Analysis Law and Policy

Russian Ban on Inter-Country Adoptions to the United States is a Child Rights Issue

Karen Smith Rotabi

Anyone who follows inter-country adoption and its dramatic decline since 2004 can see that Russia's ban on inter-country adoptions to the United States is the final slamming of a door that has been slowly closing for a number of years.

Anyone who follows inter-country adoption and its dramatic decline since 2004 can see that Russia’s ban on inter-country adoptions to the United States is the final slamming of a door that has been slowly closing for a number of years. In fact, since its peak in 2004 when 5,862 children were adopted, the number has declined rapidly, with only 962 children being sent as adoptees to the United States in 2011.

This past summer, I was invited to speak at the Second Russian-American Child Welfare Forum, held by the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children in Chicago. Child protection professionals from both countries participated with opening remarks being made by the Russian Child Rights Commissioner, Mr. Pavel Astkahov. As I reported previously, among other things Astakhov spoke of the 19 documented deaths of inter-country adoptees at the hands of U.S. adoptive parents. He also stated that the discourse taking place between the two nations was not about “political games.” Very shortly after this public commentary, the Russian Parliament finally ratified a bilateral agreement crafted to improve adoption services, largely focusing on adoption agencies in the United States and on strengthening practices to prevent any further abuses.

I have reviewed a number of cases of Russian child neglect, abuse, and homicide elsewhere. Here I will present three particular cases as we reflect on this inter-country adoption moratorium. These examples are perhaps the most controversial cases connected directly to the slowdown and now closure of inter-country adoptions from Russia.

The first case is one which many readers may remember from the intense media coverage surrounding the case. On April 8, 2010 Artyom “Justin” Saveliev was put on a plane, unaccompanied to Moscow. Artyom, a 7-year old Russian adoptee, had nothing more than a backpack to meet a waiting hired driver at the Russian airport. Instructions to the driver were to take the child to adoption authorities with a note:

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“This child is mentally unstable. He is violent and has severe psychopathic issues/behaviors. I was lied to and misled by Russian orphanage workers and director regarding his mental stability and other issues… After giving my best to this child, I am sorry to say that for the safety of my family, friends, and myself, I no longer wish to parent this child… I am returning him to your guardianship and would like the adoption disannulled” (Good Morning America, April 12, 2010).

The media frenzy that followed included cries for justice in both countries. As the story unfolded, we learned that Artyom’s adoptive mother Torry Hansen was a professional nurse who lived in rural Tennessee. It is believed that she did not use the services of a respected clinic at close-by Vanderbilt University for adoptive children who experience problems. According to the agency, she also did not reach out to their case managers. The Tennessee-based home study provider who approved Hansen’s home acted questionably. This assertion is based on the fact that Hansen was actively pursuing another adoptive child with a second agency—apparently to replace Artyom. The story is ugly and, in the end, legal battles proceeded, but prosecution of Hansen did not happen partly due to jurisdiction issues. Hansen was ordered to pay child support for Artyom who now resides in an SOS children’s home in Russia. Artyom’s foster mother, who parents children in the home, reports that the child is not violent or psychopathic. Other Russian professionals who assessed the child, including psychologists and psychiatrists, have also reached the same conclusion.

A second and very different case in Virginia outraged Russians about sending orphaned and vulnerable children to U.S. homes. In 2008, a toddler died of heat exposure when his father left him in a car during the extreme heat of summer temperatures. Originally charged with manslaughter, the father was ultimately not held accountable nor sentenced for criminal wrongdoing in 2009. Those in the courtroom reported the father to be tearful and truly remorseful, leaving many to wonder how he will be able to live with his negligence. The presiding judge even remarked about the sadness and sorrow related to the loss of the young boy while making it clear that criminal behavior was never really the issue in that particular courtroom. Outrage resulted in Russia, as covered by the media throughout the country.

The sentence appeared to Russians to be a lack of accountability and a lack of respect for Russian citizens. Questions about criminal justice have been lingering and this particular case was a bitter example of two different response systems. Most recently, in the Parliamentary debates, this particular case has become a focal point of human rights abuses of Russian adoptees in the United States.

