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“‘Don’t leave…’ Those were the last words I heard my mother say to me before strangers in white came to take me,” Caroline Baker (not her real name) remembered.
“A man picked me up as I screamed for my mother. I grabbed the frame of the front door to our dingy apartment and I didn’t let go until the man pried my little fingers off of it. I was taken to the orphanage, where many other abandoned and unloved children had no home and no future. I was heartbroken.”
Born in Russia in the mid-1990s, Caroline was 6 years old when she was removed from a household where she suffered neglect. She spent an undisclosed amount of time in an orphanage before being adopted by an American family in the early 2000s.
The family has asked to remain anonymous, for fear of repercussions from the Russian government.
“The orphanage was a brutal place,” Caroline wrote recently in a college admissions essay that was made available to The Moscow News. “There really was little or no hope to get out or to have a better future.”
For a child in an orphanage, the only positive solution is being adopted or taken into foster care. Sick children that remain in state care may end their days in grim psychiatric facilities or facilities for the elderly.
A bill passed by the State Duma last week, however, threatens to close one door of opportunity for Russian children hoping to find families.
The Dima Yakovlev Law, named for a Russian orphan who died in the United States, would prohibit the adoption of Russian orphans by American families. It is the most controversial part of a larger bill that includes measures against U.S. citizens who are believed to have violated the rights of Russians, and that bans any non-commercial organization financially associated with the United States from political activity in Russia.
The law passed its third reading in the State Duma on Friday by a margin of 420 to 7, with one abstention. It could go into effect as early as January if it passes an upcoming review by the Federation Council and is signed into law by President Vladimir Putin.
According to CNN, the United States has the highest number of foreign adoptions of Russian children after China. Between 1999 and 2011, Americans adopted a total of 45,112 Russian children, according to figures provided by the U.S. State Department.
It is so far unclear how the law, if passed, would affect the 46 adoptions of Russian children by American parents that are already in progress.
“These are children’s lives,” Janis Cooke Newman, an American author and mother of an adopted Russian boy, told The Moscow News. “If they don’t get adopted young, it’s much less likely that they will get adopted as they get older. They don’t have time to play these games.”
Her adopted son Alex, now 18, also criticized the legislation. “I’m getting a really good education, I’m going to college – and if I had stayed in Russia, I have no idea what would have happened,” he said. “There are better ways to solve this problem.”
Right or wrong?
The official response to the law has been mixed. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, has stated that an outright ban on American adoptions is the wrong thing to do. Pavel Astakhov, Russia’s children’s rights ombudsman, declared that adoptions of Russian children by any foreigner should be illegal. Putin expressed support for the ban, calling it an “emotional” but “adequate” response.
Robert Shlegel, a prominent Duma deputy who voted in favor of the bill last week, addressed his conflicting emotions in a LiveJournal post last week.
“I voted ‘for’ the adoption of the amendment... Did I have doubts about this decision? Yes, I absolutely did. Moreover, I still do,” he wrote.
The public response has largely been one of stunned disbelief, confusion and outrage – especially on the part of Americans.
Adoption politics not new
American adoptive mother Cooke Newman has written a book, “The Russian Word for Snow,” about her struggle to adopt her son from a Moscow orphanage in 1996 against a similarly politically charged backdrop. At the time, Russia was in the midst of a presidential election – with the popular Communist candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, also favoring a ban on American adoptions.
“We went to Moscow to complete our paperwork, and visited our son in the orphanage every day,” Cooke Newman said.
Conditions in the orphanage were not bad, she remembered, but she was heartbroken by the lack of attention the babies received. “Once in a while the caretaker would go in and sit with them, and they would run to her like they were puppies,” she said. “They were just starved for attention.”
According to Lyudmila Petranovskaya, a prominent child psychologist and adoption expert, Russian orphanages today receive adequate funding, but cannot compensate for the lack of a family. “Our system is an expensive lie that society tells itself,” she wrote in a recent LiveJournal post dedicated to the adoption furor. “For hefty sums of money – money that belongs to the taxpayers – children suffer, and grow up unprepared for life.”
According to the Russian Education Ministry, there are 105,000 Russian children still living in orphanages. Petranovskaya believes that many of them can find families in Russia. “It was our citizens that emptied out an orphanage in the Ufa region, an orphanage that used to have 400 kids living there 10 years ago,” she wrote. “It’s not that our citizens ‘don’t want’ to take in children, it’s just that right now, this isn’t enough.”
Petranovskaya also pointed out that many Russians prefer going the foster parent or legal guardian route, as opposed to becoming adoptive parents – and believes such methods should also be encouraged, alongside more programs aimed at preventing abandonment of children. “We need people to take in kids at a rate that’s only 1.5 times greater than it is now, and to slash the rates of child abandonment by just as much,” she wrote. “And just like that, it becomes obvious that the problem can be solved.”
