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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Duma Backs Off Limits to Adoption

The State Duma gave final approval Friday to a watered-down version of a bill to regulate foreign adoptions that drops requirements adoption advocates said would bar Russian orphans from finding new homes overseas.

Vague language in the bill leaves unanswered questions, but the measure for the most part keeps in place the current system, in which overseas agencies use Russian representatives to help adoptive parents get through red tape.

Earlier versions of the bill included a moratorium on adoptions and treaty requirements that human rights and adoption groups said would effectively halt overseas adoptions, condemning children to lives of misery and early death in Russia's children's homes.

Adoption workers were cautious in assessing the bill because it leaves blanks to be filled in later by government bureaucrats. But they said it appears adoptions can go ahead as before.

"It doesn't look like it's going to have any effect, at least in the short run," on foreign adoptions, said Mercy Reed Marchuk, Russian program director for Maine Adoption Placement Services in the United States.

Several observers expressed concern about the vagueness of the law, which they say would leave the process up to the whim of local bureaucrats in Russia's regions, some of whom have taken anti-adoption stands. The law, for instance, bans involvement by "intermediaries" but permits the use of "representatives," without defining either.

The issue of foreign adoptions has struck a nerve with some communist and nationalist legislators, who say the current system is rife with corruption. They also have expressed concern over cases of adopted Russian children being mistreated in the United States, the most frequent destination.

The four-part bill was approved on third reading by the 450-member lower house without debate, with more than 300 deputies voting for each part. To become law, it must be approved by the Federation Council, the upper house, and be signed by President Boris Yeltsin.

The original bill would have halted foreign adoptions until Russian signed treaties with the adopting countries, a process that could take years. The earlier versions were sharply criticized by adoption advocates and the news media.

The current version retains requirements that Russian children keep their citizenship until age 18, and that Russian consulates keep track of their welfare in their adoptive homes.

The citizenship requirement has concerned some adoption advocates because it might cause problems naturalizing children in countries that do not permit dual citizenship. In the United States, the citizenship provision should not be an obstacle to naturalization, according to the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse in Washington.

But the post-placement reporting requirement would cause difficulties, not least for the Russian consulates, several American adoption workers said.

Russian news media prominently reported the case of Renee Polreis, a Colorado woman sentenced to 22 years in prison for beating to death a 2 1/2 year old boy she adopted from a Tula orphanage. There was also the case of an Arizona couple charged with neglect after hitting two unruly girls on the flight home from Russia. A court returned the children after the couple attended parenting classes.

Couples pay agencies up to $20,000 for an adoption, and some Russian officials have likened the process to selling babies, pointing to a handful of highly publicized cases of corruption.

About 80 U.S. adoption agencies operate in Russia, with Americans adopting 4,719 children in 1997. Russians adopted 8,799 in 1996, the last year for which statistics were available, down from 13,492 four years earlier. In addition, two-thirds of the physically or mentally disabled children are adopted overseas.

There are 600,000 orphans living in Russia's children's homes, where the death rate during the first year of life is five times higher than in the population at large.

One potentially important aspect of the new bill is that it seems to allow foreign adoption agencies accredited by their home governments to work in Russia. But details of how that would work, including rules for the registration process, were omitted and left to the executive branch to write, said Igor Khamenev, chief of staff on the Duma's committee on women, children and the family.

Adoption worker Marchuk said that registration would give the Russian government "a good way to hold agencies accountable for what they do."

The law says that agencies could register under the terms "of an international treaty or under the principal of reciprocity" -- the meaning of which was not spelled out.

According to an analysis of the bill by the U.S. Joint Council On International Children's Services, the proposed Hague Convention, a multilateral treaty to regulate international adoption, might provide the treaty framework that would satisfy the requirements of the law. The U.S. signed the treaty, though Russia so far has not.