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More U.S. adoptions of Russians fail

Corruption, lack of regulations have resulted in troubled orphans

Sunday, August 13, 2000

By Cindi Lash, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In the early 1990s, Russia opened its orphanages to Westerners looking to adopt. The experience has been painful for some parents; a few have even sent children back to Russia. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette examines the issue in special reports today and tomorrow.

Beth and John Wilson used to pop the precious tape into their videocassette recorder three or four times a day, hardly breathing as the image of the tiny, dark-eyed boy emerged on the TV screen.

Although they'd had just one brief visit with the toddler they'd christened Alexander, they cherished his smile and the nuggets of information they'd acquired about him -- his healthy constitution, his desire to be picked up as much as possible, his two emerging teeth.

 
    A boy they couldn't raise

A reform in the works


'New Families, Old Heartbreak,' Day Two

 
 

Since they received the tape in February, the Wilsons had been making plans to fetch him from an institution for abandoned children in St. Petersburg, Russia, and whisk him home to Oakmont.

But due to new adoption laws in Russia, the Wilsons, and thousands of others like them across the United States, aren't sure when they'll be able to make that happen.

"Now we watch [the tape] maybe once a week.. It's too hard. You have to put it away and not think about it all the time or you'd go crazy," said Beth Wilson, 39, a sales representative for Hewlett Packard. "I have to believe that there's light at the end of the tunnel, that eventually he'll be with us.

"But there have been a few weeks there where you wondered, will I ever have the child?"

Although the Wilsons are frustrated, their resolve to adopt Alexander and their confidence in their adoption agency remain unshaken. But other families who have had negative experiences after adopting Russian children say that what's happening today in Russia is a necessary overhaul of its adoption system.

Once the top provider of children to adoptive parents from the U.S., Russia in May began enforcing laws barring adoption agencies from operating, thus suspending nearly all international adoptions.

The Russian Parliament passed the laws two years ago, but former President Boris N. Yeltsin never signed them. After Vladimir V. Putin was elected March 26, he signed the laws, starting a series of reforms to eliminate corruption in a little-regulated system.

Cilla Whatcott swings her adopted daughter, Lily, 4, while her biological son Gus, 9, rushes to join the play at their home on Whidbey Island, near Seattle. The Whatcotts are dissolving their adoption of an older, Russian-born daughter, Inga, because of the girl's increasingly violent behavior. (Robin Layton, photo for the the Post-Gazette)

That corruption, U.S. and Russian officials maintain, has led to increased costs for prospective parents, who pay up to $30,000, plus travel costs and cash "donations," to adopt a Russian child.

Corruption also has been blamed for an increase in complaints from parents who said they adopted children who were represented to be relatively healthy or afflicted with correctable medical conditions. Only after getting home did those parents learn that their children were impaired by fetal alcohol syndrome, mentally ill after years of neglect in orphanages, or both.

As those children have grown older, an increasing number have been turned over to foster care, placed in institutions or returned to Russia. Their demoralized, financially burdened families say they no longer can handle youngsters who've beaten playmates, stomped and choked siblings or tried to burn down their homes.

Several of those cases have drawn international attention as parents resorted to drastic action to dissolve adoptions. As word of those cases reached Russia, its leaders decided they no longer could ignore flaws in their system.

"From time to time, there have been Russian press reports about things that have gone wrong. Because children are involved, the public takes it very painfully," said Mikhail Shurgalin, a spokesman at the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

"We also have heard the reports of bad people trying to make money off of adoption," he said. "That's what prompts the new rules. No one wants children to be hurt."

Some international adoption professionals say they believe the new rules stem as well from Putin's sense of nationalism and his belief that Russia should not ship its children to other nations. Others speculate that the Russian government, in the guise of making reforms, is making a grab for profits once enjoyed by private agencies.

The approximately 180 U.S. agencies that had been working in Russia have had to suspend operations until they comply with the new regulations.

Some agencies have helped clients independently complete adoptions that already were under way, but most are advising clients that it may be months or even a year, given Russia's plodding bureaucracy, before they can openly help again.

