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Ban hurts Russian kids, but U.S. adoption not a fix


By Ronald C. Hughes 

March 2, 2013 / The Columbus Dispatch

An estimated 650,000 children in Russia lack permanent families. More than 120,000 of them are eligible for adoption. There are another 500,000 children being served in America’s public child-welfare system who don’t have permanent families, and 130,000 of them are waiting to be adopted.

Yet, tens of thousands of children in both countries lack a clear path to permanency and will grow up in foster or institutional care, because finding enough safe, stable and nurturing families for these children is a perennial problem.

Before the recent ban, American families adopted approximately 1,000 Russian children each year — a very small number when compared to the total number of Russian children who need permanent homes. There also are tens of thousands of American children who remain in impermanent care because of a lack of available families. So, why do prospective adoptive parents look to Russia instead of adopting in the U.S.?

Most adoptive families prefer children who are young, in good physical and psychological health and of a preferred gender or race. In the U.S. and other developed countries, relatively few children in need of families meet these criteria. Rather, most have developmental needs and challenges that will require specialized services and parenting strategies. Adoptive families turn to Russia and other countries, believing that young, healthy children more likely are available.

This practice creates huge demand-side pressures. Pavel Astakhov, children’s-rights commissioner for the Russian Federation, reports that the foreign adoption of Russian children is a billion-dollar enterprise, with powerful market forces making the most-sought-after children marketable assets to be sold to the highest bidder. The resulting corruption distorts and undermines a carefully structured process designed to ensure the rights and best interests of adopted children.

Before the recent ban, much of the adoption-related tension between Russia and the U.S. resulted from the Russian government’s contention that the U.S. wasn’t doing enough to ensure adequate care and safety for Russian children in their American adoptive families. The policies and practices that regulate international adoption are often less rigorous than those that regulate in-country adoption through licensed child-welfare agencies.

A bilateral agreement between Russia and the U.S. went into effect in November, 2011, that was intended to address many of these concerns. The recent Russian ban on American adoption of Russian children has since nullified this agreement.

It is hard to estimate how much impact the adoption ban will have on Russian children. For children who must remain in institutional care, there are profound implications. The psychological, emotional and physical damage suffered by children in even relatively good institutional care has been indisputably documented for decades. Continued institutionalization — even with a prospect of future adoption — condemns many children to poor health. The individual needs of these children would be far better met in family placements, regardless of the country in which they are placed.

From a broader perspective, adoption of Russian children by U.S. families is not and should not be a strategy for long-term child-welfare reform. One thousand American families mining potential Russian adoptees for specific desirable developmental characterics cannot address the needs of Russia’s 600,000 children in need of permanent homes.

Several strategies must supersede international adoption as a targeted permanency strategy for these children, including family-preservation services for Russian families, use of foster care for temporary placement, phasing out orphanages and increasing resources for domestic adoption. If, in 10 years, international adoption remains a primary means of addressing child dependency in Russia, it will signal a lack of leadership and commitment by Russian officials to improve their child-welfare system.

The Russian ban on inter-country adoption will have little impact on families in the U.S., who will turn to other countries where the likelihood of finding children with the characteristics they seek is still relatively high.

The biggest threat to children from the adoption ban is the effect of political fallout on current collaborative efforts between Russian and American professionals who are working together to improve the lives of maltreated and abandoned children in both countries. In 2009, President Barack Obama and former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev launched the Bilateral Presidential Commission as part of a “reset” initiative to improve relationships between the United States and Russia and to address issues of shared importance. One working group was charged with responsibility to address child protection.

Children in both countries have benefited from the sharing of education, ideas and technologies by child-welfare professionals. It also provided an opportunity for Russian colleagues to learn how U.S. nongovernmental organizations translate our society’s civic ideals of human integrity, justice and liberty into child-welfare practice.

It would be a shame if such promising work is short-circuited by the political fallout of the Russian-American adoption controversy, when inter-country adoption is, at best, a short-term solution with so little potential as a long-term child-welfare reform strategy in Russia.

Ronald C. Hughes is director of the Institute for Human Services and North American Resource Center for Child Welfare.

2013 Mar 2