Who supports the ban – and why
The officials behind the initiative to ban adoptions by Americans were vindicating the measure as part of an act of political revenge – and a bid to restore national pride.
For Yelena Afanasyeva, one of the Duma deputies who drafted the proposal, the fact that 19 Russian kids died in America since 1998 was outrageous.
Yet this figure, provided by the U.S. National Adoption Council, has been contrasted recently with statistics from the Moscow office of Russia’s children’s rights ombudsman, which state that between 1991 and 2005, 1220 children had died while in the care of Russian adoptive parents.
“Just because [the adoption ban] is bad for some children in Russia – to cite those numbers – we can’t just ignore the other problem,” Afanasyeva told The Moscow News when confronted by numbers that suggest that Russian orphans had a better chance of surviving abroad.
Afanasyeva, a member of the nationalist LDPR party, was one of two women who pushed for an additional clause outlawing American adoptions of Russian orphans and abandoned children.
The other was Yekaterina Lakhova, a deputy of the ruling United Russia party, a mother, and a former pediatrician.
In 2006, Lakhova came under criticism for her proposal to outlaw foster parenting – a form of childcare in which a family shares legal responsibility over the child with local authorities. Her argument at the time was that foster parenting was a foreign concept that contradicted Russian traditions.
While the rationale for a ban on foreign adoptions included widely publicized cases in which a Russian child died of abuse or neglect in the States, Afanasyeva acknowledged that the need for a response to the Magnitsky Act served as an impetus – and a chance – for her to push through the adoption ban.
“Yes, it’s part of a reaction,” Afanasyeva said, “but our faction supported [the anti-adoption] amendment also because we are trying to solve the adoption problem.”
Afanasyeva’s previous efforts led to stringent rules introduced in 2006, curtailing the work of adoption agencies working with foreigners. The measures led to a sharp drop in the number of American adoptions. The United States adopted 3,468 Russian children in 2006, but by 2011 that number had dropped to 956, according to figures provided by the Education Ministry.
“When I came across this problem, we saw about two deaths a year in America,” Afanasyeva said. “We couldn’t monitor Russian adoptions going through these agencies.”
Afanasyeva said the ban will be a stimulus for Russians to adopt more children. “Today, I don’t have a drop of doubt that we did the right thing,” she said. “We have this mindset that the West will save us – it’s not true.”
The real origins of the ban
The Russian lawmakers who passed an amendment outlawing American adoptions of Russian children were forced to carry out orders passed down from the Kremlin, according to Alexei Makarkin, vice president of the Center for Political Technologies.
“They received the amendments at the very last moment,” Makarkin told The Moscow News. “Right now we have a situation where [the Kremlin] hands down laws that don’t just have to be passed, but that must be passed before a certain deadline.”
According to journalist Sergei Parkhomenko, who downloaded and inspected the original text file containing the new law from the State Duma’s official site, the legislation originated with the Presidential Administration. The author of the file, Sergei Tikhomirov, works there.
Just Russia deputy Valery Zubov, who voted against the law, told TVK-6, a Krasnoyarsk television channel, that “these decisions are not made on the initiatives of the deputies themselves – they are handed down by the Presidential Administration.”
“Let’s not entertain any illusions,” Zubov said. “This law was, naturally, agreed upon earlier.”
“How else can we strike [the Americans] where it hurts?” Makarkin said, explaining the Kremlin’s possible motives. “If they found our soft spot with the Magnitsky Act, we found theirs.”
The president’s comments
Vladimir Putin was asked about the adoption ban several times during his marathon press conference last Thursday. Here is what he said when confronted on whether Russian children were being used as tools in a political fight by journalist Alexander Kolesnichenko, an adoptive father:
“As far as I know from opinion polls, a large majority of Russian citizens are negative on the subject of foreigners adopting our children. We need to do this ourselves.”
“It’s not about specific people, or American citizens who adopt our children. The reaction of the deputies of the State Duma isn’t against this activity, but against the position of the American government.”
“I’ll tell you again, they just don’t let Russian representatives get near these issues [of the rights of adopted Russian children], they don’t even let them sit in on court hearings as observers. I believe this is unacceptable. How is this normal, if you’re being humiliated”
When asked whether he supports the amendment to ban American adoptions, Putin responded:
“I don’t know the details. I haven’t seen the text. I will decide based on what is written there. But in general, I think I have formulated my opinion about this issue quite clearly…. Yes, I said I support [the ban]. There is only a question of how it is formulated. We have an agreement with the [U.S.] Department of State, we have to see what it says.”Read other articles of the print issue "The Moscow News #79"
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