STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Authorities in Russia have suspended the work of foreign adoption agencies, and that has put into limbo the plans of many Americans wanting to adopt Russian children. They have to wait even though many of the children that they'd like to adopt are in danger. Human rights groups say growing numbers institutionalized children live and die in wretched conditions in Russia.
NPR's Gregory Feifer reports from Moscow.
GREGORY FEIFER: Most of the nearly 800,000 children called orphans in Russia still have living parents. Thirteen-year-old Sasha says he ran away from home at the age of six.
SASHA: (Speaking foreign language)
FEIFER: I left because my parents behaved badly, he says. They drank and took drugs and didn't take care of me. Sasha lives in a Moscow city boarding school called Internat Number 8. Twelve-year-old Tatyana also lives there. She was abandoned at birth.
TATYANA: (Speaking foreign language)
FEIFER: Tatyana says she likes drawing and sewing and wants to become a doctor.
Compared with most children like them, Tatyana and Sasha are lucky. Their dorm rooms are clean, teachers are dedicated, and the children appear genuinely happy. But director Vadim Menshov says that's not good enough.
Mr. VADIM MENSHOV (Director, Internat Number 8): (Through translator) Children are traumatized even in the best orphanages because they have no time to themselves. Even this school is too crowded. It needs to be bulldozed. Children shouldn't live in such places.
FEIFER: The government only recently started to encourage Russians to adopt. But very few Russian families want to adopt orphans because they're often seen as sick or somehow damaged. Half the 15,000 children adopted in Russia each year are taken in by foreigners.
Americans adopt more children from Russia than from any other country except China and Guatemala. But now the government has suspended the work of all foreign adoption agencies. Officials say it's a temporary measure, part of the new registration requirements for all non-governmental organizations.
Still, Education Ministry official Sergei Vitelis says Russian children should stay in Russia.
Mr. SERGEI VITELIS (Ministry of Education Official, Russia): (Through translator) Adoption by foreigners probably isn't entirely right. Any normal state should create conditions for children to grow up in their own country. That's what we're aiming for.
FEIFER: Children's rights advocates say the official crackdown on foreign adoptions is more about national pride than concern for child welfare. They say it condemns children to a system of Soviet-era institutions desperately in need of reform.
(Soundbite of baby crying)
FEIFER: A baby lies crying in a decrepit wooden maternity hospital in Russia's poverty-stricken far north. Many child advocates say places like these are where the problems start. Hospital staff often try to persuade parents of babies born with disabilities to give them over to state care. Poverty and alcoholism also drive parents to abandon their children.
Sergei Koloskov, head of the Down Syndrome Society, says contrary to government figures, the number of orphans in Russia is growing and overloading the state orphanage system.
Mr. SERGEI KOLOSKOV (President, Down Syndrome Society) (Through translator) Healthy babies are lying in hospital beds all day as if they were sick, sometimes for months or longer. They're completely ignored. No one plays with them or provides any kind of stimulation. That happens because orphanages where they're supposed to go after birth are full.
FEIFER: Experts say lack of attention at an early age seriously harms a child's development. Elena Olshanskaya started a group of volunteers to help children in hospitals after giving birth herself when she noticed abandoned babies in a nearby room.
Ms. ELENA OLSHANSKAYA (Volunteer): (Through translator) I was stunned. They were completely alone. They were fed several times a day, and that was it. After a while, they just stopped crying.
FEIFER: Last winter, another patient in a central Russian hospital noticed a room of abandoned babies with their mouths taped shut to stop them from crying. Her cell phone video shocked the country when it was played on national television. Reports of babies tied down in their cots are common. Many believe that's because hospital staff are seriously overworked.
Boris Altshuler of the Child's Right group says it's often immediately clear to visitors that abandoned babies are left to rot alive.
Mr. BORIS ALTSHULER (Program Director, Child's Right): First of all, the smell — smell of unchanged linens or even children lying on just on plastic. And terrible smell because nobody changes, nobody cares.
Unidentified Child: (Speaking foreign language)
FEIFER: Back at Moscow's Internat Number 8, it's the last day of spring holidays and the children's clean up day. Some are washing windows; others are cleaning floors, while a few are kicking a soccer ball against the wall. One of them is 12-year-old Pasha(ph). He ran away from home several years ago because he was mistreated, but says he still hopes his mother comes to take him back.
PASHA: (Speaking foreign language)
FEIFER: He says he likes playing soccer and would one day like to become a professional soccer player.
Once children leave hospitals for orphanages their experiences differ widely. Unlike the relatively happy children at Internat Number 8, most children end up in orphanages that are closed institutions.
Elena Olshanskaya says that's a legacy of the Soviet Union, which tried to shut off anyone not considered normal from the rest of society.
Ms. OLSHANSKAYA: (Through translator) Orphanages often stand behind high walls and big gates, usually somewhere in the outskirts. People who live in such areas and pass by every day usually have no idea what's inside.
FEIFER: Children considered mentally or physically disabled are sent to special institutions, which Altshuler calls terrible places.
A Human Rights Watch report says children in such institutions may be up to twice as likely to die than those in regular orphanages. Evaluations deciding orphans' fates are often cursory. Misdiagnosis is common, and sometimes even doled out as punishment for misbehavior.
Valentina Pavlova heads the Moscow office of Kidsave, an American organization that runs foster-care programs in Russia. She says even in standard orphanages, the lack of contact with the rest of the world leaves children utterly unprepared for adult life.
Ms. VALENTINA PAVLOVA (Moscow Office Director, Kidsave): (Through translator) When children leave those institutions, they enter another world they've only seen on television. Very few are able to cope because they've never had anything of their own or experienced normal relationships. Above all, they've been deprived of love.
FEIFER: Pavlova agrees with most other experts who say the only way to help orphans break out of lifelong cycles of isolation and lack of education is to put them in the care of adoptive or foster families.
But Boris Altshuler of the Child's Right group says that officials in charge of the country's state orphanages are obstructing new foster programs because they don't want to lose state funding.
Mr. ALTSHULER: The real (unintelligible) that we know is selfish, greedy bureaucracy, which really kills Russia because it wants make money from everything, from the children's tragedy, from orphans, from anything.
FEIFER: Altshuler calls the current system an orphan industry. He says it won't improve without public pressure. But he says as long as the state keeps hiding orphans from society, attitudes about them won't change.
Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.