Until recently, many people wondered whether three-year-old Maxim Kuzmin’s January 2013 death would be counted as the 20th death of a Russian adoptee—the next child to die as a result of abuse at the hands of his U.S. parent. Now, a Texas coroner has found that Kuzmin’s death was accidental and resulted from self-inflicted wounds to the abdomen.
According to a psychologist, Kuzmin had a history of self-harm. As an adoption professional and researcher, I’m familiar with head-banging and other issues for institutionalized children, but I have never heard of a child self-harming to the point of death as a result of abdominal injuries; that is more than highly unusual. We may never know what really happened to Kuzmin, but we can all agree that his death is very sad and was likely preventable.
The timing of this death further undermines the pending adoptions of Russian children caught in limbo since the Russian government shut down its system serving U.S. families. The story of the moratorium will continue to unfold in the media, and there will be the typical onslaught of stories about couples who are devastated by the shut-down and the millions of orphans who are suffering in Russia’s institutions. All of this will be compelling and very similar to every other country shut down, among them Romania, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Guatemala.
In Russia, the warning signs have been more than concerning as the number of adoptee deaths from the country have raised the eyebrows of the fiercest proponents of inter-country adoption. Hushed conversations about “what’s wrong” are not uncommon among adoption professionals, especially adoption service providers who did not have a Russia program. Many agencies not only lacked a Russia program—some agency directors would admit quietly that they would never put themselves in the position of arranging such adoptions. It was just too complex, the liabilities too high, and the post-placement services to families too demanding. The latter issue, services for families adjusting to their children (and vice versa), may be at the crux of the issue, as Russian adoptees were known to have many behavioral and medical problems compared to children originating from other countries. Some families have spent over $100,000 getting help for their adopted children from Russia. Some have even placed their adopted children into foster care or private institutions to get the care that they cannot provide. The truth is troubling when one looks at the whole picture.
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However, the public face of adoption providers is different. In February 2012, I attended an inter-country adoption conference at Pepperdine University called Orphan Rescue or Child Trafficking. More than once, attendees pointed to Russia’s policy as unfair and unjust for the orphaned and vulnerable children living in notoriously large institutions. What was absent from that conversation was the fact that, as of last summer, Russia officially counted 19 adoptees as having died at the hands of their U.S. parents.* Also missing from the more public conversations was critical discourse about the role of U.S. adoption agencies in screening hopeful families prior to placing a child from Russia for adoption—and, upon a child’s adoption, the role of agencies in supporting families when there are problems, family disruptions, and even dissolutions of adoptions. These are all important points of discourse needed to improve inter-country adoption practices, but they remain elusive in the public sphere.
Frankly, this has been an incomplete conversation for years. There has been a failure to address the need for systematic or uniform home study practices to truly assess family readiness.** There has also been a failure to address the need for systematic follow-up that includes an assessment of child functioning, family stress, and other indicators of family functioning during the post-adoption phase. I have written extensively about these issues, including problems with home studies and other adoption practices.
For Russians opposed to their children being adopted abroad, Kuzmin’s death further underscores their position on abolishing inter-country adoption. This will all be stirred up by Russian media, and what will be lost are the stories of thousands of children successfully adopted from the nation. But who can blame the Russians for such strong and even politicized feelings? This is a complicated issue, given the relations between both nations. If U.S. citizens were leaving our country as adoptees and dying in Russia, I feel certain that we would be making the same demands and engaging in protectionist policies for our children.
Who knows what will happen for the future of Russian adoptions globally. The country’s closure only applies to the Russia-U.S. relationship, but unfortunately, it appears that there may be a contamination effect for other countries, including those in Western European, where families are hoping to adopt from Russia. Ultimately, I predict there will be more bad news to come.
*Important note is that official count of adoptee deaths includes a range of death-related crimes and negligence. The term ‘homicide’ not being used in the official sense here. One child died as a result of heat when he was left in a car during the peak heat of a Virginia summer. This death was ruled accidental. Other deaths have been questionable or ‘mysterious’ and the Russians count the deaths with the outrage of incomplete investigations, in their view.
**See Crea, T. M. (2012). Intercountry Adoptions and Home Study Assessments: The Need for Uniform Practices. In J.L. Gibbons & K.S. Rotabi (Eds.). Intercountry Adoption: Policy, Practices, and Outcomes. Surry, England: Ashgate Press.