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Russia

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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