Ranch becomes focus for Russian adoption outrage

The Russian government officials arrived with a Moscow television crew in tow at the gates of a ranch for adopted children in remote northwestern Montana and demanded to be let inside.

Among them was Russian children rights ombudsman Pavel Astakhov, the man who was calling Joyce Sterkel's Ranch For Kids Project a "trash can for unwanted children" on his website.

Whether it was a made-for-TV confrontation for viewers back home or a serious bid to gain entry, Sterkel kept the two dozen children inside and away from the gate. The Russians didn't try to enter the property, but Astakhov vowed to return and shut the ranch down.

As a bilateral adoption agreement between the U.S. and Russia wends its way through the ratification process, Sterkel is concerned that Astakhov will try to make good on the promise he made that day, June 28.

"This is a test case. This is to test the integrity of the bilateral agreement to see if they have the muscle to come onto American soil and push their way in," Sterkel said Tuesday. "I think they want to see if they really can come in and visit children without parental consent."

Russia's lower parliamentary body on Tuesday approved the agreement signed last year by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that regulates the adoption of Russian children by Americans. Negotiations began in 2010 after Torry Hansen sent her then 7-year-old adopted son, Artyom Saveliev, back to Russia with a letter saying he was violent and disturbed and she didn't want to be his mother anymore.

That led to outrage in Russia and temporarily halted American adoptions of Russian children, of which there have been more than 60,000 to date. That anger has now landed at Sterkel's doorstep, with Astakhov making serious allegations against her Ranch For Kids.

He claims the Ranch For Kids is a place for American parents to cast off their adopted children, and that the children there receive substandard education, health care and lack security.

"These children are completely isolated from the outside world, which is grounds for violating their rights. It has not been made clear to us whether the children receive the necessary help and treatment, which is why the condition of the Russian kids at the ranch causes concerns," Astakhov said in comments carried by the news agency RIA Novosti.

Sterkel bristles at Astakhov's claims and says he is wrong on every count.

Her ranch for troubled adopted children, many of them Russian and many of whom suffer from the damages caused by alcohol and drugs ingested by their mothers while pregnant, has operated in the tiny community of Eureka near the Canadian border since 2003.

There are now 25 kids on the ranch. Ten of them are from Russia, with others from China, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Haiti, Ethiopia and other countries. Their ages vary, and their troubles range from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder to the aftereffects of spending their early lives in difficult conditions in orphanages.

Some are violent or have threatened violence. Others have committed crimes because they don't understand the consequences of their actions. Many are developmentally delayed because of brain damage.

"They are living with parents who love them very much, they just need help with behavior issues," Sterkel said.

Parents pay $3,500 a month to send their children to the ranch, and the length of their stay is determined month by month, Sterkel said.

Laurie Jarvis sent her adopted Russian child there in 2005 when he was 11. Jarvis said the Ranch For Kids gave her son a structured environment with a strict routine that involved classwork and outdoor activities such as horseback riding, giving him the chance to step away from the hectic pace of American culture.

The Ranch For Kids is often the last hope for a lot of parents who have nowhere else to turn, she said.

"It isn't that parents can't handle their children, it's the exact opposite," Jarvis said. "Parents want to handle their children, so they turn to places where they are able to manage them."

Russian officials from the consulate in Seattle have twice visited the ranch before, in 2010 and 2011. Both were friendly visits, Sterkel said. But she was suspicious of Astakhov when he requested the June 28 visit, sensing that he wanted to turn her ranch into a political prop with the U.S.-Russia adoption agreement in the spotlight.

She turned down the request.

"They came anyway," she said.

Sterkel said she believes the real motive behind Astakhov's claims is to bring more lawsuits against adoptive parents. Astakhov earlier this year said Russia is suing Hansen for $2,300 a month for her former adopted child's foster care and "psychological correction."

Sterkel said she is concerned that the U.S.-Russian adoption treaty may help Russian officials like Astakhov establish such legal claims and said any parent with an adopted child from Russia should be, too.

"If adoptive parents knew what was in this agreement, they'd be freaked out," Sterkel said. "The thought that a foreign government can come and harass me, a property owner, is outrageous. If we don't have sovereignty within our own country to protect us against a foreign government, we don't have anything."

A State Department spokesman who would only speak on background said the agency "has assisted the Russian Embassy in Washington with communicating their concerns about the Ranch for Kids with the appropriate authorities in Montana."

The agency had no immediate comment on Sterkel's concerns that the agreement would allow Russian officials access to private property with the cooperation of local officials, regardless of parental consent.

The adoption agreement must be approved by the Federation Council, which is the upper house of Russia's parliament, and President Vladimir Putin. Both sides must then agree to procedures implementing the agreement before it is implemented.


