For the many people who have asked my opinion on the Tennesse mother who sent her Russian adopted son back, I offer this article in today's New York Times, which states, more eloquently, what I have been saying for some time.
By CLIFFORD J. LEVY
Published: May 3, 2010
"The case of an adopted boy who was sent back by a family in the U.S. has focused attention on a troubled system."
MOSCOW — There is nothing dreary about Orphanage No. 11. It has rooms filled with enough dolls and trains and stuffed animals to make any child giggly. It has speech therapists and round-the-clock nurses and cooks who delight in covertly slipping a treat into a tiny hand. It has the feel of a place where love abounds.
What it does not have are many visits from potential parents. Few of its children will ever be adopted — by Russians or foreigners. When they reach age 7 and are too old for this institution they will be shuttled to the next one, reflecting an entrenched system that is much better at warehousing children — and profiting from them — than finding them families.
The case of a Russian boy who returned alone to Moscow, sent back by his American adoptive mother, has focused intense attention on the pitfalls of international adoption.
But the outcry has obscured fundamental questions about why Russia has so many orphans and orphanages in the first place.
In recent days, senior Russian officials have begun to acknowledge how troubled their system is.
The chairwoman of the parliamentary committee on family and children, Yelena B. Mizulina, spotlighted what she said was a shocking statistic: Russia has more orphans now, 700,000, than at the end of World War II, when an estimated 25 million Soviet citizens were killed.
Ms. Mizulina noted that for all the complaints about the return of the boy, Artyom Savelyev, by his adoptive mother in Tennessee, Russia itself has plenty of experience with failed placements. She said 30,000 children in the last three years inside Russia were sent back to institutions by their adoptive, foster or guardianship families.
“Specialists call such a boom in returns a humanitarian catastrophe,” she said.
She reeled off more figures. The percentage of children who are designated orphans is four to five times higher in Russia than in Europe or the United States. Of those, 30 percent live in orphanages. Most of them are children who have been either given up by their parents or removed from dysfunctional homes by the authorities.
Her comments offered a sense of the frustration over the state of Russia’s orphanage system, which has long been resistant to reform. Over the years, proposals to reduce the system’s size — the deinstitutionalization that occurred decades ago in the United States and elsewhere — have gone nowhere.
Despite the horror stories recounted about Russian orphanages, social welfare experts say that conditions in many are not terrible; some are excellent. The more pressing issue is the warehousing of young children in large-scale facilities, which experts say can hold back their social and intellectual development.
But the system’s defenders said that until the government figures out how to cut down on social problems like drug and alcohol abuse to improve family life, there is no alternative.
“It would be a lot better if there were no orphanages, and every child were happy in the family that he or she has,” said the director of Orphanage No. 11, Lidiya Y. Slusareva. “But if there are bad families, then it is better that the children are here.”
The scrutiny of the Russian system comes as Russian and American diplomats are working out new rules for adoptions. Russian officials, who have often seemed embarrassed that their country cannot care for all its children and has to give some up to foreigners, demanded the new rules after Artyom was returned.
The Foreign Ministry said adoptions by Americans would be suspended until an agreement is reached. It is not entirely clear whether adoptions are actually frozen, or whether the process is just being dragged out.
In recent years, the Russian government has repeatedly pledged to bolster efforts to help families stay together, to increase the number of children who are adopted and to expand foster care. But it has not had notable success.
Indeed, while Russia has its share of social problems, the large number of orphans stems in part from a policy that does not place a high value on keeping families together. The Russian government spends roughly $3 billion annually on orphanages and similar facilities, creating a system that is an important source of jobs and money on the regional level — and a target for corruption.
As a result, it is in the interests of regional officials to maintain the flow of children to orphanages and then not to let them leave, child welfare experts said. When adoptions are permitted, families, especially foreign families, have to pay large fees and navigate a complex bureaucracy.
“The system has one goal, which is to preserve itself,” said Boris L. Altshuler, chairman of Right of the Child, an advocacy group in Moscow, and a member of a Kremlin advisory group.
“That is why the process of adoption in Russia is like going through the circles of hell,” he said. “The system wants these children to remain orphans.”
He said that in 2008, 115,000 children in Russia were designated as without parental care, typically after being removed from their homes by caseworkers. Only 9,000 children were returned to their parents that year. In the United States, where reuniting families is a primary goal, the percentage is far higher, he said.
Over all, 13,000 children were officially adopted in 2008 — 9,000 by Russians and 4,000 by foreigners, officials said. The system’s stagnation can be seen at Orphanage No. 11, which houses 45 to 50 children. Most have health or behavior difficulties, but the staff coaxes wonders from them. In the auditorium on a recent day, a group rehearsed a dance wearing 18th-century ball costumes, then went back to the dressing room before returning in Russian peasant outfits for a traditional dance. It was hard not to be charmed. Even so, only a single child has been adopted from the orphanage this year.
Since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, a total of 74 children have been adopted — an average of about four a year, said the director, Ms. Slusareva, who plays no role in their placement. The total comprises 20 adoptions to Russians, 24 to Americans and 30 to other foreigners.
The case of Artyom at first spurred a strong reaction, with some Russians saying that a country whose population is shrinking should never send its children abroad.
But Ms. Slusareva did not agree. The primary goal, she said, should be to locate good homes for these children — preferably in Russia, but if not there, then elsewhere. “The hardest thing is when a child asks, ‘When will a mama come for me?’ ” she said. “So the best moment for me is when a child leaves the orphanage with a family.”
A version of this article appeared in print on May 4, 2010, on page A1 of the New York edition.