards, and about 60 percent had parents who were not fulfilling their duties in some other way.
“In European countries, there is competition among potential parents, whereas in Russia potential adopters have their choice of children,” Agapitova, the children’s ombudsman in St. Petersburg, said.
Back in the United States, Ana, now 17, has graduated from high school and work as a swimming instructor. Diana and Bob learned after bringing her home that she did not have cerebral palsy. Rather, she suffered from rickets, caused by a shortage of vitamin D.
Ana plans to go to college, Diana said, and is thinking of a career working with children.
In 2006, Ana and her adoptive family found her birth family and traveled to Russia to meet her biological mother, grandmother, and older half-sister. The reunion went well and gave Ana a chance to get answers to questions most adopted children have: What did she look like as a baby? Where is her father? (They didn’t know.) Did they ever think of her? Did they have any baby pictures of her? (They did not.) And what was their story about her being put up for adoption?
Diana said she and her husband have never had a second thought about their decision to adopt a Russian child.
“We love that she comes from Russia,” Diana said. “We never deny that she is Russian by birth and had a life before she came to us, but yet she still feels like our daughter as much as does our son, whom I gave birth to. We love Russia and feel that we have some kind of spiritual connection with the people there because of this experience.”