Mom, Where Have You Been?

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Date: 2009-04-24

By Alyona Dushka and Dmitry Babich

Like Any Form of Progress, Russia’s Push to Have All of its Orphans Adopted Led to Unexpected Difficulties

In 2006, Vladimir Putin, then president of the Russian Federation, adopted a policy of finding a foster family for the maximum possible number of orphaned children. In his State of the Union address that year, Putin ordered the government “to create a mechanism which would allow us to cut the number of children currently housed in orphanages.”

This mechanism was developed promptly, with Russian parents adopting 8,896 children in 2007—15 percent more than in 2006. For the first time since 1991, when foreign adoptions were first allowed in Russia, the number of adoptions by Russian families exceeded the number of foreign adoptions. The practice of other forms of raising abandoned or orphaned children outside an orphanage (guardianship, adopted families, foster parents) encompassed 106,535 children. In 2008 adoptions continued apace with about eight thousand children adopted by Russians and some five thousand by foreigners. However, like so many forms of progress this big leap forward had some unexpected consequences.

An exercise in publicity

The atmosphere in the conference room of the Public Chamber—a loose body bringing together recognizable figures of Russia’s public life involved in just about everything that interests the media—was tense and nervous. A dozen of the country’s most respected attorneys, Duma deputies and human rights activists sat across from a bespectacled middle-aged man, Anton Ageyev, the stepfather of the four-year old Gleb Ageyev. Several days earlier, on March 20, Anton Ageyev, a well-off banker living in a house in the Moscow region with his wife and two adopted children, brought Gleb to a local hospital. The boy had suffered several injuries to his face. The father claimed that Gleb was accidentally hurt by falling from a staircase. The boy said he was beaten by his mother. Anton Ageev, the stepfather of four-year-old Gleb Ageev who was hospitalized with numerous injuries, confronted lawyers and Deputies in the Public Chamber

In the next three days this case took on the proportions of a nationwide media event. Several television channels had their crews permanently stationed in the hospital, and pictures of Gleb’s punctured face were posted all over the Internet. The local prosecutor started a criminal case against the parents, with several articles of the Criminal Code invoked. Somehow, Anton Ageyev managed to pick his son up from the hospital on March 27 and bring him back home. In a few hours, Gleb and his sister were taken away from their mother once more, although representatives of the Guardianship and Custody authority said that the child called Ageyev’s wife “mamma” and showed no signs of being afraid of her. Now the Public Chamber was poised to find out how Anton Ageyev managed to get a hold of his son after the incident.

“Parents who hurt their own children need to be brought to justice,” Leonid Roshal, Russia’s most famous child surgeon and a member of the Public Chamber said sternly, looking Anton Ageyev in the eyes. “I don’t know how it was possible for the hospital to return the child to such a father. According to the established system, if a doctor finds out that a child was beaten by his parents, the doctor must inform the Guardianship and Custody authority and the child is taken away from such a family.”

“What you are doing here is a mockery of justice in a country where 96 percent of court cases end up with convictions, not acquittals,” Ageyev responded. “I became a victim of some kind of sinister political technology. In the hospital, my son was literally tortured by television cameras. How could I leave him there?”

The case is indeed a nebulous one, but a political context is clearly present. Several days earlier, President Dmitry Medvedev spoke about the need to combat violence against minors, asking the Duma to adopt appropriate legislation. The media willingly took up the subject, conveniently forgetting all about journalistic ethics, which speak against publicizing the victim’s name and face until the case is investigated. “Some facts in this case don’t match up,” said Boris Altschuler, the head of the Right of the Child NGO who took part in the Public Chamber’s hearings on the Ageyev case. “If the father is indeed so cruel, why did he bring the child to the hospital? It would have been in his interest to hush the whole thing up, locking Gleb somewhere in his house and not showing him to anyone until his wounds healed.”

Sobering thoughts

Whoever comes out a winner in the Ageyevs’ case, this situation did draw attention to the real problem, initially forgotten in the frenzy of the adoption campaign inspired by Putin. Not all adoptive parents are angels, not all adopted children are easy, and not all families with adopted children are happy. So far, out of the unprecedentedly high number of adopted children in 2007, 4.8 percent were returned to the orphanages, with 2.5 percent on their new parents’ initiative. The reasons for the “returns” were retardation of a child’s development (29 percent), health problems (nine percent), bad influence on adopted brothers and sisters (five percent), and character problems allegedly inherited from biological parents (ten percent). Conflicts between the spouses in the adoptive family and the feeling of not being competent as a parent were cited by ten and six percent of the returning families, respectively.

