For many years, Russian adoption was an intercountry adoption standard. Third only to China and Ethiopia, what started as a few dozen Russian adoptions...

Russian Adoption

For many years, Russian adoption was an intercountry adoption standard. Third only to China and Ethiopia, what started as a few dozen Russian adoptions...

As the world’s largest land mass, Russia is home to almost 147 million people. Bordering both Eastern Europe and North Asia, the country is the ninth most populous country in the world. It is also the home of hundreds of thousands of orphans. The history between the United States and Russia began in December 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War sent Russia (and much of the former Soviet Union) into an economic landslide that left many children in vulnerable positions. In 1992, under Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, international adoption from Russia to the United States commenced.

For many years, Russian adoption was an intercountry adoption standard. Third only to China and Ethiopia, what started as a few dozen Russian adoptions a year rapidly grew to a thousand adoptions a year. Russia welcomed single or married (though not same-sex couples) to adopt and like other countries had income, age, and health requirements for prospective adoptive parents. Though Russia is not a Hague Convention country, prospective adoptive parents still had to follow U.S. requirements for adoptive parents, including guidelines outlined by USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) with respect to the definition of orphans. The overall cost of adopting from Russia was between $35,000-$50,000 and required repeated trips overseas to meet the prospective adoptive child. It is estimated that between 1992 and 2012, 60,000 adoptions took place between Russia and the United States. Until Jan. 1, 2013, when it all that changed.

Under Russian Federal law No 272-FZ, all adoptions of Russian children by U.S. citizens were banned, and adoption service providers, who assisted U.S. citizens, were banned from operating in Russia. Families and agencies alike were taken aback by the surprise decision, but the writing had been on the wall for some time. Changes in country policy happen all the time and international adoption can be a risky endeavor. In 2007, Guatemala closed its doors to international adoption due to a lack of compliance with the Hague Convention, but with Russia, the reasons behind the country closure are much more complex.

The Children

The official reason cited by Russia for the discontinuation of a Russian adoption with the United States is fear for their children. Any sending country has a vested interest in the future of their children, which is why post-placement reporting is so important. Post-placement reporting allows the sending country to track the development of their children and ensures they are growing up happy, healthy, and safe. From the onset of the Russia-U.S. adoption program, roughly 20 children died from abuse or neglect by their adoptive parents. Several stories made headlines in both countries, most notably the American mother, Torry Hansen, who put her 7-year-old Russian adopted child back on a plane to Moscow, and the 2012 incident that left a 21 month-old Russian-adoptee dead in a car after 9 hours of heat exposure.

At the same time, reports were coming out about incorrect medical records in the adopted children’s files, and high levels of both fetal-alcohol syndrome and institutional care induced trauma in Russian adoptees. This combined effect led to a decline of Russian adoptions to the United States from 5,862 in 2004 to 1,586 in 2009. By comparison, according to the U.S. Department of State adoption statistics, in 2009 there were 3,000 adoptions from China and 2,275 from Ethiopia. The occurrence of these events overshadows the thousands of successful Russian adoptions between 1992-2012. In fact, the program might still have continued had it not been for a man named Magnitsky.

Who Was Magnitsky?

Unrelated to intercountry adoptions, Sergei Magnitsky was a Russian tax lawyer who focused on anti-corruption activities. In 2008, Magnitsky uncovered a $230 million tax fraud scheme involving 23 companies with links to the Kremlin. According to Magnitsky’s findings, police, tax officials, bankers, and high-level interior ministry officials were essentially defrauding Russian taxpayers to the tune of $230 million. Magnitsky reported the crime but was promptly arrested and thrown into prison. He was held at Moscow’s Butyrka prison for almost an entire year on tax evasion charges. Ironically, the charges of tax evasion were brought against Magnitsky by the very same people Magnitsky had indicated in his report. On Nov. 6, 2009, Magnitsky died in police custody, a mere 7 days before the expiration of his one-year sentence (the amount of time Magnitsky could legally be held in jail without trial). Right before his death, Magnitsky developed pancreatitis but was denied medical help by those holding him. An examination after his death revealed that not only had the denial of medical attention contributed to Magnitsky’s death, but he had suffered a severe beating that likely left him unconscious. The suspicious circumstances surrounding his death led to an investigation by human rights reporters to question the validity of the claims made against Magnitsky. Though it was revealed that charges against him indeed had been fabricated, Magnitsky was still found guilty in a Russian court of law posthumously.

Magnitsky’s death was a rallying cry for those who fight corruption in Russia. If Bill Browder hadn’t helped bring political awareness to the case, it would be a footnote in Russia’s history. Browder was a former friend of President Vladimir Putin, and Putin’s allies, but the death of Magnitsky led Browder to expose what Magnitsky found. Browder is the CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, an investment fund, and Magnitsky had represented Browder in this capacity. Browder lobbied U.S. Senators, Benjamin Cardin and John McCain, to introduce legislation to punish those responsible for Magnitsky’s death, and in 2012, the Magnitsky Act was passed. The Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012 (known for short as the Magnitsky Act) is a law that bans foreign visitors and freezes the (U.S. based) assets of anyone in violation of human rights. The Act passed with overwhelming bipartisan agreement in the U.S. Congress and was signed into law by President Barak Obama.

