It's been 17 years since Russia began permitting foreign adoption, and in that time, American families have adopted more than 50,000 Russian children.
But while Russia remains a leading source for foreign adoptions, Russian authorities are no longer so willing to send their children out of the country. Only about 1,800 Russian children were adopted by Americans this year — down from a high of almost 6,000 in 2004.
A decade ago, authorities in the provincial town of Chelyabinsk were desperate to find homes for the growing number of abandoned children. But for Nadezhda Gertman, the head of child welfare, foreign adoption is no longer the answer. When she talks about sending children out of the country, her voice breaks up.
"I was on a plane to Moscow. There was a foreign couple who had just adopted a child," Gertman says. "I had the feeling they were taking away my child. I told my staff we will only give them away after we have done everything possible to find Russian parents for them or if their medical problems are such we can't handle them here."
Changing Attitudes Toward Adoption
In the 1980s and '90s, Russia was hit by an economic and social crisis and was suddenly flooded with abandoned children whom it could not afford to care for. The situation was yet another humiliation for this country.
Gertman says that in Chelyabinsk, about 1,000 miles east of Moscow, "the economic situation here is much better. People started getting better salaries and now have the ability to keep their children." She also notes that the number of children in orphanages there is down by 30 percent.
And Russian attitudes to adoption are changing, Gertman says. In the past, it was uncommon for Russians to adopt — especially if they could not adopt babies they could pass off as their own.
"Parents no longer feel they have to hide the fact that a child was adopted," she says. "My sister adopted a 3-year-old and we don't hide that fact."
Gertman says she is doing everything she can to encourage this change, such as placing ads with photographs of children eligible for adoption. And even as the adoption rules for foreigners have become more arduous, she is streamlining the process for Russian families. She wants Russians to get the first choice.
She's also encouraging foster care, which was introduced only recently.
"In the past, the only way to save our children was through foreign adoption," Gertman says, "but now the government is providing funds for families who might not otherwise be able to afford to take on a child."
'We Need To Keep Our Young People'
The numbers tell the story. In Chelyabinsk, domestic adoptions have nearly doubled in three years, to 231. And in 2005, nine children were placed in foster care, compared with 290 this year. The government now provides a stipend for relatives who care for abandoned youngsters — more than 2,000 children who would have ended up in orphanages are now with someone from their extended family. Over the past three years, the number of foreign adoptions in Chelyabinsk has fallen to 75 from 196.
Gertman says Russia cannot afford to lose its children.
"We have more and more older people and fewer and fewer young ones because of the drop in the birth rate," she says. "The work force is shrinking. We need to keep our young people."
Gertman hasn't stopped foreign adoptions in her region, but she notes that it has become much harder for foreigners to adopt healthy children here. When asked how many have medical issues, she says 62 percent of children in orphanages suffer from serious psychological problems that are difficult to treat.
The Russian media has helped fuel negative attitudes about foreign adoption by reporting on the abuse — and in some cases deaths — of Russian children adopted by Americans.
These reports scared Gertman, and they also alarmed Vera Sokolova, a successful business woman and community activist.
"When I got to Seattle on my first trip to America, I said I want to see our children who have been adopted," Sokolova says. "We visited several families. I saw they were well cared for and even knew their Russian roots."
Sokolova says that these days, she's not nearly as concerned about foreign adoptions as Gertman. And with more than 5,000 children in this region of 3 million people still in orphanages or state boarding schools, she is trying to help improve conditions.
Donations from business people like Sokolova and more government assistance will mean that orphanage director Tatiana Smirnova can provide much more for the 50 children in her care.
No Replacement For A Real Home
"When I came to work here 10 years ago, the kids had nothing," Smirnova says. "But we made contacts on the outside. For instance, one woman has a factory. She helped us out with clothing; she brings each child something on her birthday and at Christmas."
Orphanage No. 8 is much better furnished and much better equipped than it was a decade ago, she says. Life is highly ordered, but the staff is caring.
Children ranging in age from 7 to 18 are split up into groups of 10, or "families."
But Smirnova says that no matter how much she has improved conditions, her orphanage is no replacement for a real home. Her children need real parents — and while she would prefer they were Russian, she suggests foreign adoption is still necessary because changes in Russia are still in their early stages.
"Bit by bit, these children are finding adoptive or foster families here," Smirnova says. "But these changes are just beginning."
She hugs a shy 10-year-old girl whose mother was in prison for drug trafficking. Smirnova says that the woman is out but is an alcoholic and doesn't want her daughter back.
"We will find her a family. She is a good student," she says of the girl.