The Russian adoption ban and Putin’s petty, brutal politics

Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister of the Russian Federation; January 29, 2009. Copyright by World Economic Forum by Sebastian Derungs
Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister of the Russian Federation; January 29, 2009. Copyright by World Economic Forum by Sebastian Derungs

WASHINGTON, January 24, 2014 — A year after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the “Dima Yakovlev” law, Russian officials are firmly enforcing the ban on American adoptions of Russian children. They have rejected requests by American officials to reconsider the ban, and Americans who were in the process of adopting children have either moved on to adopt elsewhere or have taken their case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Thirty-three families who have appealed to the European Court claim that the ban violates the rights of Russian orphans. While their appeal has generated sympathy in the west, western governments are now more concerned with working with the Russian government to deal with security issues around the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Their desire for Russian cooperation precludes taking a hard stance on this issue.

Even if the Court finds for the families, there is nothing it can do to enforce its decision if the Russian government rejects it. By the time the case is resolved, any victory will be symbolic.

The adoption ban is called the “Dima Yakovlev” law for a Russian toddler whose adoptive American father, Miles Harrison, left him in a car, where he died of heatstroke. That death was only an excuse; the Russian law was passed in response to America’s Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act.

The Magnitsky Act 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.

Putin signed a law that immediately blocked the pending adoptions of 259 Russian orphans who were about to join 230 American families, and he did it in defense of Russian officials who, even by Russian standards, are criminally corrupt. Even by Russian government standards, this was cynical, arbitrary and cruel.

American adoptions of Russian children have always been controversial. American families adopted more than 60,000 Russian children between 1992 and 2012. The number of adoptions climbed each year, peaking at over 5,000 in 2004, gradually falling to just under 1,000 in 2011.

The stream of adoptions inflamed nationalist sentiment in Russia; nationalists complained that Americans were 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.

Any number of children killed by negligent or abusive parents is too many, but these deaths occur whether children are adopted or conceived by their parents, whether they are adopted at home or abroad. Some children will die no matter how carefully we screen prospective parents.

Children die in orphanages, too. Many caregivers in Russian orphanages are loving and dedicated to their charges, but the conditions in those orphanages are grim. In some 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. An estimated 140,000 children in orphanages are available for adoption. Ninety-five 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 of the children in Russian orphanages suffer from disabilities including fetal alcohol syndrome. Those children are often warehoused: tied to beds and urine-soaked cribs, left in “lying down rooms,” dismissed and ignored as “ineducable.”

All Russian orphans and children abandoned by their parents 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 assembly-line fashion 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. In response to publicity about the adoption ban, about half of 259 children whose adoptions were blocked were placed with Russian families.

There’s 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.

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 adopt abroad are diverse. It was much easier for older couples (45 and above) to adopt in Russia. The only age requirement was that single parents be at least 16 years older than the adoptive child.

American law often makes adoption here a legal mess. By contrast, Russian adoptions have been relatively simple and completely final. Home studies by qualified social workers were required, along with documentation about the prospective parents’ health and financial history. Two separate visits to Russia were mandatory, and the total cost was $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 was clearly part of a tit-for-tat game of human-rights politics. It had nothing to do with improving life for Russian orphans; it turned them into pawns in a contest over national prestige.

Putin has always treated the law as a weapon, and he’s used it in capricious and arbitrary ways. The Russian law on “homosexual propaganda,” the imprisonment of Pussy Riot and Putin’s political enemies, and the attempts to suppress critics of the Sochi Olympics – by beating or by criminal charges – have drawn attention away from the adoption ban. But all of these are the policies driven by a petty and vainglorious autocrat.

Concern for Russian orphans does not necessarily mean letting Americans adopt them, 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, and one might think that with $51 billion to spend on Sochi, he might have the means to help them out. But they were never a political priority, and now that his political point has been made, the odds are that they never will be.

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