By Maria Young
Author’s Note: International adoptions have long been a way for American parents to build their families. But since such adoptions began in earnest in the early 1990s, they have been fraught with problems and controversies rooted in cultural differences and fueled by a lucrative industry that doesn’t always represent the best side of humanity. After a series of high profile, troubled adoptions of Russian children by Americans, the Russian government enacted a ban on all US adoptions, a move that stunned and outraged many in this country. Below is a compilation of stories that shows the high hopes and the crushing disappointments that have become part of the US –Russian adoption story.
Russia’s Parentless Population and America’s Solution Puts Former Cold War Adversaries At Odds Once Again
WASHINGTON, May 2 – Medical examiners in Texas announced in early March the mysterious death of a young Russian boy adopted last year by American parents was ruled an accident.
“I had four doctors agree that this is the result of an accident. We have to take that as fact,” Ector County District Attorney Bobby Bland said at a March news conference with Ector County Sheriff Mark Donaldson, referring to the Jan. 21 death of Max Shatto, also known by his Russian name, Maxim Kuzmin.
But that answer did little to comfort alarmed Russian officials skeptical of the information from a former Cold War enemy. This grim case has pitted officials from the boy’s homeland against investigators from his new country.
Now, months later, Max’s death underscores the deep divide between two very different cultures struggling to agree on what is best for vulnerable children in desperate need of homes and families.
THE ADOPTION BAN
The death came just weeks after Russia enacted a law that prevents Americans from adopting Russian children, and for some Russians, it is a grim example that speaks to the very heart of the controversial ban.
The ban was put in place in part because of concerns about other deaths of adopted Russian children in America. It moved quickly through the Russian Parliament and was signed into law with almost unanimous support from Russian lawmakers, and polls of the Russian public found widespread support.
“We’re pretty heartbroken, honestly,” said Donna Thomas shortly after the ban was signed into law. She and her husband Robert are in the process of adopting a five-year-old girl from Russia, and five months later, still don’t know if they’ll ever be allowed to bring her home.
“To us, she’s already our daughter,” said Thomas.
INSTITUTIONALIZED CHILDREN IN RUSSIA
Official figures from the Russian Federation put the number of children in orphanages at roughly 150,000. But unofficial estimates from groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch include children in mental institutions, baby houses, foster homes and living on the streets, and estimate the figure at about 700,000.
By all accounts, the system is overwhelmed and rarely offers adequate care for children with specific medical needs.
The majority of children in institutional care in Russia have at least one living parent. Most of these children have been taken from parents who abused or severely neglected them, and many of them are suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome or exposure to drugs in-vitro.
“I don’t see how one of those members of (Russian) Parliament can look at those children and say ‘
This is what’s best for you, you could have had a home and a family and now that’s not going to happen,’” said Bill Deutsch.
He and his wife, Valerie, were in the process of adopting two children from Russia, but have since made the wrenching decision to pursue adoptions from a different country.
“The Russian government has been very insistent that they need to place Russian children with Russian families, and I understand that,” he said. “But this little boy was literally left on the steps of the orphanage 13 years ago, and nobody’s stepped up yet. The thought that somebody’s going to magically come forward now, it just isn’t realistic.”
Russian officials point out, being adopted by an American family can also be a death sentence.
RUSSIAN ADOPTEES IN AMERICA
More than 60,000 Russian children have been adopted by Americans since the early 1990s, and the death of Max Shatto brings the total number of known fatalities to 20.
Russian officials have said they suspect many more children have been abused in the United States, but have met with little cooperation from US authorities in their efforts to track cases of possible abuse and neglect.
The lack of information and cooperation, they say, leaves them in a quandary: If the situation is wonderful for many but tragic for some, what is best for “all?” What about the one poor Russian kid in every 3,000 who ends up dead in America?
“It feels like ‘Russian roulette’ for kids,” said Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak.
Speaking during an interview conducted at the Russian embassy in Washington earlier this year, the envoy lamented an unwillingness among many in the United States even to listen to Russia’s case for halting U.S. adoptions, evidence of a polarizing dynamic he said speaks to deeper dysfunctions in the relationship between the two countries.
“Each and every life of a kid is so valuable in its own right,” Kislyak said. “Our problem was to see to it that each and every kid that goes to the US is happily adopted there. And it’s not the case.”
He paused and repeated himself emphatically: “It is not the case.”
Kislyak acknowledges that Russia has a long way to go in improving the level of care for children in institutions. But when it comes to international adoption, to sending a vulnerable child to another country, there is a higher standard of care, he said.
THE MAX SHATTO CASE
Previous deaths of Russian children in America have garnered some media attention, but that may be primarily because child deaths often warrant news coverage, whether those children are Russian adoptees or not.
The Shatto case, coming as it did in the weeks following the controversial ban, seemed to shore up the Russian perspective. But in the days before the medical report, inflammatory comments from officials of the Russian Federation have relied on unclear sources and medical conclusions to place the blame for Max’s death on his adoptive mother, and that has fueled indignation in the U.S.