Lost in America

A young adopted Russian girl who appeared in a series of sexually explicit pictures taken at a Walt Disney World hotel was found and is now safe. Thirteen other Russian children adopted by American families over the past few years are not. They are dead. Though their numbers are small compared with the overall number of Russian Children adopted by Americans, the prevalence of their deaths within this sub-population of children, all due to child maltreatment by their adopted parent, is much higher than that for child abuse fatalities in the general American population.

The Russian government, outraged by these deaths, is considering taking strong measures, including closing down foreign adoptions. What makes this issue even more troublesome is that the fatalities befallen Russian children adopted by foreigners have overwhelmingly been at the hands of American adopters. From America’s viewpoint, these child abuse fatalities represent only about two of the 1400 annual child abuse fatalities occurring in the United States, and two out of more than 900,000 confirmed cases of child maltreatment occurring each year. From the Russian viewpoint, these are thirteen of approximately 43,000 children adopted by American parents since 1991.

What remains unknown is how many adopted Russian children experience non-fatal abuse or neglect by their American adopters each year. Russian officials estimate that 90% of children adopted by foreigners live happy lives with their adopted parents. Of the remaining 10%, most issues are resolved in time. But there is no real way to track data on the number of Russian adoptees experiencing child maltreatment as state child welfare information systems are unlikely to capture information necessary to make such an estimate.

In general, 643 times as many children are maltreated each year as die from maltreatment. However, it seems unlikely that as many as 1,300 of the approximately 6,000 adopted Russian children entering the United States each year would be maltreated. Still, one has no way of knowing.

On the Russian side, the government has made a considerable effort to curb abuses in the adoption system. Unlicensed and unaccredited agencies have been denied operation in Russia. Efforts are underway to limit the involvement of “facilitators,” persons acting independently in Russia to facilitate adoptions. Still, the foreign adoption of Russian children is a multi-million dollar industry, with a considerable amount of money spent on bribes given to Russian officials and others to aid the arrangement of adoptions.

On the American side, the United States has yet to fully implement the Hague convention. Among its provisions is a national accrediting body for adoption agencies handling foreign adoptions. This still has not happened. Nor has the U.S. State Department issued final regulations pertaining to international adoptions.

There are no national standards for homestudies or parent preparation. Parents in Arizona may adopt through an agency in Ohio, limiting the agency’s direct contact with the family and its ability to monitor and support the placement following the return of the parents and child from Russia.

The homestudy might have been conducted by a contracted individual with limited knowledge of the issues the family will face in adopting a Russian child. As a simple but poignant example one adoptive couple spoke no Russian. While in Russia they communicated with the child through an interpreter. It is unknown how they communicated once back in America.

Under the provisions of legislation passed in 2000, children adopted abroad become U.S. citizens as soon as they enter the country. The adoptions of Russian children are finalized in Russia. There may be limited direct contact between the adoptive family and the child prior to finalization of the adoption. Consequently, there is really no significant pre-finalization period between when the parents meet the child in Russia and when the adoption is finalized.

Under Russian rules, children are considered under their control for four years following their adoption and remain Russian citizens until they are eighteen. However, these rules have no legal meaning in the U.S. as adoptive families can easily ignore attempts to monitor the welfare of the child.

There are limited levers within the U.S. legal system for the State Department to control this situation. Child welfare is generally under the legislative authority of the states. Local police can easily refuse to provide the State Department with information about an incident involving an adopted Russian child.

The abuses in the inter-country adoption system between the U.S. and Russia are widely discussed. They involve outright misrepresentation of children’s medical histories, use of forged or fraudulent documents by prospective adopters, bribes, and U.S. agencies leaving critical mental health history and other relevant background information out of homestudies in order to improve chances of a “successful” adoption.

In the United States success may be defined as the couple receiving a child and the agency collecting a large fee. The incentives are powerful on both sides as millions of dollars are involved. If one estimates fees to average $30,000 then American adopters may have paid an estimated $1.29 billion since 1991 to adopt Russian children. With such money involved, it is easy to see how Russian families willing to adopt might be passed over for more “lucrative” arrangements.

Russian authorities are considering a number of changes ranging from required psychological testing for prospective adoptive parents to new required preparation programs. They may also place more stringent requirements on adoption agencies operating in Russia. It seems unlikely that psychological testing will reveal prospective adoptive parents likely to murder a child with any degree of accuracy. If so, such tests would already be in use. Further, such measures are likely to raise the costs parents now pay along with providing no additional benefit.

A standardized preparation program could produce benefits by educating parents as to the needs and characteristics of Russian children available for adoption. Though there is scant research evidence to support it, many in the U.S. believe that such programs have improved outcomes for families adopting special needs children.

But a disturbing reality remains. Nearly all the child abuse fatalities involving Russian children adopted by foreigners have occurred in the U.S. Romania shut down international adoption due to abuses in the system. Russia may do the same. This would be a tragedy for thousands of Russian children who will not be adopted domestically and currently have no realistic alternative for permanency.

The extent of abuses is not limited to actions within Russia. American adoption agencies, with so much money on the line, have also committed abuses. One can expect such when children are commoditized, a fact that should not be lost on the domestic child welfare system in the U.S.

It seems unlikely that the State Department will ever have the infrastructure necessary to adequately monitor international adoptions. It also seems unlikely that states will initiate greater control over international adoption agencies operating within the state and responsible for bringing children with significant special needs into the state who may place additional demands the state’s human service agencies.

Until someone in the U.S. stands up to face this issue, the future of some Russian children will become lost in America.

Guest Commentary by
Thomas Morton
President and CEO
Child Welfare Institute

2 Replies to "Lost in America"

  • Pam Banta
    September 21, 2005 (11:07 am)

    I agree with the comments in this article. Unfortunately, there are several things at issue here. One is the way these children are treated in Russia, which creates children with severe attachments issues who can become violent and uncontrollable. The second issue is the lack of education and preparation that the agencies are doing to prepare families for these children. They are not easy children to parent. I have a friend with a child from Russia who is 6. She has had him about a year. He cannot handle being in school. He was expelled in Kindergarten for violence, and already this school year has been suspended for violence. This is a very educated family with a lot of experience with children with attachment issues and she is having to consider placing him in an institution because he is so violent and uncontrollable.

    The problem is created in Russia and continued in the US by families who are not equipped to handle a child with those behaviors. Probably 50% of the children coming from Russia need intensive therapy for attachment issues and the families are unaware of that, many thinking if you just love the child, the behaviors will go away. They don’t. Counseling or therapy should be required for these children. These families are paying large amounts of money for damaged children, then have to turn around and spend large amounts of money to try to fix the children. There is responsibilty on both sides for the welfare of these children.

    And if they aren’t adopted? They will languish in institutions in Russia until they are old enough to be unleashed on society there. Is that what is best for these children?

  • Diane Golledge
    September 21, 2005 (11:39 am)

    The majority of adoption agencies in the State of Utah are in business for the money ($40,000+ for a Caucasian child). Most agencies, to stay in business, approve families with little to no real knowledge of the adoptive families. Most social workers do not know how to do a thorough home study (I am the only social worker in the state who does any kind of psychological testing and it does give you clues as to who may have problems). The program I worked for closed last December because they couldn’t compete with the “for profit” agencies. Because I have been so vocal about the abuses in adoption period, I have been blackballed and cannot work with any other agency. Morally and ethically, I wouldn’t work with them anyway. I am the only worker who maintains contact with families who have adopted through me. Give me something to do to improve both domestic and international adoption and I will do it.