The Russia-U.S. Adoption Dilemma

Russian-U.S. relations devolved last week after an American mother sent her 7-year-old adopted son back to Russia, alone, because, as she claimed in a letter she sent with the child, she was "lied to and misled by the Russian orphanage workers and director regarding his mental stability and other issues." The story has spurred tremendous concern and discussion, in large part over the seeming assumption on the part of the adoptive mother that the boy could be returned to place-of-purchase, like a faulty television set. On a broader scale, though, the drama brings out the very particular anxieties that the people of Russia and the United States feel about international adoption and forces us to focus, once again, on the confounding issues it raises.

One might wonder at the fuss this case has created. We often hear stories about individuals who do wacky, awful things. And people seem to agree that Hansen, a nurse from Tennessee, showed a callous disregard for the boy she had pledged to love and protect. Why has this particular incident spurred a high-level U.S. diplomatic mission to Russia? Why has a media circus grown around little Artyom Savelyev (or, Justin Hansen, as he was called in Tennessee), making him seem like a Russian Elian Gonzalez?

The answer, of course, lies in the fact that many of us -- as individuals and as nations -- continue to harbor deep concerns about international adoption. The nature of our concern, however, depends on the country we live in. Here in the United States, the story has re-ignited long-held worries about oversight of the adoption process, domestic abuse and our social service system's ability to protect vulnerable children. The Hansen story raises obvious questions: What could this family's adoption agency have done to prevent such an occurrence? What kind of screening procedures did they use to approve a woman who, we now see, was ill-prepared to raise this child? Why didn't Tennessee's child welfare agencies realize that something was amiss? And, more generally, is this simply the story of one adoptive mom who came undone, or does this drama point to something deeply wrong with our adoption system?

Over in Russia, the return of a solitary little boy has touched off what may be an even deeper national anguish, in this case over the appalling state of the nation's child welfare system. Some 740,000 Russian children now languish in orphanages, the result of family neglect or abandonment, an almost non-existent foster care system, and a public distaste for domestic adoption. As a solution to this crisis, international adoption does very little, because it only absorbs a tiny percentage of these children. It does, however, offer a glimmer of hope for individual boys and girls who, otherwise, would spend their entire childhoods in grim institutions. When Torry Hansen's erstwhile son arrived back in Moscow last week, Russians were quick to condemn both the adoptive mother specifically and the U.S. adoption system in general. But they were also clear-eyed about their own nation's failings: Why can't Russia take care of its own?

In Russia, the national debate over this particular family drama may, in the end, help to soften the public mood toward domestic adoption and foster care, lessening the need to send Russian children overseas. Ideally, too, the focus on this crisis may help to strengthen support networks for struggling birth families, ultimately helping to keep more of them together. Those are long-term changes, however, and may be slow in their development. In the short term, though, there is a realistic hope for concrete progress. The harried diplomatic maneuvering caused by the scandal may at long last lead to a bilateral adoption treaty between Russia and the United States, who, despite finalizing thousands of adoptions over the years, have yet to sign such an agreement.

It's ironic that these two nations recently signed an arms control treaty, while the adoption issue continues to confound them. Pavel A. Astakhov, Russia's new adoption ombudsman, noted as much last week. In a statement quoted in The New York Times, he said, "We seem to have arrived at that moment when we need to prove that we know how to agree on not only nuclear missiles and atomic bombs, but also on the needs of children."

Let's hope that agreement won't be years in coming.