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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia's Wanted Children

Last year Americans adopted nearly 5,000 Russian children. Alarmed nationalist politicians are trying to pass a law that would drastically curtail adoptions by foreigners.

By Boris Aliabyev

A n American couple arrived in Russia's Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk last July, hoping to take home a 1 1/2-year-old girl that had been promised to them by a U.S. adoption agency. After spending two weeks visiting the child in an orphanage, the couple was devastated to discover that the local court had already arranged for the baby to be adopted by another American couple.

Authorities suspect Nadezhda Huston, a woman who helped arrange adoptions in the city, had colluded with local government officials to arrange the adoption in whatever way would reap the most financial rewards for them, according to Yelena Tamarova, a spokeswoman for the Khabarovsk city administration. A Russian-born naturalized U.S. citizen, Huston worked officially for two, and unofficially for twelve, American adoption agencies and arranged more than 100 adoptions during the last two years. Huston is known to have been involved in several other cases where a baby was suddenly given to couples other than those to whom the child had been initially promised, presumably because the latter offered more money. "She could probably have gone on for a long time without anyone noticing her machinations had it not been for the sudden arrival of the parents for whom the children were originally intended," Tamarova says. With Huston no longer in Russia and few laws regulating adoption procedures, it is unlikely that the authorities will make any arrests.

Such behind-the-scenes dealings rarely come to light, making it difficult to know the extent of shady activities surrounding adoptions in Russia. But amid soaring demand overseas for Russian babies, the few exposed corrupt dealings, along with two highly publicized cases of foreign adoptive parents accused of abusing Russian children, have prompted nationalist members of the State Duma, parliament's lower house, to propose legislation that would in effect put a moratorium on foreign adoptions of Russian children.

"Adoption has taken on uncivilized, monstrous forms; it has turned into a blatant market of child trade. One needs to bring order to this," says Irina Kuznetsova, an advisor to the Duma's Committee for Affairs of Family, Women and Young People and one of the drafters of the proposed legislative amendments. In December the Duma gave preliminary approval to a highly restrictive bill. After the committee further debates and modifies the legislation -- during which time the most contentious points are likely to be toned down -- the Duma will take a final vote in late March.

In its current form, the bill calls for several highly controversial measures. The government would be required to draw up separate treaties with countries from where people would be allowed to adopt Russians, a process that could take years of diplomatic negotiations and effectively halt adoptions by foreign nationals. The bill requires that a child's closest relative be present at court hearings that finalize adoptions. Critics of the amendments say such a measure would only open the way for unscrupulous relatives to seek money from prospective parents in exchange for granting permission to adopt. The legislation demands that adopted Russian children maintain their citizenship, a requirement that would complicate adoptions for people from countries that do not recognize dual citizenship.

The sudden outcry surrounding adoption stems largely from the huge increase in numbers of foreign adoptions. The number of Russian children adopted by foreigners increased nearly fivefold between 1992 and 1996, from 678 to 3,197 respectively, according to the most recent statistics available from the Education Ministry. Russia is an attractive source of children for Americans who want white children. Many Americans have been dissuaded from adopting children in the United States where court decisions have returned adopted children to their biological parents. Americans topped the list of adoptive parents, taking in 4,719 children in 1997. In the last three months of the year, fear of a ban on adoptions by foreigners prompted prospective parents to rush and process applications, according to a U.S. Embassy official.

Russian nationals still adopt more Russian children than foreigners. But as a growing number of people find they cannot afford to raise a child, the number of domestic adoptions has been declining, from 13,942 in 1992 to 8,799 in 1996. Moreover, an estimated two-thirds of children available for adoption are classified as having mental or physical disabilities, and few Russians are interested in adopting these or older children. "It would be fair to say that foreign parents end up adopting most of the older and handicapped children," says Irina Volodina, head of the Education Ministry's Department for Protection of Children's Rights.

Rather than viewing the growing number of foreign adoptions as an increased opportunity for orphans to pursue better lives, many Russians -- for whom adoption is not nearly as familiar a practice as it is in the West -- view the statistics suspiciously, and even as a threat to national interests. "Foreign adoption fails to meet the interests of Russian national security," Duma deputy Vladimir Davidenko says. "In view of our depopulation as a result of a high mortality rate and low birth rate, the best policy would be to terminate adoption of Russian children by parents from other countries."