The Ranch for Kids

As one of the parents who have a child at the Ranch, I feel compelled to speak out and state that the allegations made by the Russian government are not true.  We have never seen or experienced the children receiving any substandard care - either in their education or for their health.  In fact, the education, which is in an off-premise facility to the Ranch, is overseen by the local school system. Anytime our child has needed to be seen by a healthcare provider; be it medical, dental or eye, that need has been handled expediously.  For those parents who choose to have their child seen by a mental health provider, that is either accomodated at the Ranch or one of the Ranch directcare employees are tasked to transport the child to the provider at their office. The children are fed wholesome meals that are prepared on-site and include foods grown and harvested from the surrounding land that the children are tasked to help cultivate and gather.  As far as a "lack of security," one must first see exactly where the Ranch is before questioning a need for security. 

The parents who have placed their children at the Ranch have done this as a last resort.  Many have had previousy placements that have been unsuccessful and have searched, like we did, for a place wherein we felt our child would be safe, taken care of and hopefully, would learn how to become safe.  Our child's primary caregiver spent countless hours on the phone with us, no matter what time of day or night, giving us updates on our child's behaviors and/or progress.  We were always given telephone access and in-person access.  And, most importantly, our concerns and wishes were listened to regarding our child's care. 

One must keep in mind that The Ranch for Kids IS a ranch - a working ranch.  It is not a luxury spa.  The children are not waited on or treated with kid gloves.  They are given responsibilities and jobs.  It might not be a placement for every child BUT not every child needs a placement such as this.  And, while I do not know every possible thing that may or may not have happened at the Ranch, I do know that my child has not been abused and my child's caregiver has done the very best job possible in order to help us and our child.  If this is a crime, then please let me know.  

Post-adoption placements

I agree that in some cases, both the APs and the adoptees need outside help, and safe organized set-ups like the one you yourself described are more than an answer to a prayer.

Truth be told, I was a little surprised to read about Russia's interest in this particular ranch, when a much bigger problem is underfoot.  [See:  Underground Networks, and the sort of care adoptees are receiving, in the name of  "care" and "discipline"].

Instead of articles like the one presented, I'd much rather see articles featuring updates about the way in which both the US and Russian government are investigating and stopping the many illegal foster-care/re-homing practices that are taking place in the US.  In fact, I think putting much focus on a single Ranch that doesn't appear to be nearly as bad as a plantation home where adoptees are told to dig their own graves is a waste of time.  In many ways, putting so much focus on the least of all "offenders" is putting other children (put in dangerous/abusive unchecked underground re-homing programs) at serious risk for more nightmare living.



You would think it just best to halt adoptions from Russia

The ranch has been on a few tv shows, from adoption stories to I think 20/20.... At that time they claimed to have 60 children and at some point in history they would only take kids adopted from the former USSR countries....

Hey if this place is treating the children well, great....

But you always have to wonder.... and if the child is just going to end up in a group care setting why bring them to another country?

Another issue Russia should check into is the amount of young adult, especially males, who are adopted from Russia and end up in jail... I know it is just antidotes, but I know of two local boys both spending years in jail for theft from family members... They were adopted from Russia, two different families....

Other news about the place

Other info


I can't get the link above to work.... But if I remember correctly the story was about families who used the ranch and some other situations... One family was having trouble with one of their three adoptive children, the lady running the ranch suggest all three spend a week or so there...

I remember on one of the forums there was a lot of concerns for the kids.... And basically this lady isn't really trained in anything and is now trying to call her program a ministry.... I know also, when it began she had to send the kids to public school... Now they all stay on the ranch..

And in the interviews I have seen her in she doesn't have a very high opinion of the adoptive parents who have trouble with their kids..

Other info


I can't get the link above to work.... But if I remember correctly the story was about families who used the ranch and some other situations... One family was having trouble with one of their three adoptive children, the lady running the ranch suggest all three spend a week or so there...

I remember on one of the forums there was a lot of concerns for the kids.... And basically this lady isn't really trained in anything and is now trying to call her program a ministry.... I know also, when it began she had to send the kids to public school... Now they all stay on the ranch..

And in the interviews I have seen her in she doesn't have a very high opinion of the adoptive parents who have trouble with their kids..

But who am I to talk

I have three young adult children that I adopted through the USA foster care system at 4, 7, and almost 9 years old (the first two I fostered when they were 18 months and 4 years until the adoption s final).

Anyway, the boy whom came to live with us at almost 9 certainly wasn't what I expected. Locally we got no help, or helpful help, though his sending out of state agency did try to help.

At 15 he spent 22 nights in juvie for being in a neighbors home in the middle of the night... Then ended up in a treatment program for 5 1/2 months... He is more special needs, lower functioning autistic mr.... But still didn't seem to matter to anyone in the system here....

Hired a good lawyer, got him out... He has been home and we manage .... He is almost 20 now...

Public school system has been a great deal of the problem....

