Russia’s Adoption Politics: Defeated Families Caught in a Diplomatic Tailspin

Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to ban adoption of Russian orphans to U.S. families

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Elisabeth Smith

Elisabeth Smith, right, meeting the Russian boy she and her husband Charles are hoping to adopt

In late October, Charles and Elisabeth Smith from Phoenix traveled to Borodino, Russia, to meet their prospective son, Malcom (not his real name), a 5-year-old with cerebral palsy. “This little boy just tugged at our heart strings,” says Elisabeth. “It was not a rational response, but even when I saw his picture, he looked like my child. When I got to hold him and talk to him and be with him, it was a good fit.”

After accepting his referral from the orphanage, just one step in the long adoption process the Smiths started in March, they anticipated taking Malcolm home a couple months after the New Year.

That family reunion is now in flux.

On Friday, Russia President Vladimir Putin signed into law a ban that would cease adoption of Russian children by American families.

The ban, called the Dima Yakovlev Law, throws families like the Smiths and tens of thousands of Russian orphans into the middle of a political tit-for-tat that began with the U.S. passage of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. That law, named after a hedge-fund lawyer who exposed corruption among Russian officials and died while in prison, sanctions Russian officials whom the U.S. believes are guilty of corruption and human-rights violations in Russia. Putin and other officials have been openly critical of the law, and the ban is part of a broad-based attempt to reduce U.S. influence in the country. The ban is named after Dima Yakovlev, a Russian toddler who was adopted by American parents and died of heat stroke when his adopted father, Miles Harrison, left him in a car and was later acquitted of involuntary manslaughter.

On Wednesday, the Russian Federation Council unanimously passed the bill legalizing the ban. And in a statement that further crushed the hopes of hundreds of American families in the process of adopting Russian children, Russia’s child-rights commissioner and ban proponent, Pavel Astakhov, said that 46 pending adoptions will be blocked despite previous negotiations, according to the New York Times.

“I thought this would blow over, or there would be an accommodation for those of us who are so deeply into the process and have already met our children and whose children already think we are going to be there,” says Elisabeth. She has written to President Putin as well as Arizona Senator John McCain urging that the ban be reconsidered.

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Although China has recently surpassed Russia as the country providing the largest number of American adoptions, Russian children continue to be sought-after adoptees for U.S. families. Over the past 20 years, since the fall of the Soviet Union, nearly 60,000 Russian orphans have found new homes with American families. Last year alone, almost 1,000 orphans were welcomed to the U.S. But Putin and other Russian leaders are focused on another number: the 19 deaths of Russian children reported by the Virginia-based National Council for Adoption (NCFA) while they were under the care of their new U.S. parents. International media reports of a 7-year-old Russian boy who was sent back to Moscow on a plane alone in 2010 by his adopted American mother didn’t help matters.

Russian and U.S. officials had worked out reforms to better protect adopted children from such experiences, as well as potential violence, and the Bilateral Adoption Agreement made between the two countries went into effect on Nov. 1. The agreement requires the use of accredited agencies for adoptions, up to 80 hours of required training for adoptive parents and postadoption monitoring of children by Russian officials.

That cooperative spirit is dampened by news of the ban, however. “Obviously we are very saddened to think that adoptions will potentially end between Russia and the United States,” says Lauren Koch, director of development and communications for the NCFA. “This creates a really tragic situation for these orphans that are languishing in institutions in Russia when there are lots of loving warm families in America that want to bring them home and make them part of their family.”

Koch says that based on data from the NCFA’s member agencies, there are an estimated 1,500 American families in the process of adopting a child from Russia — getting their application in to an agency, obtaining visas, being matched with a child or even getting ready to travel to pick up their child.

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“All of these children deserve to have families. Regardless of how the Russians may view children with special needs in their own country, they cannot be used as a political ploy,” says Andrea Roberts, founder and executive director of Reece’s Rainbow Down Syndrome Adoption Ministry, a nonprofit that raises money to help families adopting children with Down Syndrome deal with high adoption costs. “No matter what arguments, no matter who is upset, this is between the governments; this has nothing to do with those children. It is wrong to put them in the middle of it for any reason.” According to Roberts, the organization is helping about 50 families currently in process of adopting from Russia.

According to reports, the ban would go into effect on Jan. 1, and also bar any political activity by U.S. supported nongovernmental organizations. American adoption-advocacy groups and hopeful parents are frantically pleading both U.S. and Russian officials to act compassionately.

Many, like 21-year-old Alexander D’Jamoos, have written letters and petitions to President Putin that were delivered to the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. D’Jamoos was adopted from Russia when he was 15 years old after living his entire life in an orphanage with a disability that prevented him from walking. Since his adoption, D’Jamoos has undergone surgery to amputate his legs so he can wear prosthetics, and he recently climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.

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“The law is taking away the fundamental right for a child to have a family,” says D’Jamoos. “The politicians are ignoring the fact that the country itself is not able to handle this issue very well at the moment. There is really no infrastructure to accommodate orphans when they graduate, especially if they are disabled.”

D’Jamoos returns to Russia almost every year and says he remains in touch with social workers and friends at the orphanage. “I see where all my friends are going. They are sent to a nursing home for all their lives or they are just out on the street. I’ve seen it so many times and I see what is happening to my friends. They’re shocked by the ban, but there is a strong nationalist movement in Russia and many people support it.”

In signing the law, Putin also vowed to introduce stronger measures to improve the care of orphans in Russia. But Russian activists aren’t convinced those policies would be sufficient and have spoken out against the ban. According to the Washington Post, the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that 100,000 people had signed an online petition decrying the bill.

Currently, the U.S. Department of State is updating information for families adopting children from Russia on Families currently in the adoption process can reach out to the Department of State at The department is asking families to use the subject line “Intercountry adoption in Russia — family update” and will provide information to families as it becomes available.

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