Saturday, December 29, 2012

The unseen tragedy of the Russian adoption ban

Pavel Astakhov, Russia's Child Rights Commisioner, was quoted in this New York Times article as saying, “The children who have been chosen by foreign American parents — we know of 46 children who were seen, whose paperwork was processed, who came in the sights of American agencies,” Mr. Astakhov said in his statement. “They will not be able to go to America, to those who wanted to see them as their adopted children. There is no need to go out and make a tragedy out of it.”

He's right, I suppose. As we all learned from Dirty Dancing, a tragedy is twenty men trapped in a mine, or monks burning themselves in protest. These children are probably not going to die as a direct result of this decision. So in that sense, it's not a tragedy. 

But that is a very limited interpretation. 

Anyone who has read the post I wrote yesterday will know what Hopper and I went through when we adopted Boo. Intercountry adoption is not something to be taken lightly or done on a whim. The people who are currently in process (somewhere between 46 and 250 families) have been through a lot to get where they are. I grieve for those families. But I cannot speak for them.

But what about the children who are already here? 60,000 Russian children have been adopted by American families since 1992. On Friday, I told Boo that Russia has made it illegal for Americans to adopt Russian children. In the same breath, I assured her that this will have no effect on us: she is safe. We are a family. Nobody can change that. But she keeps asking me, "Why?" 

Boo has no memory of Russia because she was 8 months old when we adopted her. She has photos of our trip, guide books with pictures, and a book I made her about our adoption journey, but no memories of her own. Yet she is intensely proud that she was born in Russia. Her schoolmates know that fact about her. She wrote a report in first grade about Russia, and proudly brought in artifacts that we have in our home. When she had to bring a piece of art to school that hangs in our house, she chose a watercolor painting of the famous statue of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg. And she dreams of one day visiting Russia so that she can see it herself.

But that was before.

Now, Boo is hurting. She feels, I think, that our family has been seen as wanting. Her happiness, her sense of safety, her feeling of belonging in America has been judged as wrong by the Russian government. And they wish to deny those things to future children. This makes no more sense to a nine-year-old than it does to her mother.  

When I first heard that this law was pending, it was last Tuesday. It was shocking because I didn't hear of it from an adoption contact, but from a friend living in Moscow. I knew, because of that, that this wasn't a rumor like so many I have heard over the years. It was true. It was particularly painful because I have a friend who was scheduled to meet her baby the following Monday. And it was agonizing because only four days had passed since the massacre at Newtown, CT. 

As the day progressed, I read as much as I could find about the pending legislation. I spoke with my friend who was desperately trying to find out whether her adoption would continue (at that time, it seemed that it would, so my friend traveled to Russia and met a little girl whom she may now not be permitted to adopt.) And as the day progressed, I began to feel weak. While I was teaching that afternoon, a headache began. By the time I got home, it was a full-blown migraine. I vomited the pain and the anger most of that evening and had to take the following day off from work to recover.

I didn't get the connection until this week when I thought back on it. This law is punishment for the death of Dima Yakovlev, who died when his father accidentally left him in a car all day. The father in that case had a nervous breakdown when he realized what he had done. It was a tragic mistake, but it was a mistake, and this father has suffered greatly for it. Jail, a conviction, would have done nothing to add to his suffering. It would have done nothing to protect children: this man will not adopt again. This man will grieve until the day he dies, just as the parents in Newtown will. 

But because of his tragic mistake, now thousands of other children will suffer. Some will die in Russian orphanages. Many will lose out on life-saving, and certainly life-altering, therapies that are available in the US. Most will be cast out of the orphanages when they turn 16 to an uncertain future with no support and little education.

That, I think, is why I became physically ill from hearing this news. It felt like a punishment for being a victim. Every parent's greatest fear is that a child will die. There is nothing worse anyone can imagine than losing a child. But when you are an adopted parent, there is an added fear. If I lose my child, I will be judged. I will never be given another. To have that punishment visited not only on the neglectful parents, the violent parents, but on parents who have not even begun to parent, and to have that punishment visited on Americans just days after twenty of our precious children were murdered in cold blood was too much for me to handle. 

You see no tragedy, Mr. Astakhov, but I see many tragedies. The tragedy of loss that would-be parents will suffer over the next few months if your scheme is allowed to stand. The tragedy of lost potential among the thousands of Russian children who will be stranded in your inadequate orphanage system. And the loss of pride in their country of origin among the 60,000 Russian orphans who have already become Americans. 

Is that not a tragedy too, Mr. Astakhov?


  1. My heart breaks for all the children in Russia that are losing out on forever families. I'm sorry that Boo is also being hurt by this travesty.

    1. It's not a travesty that Russia's imposed this ban -- Russia being a sovereign state, the US having violated the treaty first and us (Americans) having no entitlement whatsoever to adopt a Russian child.