But in residential, you go visit him, he would be in winter clothes in the middle of summer, no one cut or made him cut his finger toe nails, they said he couldn't read at all, he can, at least two times we visited he had poop in his ear... Literally. Gross... His foot was broken and not treated, required surgery after he got home... They only had 23 children in their program... It was for kids with autism... He was supposed to wear glasses, but they lost every pair we bought him.. And many things like that...


Personally I just don't like any of those places, I know some are better than others... Sadly I think this person is just kind of a part of the underground system.. She doesn't have a license to have any children right now. She also used to use or worked with that adoption agency a childis waiting or something that got shut down... That agency was in Ohio I think...

I am sorry you couldn't get local help for your child. I hope he does get better.

Future Placements

Rinda, you bring-up some excellent points and questions, which I'd like to expand...

if the child is just going to end up in a group care setting why bring them to another country?

I think far too often, the big selling-point about ICA is the so-called orphans from another (impoverished/oppressive) country will do so much better in the USA, thanks to the many freedoms Americans are allowed to enjoy.

The problem, as I am learning from very blunt and worried APs, is in the USA, adoptees are not as free as non-adopted children because once they are put into a school system, adoptees are immediately labeled by doctors, therapists and educators, making it VERY difficult for an adoptee to fit-in and thrive in an American class-room.  In other words, there is a bias and prejudiced placed on the adopted child well before that child can prove or disprove prejudiced people fixated on their assumed thinking.  And sadly, I fear much of this bias-making is done without much thought about the effects stress and trauma have on brain development and learning.

To suggest these labeled children's futures are limited is an understatement, especially if we add prejudices made based on color, gender, religion, or ethnicity to the mix.

But, from Russia's POV, this is not their problem.  Through ICA, they are free to dump their costly problems onto other people.  Until Russia chooses to help take better care for it's own, there's neither need nor incentive to take better care of the now-struggling children who may (or may not) become Russia's future.  [More should look at India to see how poor care of children translates to the care of the elderly...]

<huge sad heavy sigh>

  Another issue Russia should check into is the amount of young adult, especially males, who are adopted from Russia and end up in jail...

Again, with USA boasting about their great adoption programs (while having the largest prison population in the world), why would the Russian government really care if their exports become an unfortunate American statistic?  Hell, from an economic Darwin-esqe POV, only an idiot will increases it's struggling and in-need population, and demand for more.

So, let's review why ICA has such strong appeal.  In theory, the ideal behind adoption is quite simple:  each child deserves a (loving) family, and no child should be forced to live in an institution.  But when we take a closer look at the path that leads to a locked-down, very limited, imprisoned-life, how is America doing?  Based on what I have been reading/studying, it becomes almost all too obvious that countries like the USA ("the land of opportunity") actually thrive and rely on poor family services!  

Perhaps a more poignent question to ask the pro-life pro-adoption movement is, how many adoptee become a suicide statistic?  

Just recently, two separate reports have been posted in other adoption communities sharing the sad story that two unrelated young (beautiful) seemingly happy adoptees (from Guatemala) were found dead.  Suicide.   According to posters/commenters, the news is and remains shocking.  But is it it?  Is depression and unhappiness felt by a foreign adoptee living in America (with all it's social pressures and requirements) all that shocking and surprising?

No, it isn't.

Enter the grand fact that America has the dubious honor of having the second highest rate in depression, (first-place going to France, another country facing issues with adopting from Russia).  Such standings say something about affluence, a sense of entitlement, and how both can affect a child and his/her daily life-style and future.

Where an adoptee lands later in life has much to do with his or her own sense of well-being, ability/productivity and self. ICA advocates want to focus on success stories, and turn a blind eye and deaf ear to the failures and insufficiences that do exist in overwhelmed Ahomes where both APs and adoptees are not getting the help and assistance they need to thrive.   Therefore, if depression, and various forms of self-medicating (legal and illegal) are as rampant in Afamilies as private discussion implies, Americans, as a tax-paying whole, will have a much bigger social/ecconomic problem on their hands in the future.

I will repeat ad nasuem, if necessary --  I believe closing ICA to America is not only in everyone's best interest.... but closure would make good common sense for those looking to increase and improve local humanitarian efforts - efforts that will help re-build and assist struggling friends, family members, and neighbors. 

Pavel Astakhov?

I just came across this story and am unsurprised at the obvious political play by Russia's knock-off of Judge Judy (just not as smart). Astakhov is regarded in Russia as a Putin puppet, not a genuine children's advocate, and no one should really take his stunt seriously. I feel bad for Sterkel, to be attacked by a notoriously incompetent and hypocritical Russian politician.
What is truly sad is that Russia desperately needs a Child Ombudsman who can seriously tackle the nation's severe issues with children. Instead, they have this comical poseur/publicity hound...
Astakhov's other international foray is assisting the crazy Irina Bergseth, the insane Russian mom who lost custody of her children in Norway, and who Astakhov now helps campaign to prevent "western european countries from repopulating by kidnapping Russian children"
Can't make these things up.

