Russian Ban on US Adoptions: Is It Fair?

At year’s end, Russian President Putin signed a bill banning adoptions of Russian children to Americans.  The media went into a frenzy doing what they do best: exploiting pain and heartbreak. With the funerals in Newton Connecticut concluded and the unthinkable school massacre story dying down, the new victims du jour quickly became the disappointed would-be adoptive parents caught in the middle of the Russian closure with reports of the ban featuring tearful couples longingly displaying empty nurseries.

What is missing, however, in the outrage and sympathy for the children and waiting parents the ban impacts is the fact that Russia has been threatening to end adoptions to America for years. Adoption agencies placing Russian children were well aware of the precarious nature of Russian-American adoptions since at least 2006. Anyone planning an adoption from Russia would have likewise known of ongoing negotiations between the U.S. and Russia regarding the tenuous future of such adoptions. Russia repeatedly threatened to stop adoptions at least until their demands for oversight were met. Treaties were being negotiated but the American adoption system is not set up to provide the follow-ups on finalized adoptions the Russians requested.

The entire world heard the uproar and the fury of the Russian government when Tori Hansen of Tennessee sent her 7-year-old adopted son back to Russia on an airplane alone claiming his emotional problems were more than she could handle. This notorious 2010 case cast a global spotlight on already tense Russian-American adoptions and also highlighted the issues facing parents who commit to care for previously institutionalized children, many of whom suffer a high rate of fetal alcohol syndrome.

Why Have These Adoptions Been Banned?

It’s been reported that Russia acted in retaliation of the Magnitsky Act. Named for attorney Sergei Magnitsky who died under suspicious causes in police custody, the law penalizes Russians who commit human rights violations, barring them from travel to the United States and from owning real estate or maintaining financial assets here.

There were many other ways Russia could have retaliated if that were the only goal. While the Magnitsky Act may have been the final slap in Russia’s face, the ban on adoption did not originate because of it, nor did it come out of the blue. Such a ban had been threatened for years, as has a negotiated treaty wherein the American government would agree to follow-up reports on Russian children placed in American homes.

U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said, “The Russian government’s politically motivated decision will reduce adoption possibilities for children who are now under institutional care.”

Time magazine admonished, “why use orphans as a political weapon?” and U.S.-based human rights organization Freedom House called the adoption ban an “attack against one of the most vulnerable groups in the Russian society.”

Yet, Pavel Astakhov, Russia’s child’s rights ombudsman, urged Putin to extend the ban to other countries, saying:  “There is huge money and questionable people involved in the semi-legal scheme of exporting children.” And, in a poll conducted by the Moscow-based Public Opinion Foundation, 75 percent of Russians agreed that they should place additional restrictions on foreign adoptions or ban them. Astakhov said the ban should have been enacted sooner, noting, “A foreigner who has paid for an adoption always gets a priority compared to potential Russian adoptive parents….A great country like Russia cannot sell its children.”

In 2006 Peggy Sue Hilt admitted killing her adopted Russian daughter by punching and kicking the 2-year-old. This death by abuse, not the first, caused Russian officials to call for a moratorium on adoptions to the U.S., a threat they later backed down on.

To date, there have been nineteen deaths by abuse of Russian children at the hands of their American adopters and untold additional numbers of Russian adoptees suffering abuse who have not succumbed to it. Nineteen deaths with some sixteen convictions of man slaughter or murder since 1996. Countless others have been abandoned or sent to The Ranch in Montana which Russian officials have tried but failed to gain entry to determine the number of children and their condition.

JaeRan Kim, of the Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare writing at Harlow’s Monkey, writes that the ban was:

… a natural and expected reaction from Russia. Without all the problems involving Russian adoptees over the past two decades, and without the U.S. being more concerned about the entitlement of American parents to adopt children at their demand than other children’s human rights (for example, the U.S. still has not ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child) then I don’t think Russia would have taken this move.

Kim points out that nineteen deaths out of a total of 60,000 children adopted by Americans from Russia represents about .03% compared to the 0.002% (2010 figures) percentage of children in the general population who died in the U.S. due to abuse. Kim says, “I find this particularly egregious since supposedly adoption is to be the safety intervention for a child who has already experienced abuse, neglect and abandonment.”

Far less coverage has been given to the fact that in addition to ceasing U.S. adoptions, Russia’s investigative committee opened nine criminal cases against American families “threatening lives and health” of 12 Russian children and issued summonses for four American citizens as defendants in abstention.

Who is Entitled and Responsible for Whom?

Pundits fueled by the mega-billion dollar adoption industry lobbyists argue that the Russian adoption ban will deprive innocent children the opportunity of being adopted. It also deprives adopters of a popular source of White children, many with blonde hair and blue eyes making them very appealing and increasingly rare.  Skin color, age, health, and expedience of the process all play a role in selection and all effect the price – averaging $40,000 per child. International adoption is often preferred over domestic because most mothers placing children domestically are requesting open adoption today. Foreign adoption ensures no intrusion by birth mothers or fathers.

