Russia: Home Alone
by Oksana Yablokova
22 November 2004
Russian officials call for tighter rules on international adoption and for looser adoption laws at home.
MOSCOW, Russia--Pressure is mounting on the Kremlin to tighten regulations on international adoptions, with concerns being aired by nationalists worried by the decline in Russia’s population and by officials who believe that international adoption has become a criminal business.
The debate has gained added urgency since it became clear that in 2003 more Russian children are now being adopted by non-Russian than by Russian parents. However, less noted in the Russian media is a sharp decline in the number of Russian families adopting children--and a huge rise over the past decade in the number of children being abandoned.
‘A PROFITABLE BUSINESS’
Despite tighter controls introduced in 2000, the number of children from Russian orphanages who have found foreign parents has surged over the past four years. Over the past decade, more than 45,000 children have been placed with foreign families.
But the rise in interest has also fueled corruption. At a hearing of a parliamentary committee in the Russian State Duma on 15 November, Deputy Prosecutor General Vladimir Kolesnikov said numerous cases of adoption officials abusing their powers have surfaced in regions such as Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Volgograd, Kaliningrad, Perm, and St. Petersburg. Typically, he said, the cases involve officials accepting bribes to speed up the complicated process of collecting the papers needed for adoptions and to avoid some checks on the would-be parents’ background.
"As sad as it may sound, adoptions have turned into a profitable business," Deputy Prosecutor General Vladimir Kolesnikov said. "Sometimes a child costs up to $50,000."
Adoption in Russia is supposed to be free of charge.
Kolesnikov said that his office is receiving a growing number of complaints about illegal adoptions. However, no new criminal cases have been opened since 2000. And, of the 18 investigations opened between 1998 and 2000, only two resulted in convictions. Both involved corrupt officials.
Questions about that the rights and wrongs of international adoption and flaws in the system have also increased partly due to a number of high-profile adoptions in recent months. In July, Germany’s Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder adopted a three-year-old, and in late October there were claims that the Hollywood actress, Angelina Jolie, had circumvented regulations when she adopted a seven-month-old boy the previous month.
Jolie apparently visited several orphanages in September to find a child for adoption, eventually handpicking the child.
Under Russian law, would-be adoptive parents from abroad are supposed to choose a child from a central registry. Only after looking at the child’s photos and records are they allowed to meet the child. Part of the purpose of the law is to keep tighter control of the adoption process and to limit the possibility of officials in the orphanages cutting deals with potential parents. Some are now calling for the state to centralize adoption procedures more.
Officials at the Education and Science Ministry and the adoption agencies it licenses said matters are not as bad as law-enforcers indicate.
"I am not aware of any of the facts that Kolesnikov was talking about, but he is a prosecutor and probably knows what he is talking about," said Galina Trostanetskaya, head of the Education and Science Ministry's child welfare department.
Kolesnikov had also criticized how Russia’s child welfare agencies operated.
RUSSIA’S CITY OF ORPHANS
At 700,000, the number of Russian children under 16 without a family is startling and vast. According to Yekaterina Lakhova, a member of the Duma, that is double the number a decade ago. Against this, the annual number of adoptions registered by the Education and Science Ministry looks small, at just 15,000.
And the trends are worsening. More and more children are being abandoned and, over the past decade, the number of domestic adoptions has almost halved.
In 2003, international adoptions outnumbered Russian adoptions for the first time ever. The same appears likely to happen again this year. Figures cited by Lakhova indicate that Russians have adopted 7,331 children so far this year, while foreigners have taken 7,852 children into their homes.
In statistical terms, the fivefold increase in international adoptions over the past 10 years is therefore only making up for the decline in the number of Russian families adopting. Why, then, have the number of adoptions fallen in Russia?
Nina Ostanina, a member of the Duma's Committee for Women, Family, and Youth, said she believes new laws should be passed to make it easier for Russians to adopt children.
Ostanina, like some nationalists, is motivated partly by fears about Russia’s demographic implosion. "Very soon we'll have a vast territory with no people," Ostanina said.
Lakhova also argued that the laws are too strict for Russians. Amendments passed to the Family Code in 1998, for example, prohibit adoptions by families with poor housing or low incomes. But the housing of some 60 percent of all Russian families would not measure up to the requirements set down in the law, Lakhova said.
Such explanations were downplayed by Natalya Shaginian-Needham, who heads Happy Families International Center, a U.S.-based adoption agency. She argued that existing legislation makes it possible for Russian families to adopt an orphan painlessly.
A greater problem is the stigma associated with adoption in Russia, a throwback, in her view, to the Soviet era.
"Some people just cannot imagine raising children who aren't theirs biologically," she said. "This is some kind of poverty of thinking; I do not know where it comes from."
However, this fails to explain why fewer Russians are adopting now than in the past.
One other factor may offer some explanation, believes Shaginian-Needham. According to a recent poll conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation, more than 60 percent of respondents said that they are uncertain over their future and stability. In her view, that uncertainly makes Russians unwilling to care for another child.
That may also help to explain why the majority of children entering orphanages are not in fact orphaned but abandoned. Why that number continues to grow despite five years of oil-fueled boom is unclear, however.
Those who highlight economic factors can perhaps point to a welcome increase in the number of Russians willing to become foster parents. Under Russian law, foster parents receive payments from the state to help cover the cost of raising a child, while parents who adopt a child do not.
Svetlana Pronina, of the Child's Rights group, said that many Russian households are unaware of ways of raising an orphan in a family, such as foster care.
She believes more needs to be done to draw the public’s attention to the plight of orphans, including airing public-information advertisements on television and in other media. That would help encourage Russian parents to adopt a child, she suggested.
KEEPING AN EYE ON RUSSIA’S CHILDREN
Whatever the reasons for the fall-off in adoptions in Russia, the publicity generated by the rapid increase in the number of international adoptions may be pushing Russian adoption authorities to monitor the progress of former charges sent abroad, and to push for closer cooperation with other governments.
Kolesnikov called for Russia to reach bilateral agreements allowing the Russian authorities to follow how Russian children develop in their new families.
According to Deputy Interior Minister Nikolai Pershutkin, a particular problem are Russians with dual citizenship. These “independent adopters,” as they are known, can adopt in the same, simpler way that Russians can.
Pershutkin said that, last year alone, 2,500 children were taken out of Russia that way. The whereabouts of most of them are unknown, he said. He believes this loophole has created a “criminal business” and called for tougher legislation.
Such concerns about the fate of adopted children are not groundless and a number of cases of children being killed or injured by adopted American parents have been prominently reported in the Russian media.
Viktor Alexander Matthey, a seven-year-old Russian boy adopted with his four-year-old twin brothers in December 1999, died in New Jersey in 2000.
Doctors found 40 injuries, including scratches, open wounds and bruises, on the boy's body, but what eventually killed him was hypothermia. Prosecutors said Viktor, whose his body temperature was just 29 degrees Celsius when he was brought in, had been forced to sleep in an unheated cellar on nights when outdoor temperatures dropped below zero.
The boy's adoptive parents, Robert and Brenda Matthey, were sentenced to 10 years each in prison on child abuse charges in May 2004. Their four biological children and the twin brothers have been placed in state custody.
Also in 2000, Denise Kaye Thomas of Colorado was sentenced to a year of unsupervised probation after being arrested for trying to sell her Russian daughter on the internet. The eight-year-old child was placed in foster care.
Oksana Yablokova is a journalist with the Moscow Times and a TOL correspondent.
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