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A Russian Freeze: Halting Adoptions to the US

A Russian Freeze: Halting Adoptions to the US

The Russian government is having an apoplectic fit. Not over those usual things – deadly weapons of nuclear import and American foot dragging on the subject, energy disputes that involve strangling neighbours into submission, and that distinctly problematic matter we know as the Caucasus. No, this time, the subject matter is children and adoptions. The US State Department notice (Apr 28) on the subject is uncertain about the effect of the move announced by the Russian Foreign Ministry to suspend all adoptions to the United States. ‘We have received no official notification that adoptions of Russian orphans by Americans have been suspended, but it is clear that the recent controversy has slowed down adoptions in some parts of the country.’

That controversy stems from an incident in Tennessee, where a woman returned an adopted 7-year-old Russian boy to the land of his birth. That particular child had, according to the adoptive mother, Tory Hansen, been a handful. ‘I was lied to and misled by the Russian Orphanage workers and director regarding his mental stability and other issues,’ came the bitter words in the note accompanying the child’s return. The flowers of optimism had evidently withered for Hansen, who was candid enough to call her brief acquisition ‘psychopathic’ (Seattle Times, Apr 15). The child’s presence had become a ‘safety’ issue. And thus, exeunt the child in spectacularly callous fashion.

Russian officials, bruised by the note, have reacted by disputing the account of the child’s abuse by orphanage authorities. The child’s behaviour was largely the product, they argue, of the American family’s care. Everyone has become, it seems, an expert on child adoption, with the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev keen to call it ‘a monstrous deed on the part of [the child’s] adoptive parents’ and bound to be not only ‘immoral but also against the law’ (Foreign Policy, Apr 13).

Sadly, this case has simply fuelled a growing list of disasters that have befallen Russian children at the hands of their American adoptive parents. Individuals such as Peggy Sue Hilt of Manassas, Virginia, convicted of fatally beating her 2-year-old adopted girl from Siberia in 2006; and a couple accused of killing their 7-year-old adopted Russian son near the Pennsylvanian town of Dillsburg in March this year have much to answer for.

Such a crisis reveals a mutually disturbing scenario: the parent who wishes to get a pristine creature untarnished by trauma, a veritable tabula rasa, but ends up with a picture of disruption and abuse; and children who duly react in circumstances where they could not know any better. Experience, often bad ones, come too early to such broken creatures. The adoption market leaves little room for psychological refinement and cautionary caveats. It also conceals many a deception, be they from the authorities that put the children up for adoption, or the children themselves. This is very much a case, as E. J. Graff put it in Foreign Policy (Oct 15, 2008), ‘the lie we love’.

An American delegation is now in Moscow hoping to convince their indignant hosts to reverse the decision. ‘The United States plans to emphasis the importance of intercountry adoptions between our two countries,’ the notice affirms, though all know that the traffic is distinctly one way in this regard. The licenses of adoption services such as the Renton-based non-profit World Association for Parents have been suspended pending the investigation.

There is little doubt this ‘industry’ is a vast one. One need only consult material from such organisations as Adoptions and Aid International to get a sense about what must be done in order to ‘begin your international adoption.’ Extensive workshops are organised covering the entire belt of countries from Russia to Kazakhstan. But are individuals within it taking stock of the more fundamental problems that come with it? Empathy, often in short supply, is required. Patience in the face of hellishness, with the assistance of therapists, social workers and nursery school directors, is, as Esther L. Manewith explained in the Chicago Tribune (Apr 15, 2010), necessary.

American couples are going to be deprived of their line of Russian orphans, at least for the moment. Those who have had their procedures almost completed will have to wait. Prejudice on both sides of the fence is taking hold. ‘Why do Americans need those problematic Russki children anyway?’ intones a blogger by the name of Transtrist on the Foreign Policy website. The Kremlin, in its inventiveness, can still find ways of starving supply in the most remarkable ways, and they may have some reason to do so. But such reactions will do little to deal with the finer and more difficult points of international adoption.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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