WASHINGTON, December 20 (By Maria Young for RIA Novosti) - Word of a possible Russian ban on adoptions by US parents spread across the US adoption community like a tsunami Thursday, leaving in its wake hundreds of distraught would-be parents, scores of incensed adoption agency workers and frustrated officials frantically scrambling to change the direction of a political nightmare some fear is now inevitable.
“It’s terrible – not just for us but for every family that’s trying to adopt a child from Russia right now,” said a West Virginia woman who is in the process of adopting a young girl from Russia and who asked not to be identified by name for fear of jeopardizing that process.
“It’s terrible for these children too,” the woman, who together with her husband adopted a young Russian boy earlier this year, told RIA Novosti.
The director of a US adoption agency was more blunt. “It’s like preying on the weak. They should be ashamed,” she said, referring to Russian lawmakers pushing for the ban on adoptions by Americans. The agency director also spoke on condition she not be named for fear of retaliation by Russian authorities.
Both women, like the thousands of prospective American parents and adoption agency workers involved in the process, watched in horror this week as a proposed Russian ban on adoptions by US citizens that many at first saw as political posturing took a decidedly sharp turn.
The legislation passed its second reading in the State Duma on Wednesday and appeared to get a nod of approval from President Vladimir Putin on Thursday.
“It’s an emotional, but adequate response,” Putin said at his annual news conference.
The proposed amendment banning US adoptions is part of a larger Russian bill retaliating for the enactment this month of the Magnitsky Act in the United States, which freezes the US assets and bans US visas for Russian citizens deemed by the United States to have violated human rights.
That US law is named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian whistleblower lawyer who died in a Russian prison after being denied medical care. The Russian bill, which goes to a final vote in the Duma on Friday, is named for Dmitry Yakovlev, a Russian toddler who died of heatstroke in 2008 after his American adoptive father left him in an overheated car for nine hours.
If approved Friday, the bill would go to Russia’s upper house of parliament for approval before heading to Putin’s desk.
“I can’t believe that the Magnitsky Act, which I’d never heard of until last week and has nothing to do with orphans, is the instrument that anti-inter-country adoption politicians are using to ban adoption,” said Chuck Johnson, president and CEO of the non-profit adoption advocacy group National Council For Adoption(NCFA), to RIA Novosti.
“I am very concerned about the life-threatening impact its passage will have on Russian children. It sometimes feels like this American cares more about Russian orphans than some Russian politicians.”
Many Russian officials and indeed ordinary Russian citizens bristle at such sentiment, saying it is simultaneously sanctimonious, ignorant and at odds with the facts. They point to 19 Russian adoptees they say have died in the care of their American families since the mid-1990’s.
Pavel Astakhov, Russia’s ombudsman for children’s rights and an opponent of foreign adoptions, said Tuesday the ban “should have been done long ago.”
“We need to protect our children,” he added.
Above all, say many Russians, it is Russia that needs to care for its own children.
US adoption experts don’t dispute the death toll. But they dispute the logic behind using those cases as a reason to halt all adoptions.
The vast majority of Russian adoptees, they say, are loved and well-cared for, and they point to a new adoption treaty with Russian officials, signed last month, to address concerns about post-adoption oversight and more education for potential parents.
The US State Department reports more than 45,000 Russian children have been adopted by US parents since 1999, 962 of them last year. They are on track to have at least that many US-Russian adoptions this year, some of them involving children who have been languishing in orphanages for years.
According to new figures released by the US government this week, there are approximately 700,000 orphans in Russia, though many of them may be “social orphans,” who have living parents but who have been removed from those homes because of abuse, neglect or extreme poverty.
A ban at this point makes little sense, say the American adoption experts.
“It’s all about trying to go after the weak,” said the director of the US adoption agency who asked not to be identified. “We are trying to provide long term homes for children who have literally no future.”
She tried to explain in an email to her group of hopeful families how children in Russian orphanages have been caught up in a game of political pay-back.
“Adoptions are THE political football that Russia always throws when it has an axe to grind with the US,” she wrote.
It is hard for would-be parents – some of whom already have emotions raw from years of trying for biological children, going through fertility treatments, and caught in the red tape of the adoption process – to grasp.
Everyone on the list called within minutes of the email going out, trying to understand the turn of events and looking for reassurance she couldn’t offer.
“Do you think any adoptive parent is nonchalant about this? It costs upwards of $50,000,” she said. “No one is taking it easily.”
The State Department and members of Congress are working furiously behind the scenes to calm the furor and resolve the adoption dilemma.
But adoption experts estimate there are also hundreds of Americans in the process of adopting Russian children, who are on pins and needles, helplessly watching like pawns in a giant political tug-of-war as the tensions play out between the two governments.
There are “tens of thousands of families who have adopted, happy with their children and children happy in their adoptive families, who are hoping that this ban will not go through, so that other children can find their ‘forever families,’” said Larisa Mason, who specializes in Russian adoptions as a board member with the non-profit adoption advocacy group National Council for Adoption (NCA).
One of those adoptive mothers is Paula Lahutsky, who adopted her son, John, from Russia, under conditions that she describes as bleak in 1999.
“My first concern would be for the children back in Russia, and just hearing about it makes me very sad,” she told RIA Novosti. “There are so very many children with so much need.”