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Russia-U.S. Adoption Treaty Introduces Stronger Controls

  • Nikola Krastev

A boy in a Russian orphanage writes the word "mother" on a window pane.

A boy in a Russian orphanage writes the word "mother" on a window pane.

After nearly a year of negotiations, Russia and the United States are set to sign an accord regulating adoptions.

The agreement is due to be signed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington on July 13.

It would require that American couples seeking to adopt Russian children undergo psychological testing. It would also give Russian authorities the right to monitor children adopted by U.S. parents until their 18th birthday. Adopted children would also keep their Russian citizenship.

Moreover, adoptions would be handled only by American agencies certified by the Russian authorities and which are in compliance with the Hague Convention on Inter-Country Adoptions.

A series of highly publicized cases in which Russian children were mistreated by their U.S. adoptive parents led to an outcry in Russia, with some politicians calling for a halt to adoptions by Americans altogether.

In the most notorious case, Torry Hansen, a Tennessee woman, sent her 7-year-old son back to Russia alone on an airplane -- with a note asking the authorities to take him back.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called the incident "monstrous." It was followed by suspended licenses for adoption agencies. It also led to delayed adoptions for other prospective American parents, and lengthy negotiations over new rules.

Difficult Backgrounds, Behavioral Problems

Milena Kazakov, program coordinator at the Spence-Chapin adoption agency in New York who has worked with American families adopting children from Russia, has pointed out that children coming from these countries often have difficult backgrounds and behavioral problems that American parents find problematic to cope with.

Milena Kazakov from the Spence-Chapin adoption agency
"In general, children coming from Russia have very complex histories," she said. "Often times their background is poverty, there is some neglect, so those are all issues that contribute to how they adjust when they are adopted. Also a big factor is whether the kid has been raised in institutional care or not."

Hansen, for example, said she couldn't cope with her adopted son's psychological problems and violent behavior.

Kazakov maintans Russian authorities sometimes do not fully disclose the background of adoptive children, leading to unexpected surprises in the child’s behavior after it is brought to the United States.

"[We need] really more transparency on both sides," she said, "for adoptive parents to be better prepared and know how to handle children with complex histories, and also for the Russian authorities to disclose more of what’s known of the background of the children."

According to available data, over 50,000 Russian children have been adopted by American couples since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. In 2010, Russia was the third-most-popular destination for American couples seeking an adoptive child, after China and Ethiopia.

The absence of a treaty on adoptions between the two countries was unusual, experts say.

"The [U.S.-Russia] agreement is not intended to ease the process for adoptive families but rather is designed to increase protections for the adoptive family and child," said Tom DiFilipo, president of the Virginia-based Joint Council on International Children's Services in an e-mail to RFE/RL. "To that end, the agreement is a very significant child protection measure."

Fee Increases For Adoptive Parents

While adoptive families do face hurdles, it is important to remember that it is the children who face barriers to living in a family, DiFilipo added "Those barriers include their family of birth not receiving the services they need to successfully parent all the way to bureaucratic delays which cause children to remain in orphanages longer than they should."

The signing of the treaty and its consecutive enforcement is expected to lead to fee increases for the adoptive parents. According to adoptionservices.org, the average cost for American couples to adopt a child from Russia is between $25,000 and $35,000 in 2011, including travel.

Moscow will also have the final say on which U.S. agencies may facilitate adoptions in Russia. At present, approximately 30 U.S. agencies are authorized to handle adoptions of Russian children.

Kazakov of Spence-Chapin said that because of Russia's vastness and the absence of a federally approved system for adoptions, rules might vary according to the regional jurisdiction in question.

"Oftentimes a particular region may have a specific requirement or paperwork that's specific for that region," she said. "And when the case goes to court finally [in Russia, a court must approve each adoption], a particular judge may have additional requirements that are unique for this judge, for this particular family. So in a way there's no clear and streamlined paperwork process."

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