IN RUSSIA, MIXED FEELINGS ABOUT FOREIGN ADOPTIONS
So what do Russians think of the surge of Americans and other foreigners traveling halfway across the world to adopt their children? The shortest answer, from Russia's top adoption official, Irina Volodina: "Ambivalent."
"Those who are professionally involved see how sincere the people are who are applying," Volodina recently told Business Week's Patricia Kranz in Moscow. But, "now foreign adoptions have become a political issue, particularly for the Communists. They use the issue for their own purpose and say adoptions shouldn't happen. For instance, in the Leningrad region, the governor prohibited foreign adoptions, even though his act violates Russian law.
"Foreign adoption is a very complicated and rather touchy issue for Russians," continued Volodina, who heads the Education Ministry's department for children's rights and social welfare. "Even directors of children's homes have ambiguous feelings about this. Our position in the Ministry of Education is that we protect the child. If there is a possibility of finding Russian adoptive parents, they have priority. If no parents take on a child, the child should be adopted by foreigners. Today, tough economic conditions have made it hard for Russians to adopt. A number of people have wanted to adopt but have put it off because they can't afford to feed another mouth."
LESS ALARMING. How many children are in Russian orphanages? The figure Americans hear most often is 500,000. But the reality is somewhat less alarming, according to "rough estimates" Volodina supplied (table). According to the adoption official, Russian sources in 1996 reported 572,000 children under 18 as not living with their birth parents. Of these, 278,000 were being cared for by close relatives or neighbors, with monetary aid from the government. Some 141,000 had been legally adopted. And the remaining 153,000 lived in orphanages or other officially registered homes.
Clearly, far too many Russian children are still in orphanages, but the numbers of those who may be available for adoption are not as large as rumor would have it. In addition, some children in orphanages are merely housed there, waiting for their parents to become financially solvent enough to take them home.
Russian children who are available for adoption must go on a national register for three months so that their countrymen have the first opportunity to adopt them, ahead of Americans and other foreigners. Yet despite this opportunity, Russians have been slow to adopt, as the above numbers show--especially in recent years as the economy has worsened.
ELABORATE RUSES. Beyond the economic issue, U.S. adoption officials say cultural stigmas narrow Russians' attitudes toward adoption, akin to American prejudices in the 1930s and 1940s. Flicka Van Praagh, international adoptions director for the Spence-Chapin agency in New York, describes the mindset as, "Only a bad girl could have a baby born out of wedlock." As a result, she says, "Everything is very secret in Russia." Some women who do opt to adopt go so far as to wear pillows beneath their clothes for months to feign pregnancy, Van Praagh says. Many arrange with hospital staffers to allow them to construct an elaborate ruse, where they enter the local maternity ward and wave to friends from hospital windows, showing off the newborn infants in their arms.
And what of the children who never get adopted? According to Van Praagh and other experts, a sizable number are believed to become prostitutes and petty thieves, and wind up in Russia's prison population in staggering proportions.
Given this scenario, then, why are Russians so skittish about foreigners adopting what, so far, has amounted to a fraction of the children available? Again, the answer is cultural. Russians are nervous about the cash that changes hands, and they often see the legal payments--for translators, facilitators, and drivers--as no different from the rumored illegal ones, bribes to regional bureaucrats. Explains a U.S. embassy official in Moscow: "Many Russians are very uncomfortable with the extent to which money plays a role. They don't understand the role of private organizations in what looks to them like a strictly official matter. They don't understand the notion of paying someone to arrange a complicated legal matter for you. They wouldn't do it themselves, so they don't understand why a foreigner would.
"So they're very uncomfortable," the official adds, "with the idea that children have become some sort of commodity, that people make a living out of arranging these adoptions."
Politics is another part of the mix. Says Debra Harder, program services manager for Adoptive Families of America, an information clearinghouse in Minneapolis: "There certainly are people in other countries not happy to have their children being adopted by the 'imperialists.'"
NEW LAWS? This is where the Communist-controlled Duma comes in with its consideration of what one Duma leader called amendments to four adoption laws, scheduled for May 13. The deputy, Igor Khamanev, told BW's Kranz that it's unclear what might become law because negotiations could change the proposed legislation dramatically before mid-May.
On a hopeful note for prospective American applicants, however, Khamanev added that he didn't expect to see adoptions actually curtailed. He noted that numbers of foreign adoptions were expected to fall when the Russian courts were given jurisdiction over the process in 1996 but that those numbers actually increased.
Khamanev also said the Duma hopes to increase criminal sanctions against people who handle illegal adoptions. The legislative body further wants to institute some sort of oversight to track children who go overseas, to help avoid tragedies such as the one involving the Colorado mother who beat to death her Russian son. "I would like to emphasize," Khamanev concluded, "that we are not considering placing a child in an orphanage or a state institution as an alternative to adoptions. Our main objective is to find a family for a child. The legal measures we are trying to take are intended to achieve that." That's an objective few could argue with, whether the adopting family is Russian or foreign.
Updated May 7, 1998 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1998, Bloomberg L.P.