Fertile ground

Before the breakup of the former Soviet Union in 1991, Russian orphans were placed in government-run homes. With the onset of a free-market economy, Russia faced the responsibility and costs of caring for up to 300,000 children in hundreds of orphanages.

As it relaxed its borders and increased its contacts with the West, Russia became an attractive destination for adoption agencies, particularly those that had been operating in Romania.

Before he was deposed and executed in 1989, former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, trying to increase his nation's population, had prohibited birth control and abortion.

To families that didn't want to languish on U.S. agencies' long waiting lists for infants, Romania suddenly offered an irresistible supply of white children. Adoptions were completed before families left the country, eliminating the risk of birth parents demanding the return of the child before the process was finalized.

A flood of prospective parents, adoption agencies and brokers with shadowy credentials converged on Romania. They created a child-selling market so wide open that parents who didn't want to bother working with an orphanage could sit in hotel lobbies and wait for a parade of babies to be carried in for review.

After two years and about 10,000 adoptions, the new Romanian government suspended international adoptions in 1991. Would-be parents and adoption professionals shifted to Russia.

In that first year, Russia surpassed 15 other countries to become the sixth-most- popular destination for would-be parents from the United States, according to U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service statistics. Of the 6,472 children adopted from other countries by U.S. families in 1991-92, 324 were from Russia.

By contrast, U.S. families adopted close to six times that many children, or 1,840, that year from Korea, the No. 1 country of origin for children adopted outside the United States.

In 1992-93, Korea remained No. 1, releasing 1,775 children for adoption by U.S. families. But Russia had jumped to second place, with 746 children joining U.S. families.

Russia remained at No. 2 until 1996-97, when it topped the list by releasing 3,816 children to U.S. families. Russia has continued to hold that spot, with 4,491 children adopted in 1997-98 and 4,348 in 1998-99.

Baby brokers

As demand for Russian babies grew, both long-established and new agencies set up programs and developed relationships with orphanages.

Unlike China and Korea, countries that also provide large numbers of children to U.S. families, Russia had no central agency to oversee or license agencies that arranged adoptions.

Instead, it allowed officials and judges in each of its regions to approve adoptions, leaving the process open to corruption and bribery. It also allowed agencies to increasingly rely on facilitators, or free-lance intermediaries, who helped to guide adoptive families through bewildering Russian bureaucracy.

Most facilitators were not formal employees of agencies and some had simultaneous relationships with multiple adoption agencies and attorneys. That led to situations where unscrupulous facilitators shopped children to different agencies, then placed them with the client and agency able to pay the highest fee -- or willing to tack on a bribe.

The practice of extracting bribes from parents in the guise of fees or gifts and the unreliability of records provided to them became so common in some regions of Russia that Holt International Children's Services of Eugene, Ore., one of the world's largest and best known adoption agencies, stopped taking clients there years ago, Holt Vice President Susan Soon-Keum Cox said.

A 1998 Whatcott family photo shows Russian-born Inga, then 12, with Lily, then 2, Gus, then 7, and Max, then 10. While Inga could be affectionate and charming, her increasingly violent behavior later drove her adoptive family to sever its ties with her.

Observers and parents who've been through the Russian adoption system also maintain that some intermediaries and agencies were concerned more about fees they received for placing children than with giving parents factual information about them.

"Those people have only one idea, to earn more money. Some don't have very clean records," Shurgalin said. "They were not out to help children and prospective families. They were just plain and simply trying to get a quick buck out of it."

Adoptive parents have charged in lawsuits that agencies or facilitators gave them records that had been translated inaccurately or that omitted crucial negative details about the child's background.

Only after returning to the United States did some parents discover that their children had serious physical ailments that would make it impossible for them to live a normal life. Others learned that their increasingly violent children suffered from one or more psychological syndromes triggered by early abuse or long stays in orphanages.

"She was beautiful, she could be so charming, and she nearly destroyed us," said Cilla Whatcott, 46, of Coupeville, Wash., who, with her husband, Neal, is disrupting the adoption of Inga, who they adopted in 1997 when she was 12. "The experience caused me to question everything I believed in -- love, trust, faith."

