In the past two decades, American citizens have adopted more than 60,000 Russian orphans. In December of 2012, however, these adoptions came to an abrupt end after the Russian government unexpectedly banned Americans from adopting in Russia only eight weeks after a new Bilateral Adoption Agreement with the U.S. entered into force. The international community and adoption advocates have vilified Russia for enacting this ban. While some criticism is valid, focusing on the ban of American adoptions ignores Russia's larger child welfare crisis and incorrectly assumes that foreign adoption played an exclusively positive role in that crisis. Instead, the international community should see this ban as the impetus and opportunity for Russia to finally make necessary legal and social policy changes that will protect the welfare of its orphans over the long haul. In light of this ban, Russia should focus on three key areas of reform: alcohol abuse and treatment, the creation of a juvenile court system, and the gradual, carefully structured closing of the orphanage system.
Contents I. INTRODUCTION II. BACKGROUND: WHY DOES RUSSIA HAVE A CRISIS OF CHILD WELFARE? A. Historical, Social, Economic, and Cultural Factors Have Contributed to Russia's Child Welfare Crisis B. Russia's Current System Is Not Properly Equipped to Handle Child Welfare Cases 1. Russian law lacks defined criteria for child abuse 2. Russia's child welfare system lacks effective family services 3. Orphanages in Russia can be psychologically damaging, abusive environments C. Unique Cultural and Psychological Factors Contributed to the Popularity and Problems of US-Russia Adoptions 1. American parents did not always enter adoption with informed motives 2. Adoptive parents often lacked complete and reliable information regarding adoptees 3. Many Russian adoptees suffered from severe behavioral problems III. THE BILATERAL AGREEMENT AND WHY AMERICAN ADOPTIONS WERE NOT THE SOLUTION A. The Agreement Did Not Acknowledge the Realities of the American Child Welfare System B. The Agreement Did Not Address the Role of Institutionalization in Adoption Failure IV. RUSSIA SHOULD CONSIDER THREE KEY POLICY CHANGES TO IMPROVE CHILD WELFARE A. Russia Must Address Alcohol Misuse B. Russia Must Create an Appropriate Juvenile Law System C. Russia Must Approach Deinstitutionalization Gradually and Intelligently 1. Russia should use the Children's Village model as a transitional step 2. Fostering and adopting must become desirable and feasible V. CONCLUSION I. INTRODUCTION
"Writing laws is easy, but governing is difficult." (1)
As this quote from the beloved Russian author Leo Tolstoy points out, it is relatively easy to write a statute or regulation. All one needs, even in a democratic system, is a consensus. Governing, however, requires something different--to govern, one must understand how implementing laws can create complex issues and cause multilayered problems that require intricate solutions. One such problem in Russia is the welfare of children, whose parents cannot care for them.
The Russian Federation ("Russia") has what can only be described as a crisis of child welfare. As of 2011, official figures indicated that 700,000 children in Russia were orphans whose biological parents were deceased or otherwise unable to care for them. (2) Of those 700,000, nearly two-thirds were "social orphans," or children who cannot live safely at home but have one or two living parents. About 370,000 of those children live in orphanages. (3) In 2009, it was reported that 2.5 percent of Russia's youth were in state care, which is double the amount of children in state care than in any other developed country. (4) Various reports have indicated that in addition to these children categorized as orphans, close to five million more Russian children could be classified as "street children." These children are essentially homeless, living either on the streets with gangs of other children or floating between friends and relatives with no parental supervision. (5)
The life of a Russian orphan is grim. Institutionalized orphans are often deprived of the basic building blocks of the human experience. These children endure severe neglect, sensory deprivation, malnourishment, and illness. Children from the worst orphanages are often developmentally delayed by years, have difficulty speaking, and struggle cognitively and emotionally. Due to a lack of resources, orphanages are often dilapidated and lack basic supplies. One caregiver is responsible for as many as thirty children. (6) Due to a lack of attention from workers, orphans may never get a chance to "attach" to caregivers and often never experience love or empathy from a caregiver. The statistics show that an equally bleak adulthood awaits these children. Nearly 40 percent of children who age out of the orphanage system ultimately struggle with substance abuse, (7) and 10 percent eventually commit suicide. (8)
