4 July 2012, 16:53

“Ranch for Kids” – paradise or hell?

“Ranch for Kids” – paradise or hell?
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Russian children’s ombudsman Pavel Astakhov wants to persuade the US authorities to close down a care home for orphan children called The Ranch for Kids, in Montana, because of a large number of irregulations.

The ranch is located near the town of Eureka in the Lincoln County, Montana. The children who live here are Russian orphans who were adopted by US citizens who later rejected them. Adoptive parents can place their adopted children here for a period of time – or forever, if they have formally cancelled their adoption.

Pavel Astakhov is very concerned about the conditions in which the children are living at the ranch.

“Places like this should not exist,” he says. “The conditions there are no better than those in a reservation. Children are merely kept there. They hardly do any studying, because there is only one teacher allocated for 30 children at the ranch, and the children are all of different ages. The standard of medical care provided there is very low. The nearest hospital is two hours away. Representatives from a local children’s rights group say that the ranch lacks a proper fire safety system. At night, there is no security at the premises.”

Officially, a child can stay at this care home for no more than a few weeks. But in reality, many of the children have been living there for a number of years. The reports which Russia receives from US agencies on adopted children often fail to reflect the real situation. Sometimes, a report says that a child is “happily living in an adoptive family”, whereas in fact, he or she had already been placed at the Montana ranch.

The legal status of the “Ranch for Kids” is in itself dubious. Its owner, Joyce Sterkel, doesn’t have licenses authorizing her to work with children.

Here is what Pavel Astakhov says:

“Officially, the ranch has not been guaranteed the status of a children’s or educational institution. It used to be a noncommercial organization. But later, this status was changed to that of a religious organization – probably because as a religious organization, it does not have to undergo any inspections. Moreover, this “religious organization” does not pay any taxes.”

“We have also found out,” Mr. Astakhov continues, “that older children at the ranch are doing an unpaid work in exchange for meals. If what the ranch’s owner Ms. Sterkel reports is correct, at present, 23 Russian children, aged between 6 and 16, are living at this institutuion.”

Recently, Mr. Astakhov visited the ranch, but was unable to meet either the children or the person running the project because Ms. Sterkel had taken all the children to Canada (the ranch is located just 15 kms from the Canadian border).

This looks very suspicious, particularly as, according to a Russian-US agreement signed in July 2011, Russia is entitled to know about the fate of any Russian children adopted by US citizens.

The Russian children’s ombudsman Pavel Astakhov and the Russian Foreign Ministry want to persuade the authorities of Montana and the US State Department to thoroughly investigate the activities of this organization. The best thing would probably be to close down this so-called “paradise for children”, Mr. Astakhov believes.

Russia must have firm guarantees concerning the fate of Russian adoptees in the US. On July 6, Russia and the US are planning to sign an agreement concerning the adoption of Russian children by US citizens. Pavel Astakhov is going to adress the Russian parliament before this agreement is signed.

According to official data, to date, more than 100,000 Russian children have been adopted by US citizens. 19 of them have been killed by their adoptive parents. Several others have died of illnesses or as a result of accidents. Nonprofit organizations which investigate the deaths of Russian children in US families, estimate the number of such accidents at about 40.

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