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Russia: Boy's Death, Mother's Sentencing Lead To Appeals For Adoption Restrictions

A woman in the United States was sentenced this week to 12 years in prison for the 2003 death of her 6-year-old son, Alex, who was adopted from Russia. The case has received significant media attention in Russia and has led to a wider discussion over the adoption of Russian children by foreigners, many of them from the United States. Americans adopted 5,800 Russian orphans in 2004 -- representing almost 75 percent of the country's international adoptions. Some Russians are calling for tougher restrictions on international adoptions, while others say the children themselves will be the ones to suffer if the laws are tightened.

Prague, 6 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Alex Pavlis became the 13th Russian-born child to have died while in the custody of his foreign adoptive parents in the past 15 years. Twelve of those deaths have occurred in the United States.

The sentencing of Irma Pavlis has received limited coverage in the United States. But Russian media have devoted considerable attention to the case, which has heated up debate over the issue of foreign adoptions.
Foreigners adopt nearly 8,000 Russian orphans every year. Americans adopt more children from Russia than from any other country except China.

Irma Pavlis's 12-year prison sentence in the state of Illinois for involuntary manslaughter is seen by many Russians as too lenient. In addition, the Pavlis family paid a relatively low price for Alex's adoption -- $11,000 -- to a Russian individual with no links to the government's adoption agency. These facts are being used as ammunition by those in Russia who are seeking tougher legislation on international adoptions.

On 4 May, Russian Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov called for new international agreements to ensure the welfare of Russian children adopted by citizens of other countries.

Thomas Atwood, president of the Washington-based National Coalition for Adoption, traveled to Russia in late March to discuss the issue with officials. Atwood tells RFE/RL the Pavlis case should not affect Russia's policies on adoption.

"What happened to Alex Pavlis should never happen," he said. "Our heart goes out to him. We understand the outrage of Russians about what has happened. We're outraged too. But unfortunately these things can happen in any kind of family, whether it is an adoptive family or a biological family or wherever the child is from. Extremely rare incidents such as this one should not be what decides policy. The policy needs to be decided on the best interests of the children in Russian orphanages."

He believes the Pavlis case may be exploited by "irresponsible officials" in Russia to deprive children of good homes. The proponents of tougher legislation are mostly Russian legislators and government officials, while orphanages and adoption agencies are generally against any tightening.

In December, the State Duma amended the family code to lower the requirements for domestic adoptive parents, including income levels and living conditions. The new legislation also extended the term -- from four to eight months -- during which Russian orphans are required to remain on a databank registry for domestic adoption, before being released for international adoption.

Yekaterina Lakhova, head of the State Duma's Committee on Women's Affairs, believes a moratorium should be instituted on all foreign adoptions until even tougher legislation can be enacted.

Olga Makhovskaya is a well-known psychologist and expert on families and emigration at the Institute of Psychology in Moscow. "I am afraid toughening [adoption rules] and increasing control is not the right way to go, although I understand how tragic this story is," she said. "I believe we should negotiate with foreign governments and work out international legislation [to prevent] a chain of crimes which often starts in our country and ends on [foreign] soil."

International adoptions of Russian children began in earnest in 1990 after the Soviet Union signed the UN's Convention on the Rights of the Child. In 2001, Putin signed the Hague Convention on International Adoption, which has yet to be ratified.

Foreigners adopt nearly 8,000 Russian orphans every year. Americans adopt more children from Russia than from any other country, except China. Ukraine and Kazakhstan are also high on the list (eds: fifth and sixth, respectively).

Stephen Presser is a professor of law at Northwestern University in the United States. He explains why Russian children are so popular with prospective American parents: "There is a tremendous shortage of especially young white children for adoption in [the United States]. It's been a problem for, I think, the last 25 years or so. There are a lot of older children. There are a lot of children with disabilities. There are a lot of minority children. But there are very few healthy white infants."

Foreigners using the services of state agencies pay around $25,000 for each adopted child in Russia. Some Russians even go so far as to accuse foreigners of "buying" Russian children for use as organ donors.

Makhovskaya says the shortcoming of Russia's adoption legislation, along with the economic problems many Russian orphanages face, combine to make the system corrupt: "The [adoption] procedure is very complex. It may take up to one year. Bribes given for finalizing the process can be from $2,000-$4,000. Since the procedure is too long and requirements are not clear, foreigners -- most of whom are Americans -- try to shorten this procedure as much as possible."

Makhovskaya says this corruption likely discourages many people from adopting Russian children. She says Russia's orphans will suffer most if authorities toughen the legislation: "My prognosis is that those Americans who want to adopt children will do so anyway. They will adopt Chinese or African boys and girls. There are many kids living in misery on the planet. It's a pity, because these individual cases [like Alex Pavlis], which require special consideration of international agreements, will strip many other children of the chance for a normal life in a normal country, be it America or elsewhere in the West."

Atwood of the National Coalition for Adoption, said that while Russian authorities debate the issue, many Russian orphans won't be getting good educations, adequate health care or, most importantly, "the loving family that every child needs."

(RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.)