“Every such case is a severe blow to a child’s psyche, which may result in a prolonged inferiority complex,” said German Pyatov, the head of a charity NGO Murziki that helps children from Russia’s orphanages. “Ending up in a bad family is sometimes worse than staying in an orphanage. In the orphanage, children at least have a roof over their heads and some food on the table. In troubled families they don’t have even that.”

Despite these problems, the general opinion is that the idea of having children from the orphanages settled in families is a sound one. Individual failures should not obscure the big picture. Even the much publicized problem of abuse by adopted parents need not be blown out of proportion. At least that is what Leonid Roshal, a Public Chamber member and the head of one of the biggest clinics for treating infant traumas in Russia suggests. “In our center, we treat 40 thousand children a year on average, and only 0.1 percent of them became our patients because of parental violence,” Roshal told the press in the Public Chamber. “Many more traumas happen because the children do not have any parents at all, or because their biological parents do not take proper care of them.”

One of the ways to lower the number of cases when adopted children are returned to orphanages or become victims of parental violence is to make the transition to a new family gradual, giving the future parents and children some time to rub shoulders and adjust to each other. There are at least three forms of such a transition adopted in Russia—guardianship, adopted families and foster families. It should be noted that these forms of “transitory” adoptions are available only to Russian citizens. Foreign citizens can only benefit from direct and full adoption.

Through thick and thin

The Malyshev family is a happy case of the above-mentioned gradual adoption. Tatyana and Alexander Malyshev live in the famous House on the Embankment, right opposite the Kremlin. Having raised a 19-year old daughter they decided to take 18-month old Andrei, formerly a neglected son of a 19-year old single mother who had been taken to an orphanage, into the family. The boy, who could not stand on his feet and suffered from severe strabismus at first, can now walk and even run, and his eyes no longer squint from the books Tatyana showers him with. “Andryusha started walking three weeks after coming to our home,” Tatyana said. “In the first days he showed little interest in books. But massages and medicine helped, and in a few days he became more interested. Now he tries to speak and loves to communicate with other people in every possible way.”

Many families are wary of adopting children due to the popular stereotype that biological parents endow their offspring with some genetic flaws, like alcoholism and drug addictionOfficially, Andrei is still the son of his biological mother. Legally, Tatyana and Alexander are Andrei’s guardians, which is a transitory stage on the way to full adoption. Members of the guardian family cannot assign their second name to the child and are not fully-fledged parents, but they receive a monthly allowance from the federal and regional budgets. Fully adopted children equal biological children in every respect, and do not bring their families any additional revenue. Being a self-sufficient, hard working family, Tatyana and Alexander are ready for full adoption, but are kindly asked to wait for a court decision which alone can change a child’s family status. Before becoming a full family member, Andryusha brought to his new home a “dowry” of the state’s financial assistance.

Russia’s regions pay guardians a one-time award of $1,200 to $12,000 for every child, and later back it up with a $150 to $300 monthly allowance. The federal budget provides $160 more on a monthly basis. For a Russian province, this is a lot of money.

Irina Kungurtseva, the deputy minister of social protection of the Sverdlovsk region, sees a big future for adopted families, which may often need help. “We shall soon have a special service of social workers trained to assist the families with adopted children, foster families and guardians. We view the activity of these social workers not as a form of control, but as a form of assistance. A professional can help the family to find a good lawyer, a competent psychologist, and help with the paperwork,” Kungurtseva said.

Paperwork is a traditional problem for adopters. However, rumors about monstrous bureaucratic procedures dragging on for years, with Russian adopters losing to foreign ones because of their relative poverty and inability to pay bribes, are somewhat exaggerated. “We needed to show proof of our being married as well as of owning an apartment and not having been convicted of any crime in our lifetime,” Malyshev said. “We did not encounter any stumbling blocs from the authorities; on the contrary, the Guardianship and Custody authority helped us collect the documents. The whole procedure took about a month.” Alexei Golovan, the commissioner for the Right of a Child in the Moscow region, estimates that the average period of awaiting an adopted child is no longer than three months in 44 out of Russia’s 85 regions. In 24 regions it averages six months, and in the other ones it can drag on for a year or more.

The Malyshevs did not have to wait that long. Within weeks after submitting the documents they were shown several profiles of abandoned children from the federal database, and Andryusha’s happened to be on top of the pile. Alexander did not take long to make his choice. “We are not at a village market,” he joked.

Stereotypes die hard

One of the main problems that the adoption process brings in Russia is psychological. A belief that the vices of the biological parents are genetically transferred to the “social orphans” is still widespread, and people are afraid of “raising a future drug user” in their own family. The foster families, where children are taken out of an orphanage by possible adopters for a weekend, a week or a month, do not always end with happy adoptions, but they certainly help to break the stereotype. When looking a child in the eye, “genetic” stereotypes (which are indeed very similar to racist ones) go away.

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