A Tennessee woman's decision send her troubled 7-year-old son, Artyom Savelyev, alone on a plane back to Russia this month with a note saying he had psychopathic issues has turned the international adoption world upside down and seems to have frozen adoptions between the two countries. It has also unleashed a wave of resentment from Americans who feel that Russia passes severely disturbed children to foreign adoptive parents because the country lacks the will to reform an orphanage system that's an international disgrace.
As the mom of a 5-year-old girl adopted from Kazakhstan in 2007, I belong to five different adoption list serves, most of which lit up when the news broke. The overriding sentiment on the list serves was that, as awful as Torry Hansen's action was, Russia is in no position to be pointing fingers. Yes, about 16 Russian adoptees have died in the U.S. since 1996 (out of 60,000 total adopted), but at least 15 adopted children die each year at the hands of Russian parents, according to The Times. Russia has 800,000 children in orphanages, with about 120,000 added each year. Americans adopt only about 1,600 per year, so we don't make much of a dent. What depressed me in many of the posts written by adoptive parents were the horror stories about children they had adopted or knew about. This one is an example of the comments and links people post.
Many Russian children have some form of fetal alcohol syndrome whereby the child's brain is irreparably damaged due to binge drinking by pregnant moms. One recent Swedish survey estimated that 52 percent of 71 adopted children from Eastern Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine) were brain-damaged due to FAS. Those are horrible statistics, and the Russian Foreign Ministry seems to have few qualms about giving these children to unsuspecting foreigners.
I found a very informative piece in a Russian newspaper from last fall (in English at adoption advocate Alex Krutov's blog) that explained part of the problem: Russian families get state subsidies for adopting. An extra child allows them to receive better housing, but once they move into a larger home, there's nothing to stop families from returning kids to the orphanage—and horribly, many do exactly that, as though they were returning a library book.
"Frankly, I hope adoptions from Russia do stop," one adoptive parent wrote on one of the list serves. "Although adoption corruption is rampant everywhere, Russia tops the list. The Russian authorities are the pot calling the kettle black on the case of Artyom. He lives with an alcoholic mother for 6 years before they terminate her rights, stick him in an orphanage, palm him off on a single mom, refuse to tell her his brain was soaking in alcohol his whole creating life, then say that by returning him to Russia, he's damaged for life? Give me a break."
An adoptive mom of three Russian children said there is no preparation by agencies for what to expect with anyone older than a toddler. "No one warned me about anger issues, attachment problems, tantrums, running away or any of the other problems that are so prevalent with these emotionally damaged children," she wrote.
Other parents who have fruitlessly tried to adopt from Russia but have been stymied by the corruption. "I am personally beginning to realize that the Russian program is one giant scam of sorts, and you are lucky if you get out with a child and even luckier if that child doesn't have lifelong issues that prevent them from living an independent life," said one parent who has spent $11,000 in adoption fees to date. "I feel the country, the coordinators, the agencies, everyone is just out to milk whatever they can."
There has been a big push among U.S. evangelicals to adopt, and Russia is the third largest sending country (after China and Ethiopia) as to where parents go. I was thinking of adopting again myself, and even took lessons in Russian to prepare. But after hearing that I have a one-in-three chance of a disastrous adoption, I thought twice. I'm a single working mom, and my immediate family is 3,000 miles away. I would be thousands of dollars in debt simply paying the $50 million price tag Russian adoptions cost, as Russia is also the world's most expensive country to adopt from. Even in the best scenarios, parents of two adoptive kids tell me it's a rough ride when a new child arrives in a home where the first child has already established a place. But what if the scenario goes bad?
Mind you, many adoptions from Russia do work out, and we often don't hear those. "I wouldn't hesitate to adopt again," is what several parents have written, "and if I did, I'd go only to Russia." And we could spend our lives worrying about "what ifs" that never happen. And unless parents do take risks, these poor children will remain trapped in awful places.
Russian and American diplomats are currently hashing things out, apparently. One thing I've not seen mentioned much is that Russia has yet to sign the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, which is an agreement that aims to regulate international adoptions. It's been in force in the U.S. for two years. From what I can tell, all that Hague has meant is reams more paperwork for families and their agencies, but it's at least something.
Russia can threaten to end adoptions all they want, but the cynical side of me looks at the enormous amounts of money paid per child and guesses that Russia's government isn't going to turn off the spigot any time soon.