Proponents of the new legislation also point to two recent cases of abuse against Russian children as reasons to restrict adoptions. A couple from Phoenix, Arizona, was arrested last May and charged with neglect after hitting two unruly girls aboard a flight from Moscow to New York. Richard and Karen Thorne had just adopted the girls, both then 4 years old, from an orphanage in Voronezh. A New York family court returned the children to the couple this week after they attended parent training classes. In July, a Colorado woman was convicted of murder after beating to death her adopted 2-year-old Russian son. As serious as they are, adoption experts point out that the incidents are rare occurrences among the thousands of adoptions that take place each year.. But the cases easily stir up protective sentiment among Russian nationalists. "Some people are playing foreign adoption as a political card," Volodina says.

Russia's increasingly independent-minded regions, from where many children are adopted, have also put forth impassioned calls for restrictions on foreign adoptions. Local legislators of the Penza region asked the Duma last summer to delete all articles allowing foreign adoption. In September the governor of the Leningrad region, going beyond his legal mandate, banned foreign adoptions from his jurisdiction, saying that legal procedures needed to be clarified further on a federal level. In Khabarovsk, the local legislature is preparing to pass a set of "draconian" measures designed to regulate adoption, according to spokeswoman Tamarova.

Russian orphans will have the most to lose if there is a moratorium on foreign adoption. Russia has an estimated 600,000 orphans, about one-third of whom live in children's institutions. The death rate during the first year of life in these homes -- which like most public institutions suffer from a serious lack of funds and staff -- is five times higher than the population at large, according to Moscow human rights groups. "About 20 percent of delinquents serving time in prisons came from orphanages. Not connected with normal social life, they have been attracted by the criminal world," Volodina says. "So what is more important? To live here or to have a happy life?"

"A child needs parents," says Peter Sherman, who with his wife Linda adopted a 10-month-old boy from Chelyabinsk in November. "If they cannot be Russian parents, then loving parents from elsewhere."

In January, a consortium of Russian human rights groups, including the Moscow Center for Human Rights and the Moscow Helsinki Group, sent an open letter to the chairman and deputies of the Duma, saying that, "instead of restoring order, [the amendments] would only generate additional chaos in the international adoption of Russian orphans or make such adoption practically impossible."

"We call on you to consider in a more general way the matter of the condition of children in Russia, the conditions in which some deputies propose to keep orphans by depriving them of a chance to find families, as well as the catastrophic growth in the number of orphans and children left without parental care."

All parties involved in the debate on adoption agree that a large problem with adoption in Russia is the lack of transparency of the legal procedures and the resulting opportunities for corruption among officials authorizing adoptions. The proposed legislation, however, deals with this issue only by imposing relatively light fines for illegal activities conducted in the process of adoption.

The vast majority of foreigners adopting Russian children do so with the help of private adoption agencies from their own countries. The agencies usually hire local proxies to handle the legal procedures on the ground. Russian law places the crucial task of identifying which children are available for adoption and preparing the necessary paperwork with "organs of guardianship and child care." The heads of each local government decide which office will be designated as such an "organ," but in most cities, it ends up being a single official with the title of "specialist" or "inspector."

Typically, the official is a mid-level bureaucrat -- often a woman -- in charge of all district child-related issues. In most cases, she is underpaid and overworked. The key official in the legal procedures for adoption is a prime target for bribery. "Officials who are paid a pittance, when they are paid their wages at all, may find it difficult to resist the temptation of green-colored dollars," Kuznetsova says. "The proxies have been corrupting our officials," says Igor Khamanev, Chief of Staff of the Committee for Affairs of Family, Women and Young People.

While most Russian adoptive parents pay nothing during the procedures, foreigners usually pay agencies from $10,000 upward. Critics of agencies say some of this money serves as bribes to local officials to speed up procedures and bend regulations to expedite adoptions. What constitutes a bribe is debatable. Some argue that agency-sponsored tours overseas of local officials, ostensibly to show them prospective homes and lifestyles of adopted children, serve as bribes. Some say even gifts to orphanages should be banned as they could be used to cultivate special relations with orphanage directors. "An official who has been on a trip to New Zealand or the U.S. arranged by an adoption agency, may be then asked to help find children for parents sponsored by this agency," Khamanev says. "And if a Russian turns up, the official will say: 'Sorry, there are no children available.'"

