Russia is one of the primary sources for international adoptions for U.S. families. In the past two decades, over 60,000 Russian children have been adopted into American homes, and a significant portion of these children suffered from developmental issues that almost certainly wouldn’t have been treated well in their birth country. However, the Russian government has now passed a law that could endanger the lives of many such children, by banning all adoptions to the United States.
Russia has been critical of international adoptions in the past due to several high-profile cases of abuse and neglect of Russian children — including one in 2010 where an American woman sent her 7-year-old adopted son back to Russia by himself, claiming that he had psychological issues that posed a danger to her family. However, most folks agree that this new ban has little, if anything, to do with concern for Russian children — especially since such tragic incidents are very rare, statistically – and everything to do with Russian pride.
Earlier this month, President Obama signed into law the Magnitsky Act, which is intended to hold Russian officials accountable for human rights abuses by preventing them from traveling in the United States and using American banks. Unable to pass truly equivalent legislation, the Russian government has instead passed the Dima Yakovlev law.
Critics have pointed out the obvious political nature of the bill and have called into question both the Russian government’s motives as well as its ability to adequately care for the more than 800,000 orphans living in Russia. In addition to signing the adoption ban, Putin has also promised to decree increased support for “orphans, children without parental care and especially those kids who have health problems” but some remain skeptical, claiming that the Yakovlev bill would be devastating for Russian orphans.
Much of this skepticism stems from the Russian childcare system itself, which has gained notoriety over the years for its broken, institutional nature and poor levels of care. As NPR reports:
Boris Altshuler of the Child’s Right group says it’s often immediately clear to visitors that abandoned babies are left to “rot alive.”
“First of all [there's] the smell — [the] smell of unchanged linens or even children lying on just plastic. And [a] terrible smell because nobody changes, nobody cares,” Altshuler says.
Once children leave hospitals for orphanages, their experiences differ widely. Unlike the relatively happy children at Internat No. 8, most children end up in orphanages that are closed institutions.
Olshanskaya says that’s a legacy of the Soviet Union, which tried to shut off anyone not considered normal from the rest of society.
“Orphanages often stand behind high walls and big gates, usually somewhere in the outskirts,” she says. “People who live in such areas and pass by every day usually have no idea what’s inside.”
Children considered mentally or physically disabled are sent to special institutions, which Altshuler calls “terrible places.”
A Human Rights Watch report says that children in such institutions may be up to twice as likely to die than those in regular orphanages. Evaluations deciding orphans’ fates are often cursory. Misdiagnosis is common, and sometimes even doled out as punishment for misbehavior.
Improvements can certainly be made to the international adoption system. Indeed, Russia and the United States had signed a bilateral agreement imposing stricter regulations on adoptions in November of this year in order to prevent more Russian children from coming to harm. As such, this latest move by Putin and the Russian government is perplexing at best, and deeply disturbing and saddening at worst. It seems like a clear-cut example of a cold-hearted bureaucracy that cares more about its pride than its most precious and vulnerable.
Let us hope that saner minds — and warmer hearts — will eventually prevail, that the Russian government will move for what is truly best for the weakest Russians, and will both allow international adoptions (with greater oversight, if necessary) and push for much-needed reforms to its own childcare system. Such measures would be something that would truly defend the nation’s pride.
Photo via the Yearn Foundation.