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Moscow Links Suspension Of Student Exchanges To Gay U.S. Couple

Kremlin children's envoy Pavel Astakhov said Washington had violated its obligation to return Russian students to their country when "a Russian teen stayed behind in the United States."

Russia's child-protection ombudsman has linked Moscow's decision to suspend participation in the Future Leaders Exchange Program (FLEX) to a gay American couple that established guardianship over a Russian high-school student who was in the United States for the program.

Pavel Astakhov said on Twitter on October 1 that Washington had violated its obligation to return Russian students to their country when "a Russian teen stayed behind in the United States."

He also told Russia's TASS state news agency that "a U.S. homosexual couple" had illegally established "guardianship" over a boy whose mother is in Russia.

Astakhov said the incident was one reason for Russia's decision to scrap its involvement in the 21-year-old student-exchange program with the United States.

But the U.S. administrator of the program said the events described by Astakhov occurred after the child had completed the exchange program and that the student's host family in FLEX was not a same-sex couple, as Russian officials have implied.

The Washington-based American Councils for International Education (ACIE), which administers the FLEX program for the U.S. State Department, confirmed to RFE/RL that a participant in the 2012-13 program did not return on schedule to Russia upon completing the exchange program.

But David Patton, executive vice president of ACIE, told RFE/RL that the child was not taken into custody by the host family and that the host family was not a same-sex couple.

Patton says the child completed the program without incident and went "off program" after he had completed his involvement in FLEX.

"It really wasn't a direct result of the FLEX program," Patton said. "It was a post-program issue, in which case we kind of lose jurisdiction."

The student was placed in a "traditional" family setting, Patton said. He added that it "was our understanding" that the child befriended a same-sex couple while participating in the program.

The U.S. State Department says more than 8,000 Russians have taken part since the launch of the program, which also involves Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Ukraine.

Patton said FLEX participants are placed in a variety of family settings in the United States but a child and his or her parents can decline to be placed in a "nontraditional" American family.

"The students are placed in essentially a wide variety of families reflective, really, of the American family landscape, as it were," he said. "And that does include single parents and occasionally even same-sex couples. Having said that, any nontraditional placement is approved both by the participant and the participant's natural parents."

On September 30, U.S. Ambassador John Tefft expressed regret over Russia's decision to withdraw from next year's FLEX program.

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law banning the adoption of Russian children by U.S. families in 2012, as tension with Washington mounted in his third term.

With additional reporting by TASS and Interfax
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