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.
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What's included in that home-study and adoption service?
Back in 2011, I wrote a piece titled Operation Delivery (Gotcha) Day, and in it I described the "coming home to America" experience for the adoptee who happens to be foreign-born, has lived in an orphanage, and has limited command and use of English because it's not the child's first language.
Among the suggestions I made for AP's eager to start family-life with their adopted child, I offered the following simple thoughtful reminder for the sake of the adopted child AND his/her new parents:
While some adoption agencies put serious thought into the needs of the adoptable child, and provide the necessary information and suggestions PAPs will need for parenting-survival, far too many agencies forget their responsibility to both the adopted child and the adoptive parent. I believe the end-result of poor PAP preparation is situations like above... situations that lead a parent to relinquish the adopted child to a RTC (Residential Treatment Center), an adoption disruption, or in some cases, the shadiest of all adoption-options, re-homing via underground adoption through private individuals or networks.
Reading the above article, I was once again disgusted, but not at all surprised, by the way in which far too many American adoption agencies operate when it comes to prepping PAPs and conducting the required home study for safe child placement . For instance, there is no reason for a PAP to pay tens of thousands of dollars for adoption "services" (which are in theory, supposed to include parenting education classes), only to end-up in the following situation:
In terms of improving the vetting and monitoring of adoptive parents, let's look at the role of the adoption agencies Americans are using to find "adoptable orphans" for their American families and homes.
Why aren't American-based adoption agencies preparing American adopters better so they know well before the adoptable child arrives, that child will have special needs and have special requirements, which include a need for a peaceful, calm, minimalist environment, one that acknowledges the effects of trauma on behavior and learning and also facilitates the transition from negligent orphanage-living to the more plentiful American life-style we see in so many adoptive homes?
Why is it a "ranch" with 24 children can be set-up and "regulated" to meet the special needs of children adapted to orphanage living, but a private home, inspected and reviewed by a social worker (hired by the adoption agency to conduct the required home-study portion of the adoption process), can't ? [Is it because adoption agencies and their affiliated SW's aren't educating PAPs about they whys and reasons behind adoption home inspections and requirements, or is it because adopters don't want to do without their (overwhelming to the adopted child) modern conveniences? -- or is the real problem with troubled American adoptive parenting somewhere in the middle, mixing and merging both unfortunate scenarios?]
If PAPs were better prepared about the realities and needs behind orphanage-rooted adoptions, would these costly respite ranches be so necessary, and if the children unfit for the homes following the American life-style were no longer deemed "adoptable", would America's privately-owned version of institutional care be as popular as it's becoming?