Though the law pertains to every country, once passed, it blocked 18 Russian government officials from entering the United States and froze their U.S. based assets. For Putin, this was particularly problematic as the Magnitsky Act could be used to freeze his offshore assets, which are considerable. Since being signed into law, the Magnitsky Act has spread to six additional countries, including the United Kingdom and Canada. In 2016, the U.S. Congress expanded the law to apply to an additional 44 individuals suspected of human rights abuse.

What Does Magnitsky Have to Do with Russian Adoption?

The law may seem straightforward, but Russia interpreted the Magnitsky Act as another move by the United States to punish Russia and implement sanctions. Two weeks after the Magnitsky Act was signed into law in the United States, Putin signed a bill to ban the adoption of all Russian children by U.S. citizens. The Dima Yakolev Law (or Russian Federal law No 272-FZ) was named after a Russian adoptee, Dima, who died of heat stroke after being left in the car for 9 hours by his U.S. adoptive father. The child had only been in the United States for 4 months. The Russian law defines the ban of intercountry adoptions to the United States as a sanction brought against the U.S. for “violations of the human rights and freedoms of Russian citizens.” The bill passed unanimously in the Federation Council, the upper chamber of Russian Parliament. On Jan. 1, 2013, all adoptions between Russia and the U.S. were banned.

Families received notice of the decision from the news, adoption service providers, embassies, and the U.S. Department of State. For weeks, no one was sure what to do. Families waited in agony, struggling to find information about their particular situation. Would matches between U.S. families and Russian orphans be honored? What about families who had traveled to meet their child (some on multiple trips and multiple occasions) but had yet to formally complete the adoption process in court? Some families were visiting their prospective adoptive children in Moscow when the law went into effect. Some were about to board a plane. While others were in the process of decorating rooms, buying clothes, or even having baby showers for their soon-to-be adopted children. What about those families?

Across the country, families waited for news of their prospective adoptive children’s fates. Families lobbied Congress and then Obama to intervene. Surely there was someone who could influence Russia to honor the connections already established between the Russian adoptees and their soon to be U.S. forever families. 45 U.S. families, who were in the final stages of their adoptions, brought their case to the European Union Human Rights court in an effort to pressure the Russian government into a reversal of its decision. The families argued that many of the children they had sought to adopt had serious health conditions and needed medical attention right away. The attention that went beyond the capabilities of the orphanages where the children currently reside. This was a case of what would be in the best interest of the child.

On Jan. 22, 2013, the Russian government acquiesced. Prospective adoptive parents whose cases had already been approved in court by a Russian judge would be allowed to complete their adoptions. Families who already matched with a child, had traveled to meet their children, were awaiting court, or simply waiting for a court decision, were not so lucky. For those families, the adoption of their children from Russia would never be complete. Though thousands of families were in the process of adopting when the ban went into effect, only 250 Russian children were adopted by U.S. families in 2013, and only 2 Russian children were adopted in 2014. From 2015 onwards, no adoptions from Russia to the United States have been completed.

Where Things Stand Today

Today, the Magnitsky Act remains a hot topic when it comes to U.S./Russian adoption. Though Putin has repeatedly called for an end to the Magnitsky Act, an end to the law seems highly unlikely, particularly given its expansion to six other countries. The law is poised to go into effect in much of Europe, Scandinavia, South Africa, and Ukraine. This is particularly problematic for Putin as he is rumored to be the richest man in the world with holdings all over the globe (holdings he may no longer access thanks to the Magnitsky Act). Any offer to reintroduce Russian adoption to the United States always includes a rollback of the Magnitsky Act. It is doubtful the overturn of this law will ever happen.

Globally, Russia has placed restrictions on other countries that have passed the Magnitsky Act into law. In Canada, for example, intercountry Russian adoption was suspended on Aug. 29, 2013, under the guise that Canada recognizes same-sex marriage, which Russia does not agree with or recognize. It is estimated tens of thousands of Russians have signed petitions protesting the ban on Russian adoption, citing the ban hurts Russia’s most vulnerable citizens, orphaned children. Putin has responded by saying he is open to negotiation, and the fate of Russia’s orphaned children is the most important thing.
So, where do families stand? Unfortunately, for those families caught up in the reversal of the U.S. and Russia Adoption Agreement, unless their case was approved in Russian court before Jan. 1, 2013, they had to relinquish the children they had wanted to bring into their hearts and homes. Families interested in adopting from this region of the world can also look into the adoption programs of Bulgaria and Ukraine. Adoption from Kazakhstan is considered possible, but with the country’s signing of the Hague Convention, in 2012, Kazakhstan suspended intercountry adoptions. The suspension is said to be lifted, but no adoptions have taken place from Kazakhstan to the United States since 2012.

Jennifer Jones

Jennifer S. Jones is a writer, performer, storyteller, and arts educator. She holds an MFA (Playwriting) from NYU Tisch. She has written numerous plays including the internationally renowned, award-winning Appearance of Life. Her amazing transracial transcultural family was created through adoption from China and India. She is passionate about the adoption community and talks about the ins and outs, ups and downs, joys and "is this really us?!" whenever she can. She writes about her experiences at