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Monday, May 01, 2000

The Plight of Russia's Orphans

by Linda DeLaine

Many prospective American adoptive parents turn to foreign adoption. It's not any less expensive, but often does not take as long as a domestic adoption. There are those who choose foreign adoption because they feel they can offer a better life to a child from an under privileged country. Rumors abound that many of these countries, including Russia, do not care about family, children and place a low value on human life. In the case of Russia, evidence the high abortion rate; roughly 70 percent higher than in the U.S.

Abortion has become the birth control of choice; a choice made because of circumstances. Birth control is available in Russia, but it is expensive, whereas abortions are free. The overall health of Russia is poor. With as much as 20 percent of young women suffering from anemia, many choose abortion because they fear that they and/or their baby will not survive a full term pregnancy.

Economics are a reality when it comes to pregnancy. The Russian economy has improved during 2000, but it has a ways to go before prospective parents will feel they can afford children. Many who don't believe in abortion for religious reasons or think they can figure out a way to care for a child will deliver, only to place their baby up for adoption. Most of these infants and children are adopted by non-Russian families, primarily in the United States. A population crisis is in the making with the number of Russian citizens dropping by 8 million from 1991 to 1999.

Observers and adoptive parents have accused Russian orphanages of neglect and abuse. The reality is, these orphanages are underfunded, understaffed and over populated with children. Roughly 230,000 children are residents of the state orphanage system with over 650,000 in some form of state care. Itar-Tass has reported that some 90 percent of children in orphanages are not true orphans as they do have living parents. Due to poor conditions, inadequate nutrition and insufficient emotional care, many of these children are underdeveloped mentally and physically. The older the child and the longer he/she is in the system, the greater the emotional and, often, physical problems become. Disease passed on by the birth mother is frequent. In one orphanage in central Russia, all but one out of a group of 30 children had syphilis.

In most orphanages, children are bathed together with no hot water available. They dine on porridge and bits of chicken with no fresh fruits, vegetables or red meat available. They sleep in wards of typically 12 children on old mattresses with ragged blankets. Many of these facilities are under heated and toys or other tools to stimulate a child's mind are scarce. Many of these orphans suffer from weakened immune systems and, thus, all manner of illness. Their mental, emotional and physical development often seriously stunted.

In an attempt to reform Russia's adoption system, then president Boris Yeltsin signed a new adoption law in 1998. This law was intended to place higher criteria on foreign adoptions and encourage more domestic adoptions. In brief, foreign adoption agencies have to be certified by Russia in order to conduct business there. Certification requires passing a laundry list of qualifications designed to cut down on corruption and, what amounted to baby selling. Furthermore, when a child becomes available for adoption, there is a five month wait period before that child can be made available to foreign prospective parents. It is hoped that, in that period of time, a Russian family will adopt the child. New laws and tighter restrictions do nothing to improve the conditions of the state orphanages; this requires money.

From 1992 through 1999, some 15,000 orphans were adopted by Americans. The total number of Russian children adopted by foreigners, in 1999, was 6,200; 4,300 of which were adopted by Americans. Children adopted by Russian families, not including those adopted by blood relatives, was around 7,000. The total number of orphans available for adoption in 1999 was ca. 80,000.

On March 3, 2000, President Putin chaired a special meeting of his Cabinet. The sole item on the agenda was Putin's mandate for improving conditions of Russia's orphans. The fact that a vast majority of Russia's orphans do, indeed, have parents indicates deep problems involving the family and paternity. Putin ordered his ministers to submit proposals regarding ways to improve conditions of abandoned and orphaned children. This was the first time anyone could remember when the president had focused exclusively on the plight of Russia's unwanted children.

The Russian government issued a decree on April 22, 2000. This new law mandates that potential adoptive parents must be represented by only accredited adoption agencies. While agencies scrambled to gain this accreditation, adoptions that were in progress were put on hold or rejected altogether by the Russian regional courts.

According to the Russian Statistic Agency, there were roughly 39.3 million children in Russia at the end of 1998. Of this number, 621,115 were orphans. About one-third, 230,000, were housed in 1,600 orphanages. What's worse, only 249 of these orphanages contained 19,300 toddlers under age 4. The Statistic Agency also reported that roughly 70 percent of all orphans were known to have and had been diagnosed with physical and/or mental disabilities.

