Abuse, deaths, prompt Russian to adopt new rules

Date: 2006-06-04

RUSSIAN ADOPTIONS: More than 10 Russian adoptees have died in the homes of their American adoptive parents

BY RUTHANN ROBINSON
rrobinson@nwitimes.com
219.662.5331
Date posted online: Sunday, June 04, 2006

Changes to the law will be too late to help little Luke Evans of Lowell.

Prosecutors say the 16-month-old Russian adoptee was shaken to death by his adoptive mother in November 2001.

Natalie Fabian Evans was charged with murder 13 months later but has yet to face a jury. Her trial is scheduled to begin June 19.

In response to news reports that more than 10 Russian children adopted by American parents have died by neglect or violence since 1991, Russian officials passed an amendment in May prohibiting foreign, independent adoptions through unlicensed agencies.

Officials predict the amendment will become federal law by the end of the year.

Phyllis and Rich Graham of Hobart adopted a Russian orphan, Alex, in April 2001 -- the same year the Evans adopted Luke.

Alex is now a healthy, happy 6-year-old, Phyllis Graham said.

She wasn't looking for a Russian child when she was told she and her husband couldn't have children. She just searched the Internet for available children and fell in love.

"There was something about his face, his smile," Graham said. More than $34,000 and four months later, Alex was home and they've never looked back.

It was a different story for the couple who traveled to Kazakhstan with the Grahams.

One month after Michael VanHyning arrived home in DeWitt County, Ill., with his son, Cameron, he nearly beat the 15-month-old to death. Records show VanHyning is serving a 28-year prison sentence for aggravated domestic battery.

Graham said Cameron was "put into another home where he could get the help he needed."

Main Street Adoptions of Martinez, Calif., handled both the Graham and VanHyning adoptions. They are no longer in business, Graham said.

In 2000, the Russian government decided any agency wishing to handle foreign adoptions must be accredited, said Patricia Beristain, the Eastern European program director for Hand in Hand International Adoptions of Tucson, Ariz.

Accredited agencies welcome the proposed Russian law, Beristain said.

"It insures the welfare of the child," she said. "The kids I know of that were harmed or killed by their adopted parents were all done via independent adoption agencies."

One of the requirements for accreditation is to provide the Russian government with documents proving post-placement and at-home visits by a social worker at six months, one, two and three years, Beristain said.

To adopt their daughter Alexsandra, now 5, Collette Lubert and Bryan Buff, of Crown Point, went through the same agency as the Evans: Small World Charity Inc.

Lubert does not know if it is accredited. The agency Web site does not indicate Russian accreditation, and a woman who identified herself on the phone as the director Thursday said she did not have time to answer questions.

The Web site boasts the agency placed 200 Russian children. Beristain said her agency handles about 130 adoptions a year.

It cost Lubert more than $32,000 to adopt Alexsandra in May 2002. Small World gave her a list of things she should bring with her including crisp, American $100 bills, cologne for the judge, whiskey for the minister of education and school supplies for the judge's children.

Lubert took the "baby house" workers gifts of wooden spoons, chocolate, picture frames and $30 each -- about one month's wages, she said.

While they don't provide clients with a specific list of what Russian officials want, Beristain's agency encourages the families to "take gifts to their coordinators because it's part of Russian culture," she said.

Because she feels a special bond with little Luke Evans, who came from the same orphanage as Alexsandra, Lubert regularly visits his grave, where Alexsandra places flowers.

Upon hearing about the VanHyning case, Lubert was full of questions.

"Why? Why go through all that and then hurt the child? After seeing them in that home? They're so helpless and vulnerable."

Want to adopt?

Phyllis Graham, who along with her husband Rich, adopted Alex from Russia in 2001, had a harrowing experience on her trip to Russia. Graham said the director of the agency handling the adoption, became upset when the Grahams questioned all the money gifts people expected.

The director told her to "Shut up and listen and do what you're told."

"She threatened to tear up our contract and leave us there," Graham said. Although that didn't happen, Graham said she advises anyone considering a foreign adoption to investigate the adoption agency.

"Do your homework," Graham said. "And go with a local agency, if possible."

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