Roger and Dodie Delaney of Fairbanks, Alaska, paid a U.S. agency $18,000 to adopt three children from Krasnodar last year. Despite repeated requests for a breakdown of how the money was spent, the agency never told them. "No one ever told me, this much goes here, this much goes there," Dodie says. Last summer, the agency brought several orphanage directors and judges to New York and Chicago. The Delaneys also believe some of their money was given to orphanages. "I feel good [about the agency], but you wonder -- and you hope not -- if some people are getting rich," Dodie says.

After a proxy provides the specialist or inspector with the required documents, which include application forms, papers attesting to the prospective parents' ability to offer good homes and letters of recommendation, the official then shows the proxy which children are available for adoption by looking into a database.

Education Ministry officials note with pride that no other country has such a comprehensive registry of children available for adoption. If a child has been left without parental care for more than six months, his or her name enters a regional database. The name remains in the database for one month, during which time the child may be adopted by Russian nationals in that region. If no one adopts the child, his or her name is then moved to a federal database. For the next three months, the child remains available for adoption only by Russian nationals. Only after three months on the federal registry, can a Russian child be available for adoption by a foreign national. At present, the federal database contains more than 45,000 names.

But the database is also open to manipulation. Local government officials have been known to give out names from regional databases to foreign agencies, depriving Russian parents of their priority in adopting children. "It is agencies' brokers, not Russian parents, who enjoy direct access to regional databases," Kuznetsova says. Some proxies set up "parallel businesses" to their work with agencies, selling information from the database directly to adoptive parents, according to Khamanev.

The final legal step in adoption is a court hearing to officially hand over the child to its new guardians. Court sessions are often only a formality with judges confirming the paperwork and running through a list of basic questions, such as, "is there enough space in your home for this child?" The courts only occasionally fulfill their function of ensuring that "it proved impossible" to find Russian parents for the child.

Critics of the bill argue that its broad provisions, such as bilateral agreements and nationality requirements, do not address the issues of corruption and that they should be replaced by more specific and preventive action to attack the core of the problems in adoption procedures. The Education Ministry proposes the implementation of some sort of accreditation system of adoption agencies that would ensure the quality of the organizations.

The human rights consortium, which opposes the current bill, has drafted an alternative proposal to create the post of a federal commissioner for the protection of children. Under the commissioner would be a nationwide group, comprised half of government officials and half of members of human rights organizations, that would be legally mandated to inspect children's institutions and review documents related to adoption procedures. The proposal has been approved by President Boris Yeltsin's Political Consultative Council's Chamber of Human Rights, and is currently being circulated among Duma deputies.

As the government continues debate, hopeful parents still stream into Russia in search of children. Joseph Horvath, 50, from Indianapolis, Indiana, arrived in Vladivostok last July to adopt 3-year-old Denis. He had originally hoped to take home Vadim, 5, as well, but one week before he departed for Russia, the U.S. agency he had been working through informed him that due to "a technical mistake," Vadim was not available. The boy had not been listed in the federal database for the required three months. Fortunately for Horvath, an engineer, no Russian requested to adopt Vadim during the following three months and he was united with the boy in October.

It is unlikely that Denis or Vadim would have been adopted by Russian parents, who strongly prefer healthy infants. Denis is the son of an alcoholic mother and Vadim's Russian medical documents said he suffered from a mild heart disorder -- a diagnosis later disputed by U.S. doctors. These days the boys attend preschool twice a week, practice soccer with their father and play at a friend's farm. "These [adopted] children go to some of the best homes in America," Horvath says, explaining that the costs of adopting children from overseas tends to restrict prospective parents to those of higher income.

"So many people are seeking children. It would be a shame if adoptions were slowed down," Horvath says. But the question of how to regulate adoption is ultimately and rightfully, he acknowledges, "up to the Russian people."