Adoptions examined after Russian boy dies

Date: 2009-01-02

Moscow: The grim case of a toddler in the Washington area who died of heatstroke in July after his father left him in a parked vehicle for nine hours is national news in Russia, fodder for angry political commentary and kitchen-table discussion.

The boy, born Dmitri Yakovlev, was adopted from Russia, and his death revived memories of earlier abuse cases involving Russian children adopted by American parents. But the real outcry came in December, when his father, Miles Harrison, was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter.

On Tuesday, Russian federal prosecutors opened an investigation into the boy's death, and the authorities have called to restrict or end the adoption of Russian children by Americans.

"When we give our children to the West and they die for some reason, the West always tells us it was just an accident," said Tatyana Yakovleva, first deputy chief of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. "It's hard to believe."

The boy, renamed Chase Harrison, died in early July, a little more than three months after he arrived in the United States. Miles Harrison strapped the boy, 21 months old, into a car seat, but forgot to drop him off at day care. Nine hours after Miles Harrison parked his sport utility vehicle outside his office, a co-worker noticed the child's body.

Miles Harrison and his wife wept through much of the trial, and witnesses testified that they were loving and attentive parents. A Circuit Court judge in Fairfax County, Virginia, R. Terrence Ney, ruled that while Harrison was "plainly negligent," he had not shown "callous disregard for human life," the legal standard for involuntary manslaughter.

"The only atonement can take place in his heart and soul," Ney said, according to news reports. He also said "no finding of involuntary manslaughter will bring this child back to life."

Harrison's lawyer did not respond to a request for a comment.

The judge's verdict was met with outrage in Russia. The Foreign Ministry released a statement that said, "Serious doubts arise as to the legitimacy of the practice of transferring our children for adoption to a country where their rights, primarily the right to life, turn out to be unprotected."

"In the United States," it continued, "punishment is absent for those guilty of such tragedies on, apparently, the sole ground that they are 'full-fledged' citizens, whereas their adoptees are not."

At a public hearing in the lower house of Parliament, the speaker, Boris Gryzlov, declared himself "indignant." Foreigners want Russian children, he said, because they are "genetically smarter and healthier."

News of the judge's ruling revived public outrage that arose in 2005, after two Russian-born children died after severe abuse at the hands of adoptive parents in North Carolina and Maryland, and a Pennsylvania man was convicted of sexually abusing a girl he had adopted from Russia and posting pornographic photographs of her on the Internet.

According to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, more than 50,000 Russian children have been adopted by U.S. citizens since 1991. Fourteen adopted children have died in the United States since 1996, said Alina Levitskaya, of the Ministry of Education and Science. "In our Russian families, unfortunately, children die much more often," the Russian news media quoted her as saying earlier in 2008.

U.S. adoptions of Russian children peaked in 2003 at 6,000 and have declined since, to 1,795 in 2008, as screening and legal hurdles have mounted. In a statement released after the verdict in the Harrison case, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Beyrle, said it would be wrong to severely restrict adoptions by Americans because of the case, which he called "tragic." "We should keep in mind the tens of thousands of extremely successful adoptions by Americans of Russian children, children who in many cases maintain a connection with their Russian roots," he said. "And we should think of the thousands of Russian children who do not have parents and who currently live in state-supported institutions."

[note - North Carolina and Maryland, and a Pennsylvania refers to Nina Hilt,  Dennis Merryman, Masha Allen]

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