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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


The Bureaucratic Hell People Recommend
Janet Kriel

It’s the early 1990’s, Russia opens its doors. For many, it is the first time that the country enters their consciousness as more than a vague, dangerous entity located at the ends of the earth. Doors are not only opened to foreign businesses, but for the first time Russia’s countless orphanages are unlocked. Even without celebrities to make it popular, foreign adoptions quickly become common.

Ten years later, and foreigners are accused of buying Russian children, of turning adoption into a ‘profitable business’. One member of the Russian Duma goes as far as asking why orphans get the chance to live in America while his own children have to live in Russia… Others call for a freeze on foreign adoptions. S

o what happened in the intervening years? Why has an issue that has the overwhelmingly positive goal of improving the lives of orphans, become a reason for such strife? The most obvious cause is the number of abuse cases that have surfaced in recent years; but as with much else in Russia, the answer is not one simple x or y. Take the abuse cases, mix in with it a badly managed system, numerous political agendas, chips on some shoulders, and what do you expect to find? Certainly not good prospects for the children…

Understanding the Life of an Orphaned Child…

Russian institutions that take care of abandoned and orphaned children can roughly be divided into three groups: The first is called the Dom Rebyonka or Baby House, where the orphaned child lives from infancy until the age of four. After that, he goes to one of two institutions: the Dyetskii Dom (children's home) or the Spets Internaty (special institution) for children who are deemed ‘lightly’ disabled. (There is a third scenario, where a child is sent to an institution for the severely disabled, but for the purposes of the article, this scenario will not be covered.) Responsibility for orphanages for children above four years resides with Regional Departments of Education.

In 1998 Human Rights Watch published a report about conditions in Russian orphanages.

Its aim was not a witch hunt. and they reported that standard children’s homes were indeed run with relative cleanliness and that adequate food was provided, despite the limited resources. Unfortunately, however, HRW found much more. In baby houses, they found a variety of examples of how the rights of the child were abused: segregation and neglect of babies with disabilities; denial of medical services; abuse of sedative drugs; and deprivation of the opportunity for individual development. In the children’s homes, they often found abuse, neglect of responsibility, and cruelty by staff or older orphans. A social role model was not apparent – instead children learnt early on that only the fittest could survive. The moral code of behaviour this would inevitably develop in these children can only be imagined. In 2006, the situation seems relatively unchanged after an investigation by the Russian general prosecutor's office revealed violations of the law in state orphanages, including the fact that some institutions allocate as little as 30 kopecks a day for each child's care.

The Evolvement of Adoption and the Unreliable Facts

Although sources differ on the actual numbers, the fact remains that there is a multitude of children in Russian orphanages. Currently the number is estimated to be between 700,000 and 800,000. Reportedly, the number of Russian adoptions has dropped from 14,000 to about 7,000 annually since the early 1990s, while the number of foreign adoptions has risen from 1,400 to somewhere between 9,000 and 10,000, with 50% going to the United States.

Alex and Tatiana with their eldest sister Sarah, who was also an adopted child

In 2003 foreign adoptions surpassed Russian adoptions for the first time. The increasing demand for Russian children fuelled corruption – mainly bribes taken to expedite the complicated process of collecting paperwork and to avoid some checks on the prospective parents' background.

The drop in Russian adoptions were explained by strict adoption laws (low incomes and inadequate housing have been cited as factors keeping Russian parents from adopting). A 2004 poll by the Public Opinion Foundation found that many respondents felt uncertain about their future and stability, thus making them unwilling to care for another child. There is another reason, though, says Boris Altshuler, head of the Right of the Child advocacy group based in Moscow: the system is not only a bureaucratic hell, but extremely unfriendly to domestic adopters. Why? As mentioned, the regional Departments of Education are the overseers of orphanages. Altshuler explains that they are also the recipients of a budget of 1 billion US dollars for the children’s institutions. Altshuler sees the situation in a black and white way: “the cash-strapped regions need the children in their care to receive their budget allocations, and therefore there is no compelling reason to place children in new families.”

Crisis and Mayhem

  • In 2000, a 6 year-old Russian boy died in New Jersey. Doctors found 40 injuries on the boy's body, but what eventually killed him was hypothermia. He had been forced to sleep in an unheated cellar on nights when outdoor temperatures dropped below zero.
  • In 2003, a 3-year old boy from Ohio died from scalding and neglect. His adoptive father had placed him in a tub of 140 degree water. He suffered 2nd and 3rd degree burns and was taken to hospital only after respiratory failure occurred.
  • In January 2005, an 8-year old Russian boy died in Maryland after suffering cardiac arrest brought on by starvation.
  • In July 2005, A North Carolina woman was arrested on charges of fatally beating the 2-year-old Russian girl she had adopted.

Sadly, the list doesn’t stop with these four cases. About 13 such cases have been written about in the press, twelve of which were US adoptions. Children’s Rights groups have laid the blame at the door of ‘independent brokers’ and have said that this would not normally happen with above-board adoptions, but as is to be expected, the intensity of the outcry has not diminished.

