Essex woman fights for better safeguards

Date: 2006-02-02
Source: boston.com

David Rattigan
Boston Globe

Not all children adopted from Russia find as loving a home as Anastasia Cahill did.

But one woman working on the front lines to help ensure they do is Maureen Flatley, a child welfare advocate from Essex who has made it her mission to create more safeguards in the international adoption system.

While acknowledging that the majority of international adoptions serve the much-needed purpose of bringing children together with loving parents, Flatley believes that the explosive growth in overseas adoptions has led to abuses and sometimes tragic results.

Take the case of one her clients, Masha Allen, a 13-year-old whose abuse at the hands of an adoptive father prompted the introduction of a bill in Congress earlier last month.

''Masha's Bill," introduced by Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts and Johnny Isakson of Georgia, would significantly stiffen civil penalties for child pornography.

Flatley became involved in Masha's case at the behest of Washington, D.C., lawyer and child welfare advocate James Marsh, who called her last fall after he realized what a large undertaking it would be.

Flatley agreed immediately and made plans to talk the following Monday after she returned from a weekend trip to South Beach in Miami.

''This is typical Maureen," Marsh recounted. ''She got to South Beach and saw John Quinones of ABC's ''Primetime" in the lobby of her hotel. She walked up to him, pitched the story, and on Monday morning came back and said, ''Primetime" is doing a special on this. Tell me more about the case.' "

Flatley wasn't done. Since that time, Allen has appeared on ''Oprah" and with legal analyst Nancy Grace on CNN. There are more media appearances planned.

The Allen case confirmed a scenario that Flatley and other child welfare advocates have long suspected and feared -- that some pedophiles have used international adoptions to procure victims. Since Allen's case was resolved, a deputy district attorney in Oregon prosecuted two sexual abuse cases involving victims adopted from a foreign country. [ppl note: most likely Boy adopted by William Delos Peckenpaugh  and  Girl adopted by David and Karen Gilmore both prosecuted in Marion county Oregon]

Working with other child welfare advocates, Flatley is seeking to change international adoption laws to include more federal regulation.

The high-profile adoptions of children from other countries by Hollywood stars including Hugh Jackman, Meg Ryan, and Angelina Jolie mirror a rising trend. Flatley estimates that the number has increased approximately 300 percent over the past 10 years and says public policy has not kept pace with changes in the marketplace.

While there are some federal laws governing international adoption, most of the regulation is done on a state-by-state basis, and the laws vary widely, adoption advocates say.

Frequently, a parent from one state will use the services of an adoption agency in another state to arrange an adoption from another country, paying large fees for the service. In many of the horror stories, Flatley said, the common factors were shoddy preadoption screening and limited or no oversight after the adoption.

''Rather than be close to the ground, community-based," so it's possible to ''know who the people are that you're dealing with in both directions in the transaction, adoption's become this enormous virtual marketplace, literally around the world," Flatley said.

A spokesman for Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoption, a group composed primarily of adoptive parents, said that while abuse cases are the exception, they are a cause for concern for anyone with an interest in adoption.

''Each year, there are 4,000 to 5,000 children adopted from Russia by American parents," said John Perry, advocacy and outreach chairman for the organization. ''The vast majority are successful, which is not to downplay what happened" in the Allen case, ''which was obviously deplorable."

Perry, a member of the group's board of directors and a parent of two adopted children, said his board hasn't specifically addressed the issue of federal regulations but should.

''It's a very complex area," Perry said. ''You're dealing with two countries with different laws, and 50 states with their own rules about licensing and home studies." Problem cases ''bring up valid questions that need to be reviewed."

Flatley, the daughter of an FBI agent, has been a lobbyist for child welfare issues for 15 years, working from offices in Boston, Washington, and Boca Raton, Fla. She has worked both in the United States and as an adviser to foreign countries, including an extended project for the Romanian child protection agency.

''She is an incredible advocate," said Marylou Sudders, president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. ''She speaks from her heart and from her intellect, which I really respect. You know where her passion comes from, but she uses her incredible capacity for understanding very complex issues to move them into public policy."

Sudders's organization hosted Kerry's announcement of Masha's Bill on Jan. 6 and plans to honor Allen at its annual gala this spring.

While Masha's Bill raises the stakes for those who trade in child pornography over the Internet, Kerry said he also hopes it will act as a deterrent. The victim coming forward, Kerry said, ''lets people understand this is not a victimless crime."

The girl and her adoptive mother, who live in Georgia, had not intended to go public until they discovered that many of the pictures of Masha continue to circulate over the Internet. Her appearances as the victim of this abuse help ''destroy the fantasy that these people had set up about her," Flatley said. Through changes in the law, she is creating a scenario that provides recourse against the predator.

Taking her story public has also been beneficial for the 13-year-old's recovery, Flatley said. ''She's much more empowered and less depressed and feels more proactive and in control of the situation."

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