Human Rights Watch continues to report countless cases of routine abuse of children in orphanages. Roughly 20,000 children run away from orphanages every year, according to the Interior Ministry University. This statement went on to say that of the ca.15,000 children released from orphanages annually, some 10 percent commit suicide, 30 percent commit crimes and 40 percent are unemployed and homeless. Do the math - this leaves only about 20 percent who are able to make it on their own.

It is fairly easy to count the number of Russian children living in orphanages. However, it is almost impossible to know exactly how many more children are living on the streets. Most of them pan handle or turn to prostitution to survive.

Adoptive parents were often not informed of their child's past or present medical problems let alone provided a medical history of the birth mother. Many such parents would sense problems when meeting their new son or daughter but reasoned that these were temporary issues which would go away once the child was home, well fed and nurtured. Sadly, this has not always been the case.

There are countless stories of violent and abusive behavior on the part of adopted Russian children. Still other highly publicized cases involve death of the adopted child with the adoptive parents claiming that the badly battered child inflicted his/her own wounds. In still other incidences, adoptive parents have been charged with child abandonment when they placed their Russian child in foster care. Not to minimize the importance of these unfortunate events, all of these cases are sensational, draw a great deal of attention and are left for the judicial system to sort out.

One example of a Russian adoption gone sour drew considerable attention by being the focus of a CBS 48 Hours program in February of 2000. The story was about an American family who adopted a nine year old Russian girl. According to the parents, they had no idea that the girl suffered from severe mental and emotional disorders. They found this out when she attempted to kill their four year old son. This story is typical of many others that find their way into the media spotlight.

Frustrated and desperate, American adoptive parents lobbied the U.S. Congress to implement the international treaty known as the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoptions. This treaty provides member nations with a set of ground rules regarding international adoptions. The U.S. signed this Convention on March 31, 1994, but did not ratify it until October, 1999. Russia signed on September 7, 2000, ratification pending. It will take time to fully implement the provisions of the Hague Convention. Meanwhile, the old system tends to prevail. Under this system, the U.S. does not track post-adoption outcomes of foreign adoptions by American citizens. Under the Hague, the State Department will be required to keep such records on all international adoptions. In the cases where adoptions do not work out, the fed will be obligated to appoint the appropriate agency to place the child in a new home. Currently, such children end up in our foster care system.

The problems of American adoption of Russian children are shared by both countries. In the U.S. and up until the ratification of Hague, there were no post-adoption records kept of Russian or other foreign adoptions. Adoptive parents do not receive the same support and assistance in dealing with the adoption transition, future health problems, etc., as those who enter in to domestic adoptions. Even then, such services and parental education is not required. The only time such is a requirement is foster care adoptions. Most reputable agencies do offer services and education; often at additional cost to the adoptive parents. As a result, many cannot or do not take advantage of these services.

There are, however, many excellent, independent support groups typically founded and maintained by fellow adoptive parents of Russian children. This lack of post-adoption record keeping contributes heavily to our inability to know what percentage of Russian adoptions are, indeed, successful as opposed what percentage of these adoptions the tragic stories which find their way into the media spotlight represent. As a result, it is virtually impossible to know if the percentage of failed Russian adoptions is higher or lower than that of all adoptions in the U.S. Rarely, if ever, do we hear these horrible stories of abuse and violence related to other foreign adoptive families. Is this because they don't happen or could it be that these stories are seen as more sensational, by the media, because the children come from Russia?

Russia shares its share of the burden. Due to economic and general health conditions, more and more children are being put up for adoption. Thousands of abandoned children is nothing unique to Russia, though. The problem centers around the substandard conditions of most of Russia's orphanages and other institutions where these unwanted children live. The main culprit is, once again, money. As in the U.S., you will find unscrupulous people whose business it is to profit from the misfortunes of these children. Much of the physical, mental and emotional disabilities suffered by Russian orphans could be avoided if there was adequate funding for orphanage upkeep, staffing, food, medical care and some of the comforts of life.

Regardless of what percentage of Russian adoptions fail, the fact still remains that an overwhelming percentage of Russia's children are leaving their homeland. There will always be orphans in the world; this is something we will never be able to totally do away with. However, instead of exporting so many, why not help Russia improve its orphanages or, better yet, the economic circumstances of parents so that they can keep their children in Russia and with their families. This is not a simple problem by far. But, it is one which receives little active attention.

Here are two documents that anyone considering Russian adoption should print out and read.

New Procedures for Applying for U.S. Immigrant Visas for Orphans Adopted by American Citizens

International Adoptions Booklet (Dept. of State)