While many children in orphanages come from either destitute poverty or abusive homes, the orphanage environment is rarely an improvement. One adoptive mother told the story of her now sixteenyear-old daughter, who lived in a Russian orphanage from age six to thirteen. Orphanage staff beat her regularly for wetting the bed, which is a common symptom of childhood abuse. (9) Eventually, she decided to sleep in urine-soaked sheets rather than face punishment. She was permitted to bathe once per week, and her only possession was a toothbrush. Every week, she received one pair of clothes-- including underwear--that she wore for the entire week. Her only source of affection was the village's stray dogs, who she often tried to protect from the older boys in the orphanage, who made games out of killing them. When her adoptive mother brought her home, she was emaciated and vomited regularly after eating because she gorged herself at meals. The child of an alcoholic mother, she has had difficulty learning English and struggles with short-term memory. After several years with her adoptive family, she has finally begun to adjust. (10)
There is no debate about the harms orphanages can cause, which is largely why Russia has generally encouraged domestic and foreign adoptions of orphans. Foreign adoptions, however, are historically far more common. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has relied on the U.S. and other western countries to adopt Russian-born orphans. American citizens have adopted nearly 60,000 Russian orphans since 1991. (11) However, in 2010, a bizarre set of events put the wheels of an adoption ban in motion. That April, an adoptive mother named Torry Hansen from North Carolina put her seven-year-old adopted son from Russia, Artyom Savelyev, alone on a plane to Moscow. She included with him a note that said he had "severe psychopathic issues" and that she no longer wanted to parent him. (12) The Russian government was outraged. (13)
Stories similar to Artyom's began to emerge in the weeks and months that followed. (14) Adoptive parents of Russian children told nightmarish stories in the media, including one parent whose adopted child sexually abused his adoptive siblings and regularly threatened the family with knives and other weapons. (15) Some of these parents felt they had no choice but to dissolve the adoption for which they had waited years and on which they had spent thousands of dollars. (16) Russian media began following these stories, and soon, even more heartbreaking situations came to light. American and Russian news sources have reported that as many as twenty adopted children from Russia have been murdered by their adoptive parents (17)--a statistic that exposed the broken state of the adoption system.
With many prospective adoptive families' fates hanging in the balance, the Russian Foreign Minister and U.S. Secretary of State negotiated and signed a Bilateral Agreement ("Agreement") to reform the adoption process (18) in July of 2011. (19) The primary requirements of the Agreement included more post-adoption monitoring; notifications to the Russian government of any dissolution of adoption, and retention of adoptees' Russian citizenship. (20) While not a drastic change in policy, it was a step in the right direction, especially considering that Russia had not ratified the Hague Convention on Adoption. (21) However, the Agreement did not require Russia to correct its underlying problems, namely closing the orphanage system or modernizing its legal and psychological approach to child welfare.
The Agreement entered into force on November 1, 2012. Just as a solution appeared within reach, things took a turn for the worse. In late 2012, the U.S. Government passed the Magnitsky Act. (22) This law prevents Russian human rights abusers from obtaining visas to enter the U.S. (23) Shortly thereafter, the Russian government voted to ban (24) adoptions of Russian children by American citizens, a reaction which many perceived as retaliatory. (25)
While the ban sat on Vladimir Putin's desk awaiting his signature, the Russian public began to react. Some government officials urged Putin not to sign the bill; one argued that doing so would violate the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. (26) To the shock of the international community, Putin nonetheless signed the ban, nullifying the Agreement less than six weeks after it had entered into force and leaving forty-six families in legal limbo. (27) Moreover, many roundly criticized the ban (28) for violating the human rights of the thousands of children in Russian orphanages, who were now unlikely to be adopted. (29) With this ban in place, Russia can no longer rely on American families to provide the family or family-like environment that Russian orphans are entitled to under Russian law (30) and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. (31)
This Note argues that despite intense criticism, Russia's ban on American adoptions presents an opportunity...