In the Best Interests of a (Russian) Child

Russia wants a new agreement with the U.S. on international adoptions

News | Tamara Nosenko | May 2010

Raising a kid is a tough job. Raising an adoptive child from a foreign country is even more so. When something really bad happens to your own child it’s a tragedy, but when something goes wrong with an adoptive foreign kid – it’s an international scandal.

Relationships between Russia and the United States were never stable and there is always something boiling. In mid-April, an American single parent Torry Hansen put her seven-year-old son, adopted from Russia, on a plane back to Moscow with a short note explaining he had been violent. Artem had most likely had a difficult life. His birth mother had been deprived of custody for alcohol abuse and with the identity of his father unknown, he was placed in an orphanage in his home region of Primorye.

This had never happened before in Russia, opened for international adoption only 20 years ago, and the country expressed its shock in unequivocal terms.

Little Artem Savelyev came back to Moscow on his own and neither his adoptive mother, nor his adoptive grandmother, had the courage to accompany him on the flight and face the Russian authorities. This case has threatened the suspension of the entire international adoption program. The Russian Foreign Ministry and the Federal Office of Children’s Rights Ombudsman are calling for a new agreement on adoption practices between the USA and Russia to ensure the rights of adoptees. Officials say that a thorough and transparent investigation is needed to clarify the situation. And according to an insider at a leading Moscow adoption agency: "The suspension of adoptions often harms other orphans and special needs children," she said. "It creates unnecessarily long waiting periods that leave children depressed and discourage prospective parents, trapped in mid-process, while also delaying urgent medical help that simply cannot be provided in the child’s homeland."

Although Russians found no legal faults in Artem’s adoption process, and the Russian doctors claim that his behavior is not violent, the Federal Child Rights Ombudsman Pavel Astakhov says: "There are a lot of dark spots in this story."

So, what could go wrong in the Hansen family case?

Torry Hansen claims that she was misled by the Russian adoption authorities and the information she was given on the mental condition of Artem was insufficient. That is common in some Russian regions and the amount of medical data and personal records varies tremendously from orphanage to orphanage. Unfortunately, there is no obligatory standard assessment form and it’s more or less up to a local social services agency to provide the details on each child available for adoption. The lack of information is considered "Problem No.1" by many U.S. adoption agencies when dealing with Russia and the former Soviet republics. Thus, adoptive parents have little opportunity to be prepared for the behavioral and physical health problems of the children: They simply do not know what they are.

In the U.S., there is a parenting education program that is required prior to the adoption, providing adjustment assistance that may be helpful to the new adoptive parents. There is no record that Torry Hansen took advantage of this program. There is a record of a single post-placement visit to her family after six months. During the visit, Hansen expressed no concerns, and photos portray a happy, smiling family. The grandmother, Nancy Hansen, claims that her daughter consulted a psychologist, but she never arranged a session for Artem.

A month and a half later, Hansen purchased a plane ticket to Moscow for the child, and arranged for him to be met at the other end and taken to the Ministry of Education, responsible for the adoption program. A note from Hansen accompanied the boy: "For the safety of my family, friends, and myself, I no longer wish to parent this child."

There are a number of resources that could have been called in to help, and those following the case wonder why Hansen did not explore these options. In addition to psychologists, every state has adoptive parents support groups – in Tennessee, where Hansen lives, there is one called Adoption Support and Preservation (ASAP). In addition, Russian-speaking therapists are also widely available to talk to a newly adopted child.

"If only she [Terry Hansen] had struggled," says a director of one U.S. adoption agency, "this tragedy would never have happened; one should speak up, because nobody can read your mind."

To date, Terry Hansen has made no public statements on the case. And while many aspects remain unclear, Russian authorities have expressed their hopes for a new adoption agreement. According to Astakhov, "transparency in the work of the local [American] social services" is essential. The Russians too, report a lack of information on some adoption cases. Monitoring must be conducted on a case-by-case basis – most feasibly through random spot checks – for the adopted children, says the office of the Ombudsman, either over the phone or by video conferencing and also through personal visits. In addition, "if a child already speaks Russian," Astakhov says, "he or she should be given an opportunity to maintain his social-cultural and linguistic background."

All observers agree that the system needs to be reformed, a point that is reaffirmed by Astakhov, who calls for more effective work by all the institutions dealing with orphans.

"Every child is a citizen who needs effective protection by the State; if we fail to protect the children, our country would have no future," says the Ombudsman, referring to a recent case of child deliberately dropped to his death by Russian adoptive parents. Pavel Astakhov himself has become very involved in the issue paying numerous visits to the Russian regions conducting inspections of orphanages and social services that handle orphans. He is the first official in many years who openly speaks about devastating conditions of the orphanages and of the levels of violence towards Russian children.

As for international adoptions, no agreement has yet been drafted. U.S. officials  confirm they would work with both the Russian authorities and international adoption agencies to strengthen protection for adoptive children, said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley at a news briefing in Washington, reports Reuters. "If Russia chooses to suspend these adoptions, these are Russian citizens, that is Russia’s right. We would like to see these adoptions continue but we understand the concern that Russia has, we share that concern," said Crowley.  The U.S. adoption agencies say they would welcome new regulations in hope of more transparency and unified procedures.

Artem Savelyev’s situation is in limbo at the current moment. The little boy will be placed in a host family, according to Astakhov, and after a while the family will decide whether they can adopt the child. According to the Russian Ministry of Education, his adoptive mother has to file an official request in the Russian court for the cancellation of the adoption. Until then, Torry Hansen continues to have legal custody of Artem preventing anyone else from adopting him.

It’s a lot of upheaval for a small child, who during his seven years of life has already had four changes of caretakers. With the best intentions.

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