Comment #3 is

Observations made

Thank you for the link to the article.

A very significant point was made in adoption.con's article, "Does This Article Help or Hurt Adoption", and I believe it's an observation that needs to be repeated over and over again:

[Another] part of me hopes that agencies will hear the cry for more and better training of prospective adoptive parents, just like what Karyn Purvis recommends:

Very few agencies are training parents to deal with brain damage, sensory deprivation, aggression,” Purvis says. “A lot of these parents are smitten with the hope that they’ll make a difference in a child’s life, but they need very practical tools. I consider myself very pro-adoption. But I’m also very pro informed adoption. ”

As an adoption critic, and one who takes post-adoption safety and wellness very seriously, I'd like to add my own wish:  I wish today's adoption agencies would put an end to the magical thinking that says "love is enough". 

Love is NOT enough.

Adoptive parents and adopted children need better care, and I believe better care begins with better more extensive pre-placement screening done by the adoption (placement) agencies working on behalf of each child touched by adoption.

In fact, I strongly believe each abuse, trafficked, and disrupted case featured on PPL represents the many failures a less than thorough but quick-to-place adoption service can bring both adopters and adoptees.

These offenses are made worse once we realize just how much money any given adoption agency "specializing" in private foreign adoption is receiving through required "fees" and "services". 

As far as I'm concerned, when an adoption agency is charging tens of thousands of dollars for "services", those services better go well beyond scrapbooking and tips on how to create an adoptee's family tree.  But for some reason, far too many PAPs are not demanding more from their chosen agencies.  [Makes a person wonder... what sort of adopter wants less screening and education, and faster (less invasive) placements, too]

Adoptive parents need to recognize what it is they are getting themselves into when adopting a child, especially one from over-seas.  These adopters need to asknowledge they need to be educated, monitored, and supported...  not for months or weeks, but for YEARS.   

And for the sake and safety of ALL children involved in an adoption plan, adoptable children need extensive screening to determine if they are fit to live in a home/family environment and these adoption-approved children need to be put in loving safe homes where the adoptive parents are strong enough, and supported enough, to withstand the long-term challenges that go with traumatized children put in negligent care.

  What they are receiving from far too many private adoption agencies is simply not enough. 

As far as comment # 3 following the original article, "Does This Article Help or Hurt Adoption?" (posted in December, 2007 on adoption.con), I'd like others to see and read what others have observed, claimed, and questioned:

I think that before ANYONE wants to call Joyce Sterkel a hero they should make a surprise visit to the ranch SOON! Her son Bill (who now runs the ranch)verges on violent & dangerous with the kids. He is using the money from the parents of these kids to expand his ranch & his pocketbook, then charges extra $ for the kids to receive therapy that these kids do not get,not from a therapist anyways. The money the families pay actually goes toward noodles that the kids eat for dinner nightly,they are only allowed Milk,fresh from the cow at least, or water. And fruit that rats have taken bites out of first, the kids are forced to eat it, even after showing management the bite marks. That is 100% true,I’ve seen it. When we as staff point out these issues or stand up for the kids, they cut our hours, if that doesn’t make us quit, they try to put us down in front of the kids, in hopes the kids will lose respect for us, no longer do what we ask and give them a reason to let us go. It really is as bad as your picturing,and then some. I urge you to go see for yourself,but don’t call first or they will have the kids clean up for you by telling them the Vice President is coming so they work hard to make the place shine to impress the Vice President.(yes he did that to them, when he was preparing for a state building inspection)He uses the kids as his personal ranch hands. When the kids try to tell their parents about the mistreatment,Bill tells the parents that the kids comments cant be trusted,”they will say anything go home”. I
would do anything to get these kids out of here. I work @ the ranch,its like torture watching the way these kids are treated and watching their spirits being crushed by the way Bill & his wife Lenna treat them and talk to them by mocking the kids if they bring an issue to their attention. He even shared, in front of all of the kids that one of the little boys regularly masturbates with his teddy bear. You could imagine the teasing this boy endured. There are so many reasons this place should be shut down but I fear If I go on it will seem like rambling and wont be taken seriously. The only reason I stay with this job is knowing that while I’m @ work, the kids are being treated well. Its also hard to see that all of these national publications write stories on this torture chamber and are only shown what the ranch wants them to see, so it makes Jo and Bill look like saints. At the same time the Ranch gets free advertising and its shedding a positive light on a place that should be shut down. If anyone has any ideas on who to contact to end this mistreatment please do so, or post your idea in a comment on this site! This issue is much bigger than can handle on my own, but needs to be handled immediatly.Thanks

Pound Pup Legacy