The Russian anti-US adoption ban: Putin is an ass

The plight of Russian orphans is an international disgrace. Calling Putin an Photo: Associated Press

WASHINGTON, DC, December 30, 2012 — Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law a ban on American adoptions of Russian children. The “Dima Yakovlev” law was named for a Russian toddler whose adoptive American father, Miles Harrison, left him in a car, where he died of heatstroke.

The Russian law was passed in response to America’s Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which sanctions Russian officials whom American officials believe are guilty of corruption and human rights violations. Magnitsky was a Russian hedge-fund lawyer who died in prison after exposing corruption and tax fraud among top Russian officials.

And so Putin has signed a law that will immediately block 46 adoptions of Russian orphans who were about to join American families, and he has done it in defense of Russian officials who, even by Russian standards, are criminally corrupt.

That’s viciously pathetic.

American adoptions of Russian children have always been controversial. Over 60,000 Russian children have been adopted by American families since 1992. The number of adoptions each year climbed to over 5,000 in 2004, then gradually fell to just under 1,000 last year.

The stream of adoptions has inflamed nationalist sentiment in Russia and a feeling that Americans are stealing Russian children. There have been 19 deaths of Russian children adopted by Americans. A highly publicized 2010 incident, in which an adoptive American mother put her seven-year-old Russian son on a plane back to Moscow with a note pinned to his jacket, inflamed the Russian public against American adoptions.

Opposition to these adoptions hasn’t all come from Russia. There is opposition in the U.S. and the international community to international adoptions. Some people consider it a form of child trafficking (a concern addressed by the Hague Adoption Convention, which the U.S. signed in 1994 and which entered force in 2008), and the argument is often made that Americans should adopt American orphans.

The opposition to foreign adoptions, both in the U.S. and in Russia, is misplaced.

Any number of children killed by negligent or abusive parents is too many, but they will occur whether children are adopted or conceived by their parents, whether they are adopted at home or abroad, and no matter how carefully we screen prospective parents. We should remember that children die in orphanages, too. While many caregivers in Russian orphanages are loving and dedicated to their charges, the conditions in those orphanages are grim. In many orphanages, rather than affection, children get beatings.

In doing the best that we can for children in orphanages, our goal should be to find the best solutions, not perfect ones. Perfect solutions don’t exist.

UNICEF estimates that there are 750,000 children in Russian orphanages (the estimated number of Russian orphans ranges from 500,000 to 4 million, most estimates clustering around 800,000), with an estimated 140,000 available for adoption. 95 percent of them have a living parent, but they’ve been put in orphanages because the parents are too poor, too sick, too drug-addled, or too indifferent to keep them. Many suffer from disabilities including fetal alcohol syndrome, and those are often warehoused: tied to beds and urine-soaked cribs, left in “lying down rooms,” dismissed and ignored as “ineducable.”

All Russian orphans live in a “children’s house” until the age of four. At that point they receive a medical and educational assessment. If they fail, they are labeled “idiots” and turned over to the Ministry of Labor and Social Development, which sends them to closed institutions. Those who survive to the age of 18 are sent to nursing homes and asylums for the rest of their lives.

Caregivers at Russian orphanages are overwhelmed by the numbers. In the best orphanages, children are moved almost as on an assembly line from station to station, from play to meal to classroom. Infants and toddlers are left for hours in their cribs with limited interaction with adults. Warehousing with good will and affection is still warehousing.

Even the best orphanage is worse than a minimally adequate home.

Unfortunately, Russians don’t have as strong a record of adopting children as they have of putting them in orphanages. There’s been a stigma attached to adoption, and Russian families haven’t lined up to provide homes for Russian orphans, whose prospects in life are bleak. At 15 or 16, healthy Russian orphans find themselves unceremoniously dumped on the streets to take care of themselves. UNICEF estimates that one-in-three of them end up living on the streets; 20 percent become criminals; 10 percent commit suicide.

Now let’s remember: Of 60,000 Russian orphans adopted by American parents, 19 have died of abuse or neglect. That’s one-thirtieth of a percent.

The reasons that Americans go to Russia and other countries to adopt are diverse. It has been much easier for older couples (45 and above) to adopt in Russia. The only age requirement has been that single parents be at least 16 years older than the adoptive child.

Another issue is that American law makes adoption here a nightmare. By contrast, Russian adoptions have been relatively simple and completely final. Home studies by qualified social workers have been required, along with documentation about the prospective parents’ health and financial history. Two separate visits to Russia have been mandatory, and the total cost has been $40-60,000 per adoption. This is comparable to the cost of adoption in the United States, but the finality of the adoption and the relative legal simplicity make foreign adoption more attractive.

A Bilateral Adoption Agreement between Russia and the U.S. was designed to reduce the likelihood of a bad adoption. Signed by Putin on July 28, 2012, it set stricter standards for the agencies facilitating adoptions, and it required training (up to 80 hours) for adoptive parents. It increased the standards for post adoption monitoring by Russian officials.

In the final analysis, adoption laws should be aimed at making life as good as possible for children in orphanages. Coming just months after the BAA, Russia’s adoption ban is clearly part of a tit-for-tat game of human-rights politics. It has nothing to do with improving life for Russian orphans, it turns them into pawns in a contest over national prestige, and it is cruel.

Putin has always been an ass, but with this law he’s dived to new lows. Always concerned with his image – riding bare-chested across the Russian steppe, teaching young cranes to fly, discovering Scythian treasures in Russian streams – he’s a vainglorious and petty autocrat. Concern for Russian orphans does not require that they be adopted by Americans, but that was one venue for helping a small percentage of them, and it hasn’t been replaced with anything better. Putin has promised to improve the care of orphans in Russia, but he doesn’t have the means to do it.

The adoption ban prompted creation of an online petition to oppose it, and it has been opposed by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Education Minister Dmitry Livanov, and Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets.


James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at 

James and his wife adopted two children from Russia. His son, who refused to speak much in the orphanage, was adopted out as a “special needs” child and was months away from being sent to a “closed institution,” according to the orphanage director. Twelve-years-old, he now tests at the 12th grade level in reading and the 9th grade level in math. His daughter, who was also considered developmentally disabled due to fetal alcohol syndrome, is an A-B student. She turns out to have nothing wrong with her that her parents can’t deal with by shouting at the top of their lungs or unplugging the headphones from her iPod. They believe that the biggest affliction their children suffer from is called “incipient adolescence.” They’ve been told that it goes away on its own after about ten years.


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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