      Since at least 2011, Mr Astakov has raised a number concerns regarding Russian-born kids adopted by Americans that extends far beyond the 19 dead ones (a travesty in and of itself), such as:
      - 400+ missing Russian adoptees (mandatory post placement reports not filed)
      -Russia not informed in a timely manner when adoptees have been abused/killed (legal requirement of the US Russia adoption treaty that came into force in November 2012)
      - failure of the US to shut down the ghastly unlicensed Ranch for Kids in Montana, to which far too any Russian adoptees are exiled (my opinion: nobody should be sending any child, adopted or not, to this unlicensed place. If a kid breaks their leg and the parent seeks treatment from an unlicensed facility that's medical neglect. If a kid has a mental illness - as many who are sent to the Ranch probably do - its similarly neglectful to send them there. A mentally ill kid MUST be treated by a licensed doctor, just like how a kid with a broken leg must be treated by a licensed doctor!!)

      It's also worth mentioning that Russia's made great strides in improving its child welfare system in the past 5-6 yrs - more domestic adoptions, fewer kids in orphanages, major expansion of foster care and family preservation services. Is it happening fast enough? No, but neither is the reform of foster care here at home and nobody suggests we let foreigners adopt US foster kids until we get our ducks in a row.

      (Aged-out Russian orphans snd aged-out American foster kids have almost identical life outcomes. Really bad outcomes -- like 60% not finishing high school, way too many boys landing in jail and too many girls in the sex trade, high rates of drug abuse and homelessness. Really - American kids and Russians who age out. Given this, perhaps the US isn't in the best of all positions to lecture Russia on child protection??

      Plus, the US permits juveniles who commit crimes under the age of 18 to be subject to the death penalty. Russia's justice system - which has about a million things wrongs with it - is nonetheless civilized enough not to sentence children to death for crimes committed as juveniles).

    2. Thanks for your perspective, Miss Muffett. I'm not sure where you're getting your information, but the article you link to has several mistakes in it. For example, it states that the fees for adopting a child from Russia are between $50k and $70k. However, those dollar amounts represent the total cost of an adoption. Much of that money goes to travel, translation, in-country fees, application fees and so on. It also states twice that 600,000 children have been adopted from Russia to the US, when the correct number is 60,000. This suggests that there was no fact-checking or even editing done on the translation, at least.

      I'm all for Russia ending international adoption by finding homes for all its children. I even agree with you that Russia can decide any time it wants to end intercountry adoption for any reason. But when I wrote this piece, Astakhov was saying that he was not going to allow children who had been legally adopted out of the country when their 30 day waiting period was up (which he is now permitting) and I think those people do have rights--legally and morally. Astakhov now agrees with me on that.

      And I also think that Russian officials should take into account children like my daughter, who feel a deep connection to the country of their birth, when they make decisions. Because whatever risks I may have agreed to, my daughter did not. Like you, I don't want children to become victims.

      Perhaps the things you say are true. I know nothing about this ranch in Montana, but having Googled it, it seems to be a Christian boarding school and I find that suspicious. I'm not sure what the US government can do about it under the law, though. I'm also not sure how the homestudy process could be any more thorough than it already is. It's really hard to predict who will be a good parent.

      As for the Maxim Babayev case, the court dismissed the charges, which suggests there was no evidence of abuse. Why should the US allow access to a home in which abuse did not occur?

      I appreciate your making your case with evidence. You made me think. But I stand by my arguments: the ban was too quick and too harsh, and the children already in America should be considered before any move is made by Russia. And I also think that Russia should have some compassion for people who have met a child, met all their requirements and gone almost all the way through the adoption process. Is Russia required to let them adopt? That's for a court to decide (and it will go to international court if the adoptions are not allowed to go forward.) But I think they should, provided judges find the prospective parents eligible to adopt.

  2. It is sad that Russia's imposed this ban - for political reasons, yes, but it's about more than politics too. Russia's been threatening to impose the ban since at least 2011, so it is really not that much if a surprise. (This business of tacking the ban onto unrelated legislation at the very last minute? Rather like last minute riders' tacked onto unrelated legislation here at home, Alaskan Bridge to Nowhere Styles).

    There's also the little matter of the US violating the adoption treaty that came into force on November 1, 2012, first by failing to allow Russian officials consular access to an abused Russian-born boy in FL called Maxim Babayev. If the US cannot be bothered to hold up its end of a treaty barely two months after it came into force, why should russia? Actions have consequences.

    Americans aren't entitled to adopt Russian kids - it's a privilege, one that can be revoked by Russia at any time for any (or new or a petty political) reason. Any American entering into an international adoption does so having accepted the risk that anything can change at any time - including laws on who and from where is eligible to be adopted. The State Dept has a special website devoted to international adoption notices.

    Russia also hasn't banned all international adoptions - only American ones. Countries that do not violate their adoption treaties with Russia and somehow manage to harm/abuse/kill their Russian kids at rates much lower than (the admittedly very very low) Americans do , eg Canada Ireland England Scotland Norway Spain and Italy.

    I'm not anti adoption or even anti adoption from Russia for Americans - I just think Russia has a point on the welfare of their kids in the US. 19 kids dead at the hands of Americans who passed homestudies/security clearances/court ANd who spent a year and upwards of $30k to adopt a Russian child certainly suggests there's room for improvement.

    Me, personally, I think 1) meeting our treaty obligations and 2) doing something to better screen PAPs would go a long way towards getting Russia to life the ban. Because insisting it's not faaaaaaair!! And "only" 19 kids are dead sure isn't working.