Russian Officials Want Access to Ranch Where They Claim U.S. Parents Reportedly 'Dump Unwanted Kids'
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By Kirt Radia and Colleen Curry
Russia's Foreign Ministry has again called on U.S. officials to allow them entry to a ranch in Montana where they claim American parents "dump" unwanted Russian adopted children.
"We demand permission for Pavel Astakhov to visit the U.S. Ranch for Kids orphanage to inspect how Russian children live there," the ministry said Thursday in a statement on its Twitter account, referring to Russia's children's rights ombudsman.
The Ranch for Kids in Eureka, Mont., has become the latest lightning rod in a tense battle between the United States and Russia over intercountry adoptions. Russian officials have complained loudly about alleged abuses of Russian children at the hands of their adoptive American parents. Astakhav claims 19 Russian children have died in the custody of American parents over the past decade.
On its website, the Ranch for Kids describes itself as "a respite care home for adopted children who are experiencing difficulties in their families due to reactive attachment disorder, prenatal exposure to alcohol and drugs [or] struggling with adoption and post institutional issues."
Astakhov arrived unannounced at the gates of the Ranch for Kids last June with a Russian television camera crew in tow.
"We did not let them in," Joyce Sterkel, who heads the Ranch for Kids, told ABC News. "They came, and I politely declined their visit. I said this is not a good time. I understood that they were doing a publicity stunt."
Sure enough, stories began to appear in the Russian media claiming that adopted Russian children lived under poor conditions at the ranch. Astakhov called the ranch a "trash can" for unwanted Russian children.
Sterkel challenged those allegations.
"No one is abandoned," she said.
"Consular officials visited earlier and saw everything, saw where the [children] live, saw them at school. It was very informal. They know everything is OK here," she said.
Sterkel also dismissed reports in Russian media that she'd taken the children to Canada.
"Number one, you need a valid U.S. passport, then you need notarized documentation from their parents, of which I had neither. Of course we didn't go to Canada. The kids were in school that day. That's why nobody was there," she said.
Sterkel said the ranch was "like a therapeutic boarding school that specializes in children who have been internationally adopted. The vast majority have fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and/or attachment disorder. They have a very difficult time integrating into society, let alone families, and many have low IQs. The parents need a little assistance setting kids on the right path."
Parents pay $3,500 a month to send their children there. At any given time, Sterkel said, there were between 22 and 24 children at the ranch.
Laurie Jarvis sent her adopted Russian son, who has fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, to the Ranch for Kids for two months in 2005. She said the ranch helped calm the boy in a way that was impossible at home.
"He made remarkable changes, because of the setting and the environment. It was peaceful, not like our modern homes. A clock on the wall would set him off. But this ranch, it was a peaceful setting, an amazing thing, and it was all so regulated. A family can't be that regulated," she told ABC News.
Russia is one of the most popular places for Americans looking to adopt children. Many of the children come from Russia's long-neglected orphanages. More than 60,000 Russian children have been adopted by American parents since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
But in recent years, the relationship has experienced problems. Russian authorities halted adoptions to the United States in 2010 after American adoptive mother Torry Hansen put her adopted son Artyom, then 7 years old, on a return flight to Russia, alone, with little more than a letter saying she did not want him anymore.
When ABC News caught up with Artyom in April, he had been placed in an foster home outside Moscow, where his new mother said he was adjusting well.
At the time, Astakhav told ABC News that there were no "artificial obstacles" for continued adoptions between Russia and the United States.
In late July, about a month after Astakhav and the Russian television crew confronted Joyce Sterkel at the Ranch for Kids, Russian President Vladimir Putin ratified an adoption agreement with the United States, which had been settled on a year earlier. It tightened rules for Americans adopting Russian children, increasing vetting and monitoring requirements.