In 2004, the Deputy Prosecutor General, Vladimir Kolesnikov called for Russia to reach bilateral agreements allowing Russian authorities to follow how Russian children develop in their new families. In May 2005, more than a dozen adoption agencies were refused a renewal of their accreditation. In July 2005, Yekaterina Lakhova, the chairwoman of the Duma committee that oversees adoption legislation, called for restrictions on countries where adopted Russian children have been abused – she even urged authorities to impose a moratorium on U.S. adoptions.

Also in July 2005, Deputy Prosecutor General Sergei Fridinsky told reporters that about 200 children were killed each year and accused foreign adoption agencies of giving bribes and using illegal middlemen to speed up the process. He said foreign parents were getting an illegal advantage over Russian citizens wanting to adopt and that Russians should be guaranteed priority.

To the relief of children’s rights groups, the messages have not been entirely onesided. In June 2005, the Foreign Ministry said it supported the adoption of Russian children by foreign parents, but that adoption procedures should be transparent and above reproach.

Similarly, Russia’s human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, lambasted calls to ban foreign adoption. He called the discussion around banning of adoption “populist pseudo-patriotic rubbish” that protects someone’s interests, but not those of the children.

The Future… Fate of the Children?

Children's rights advocates say the figure of 13 children was minuscule compared to the estimated 2,000 children who are killed by their parents in Russia annually, and that imposing a moratorium would harm thousands of Russian children waiting to be adopted.

Bilateral treaties with the US would allow Russian officials to intervene in the lives of adopted children and their new families. The number of foreign adoptions may drop more as many adoptive parents will not welcome the idea of the Russian government being free to intrude in their lives at any time. In the midst of the upheaval, it has been reported that in 2005, Russian adoptions by American parents slowed by a third. It is doubtful that foreign adoption will stop completely, but parents will most likely be required to go through additional psychological testing and mandatory training.

These stories beg asking: Was it worth it?
Would you recommend it?

Carol replies: “… (Despite) all of the paperwork, bureaucracy, trips to Russia, stress, and money, the answer is always YES, YES, YES and YES!”

Cathy’s answer: “…a zillion times yes… I wake up every morning just saying Thank You Lord for enriching my life in this way.”

In June 2005 the government launched a new website aimed at encouraging domestic adoptions. While it might be seen by some as pure window dressing, it could also be argued that every step that could help the thousands of orphans is a good step.

Happy Endings for Some

Tom and Carol Hand from Florida had already completed all the necessary paperwork, gone through all stages of preapproval and had even met their daughter when the news broke in July 2005 of the North Carolina woman who had beaten her daughter to death. They sensed immediately that the terrible news would affect their own adoption. Their adoption agency – Children’s Hope International – soon informed them that the Russian government required them to do a psychiatric evaluation and a class on child parenting, which they did willingly. Yet this was not the end of the process for them. When they returned to Russia for a second time, expecting to collect Maggie (called Nadia before the adoption) from the Tomsk region, officials were nervous and requested additional paperwork which took a week to get to Russia. They thought the last hurdle had been overcome, but at what was to be the last hearing, the judge decided to require that the birth mother sign the consent form again. She had signed it when she was 17, but by this time she was 18. To their distress the mother, who was in prison, now refused to sign the form and they had to return to the US without their daughter. The next couple of months were extremely difficult, but finally the happy news came in late December that the mother had signed and that they could collect Maggie. Because this was their third trip to Russia, they thought the judge would waive a ten day waiting period, but this was not the case. Ten days became two weeks, but finally they could return home with their daughter.

Mike and Cathy Dillon from Texas met their two youngest children through Kidsave, a non-profit organisation that attempts to get children out of institutions by facilitating meetings between them and potential adoptive parents. One of their programmes has US families hosting Russian children for the summer. By doing this, they cut out some of the expensive fees traditional adoption agencies ask. Initially the Dillons stood in for others who had pulled out and were meant to host Alexey and Tatiana only for a short time, but they fell in love with the two children and decided to adopt them.

The two children grew up in Rostov, but when their parents died, their family could not afford to keep them and they were put in a detsky dom outside of Rostov. Because the Dillons hadn’t planned to adopt, the administrative tasks ahead seemed insurmountable. Cathy confesses that the paperwork was voluminous and the obstacles endless: “It seemed like every time we solved one, up popped three more”. Many people told them they were crazy, but they kept pushing ahead and almost a year later they could finally take their two children home. The children love their new life and have adjusted very well. Cathy’s advice to new parents: you can never touch and love your adopted child enough, because in the orphanage they receive none of this.

Considering Adoption?

Russian infants must be 9 months old before they're eligible for international adoption. Other requirements are flexible and vary by region, based on the needs and best interests of the child. Married couples and single women are accepted, and a maximum age difference of 48 years between mother and child are preferred by Russian authorities.

Make sure the adoption agency you choose, has russian accreditation!
US$21,000-US$28,000 (depending on your country, tax credits are often given).
Duration: variable. You will also be required to make two trips to Russia.
Resources: Contact the Russian Embassy in your own country as well as your chosen adoption agency, but a good reference page can be found at

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