RUSSIAN ADOPTION RULES FULL OF HOLES; LITTLE U.S. OVERSIGHT

Date: 2004-12-12

Author: Robert Ruth

As Russian babies become more popular with Americans seeking to adopt white children, Moscow has imposed regulations to control the business and monitor the care of the children in their new homes.

Experts say the effort has been admirable, but the regulations are full of loopholes.

Among the requirements are pre- and post-adoption home visits by social workers or other licensed professionals. But people are on their best behavior during these home-study visits, said John H. Maclean, author of The Russian Adoption Handbook. "Home studies will pick up something only if you're certifiably crazy."

In addition, couples can shop around for a favorable social worker, said Dr. Dana Johnson, a pediatrician and director of the University of Minnesota's International Adoption Clinic.

"If a family is intent on adopting, unless there is some huge obvious problem in the record, they will probably be able to get someone to do a home study . . . that will be acceptable," he said.

During the past five years, Americans adopted 23,044 children from Russia, second only to China with 25,747 adoptees, according to the U.S. State Department.

The availability of white babies and young children, scarce in U.S. adoption circles, is a major reason Russian orphanages are the target of American adoption agencies, experts said.

Contraceptives, abortions and the lack of stigma associated with out-of-wedlock pregnancies have dramatically reduced the number of American children available for adoption, said Doris Calloway Moore, director of family recruitment and training for Franklin County Children Services.

"It's not only here in Franklin County; it's nationwide," Moore said.

The Moscow Times reported last month that 700,000 abandoned and orphaned Russian children are available for adoption, double the number 10 years ago.

Loose rules

No agency officially tracks the number of Russian children abused in American homes. However, a survey of newspaper articles found that, in the past eight years, at least a dozen Russian children died violently at the hands of their adoptive American parents.

Two central Ohio children turned up in the survey. One was Liam Thompson, who died on Oct. 16, 2003, five days after his adoptive father, Gary, dipped him in scalding bath water at their Far West Side home. The other was 2-year-old Maria Bennett, of Lancaster, who died a year earlier of shaken-baby syndrome. Parents in both cases are serving prison sentences.

"It shouldn't happen," Maclean said. "But it happens with domestic adoptions and biological children, too."

With each case involving a Russian child, though, pressure increased on officials in Moscow to tighten restrictions, Maclean said.

Last month, Vladimir Kolesnikov, Russia's deputy prosecutor, criticized his nation's foreign-adoption system.

"As sad as it may sound, adoptions have turned into a profitable business," Kolesnikov was quoted as saying in the Moscow Times. Too often, Russian adoption officials abuse their authority and accept bribes, he added.

The Russian government tightened foreign-adoption standards in 2000. At least one home-study visit is required before adoption and four visits after at intervals of six, 12, 24 and 36 months. After each visit, the licensed professional (in Ohio they are called "adoption assessors") files a report that is forwarded to Russia.

However, the Americans are under no legal obligation to complete the post-adoption home studies, said Maclean, an Atlanta lawyer. "If you don't have them done, nobody is going to come to your house and take your kid away."

In domestic cases, the adoption is not final until after a six-month review, when the child could be taken from the prospective parents, Moore said.

Thompson and his wife, Amy, arranged for Liam's adoption through Tree of Life Adoptions, a private agency in Portland, Ore. According to evidence compiled by Columbus police, the Thompsons completed the pre-adoption home study. Police records do not indicate whether any post-adoption review was completed.

In a diary on Mrs. Thompson's computer, she wrote about how frustrated she was that Liam and a second Russian-born child they adopted had "no distinguishable personality."

That comes from beginning their lives in poorly funded and staffed Russian orphanages, Johnson said. "There is no nurturing.

"In terms of being able to interact on a one-to-one basis, like a mother and a family would do, it is just about virtually impossible."

Little oversight

In 2000, the Russian government established a certification process for adoption agencies doing business in that country. But only 51 of the more than 200 American agencies that arrange adoptions from 200 orphanages scattered across the former Soviet Union are certified, according to the Russian embassy in Washington.

Tree of Life is not one of them.

Bianca Marcu, coordinator of international adoptions for Tree of Life, said her agency cannot be blamed for Liam's death.

"Considering the adoption is completed, they are the legal parent," Marcu said. "I don't see how the adoption agency should be involved any more. It's easy to point the blame at the adoption agency."

Since answering initial inquiries from The Dispatch in August, Tree of Life officials have declined to comment further.

Many uncertified agencies work through joint agreements with certified ones, Maclean said, and despite the regulations, Russia's 89 regions are given considerable leeway in dealing with foreign adoption agencies.

"In the post-Stalin era, things don't run from the top down," he said. "Moscow gives the regions the parameters and lets it go at that."

Foreign adoptions are expensive, costing $17,000 to $30,000. But they usually are completed in about eight months, faster than domestic adoptions. The Thompsons reported paying a total of $40,000 to Tree of Life to arrange the adoptions of Liam and a Russian girl.

The cost often includes gifts that adoptive parents are encouraged to give to Russian officials and orphanage operators.

In a prison interview, Mrs. Thompson said that officials of the Siberian orphanage where she and her husband adopted Liam asked them for cash donations. Fearing that the officials would pocket the money, they instead donated clothes and other items children in the orphanage could use, Mrs. Thompson said.

Different rules

In Franklin County, most domestic adoptions are overseen by Children Services.

A couple will find it almost impossible to adopt an infant through Children Services without first becoming a foster parent, Moore said.

Even then, there are no guarantees. A foster family might later learn that a relative wants the child, and Children Services' policy favors placing children with relatives, Moore said.

The process includes checks to determine the adoptive parents' health and income, a search for any criminal record and a home study. The applicants also must provide five references and attend 24 hours of parenting and adoption classes.

A social worker is assigned to the person or couple. When a child becomes available, they receive a written profile that includes the child's psychological and health information, as well as those of the birth mother.

The child visits the home at least three times, including overnight, and then stays in the home for six months before the adoption becomes final. The only cost to parents, usually a few hundred dollars, is hiring a lawyer to draft the final adoption papers, Moore said.

There is virtually no chance that a child can be reclaimed by a relative.

"As soon as the child goes through the immigration gate at the airport, he automatically becomes a citizen; he's yours," Maclean said.

In foreign adoptions, prospective parents must satisfy some U.S. government requirements, including obtaining a passport for the child, completing a home-study review and undergoing a criminal background check.

However, the U.S. State Department makes clear on its Web site that Americans are pretty much on their own: "International adoption is essentially a private legal matter between a private individual (or couple) who wishes to adopt and a foreign court, which operates under that country's laws and regulations."

Some regulations in the foreign-adoption system could be tightened, Johnson acknowledged. "Nothing's perfect. But compared to a birth child, there are a lot more checks and balances."

In the final analysis, successful adoptions depend on the patience of parents, Maclean said.

"The buck stops with the parents."

bruth@dispatch.com

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