UNICEF’s concerns regarding International are that “the number of families from wealthy countries wanting to adopt children from other countries has grown substantially. At the same time, lack of regulation and oversight, particularly in the countries of origin, coupled with the potential for financial gain, has spurred the growth of an industry around adoption, where profit, rather than the best interests of children takes center stage…”

Unlike Guatemala, Russia has not stopped all international adoptions (IA) – only those to the US. In addition to Guatemala, Cambodia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Vietnam are among those who have ceased their IA programs and worked instead to promote domestic care for their children in need. The US stopped allowing adoptions from Nepal because of the inability to verify abandonment status. Many nations that have ceased international adoptions as a result of corruption have seen a decrease in the number of reported alleged abandonments.

Adoptions from Russia to the US represent an infinitesimally small fraction of the 650,000 Russian children living in orphanages. Americans adopted less than a third of the more than 3,400 children Russia placed worldwide last year. The less than 1,000 Russian children adopted by Americans last year will likely be disseminated to other nations or adopted within their own boarders as Russians continue to work to decrease stigmas on domestic adoption.

Astakhov reported that six adoptions already decided will go through, while 46 other children whose adoptions were underway remain in limbo in Russia.  But Kim, a South Korean born American, notes there is no need for great concern because :

That doesn’t mean they won’t get adopted. They could still go to other countries, or be adopted domestically in Russia since the country has also been working hard on improving their domestic adoption practices. Several years ago I spoke with a delegation of Russian child welfare professionals, judges, and orphanage directors. They spoke about their biggest challenge in domestic adoption – getting people to consider adopting sibling groups, older children and those with disabilities…..hm. Sounds familiar, like all those American families who won’t adopt our children in foster care with siblings, who are older, and who have disabilities.

We collectively wring our hands in despair over the 650,000 Russian children living in orphanages as if we have a moral duty to take them in.  Missing in that argument, however, is the fact that we have nearly as many children in need right here.  There are half a million children in U.S. foster care.  Every child an American adopts from oversees represents a child in U.S. care that has been deprived a permanent family.  Where is the dollar and cents logic in that when children in U.S. care are supported by tax payers while our government subsidizes IA with tax credits up to $13k each?   Meanwhile, the US is also sending children out of the country for adoption – but not those in state care.

A Last Resort

Every child deserves to be well cared for within their own culture. The United Nations, UNICEF, and all NGOs working on the ground with families in crisis all call for IA to be a last resort. As defined by International Law/UNCRC and the Hague Convention on International Adoption:

International Law says that Family Preservation should come first, domestic adoption second and international adoption as a last resort. What we have today is the complete opposite where international adoption is used as the go to solution in separating children from their biological families.

When we focus on the needs of the childless, we allow adoption to be demand and market driven. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights reported: “Regrettably, in many cases, the emphasis has changed from the desire to provide a needy child with a home, to that of providing a needy parent with a child. As a result, a whole industry has grown, generating millions of dollars of revenues each year . . .”  this is more true today than when it was stated in 2003.

Pastor Kim Do-hyun, director of KoRoot, an organization designed to help Korean-born adoptees find their families of birth and prevent the coercion and exploitation of Korean mothers, goes as far as to call overseas adoption a form of child abuse by the state. “Overseas adoption,” says Do-hyun, “is the forced expulsion of children from the society where they are supposed to live. In this sense, overseas adoption is a social violence against children …”

The justification for all adoption is that the children are provided more advantages. “There are probably many places in the world where living standards are better than ours,” Mr. Putin said. “So what? Shall we send all children there, or move there ourselves?”

At best, adoption is a trade-off. Even in the most loving, caring adoptive home adoptees report feelings of abandonment, rejection, genealogical bewilderment. They also loose updated family medical history that can be risky to their health and well-being. An increasing number of International adoptees, as they mature, are speaking out about their feelings of not fitting in in their homeland or their adopted nation, always feeling like an outcast, a stranger in a strange land. Many, especially those transnational adoptees who are also transracially adopted, have suffered discrimination.

The international redistribution of children based on supply and demand increases the bottom line of adoption agencies and practitioners, but it is not the most efficient, cost effective, or moral solution for children in need. Promoting domestic adoption and providing services needed to prevent family disruptions, as is being done in in Australia, are more humane options that need to be pursued.

The greater good of children and of society at large is far better served by each nation taking responsibility for their children in need and, in the end, each nation will be judged on how we treated our most vulnerable.

Mirah Riben is an activist/author/lecturer. Read other articles by Mirah, or visit Mirah's website.