STEVE INSKEEP, host:
American families have adopted more than 50,000 Russian children in the past couple of decades. Russia remains a leading source for foreign adoptions, even though Russian authorities are no longer so willing to send their children out of the country. The number of American adoptions in Russia is down by two-thirds since its peak a few years ago. NPR's Anne Garrels has been reporting from the Russian city of Chelyabinsk and looks at changing Russian attitudes.
ANNE GARRELS: Ten years ago, authorities here in Chelyabinsk were desperate to find homes for the growing number of abandoned children. But Nadezhda Gertman, the head of child welfare, no longer sees foreign adoption as the answer. When she talks about sending children out of the country, her voice breaks up.
Ms. NADEZHDA GERTMAN (Head of Child Welfare, Chelyabinsk): (Though Translator) I was on a plane to Moscow. There was a foreign couple who had just adopted a child. 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 that we can't handle them here.
GARRELS: Hit by an economic and social crisis in the '80s and '90s, Russia was suddenly flooded with abandoned children. The orphanages couldn't afford to provide adequate care. It was yet another humiliation for this country. Gertman says the numbers in Chelyabinsk orphanages are now down 30 percent.
Ms. GERTMAN: (Though Translator) The economic situation here is much better. People started getting better salaries, and now they have the ability to keep their children.
GARRELS: And Gertman says Russian attitudes to adoption are changing. It was uncommon for Russians to adopt in the past, especially if they couldn't adopt babies they could pass off as their own. Gertman is doing everything she can to encourage this change. She places ads with photographs of children eligible for adoption. While rules for foreigners have become more arduous, she's streamlining the process for Russian families. She wants Russians to get the first choice.
Ms. GERTMAN: (Though Translator) And the kids we advertise get adopted.
GARRELS: She's also encouraging foster care, which was only recently introduced.
Ms. GERTMAN: (Though Translator) In the past, the only way to save our children was through foreign adoption. But now the government is providing funds for families who might not otherwise be able to afford to take on a child.
GARRELS: The numbers tell the story. In Chelyabinsk, domestic adoptions have nearly doubled in three years to 231. In 2005, nine children were placed in foster care. This year it's 290. The government now provides a stipend for relatives who care for abandoned children. Meanwhile, foreign adoptions over the past three years in Chelyabinsk are down from 196 to 75. Gertman says Russia cannot afford to lose its children.
Ms. GERTMAN: (Though Translator) We have more and more older people and fewer and fewer young ones because of the drop in the birth rate. The workforce is shrinking. We need to keep our young people.
GARRELS: There are still more than 5,000 children in Chelyabinsk's orphanages or state boarding schools. Many were taken from alcoholic parents or parents who were drug addicts. Some parents are in prison. With more government assistance and the donations of business people, orphanage director Tatiana Smirnova says she can now provide much more for the 50 children in her care.
Ms. TATIANA SMIRNOVA (Orphanage Director, Chelyabinsk): (Though Translator) When I came to work here 10 years ago, the kids had nothing. But we made contacts on the outside. For instance, one woman has a factory. She's helped us out with clothing. She brings each child something on a birthday and at Christmas.
GARRELS: Orphanage No. 8 is much better furnished, much better equipped than a decade ago. Discipline is strict. Life is highly ordered. But the staff is caring. Children ranging in age from 7 to 18 are split up into groups of 10 - so-called "families." But however much she's improved conditions, Smirnova says her orphanage is no replacement for a real home. She says her children need real parents. She would prefer they were Russian, but she suggests foreign adoption is still necessary, because changes in Russia are still in their early stages.
Nadezhda Gertman, with child services, has not stopped foreign adoptions, but she says it's now much harder for foreigners to adopt healthy children. When asked how many have medical issues, Gertman said 62 percent of children in orphanages suffer from serious psychological problems that are difficult to treat. Anne Garrels, NPR News, Chelyabinsk.
INSKEEP: Anne is showing us how one Russian city is changing, and through that example we're learning more about a country that still holds a big place on the world stage. You can find more reports in Anne's series at npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.