POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 24, 2012
MOSCOW » The orphans' faces can be called up on screen, their photos the size of postage stamps, along with a few data points and a note about their personalities, often just a word or two.
Kirill P., age 6, from Rostov in the south — hazel eyes, brown hair — wears a sweatshirt with dragons on it and is described simply as "sociable." Angelina F., 16 months, from Khabarovsk in the Far East — gray eyes, brown hair — is actively developing an interest in her surroundings and "responds to any caring and affection."
Maksim N., who just turned 11, is "mobile, restless, outgoing, likes to play games." This is Russia's "federal database of orphans and children without parental care," a publicly available electronic repository of the forlorn and forgotten — more than 118,000 of them.
Child-welfare advocates say that it is orphans like these who are likely to be hurt most if Russian lawmakers succeed in banning adoptions by Americans — a move intended as retaliation for U.S. criticism of Russian rights abuses. The advocates say a ban would end up further fraying a disastrously overwhelmed foster care and orphanage system here.
"Members of Parliament today say, ‘Russia Without Orphans,"' said Boris L. Altshuler, the chairman of the advocacy group Right of the Child who also serves on a Kremlin advisory panel, his voice sputtering in anger as he described the slogan behind the new bill. "They know the slogan. The motto is very good, but there is nothing in their minds behind it."
The bill's rapid advance, in less than a week, has ignited an emotional debate here, with critics of the ban using the moment to focus attention on Russia's troubled child protection system, even as supporters say they are trying to keep children out of foreign hands.
More than 650,000 children are living without parental supervision in Russia, according to statistics maintained by the Ministry of Education and Science, with more than 500,000 in foster care and more than 100,000 in orphanages — the children in the federal database, which is available to prospective adoptive families, even though not all the children are eligible. By contrast, the Children's Bureau of the Department of Health and Human Services in the United States has reported only about 400,000 living without parents, and only about 58,000 living in institutions or group homes, in a country with a population more than twice Russia's.
In a telephone interview, Altshuler described the proposed adoption ban as the latest in a long series of bad policy decisions related to housing, education and social services, resulting in a system that actually encourages parents in financial trouble to cede custody of their children to the state, at least temporarily.
While more Russian children are adopted into homes in the United States each year than any other foreign nation, the overall numbers are relatively small — fewer than 1,000 out of 3,400 international adoptions in 2011. More than 7,400 were adopted by Russian families that year, according to the education and science ministry.
Still, Altshuler said a ban would be devastating. Some of Russia's orphanages are badly overcrowded, with children institutionalized throughout their young lives, and many are ill-equipped to deal with the wide array of physical and mental problems common among the children, including fetal alcohol syndrome and congenital disabilities.
"A thousand kids per year will not go to the United States and will stay in Russian institutions with all the tragic consequences," he said. As for members of Parliament, he said: "They are cannibals. They kill the country and they kill the children."
Supporters of the ban say the U.S. government has not done enough to protect adopted Russian children and has not lived up to an agreement on heightened oversight that went into effect on Nov. 1. Though there is a strong nationalist streak in their arguments, occasionally ugly cases have generated international attention: including a 7-year-old boy sent back to Russia alone by his adoptive mother in Tennessee in 2010.
Yekaterina F. Lakhova, a member of Parliament and sponsor of the ban, said that years of working on child welfare issues led her to conclude that the international adoption process is overly profit-driven, and she said Russians should take care of their own.
"If the country is self-sufficient, if it believes in itself," Lakhova said, in an interview published by the news site PublicPost. "You have to do it here. No normal, economically developed country gives away their children. I am a patriot of Russia."
In many ways the insistence by some officials that Russia should handle its own child welfare echoes efforts by President Vladimir V. Putin to restore Russia's standing as a world power after the decline following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In September, the Kremlin ordered the U.S. Agency for International Development to end its operations here after two decades of partnership on public health campaigns, civil society initiatives and other programs mostly paid for by American taxpayers.
In explaining the decision, Russian officials said the country no longer needed the help, even though public health advocates said that many programs, such as those fighting tuberculosis and HIV, were sorely lacking.
The Kremlin has also announced plans to end a partnership with the United States, known as the Nunn-Lugar agreement, to dismantle nuclear, chemical and other unconventional weapons, also largely paid for by Americans, saying Russia would handle the effort on its own.
While relatively little public protest greeted either of those decisions, a huge outcry followed the proposed adoption ban.
The bill, triggered by a new U.S. law punishing Russians accused of human rights abuses, cleared the lower house of Parliament on Friday and is considered likely to pass the upper house. Putin, who defended the proposal at his annual news conference last week, has not yet said whether he will support it.
But other senior officials have spoken out against the ban, dividing the government. Public criticism has been even stronger.
The newspaper Novaya Gazeta has collected more than 132,000 signatures online against the ban. "Signatures are needed to protect Russian children from vile members of Parliament," the newspaper posted on its site.
In another newspaper, Argumenti i Fakti, the journalist Yulia Kolesnichenko published an article describing her experience as the parent of an adopted 3-year-old son, Timor.
"Orphanages at least in the form in which they exist in Russia now are just evil," she wrote.
Last week, Kolesnichenko's husband, Alexandr, also a journalist, was one of eight questioners to confront Putin on the proposed adoption ban at the annual presidential news conference.
Noting that Prime Minister Dmitry A. Medvedev had called for the government to improve the child-welfare system, Kolesnichenko asked, "Could you tell us in a little more detail what steps and programs these will be? My personal three-year experience shows that our system treats adoptive parents as a threat on the one hand and a burden on the other."
Putin offered no specifics, and snapped back, "I totally disagree with you."
At another point, he asked if Kolesnichenko enjoyed hearing about occasional cases of adopted Russian children who became victims of abuse or even died in the United States, which lawmakers have used as a basis for the proposed ban. "Are you a sadomasochist?" Putin asked.
In her article, Yulia Kolesnichenko described how the couple already had a biological teenage daughter and could have had more children but chose to adopt a boy who did not look "Slavic," knowing that his chances of being welcomed into a Russian family were slim as a result. Timor has Central Asian features — his biological mother is believed to be from the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan.
"We came to adoption only because at some point we understood that all the rest was practically useless," Kolesnichenko wrote, describing a sense of futility visiting orphanages with gifts for children and donations of diapers.
"Yes, Mr. President, Russian hospitals and orphanages lack Pampers, and I am afraid few think about the hygienic needs of teenage girls," she wrote, adding, "They are absolutely an artificial model further damaging psyches of those who have already been traumatized."