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.

Commentary Human Rights

A Sterilized Peruvian Woman Seeks Justice From the Americas’ Highest Human Rights Court

Cynthia Soohoo & Suzannah Phillips

I.V.'s case, I.V. v. Bolivia, illustrates the all-too-common scenario of medical providers making decisions on behalf of women who are deemed unfit or unable to make their own choices.

In 2000, a Peruvian political refugee referred to by her initials, “I.V.,” went to a Bolivian public hospital to deliver her third child. According to court documents, the doctors decided during the cesarean section that a future pregnancy would be dangerous for I.V. and performed a tubal ligation—for which they claimed they had I.V.’s consent. When I.V. learned that she had been sterilized two days later, she said, she was devastated.

After her complaint against the surgeon who sterilized her was dismissed by Bolivian courts, I.V. brought her case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IA Court), which heard oral arguments earlier this month. In a region where there are widespread reports of forced sterilization, the case is the first time the court will consider whether nonconsensual sterilization is a human rights violation.

The IA Court should hand down its decision in the coming months. A favorable ruling in this case by the IA Court—the highest human rights court in the Americas—could require Bolivia to, among other things, pay reparations to I.V., investigate and possibly punish the doctors who sterilized her, and take steps to prevent similar situations from occurring in the future. The decision will also have ramifications across the region, establishing a binding legal precedent for the 25 countries that are party to the American Convention on Human Rights.

I.V. v. Bolivia provides an important opportunity for the IA Court to condemn forced sterilization and to adopt clear standards concerning informed consent. It would also be joining U.N. human rights bodies and the European Court of Human Rights in recognizing that forced sterilization violates fundamental human rights to personal integrity and autonomy, to be free from gender discrimination and violence, to privacy and family life, and, as CUNY Law School’s Human Rights and Gender Justice Clinic and Women Enabled International recently argued in our amicus brief to the IA Court, to be free from cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or torture.

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Further, the European Court and U.N. experts recognize that possible health risk from a future pregnancy cannot justify nonconsensual sterilization because there are alternative contraceptive methods to prevent pregnancy and women must be given the time and information needed to make an informed choice about sterilization. The IA Court should make similar findings.

Unlike the sterilization of Mexican immigrant women in the United States in the 1970s, recently portrayed in the documentary No Más Bebés, I.V.’s case doesn’t appear to involve a broad governmental policy of sterilizing poor or immigrant women. But it illustrates the all-too-common scenario of medical providers making decisions on behalf of women who are deemed unfit or unable to make their own choices.

Indeed, forced and coerced sterilization is disproportionately perpetrated around the world against women in stigmatized groups, such as women living with HIV, poor women, ethnic or national minorities, or women with disabilities because some health-care providers believe that such women should not have children. Whether driven by animosity against certain women, stereotypes that these women are unfit to become parents, or a paternalistic notion that “doctor knows best,” the end result is the same: Women are permanently robbed of their capacity to have children without their consent.

The parties contest whether I.V. orally consented to sterilization during her c-section. But even if she did so, medical ethical standards and decisions from U.N. human rights bodies and the European Court make clear that consent obtained during labor or immediately preceding or after delivery cannot be valid because the circumstances surrounding delivery—due to pain, anesthesia, or other factors—are inherently inconsistent with voluntary patient choice.

I.V. delivered at a public hospital that predominantly treats indigent women, many of whom are indigenous or migrants. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights—which effectively acts as a court of first instance for the IA Court—considered the case before it went to the IA Court and noted the special vulnerability of migrant women seeking health care in Bolivia, given their reliance on public services and the lack of care options. It found that I.V.’s medical team was influenced by “gender stereotypes on the inability of women to make autonomous” reproductive decisions. It further concluded that the decision to sterilize I.V. without proper consent reflected notions that the medical staff was “empowered to take better medical decisions than the woman concerned regarding control over reproduction.”

Sixteen years after her sterilization, I.V. still acutely feels the emotional and psychological toll of having been sterilized. Because of the severity of physical and mental harms that forced sterilization imposes upon women, the Inter-American Court should join the European Court of Human Rights and U.N. human rights experts in recognizing that forced sterilization constitutes cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment and may constitute torture.

