Before Ukraine: A Troubling Update On Russia's U.S. Adoption Ban

Before Kiev or Kharviv, Moscow's new cold war with the West meant would-be American parents were banned from adopting Russian orphans. The effect can only now be tallied.

Orphanage in Penza, Russia
Orphanage in Penza, Russia
Sergei Melnikov

MOSCOW — Before the current showdown over Ukraine, among the innocent pawns in the increasingly icy relations between Washington and Moscow were Russian orphans.

Responding to the United States’ passage of the Magnitsky Act, which placed travel and banking bans on individuals believed responsible for the death of a Russian lawyer, in Moscow in December 2012 banned all adoptions by Americans and tightened rules for would-be parents from other countries.

Since then, Russia has made a concerted effort to fill in the gaps by increasing domestic adoptions, with mixed results. The numbers on adoptions, foster kids and wards of the state were just released for 2013 — the first full year since the ban on American adoptions — allowing a closer look at how the diplomatic standoff of two years ago has affected the children themselves.

As Russia looks at the specter of increasing international isolation over Ukraine, it's important to consider how some of society’s most vulnerable members are suffering the most as international relations suffer.

Over the past year, concern for children without parents has become a kind of national project in Russia. Considering the size of the problem, it’s not really surprising: At the beginning of last year, there were 121,268 Russian children registered as orphans. After the late 2012 passage of “Dima Yakovlev’s Law” (named for Dima Yakovlev, a Russian child who was adopted by Americans and died under what some say are suspicious circumstances), the Russian government issued several executive orders meant to give orphans additional protections.

Taking measure

It’s only now possible to measure the success of these programs, because the government has just now released data relating to orphanages, foster care and the adoption system.

The statistics would seem to indicate an initial positive result: During this past year of “extra care,” the number of orphans in Russia decreased by 10%, dropping to 107,886 children. But this isn’t static, as the numbers change every day. Still, 2013 was the first time in six years that Russia saw an increase in the number of orphaned children being cared for in family settings, either with relatives or in foster care.

At the moment, there are three ways for an orphaned child to be cared for within a family: Being placed with a relative, such as a grandparent, being sent to foster care, and adoption. If the numbers are examined in detail, it becomes clear that there’s little reason for celebration. The number of adopted children, meaning those who were accepted into families and given the same rights as a biological child, has actually decreased by nearly 1,000. And that seems to have happened as a direct result of the new restrictions on international adoptions.

In contrast to adoption, a child placed with relatives or in foster care does not become a full member of the family. Yet Russians appear to have shown increased interest in this option. The number of children placed in foster homes in 2013 rose nearly 5,000 over the previous year, reversing the previous year’s trend. On the other hand, it seems that family members took in orphaned children slightly more rarely than before, and as in previous years the “return” statistics were quite high.

“Just last year, there were 5,746 instances of a family member returning the child to the system,” says Galina Semya, a psychologist and international expert on children’s rights. “At least in Moscow, most of these ‘returns’ come from families where the child was taken in by the grandparents.”

Semya notes that many of the children are sent back to the state system when they reach adolescence.

A law passed last June increased the one-time payout for adopting a child over the age of seven to $2,800, but if the statistics are to be believed, it hasn’t encouraged the adoption of older children.

The same amount is promised to those who adopt a disabled child, which has shown a bit more success. Russians adopted a total of 64 disabled children in 2013, nearly double the previous year’s number. But that is still fewer than the 68 disabled Russian children adopted by foreigners, even with the restrictions established during the diplomatic dispute. The demand is far greater from foreigners who would like to adopt Russian kids.

In addition to the complete ban faced by prospective adoptive parents from the U.S., it has been illegal since Feb. 10 for unmarried people from countries where same-sex marriage is legal to adopt a Russian child. It’s not exactly clear how many disabled children are currently in Russian orphanages, but the numbers range from 12,500 to 29,000.

National obsession

Officials stress that since the ban began on adoptions by U.S. parents, the government has made many changes to make it easier for domestic parents to adopt, especially by simplifying the paperwork. Most importantly, the government has finally acknowledged that an orphanage is not an alternative to a family, and should only be temporary.

“The Family Code was changed last July to indicate that these children should be sent to an orphanage temporarily, while they are placed in a family,” says Vladimir Kabanov, vice director of children’s rights within Russia’s Ministry of Education and Science. “Now orphanages are required to provided a family-like living situation for children.”

The subject of parentless children has become something of a national obsession over the past two years, spawning two films that paint a troubling picture of the conditions of young Russians in both correctional and regular institutions. While some politicians might have gotten the wake-up call, there is still lots of work to do, experts say. Urgently needed are more support for poor families and a feasible method to psychologically test potential adoptive parents.

As for the prospect of loosening restrictions for adoptions by Americans and other foreigners, events in Ukraine hardly bode well for either the children or the would-be parents.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

— Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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