The third case,of extreme child exploitation and torture is one of the most outrageous stories of inter-country adoption malpractices in the history of the United States. The sad case of Masha Allen was heard when the young woman testified in 2006 before a U.S. Congressional Committee hearing on child pornography. Allen painfully recounted her horrific treatment at the hands of her “adoptive” father Matthew Mancuso, who was called a “pedophile” in this testimony. Testimony revealed that adoption services failed to protect Allen from Mancuso—starting immediately when she was forced to spend her first night in Mancuso’s bed. The home study investigator failed to interview Mancuso’s adult step-daughter, who likely would have reported her own sexual abuse—if the home study investigator had bothered to conduct such an interview. Sadly, Masha Allen was failed throughout the process and the little girl kept wondering why no one came back to check in on her. In the meantime, thousands upon thousands of child pornography images were circulated of the child as Mancuso profited from his illicit activities.

Now for the Question: All About Accountability, Politics, Human Rights Abuses, or Not?

I have watched country after country close to inter-country adoption due to scandals. Each country has its own dynamic and the related stories lend themselves to sensational press that grabs our attention. Those committed to intervening in the dire circumstances of orphaned and vulnerable children always cry out for the greater good. Then there are those who question the grounds of adopting children internationally when there are so many needy children in U.S. foster care. This argument gets heated when immigration issues and undertones of race enter into the discussion. Finally, there are the pragmatists—of which I consider myself a vocal member—who caution that inter-country adoption is an important option for those children who are appropriately placed into families. As pragmatists, we caution that honesty about systemic problems is essential to moving forward.

So, what is the truth? Russia has thousands of children living in institutions, many of them with special needs including fetal alcohol syndrome. That is what we can call an absolute fact.

Then, there are the facts of these three cases and others in which children have met with varying degrees of inhumanity, some of which are human rights abuses. Again this is an undeniable fact. As a social worker, let me add to these facts with my observation that in two of the three above cases, the adoption service providers involved in approving these adoptive homes were anything but “professional.” It is my opinion that there was a dereliction of duty that should have risen to the level of a criminal investigation in the case of Masha Allen. However, that “professional” was not even sanctioned and she continued on in the practice of inter-country adoption. Criminal justice was not truly served in this case, in my opinion, even with the sex offender’s arrest and conviction. The complicity of others, such as the home study investigator, went without consequence.

To close on the politics part of this equation, this is not the first time that the Russian Parliament has deliberated on ending Russia-U.S. adoptions. Now there are the votes. As democracy cranks along, President Putin has now signed the law as of December 28, 2012 . So, the door slams shut on thousands of orphaned and vulnerable children and hopeful families—some of them currently in process of adoption.

What was the real catalyst? The above cases certainly were fuel for the fire, but a recent U.S. law on human rights abuses carried out by Russian citizens have tipped the scales. The U.S. Magnitsky Act includes sanctions such as seizing the financial assets of Russian citizens and blocking their travel to the United States. The passage of this law has received considerable attention in the press as it relates to the adoption moratorium, but this is only one piece of the puzzle.

We have reached a tipping point and what has spilled over will lead to a variety of arguments. Adoption proponents will argue the Magnitsky Act to be extraneous to the best interests of the child and the moratorium to be an act of reprisal. Then there is a question of what rises to level of a human rights abuse and how should such abuse be handled from a criminal perspective.

Ultimately, this is a child rights issue and countless orphaned and vulnerable children in Russia and elsewhere suffer from poverty, inadequate family support, poor and inadequate child welfare responses, and ultimately inter-country adoption country closures.

Frankly, these children suffer grave of human rights abuses—the poverty of institutionalization which frequently stunts their growth in all aspects including the healthy development of the brain. Many of these children are banished to a life of lower intelligence, problems with impulse control, and serious health issues. Many of them are prime targets for exploitation, in the long run—especially the girls of Russia who are notoriously recruited from institutions with force, fraud, and coercion into notorious human trafficking networks

Now, for my own answer: yes, this is about accountability, human rights abuses, politics and more. I have not even touched upon national pride of Russians, age-old tactics of press propaganda, and general sentiment in Russia that Americans are not to be trusted. It’s old history with the after shocks of the Cold War with a new twist in this global era. Regardless of the mix of cause and consequences and the twists of power and control, we sadly add Russia to the list of country closures and the end of the many good child adoptions from that country.

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