Tough New Rules for Adoptive U.S. Parents

The government will toughen regulations for Americans wishing to adopt Russian children after a U.S. court acquitted a Virginia man of felony charges in the death of his newly adopted Russian son earlier this year, officials said Thursday.

A Virginia court on Wednesday acquitted Miles Harrison, 49, of involuntary manslaughter in the death of his 21-month-old son, who died in July after being left for nine hours in a sweltering car.

Russia tightened controls over adoptions a few years ago after several children died at the hands of U.S. parents, and Wednesday's acquittal will lead to a further clampdown, said Alina Levitskaya, head of the Education and Science Ministry's child welfare department.

The verdict "casts doubts" on adopted children's rights in the United States and "will lead to a tightening of requirements for the adoption of Russian children by U.S. citizens," Levitskaya said in a statement on the ministry's web site.

The ministry has already prepared an official demand to be sent to the U.S. State Department regarding the adoption of Russian children, Levitskaya said. The statement gave no specifics about possible stricter requirements. Ministry spokesman Alexander Kochnev said by telephone Thursday afternoon that officials were in the process of working out new rules.

Yevgeny Khorishko, spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington, said U.S. authorities should appeal the "grievous court ruling acquitting the murderer of an infant Russian citizen," Interfax reported.

State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov said he was "disturbed" by the verdict and that Russia should do everything in its power to make adoption a more attractive option for Russian families. "We need Russian children to stay in Russia," Gryzlov told Interfax.

Gryzlov added that foreigners turn to Russia to adopt as "our children are genetically much healthier and significantly smarter than in other countries."

In 2005, after the well-publicized deaths of several Russian children at the hands of their adoptive parents in the United States, influential Duma deputies called for a moratorium on all foreign adoptions.

The moratorium never happened, but foreign adoption agencies began facing greater bureaucratic hurdles. Two U.S. adoption agencies were barred from operating in Russia in July, shortly after the death of Harrison's adoptive child, Chase.

Harrison, managing director of a real estate consulting firm in Herndon, Virginia, left the boy — whose Russian name was Dmitry Yakovlev — in the back seat of his sport utility vehicle for much of the day as he worked in his office, The Washington Post reported. The temperature in the vehicle rose to about 55 degrees Celsius before a passerby saw the dead child late in the afternoon and alerted the office receptionist.

Child welfare advocates criticized the idea of severe limitations on foreign adoptions, noting that the number of deadly abuse cases was minuscule compared with the number of children adopted by foreign parents.

"A possible official crackdown on foreign adoptions will bring more harm than good," said Boris Altshuler, head of the nongovernmental organization The Right of the Child. "It condemns many children to stay forever at Soviet-era system institutions desperately in need of reform."

A total of 74,500 Russian children were adopted or placed in foster families in the first nine months of 2008, according to the latest available figures from the Education and Science Ministry. During the same period, however, 79,000 new children were placed into state custody.

"The fact that number of children permanently living in institutions remains unchanged over the last several years — about 150,000 — shows that the effectiveness of both state and regional child welfare systems are at the lowest level," said Galina Semya, an expert who has worked on federal programs to assist orphans.

While tightening controls over foreign adoptions, the government should also provide proper awareness campaigns and support to domestic adoptive parents, said Moscow ombudsman Alexei Golovan, a prominent children's rights advocate.

"The state has not given the highest priority to the problem yet," Golovan said. "If it would, Russian orphans would finally find families."

Experts say there are three key points in tackling the problem: public opinion, financial support and legislation.

The government has taken some important steps in boosting financial support for domestic foster families, Vladimir Kabanov, head of the Education and Science Ministry's adoption department, said in a recent interview.

At the same time, adoptive Russian parents receive no financial assistance from the state, and social services typically have nothing more to do with the child after adoption.

Of the 130,500 children placed in families last year, only 9,500 were adopted by Russians. Foreigners, meanwhile, adopted 4,500 Russian children in 2007.

Many Western governments provide financial incentives for adoptive parents, including subsidized medical care for the adopted child.

This is a key point for domestic adoptions in Russia, as a considerable number of Russian orphans are sick or disabled. A Russian parent with a disabled child is left with virtually no government support, said Public Chamber member Sergei Koloskov, head of an NGO that assists children with Down syndrome. Furthermore, it is exceedingly difficult to place such children in schools, he said.

"No wonder so many Russians leave their disabled children in orphanages and so few adopt disabled children," Koloskov said.

Many Russian families are afraid of adopting because parentless children are often viewed as having suffered irreversible psychological damage. The media, which could be key to removing this societal stigma, has done little to promote the interests of the children, said psychologist Lyudmila Petranovskaya, an expert on adoption issues.

"We have few programs and movies with a positive message," Petranovskaya said. "Information today is a commodity to be sold — and it sells more quickly with tragedy and sensationalism."

Public opinion on adoption must be swayed cardinally if any progress is to be achieved, said Golovan, the Moscow ombudsman. The situation could change if the national media were to receive a clear directive from the government to promote adoptions, but no one is lobbying for such measures, he said.

'We even don't have a federal ombudsman for children who could lobby for [abandoned children]," Golovan said.

There is another way to help change things for the better, Golovan said.

"I bet if one of the leaders of United Russia would adopt a child, there would be a wave of adoptions — among state officials at least."