In addition to condemning forced sterilization, the IA Court should recognize the multiple human rights violations I.V. suffered. The Inter-American human rights system protects women from gender-based discrimination and violence and violations of the right to personal integrity, information, privacy, and family life, all of which are at issue in this case.

News Human Rights

For-Profit Texas Prisons Could Reduce Standards for Holding Children

Tina Vasquez

The reason family detention centers must become licensed child-care facilities in order to continue operating is a fight that originated in Texas.

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission approved a proposed rule Friday to reduce child-care standards, permitting two for-profit detention centers detaining hundreds of children in the state to move forward with the licensing process.

Grassroots Leadership, the Texas-based organization that won a temporary injunction in November in its suit to stop the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) from licensing Karnes County Residential Center and Dilley’s South Texas Family Residential Center as child-care facilities under an emergency rule, said in a press release that Friday’s ruling could set a dangerous precedent.

The emergency rule would have eliminated minimum child safety standards applicable to all child-care facilities in Texas. Because Grassroots Leadership received the temporary injunction, Karnes and Dilley were forced to go through the traditional licensing procedure, which enabled immigrant rights organizers, child welfare advocates, academic researchers, and immigrant families released from detention centers to attend December’s public hearing at DFPS and comment on the proposal to license the family detention centers as child-care facilities.

An open records request obtained by Grassroots Leadership found that DFPS received more than 5,000 pages filled with comments, letters, emails, and testimony that were “overwhelmingly against” adopting the proposed rule.

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The department’s decision came on the heels of Pennsylvania, the only other state in the country with family detention centers, issuing notice on January 25 that the licensing of the Berks County Family Residential Center would not be renewed and would officially be revoked, ending family detention in the state. The facility has appealed the decision.

Texas officials decided to move forward with this new licensing process that lowers the standards for child-care facilities in detention centers, Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, told Rewire.

“This is about ensuring that family detention can continue in the wake of the Flores ruling,” Libal said. “The agency essentially admitted that this is part of immigration enforcement, and not about child welfare.”

The Flores v. Meese agreement states that children should not be held in unlicensed facilities.

The reason family detention centers must become licensed child-care facilities in order to continue operating is also a fight that originated in Texas.

Judge Dolly M. Gee ordered in July that migrant children be released from family detention centers, as Rewire reported. Judge Gee said migrant children had been held in “widespread deplorable conditions” in Texas Border Patrol stations and that authorities had “wholly failed” to provide the “safe and sanitary” conditions required for children even in temporary cells.

These conditions were in violation of the Flores agreement. Texas’ DFPS in September began trying to keep the detention facilities open to house women and children by creating a new child-care licensing category for family detention centers. Friday’s ruling means that on March 1, the family detention centers can apply for licensing. Hearings will be held based on the facilities’ applications, allowing the public to weigh in again.

Libal said DFPS ignored the testimony from child welfare experts and has chosen to move ahead “simply in order to bolster this harsh immigration detention policy and allow private prison corporations that are reliant on immigration detention contracts, including the ones at Karnes and Dilley, to continue to profit.”

Libal is referring to companies like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a for-profit, private prison company with a history of allegations of human rights abuses in its prisons and detention facilities, including claims of child abuse. CCA runs Dilley’s South Texas Family Residential Center.

“If you look at the recent CCA’s shareholder call, it is very clear that any profits from 2014 and 2015 were due to Dilley. For me, the ruling moving us closer to seeing these prisons licensed as child-care facilities wasn’t necessarily surprising, but it is shameful that the agency has abdicated on its responsibilities to children in Texas in the pursuit of a harsh immigration enforcement policy,” Libal said.

CCA officials, in the company’s annual letter to shareholders in 2014, confirmed that facilities like Dilley were “key drivers” in the company’s “growth in operating margin and operating income,” emphasizing that they were selected by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to design, build, and operate Dilley, one of the largest facilities in the nation developed for ICE.

Though the facilities don’t yet have licenses, Libal said the overarching concern is that the ruling means these detention centers will continue to stay open.

“When it comes to family detention, this fight is far from over at both the state and federal level,” Libal said. “At the Democratic debate last week, both Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders said they would end family detention. For me, this is about what the Obama Administration’s legacy will be and about what the next president will inherit, which is the largest trend in family detention since interment. I certainly hope President Obama will choose to end family detention before leaving office.”