Inga, who has developmental delays, reactive attachment disorder and fetal alcohol syndrome, told the Whatcotts she had been placed twice with Russian families, but was returned to her orphanage because of her behavior. The Whatcotts, who have three other children, two of them adopted, severed their relationship with Inga after the girl repeatedly attacked siblings and playmates and tried to kill Cilla while she was bedridden after a hysterectomy.

"You keep thinking it'll be different when she finally feels it, what it is to have a home," said Whatcott, who has submitted written testimony to Congress and is writing a book about her experience. "But we had to make a choice between keeping Inga and keeping the rest of our family safe."

Some parents sued, charging that agencies failed to disclose information about their children that might have affected their decision to adopt.

Among them are Michael and Susan McMullen of Franklin, Venango County, who earlier this year filed a lawsuit against European Adoption Consultants Inc. of North Royalton, Ohio, in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh.

In their suit, the McMullens charge that EAC and its director, Margaret Cole, committed breach of contract, fraud, intentional nondisclosure and negligent misrepresentation and intentional infliction of emotional distress when it placed a 5-month-old boy with them in 1992.

The McMullens contend that EAC told them only that the boy had a correctable cleft palate. He later was found to be mentally retarded and affected with a severe form of epilepsy and is likely to require institutional care, according to the suit.

In court documents, Cole has argued that she personally should not be a party to the suit because the McMullens' contract was with EAC. She also has argued that the suit was not filed in the correct jurisdiction and that she was not served with it in a timely fashion.

EAC has not filed a response to the suit pending the resolution of the jurisdiction issue. EAC representatives did not return calls seeking comment.

New standards

Stung by criticisms and bad publicity, Russia cracked down in April.

Its new regulations call for representatives of the Ministry of Education and five other ministries to form a committee to oversee adoption issues and to draft accreditation standards for adoption agencies. Only nonprofit agencies that have been in business for at least five years will be considered.

Those that achieve accreditation will be required to open offices rather than operate from their owners' kitchen tables. They'll be required to report and pay taxes on their income.

Most significantly, they must formally hire employees and no longer will be permitted to use free-lance facilitators. Agencies also will be required to make post-adoption checks and provide Russia with periodic updates on the welfare of adopted children, who retain Russian citizenship until they are 18.

Russia's Ministry of Education released accreditation standards and began accepting accreditation applications June 19. The ministry said it would take up to three months to review and rule on applications.

In Western Pennsylvania, officials at International Assistance Group of Aspinwall, one of two local agencies specializing in adoptions from Russia, submitted their application last month.

Adopt-A-Child in Squirrel Hill also has submitted its accreditation documents, the agency's clinical director, Laura Ellman, said.

But agency officials admit they don't know just how long it will take before they learn whether they can resume operations in Russia.

Spence-Chapin, a large New York City agency, is telling clients it doesn't expect to operate again in Russia for at least six months.

"We would be happy if it were sooner than that. It's difficult for people who [already had started sending] materials to Russia. But we can't tell them the time frame," said Jill Cole, Spence-Chapin's director of international adoptions.

Parents who aren't willing to wait can go to Russia on their own and try to negotiate the complex adoption process. Or they can try to adopt in other countries.

Some U.S. agency operators and parents who've already completed successful adoptions of Russian-born children decry the delays caused by the new regulations.

Some believe the regulations were prompted by news reports that exaggerated cases of disrupted adoptions but ignored thousands of other flourishing adoptive families. They fear the delays will mean that as many as 1 million Russian children will wait even longer to move from grim orphanages to homes.

"When there are moratoriums, you're not shutting off mining or an industry. You're dealing with kids, and these kids are getting older every day," said James Georgalas, 52, a Ben Avon Heights lawyer who, with his wife, Jane, has adopted three daughters from Russia.

But critics of the old Russian process and officials from other agencies say the reforms are overdue.

"I'm very much for accreditation," said Larisa Mason, the Russian-born executive director of the International Assistance Group in Aspinwall. "I hate to have kids sitting there because we could not move their bodies.

"But [accreditation] puts more responsibility on agencies to do a better job. It would bring stability and I think we will hear much less negative news."


Cindi Lash biography



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