Column: Politics Again Victimizes Foreign Adoptions

Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland recently met with the family of Sergei Magnitsky. The reasons for the meeting: In 2009, Magnitsky was jailed in Russia for exposing governmental corruption. While in prison, he died after allegedly being tortured. In December, with the energetic legislative support of Cardin, Congress passed a statute, the Magnitsky Act, forbidding those accused of human rights abuses in Russia from traveling to the U.S. This month, the Magnitsky family came to Washington to thank Cardin for his efforts.

In retaliation for the passage of the act, Russia ratified on Jan. 1 the Dmitry Yakovlev Act, barring Americans from adopting Russian-born children. Dmitry Yakovlev was a 3-year-old, Russian-born adoptee who died of heatstroke after being left in a car by his American adoptive parents. His was apparently not the only death of a Russian child adopted in the U.S. In March, a Texas grand jury found no evidence to bring criminal charges against Dmitry’s adoptive family. Similarly, a high-level Russian committee investigating the death of Magnitsky found no foul play.

Both the American and Russian legislation produced strong internal reactions.

In Russia, demonstrations were held in support of and against ending U.S. citizens’ access to Russian children. Russians supporting the ban called those who opposed it “enemies of Russian sovereignty.” Others were equally vocal in opposing the ban on U.S. adoptions. Reactions to the ban were also seen in diplomatic dealings between Moscow and Washington.

In late January, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in his annual news conference, said he supported the ban on U.S. adoptions. Shortly thereafter, Russia’s child rights commissioner was quoted as saying, “It’s a shame that Russia is giving away its children. America does not give away its children, does it?”

Historically, most researchers have understood that international adoption is more than simply a humanitarian exchange. Since the early 1950s, when this type of adoption into the U.S. began in earnest, many sending countries voiced their deep regrets at having to “export” their most precious natural resource to the West because they were unable to care for them. Some social scientists from the very beginning (mid-1950s) warned that this type of human transfer could be perceived as a reincarnation of 19th century Western imperialism.

In any event, the end of inter-country adoption from Russia should not have come as a complete surprise. Russia had been reducing the number of children it allowed Americans to adopt. The Magnitsky statute gave the Russians the excuse to end it. Even though some 60,000 Russian-born children have been adopted by U.S. citizens since the end of the Soviet Union, in 2011 Russia allowed Americans to adopt only 748 of their children. In 2004, that figure was 5,862 children. Although all international adoptions into the U.S. have fallen in the last eight years — from 22,991 in 2004 to 8,668 in 2012 — the reduction from Russia was extraordinary.

It does not appear to matter to Russia that an estimated 650,000 to 800,000 children are in Russia’s orphanages and foster care, with about 120,000 available for adoption (most of these children have little prospect of being domestically adopted, since there are only 18,000 Russian families registered to adopt). What seems to matter is politics and “face.” Russia is a leading world power. For it (like China, another rising power that has drastically limited the number of children it allows Americans to adopt) to be seen as incapable of caring for its own children is humiliating, especially when the children are being sent to the U.S, a former enemy and current rival.

What Russia’s behavior demonstrates once again is the vulnerability of and ease with which international adoption from any country, no matter how historically reliable a source, can fall prey to domestic needs of the sending country. Witness some of the families who are currently caught in the quagmire of attempting to adopt children born in Central America.

What, then, is the alternative for those wanting to internationally adopt? There are approximately 100,000 U.S.-born children currently available for adoption. These children are here in the U.S., within our borders — waiting for a family.

Howard Altstein is professor emeritus at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.