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6.23.2010 Russia's Medvedev to sign international adoption accord

By Fred Weir

When Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visits Washington this week, he and US President Barack Obama are expected to shake hands on a nearly completed US-Russia adoption accord that will stave off some Russian calls for a ban on foreign adoptions.

The terms under which an American family can adopt a child from one of Russia's brimming orphanages has created almost as many bilateral headaches in recent years as big strategic issues like arms control or NATO expansion. Experts say the accord may well lay the worst controversies to rest.

"The agreement we've negotiated is simple and understandable. And it's not only our side that needs it but also American families" looking to adopt Russian children, says Pavel Astakhov, the Kremlin's ombudsman for children's rights. "It will give everyone more confidence in the process and provide some [legal] guarantees as well."

According to Mr. Astakhov, the deal will end all independent adoptions from Russia and place the process squarely in the hands of a few international adoption agencies that have been vetted and accredited by the Russian Ministry of Education and Science. (View a list of currently accredited agencies here.)

It will also require prospective parents to undergo special training, for which they will receive certification, and mandate regular reports on the progress and conditions Russian children find in their adoptive homes. In extreme cases, Russian authorities will be able to press charges against negligent parents and repatriate the child.

"This agreement will serve as a legislative basis for the whole adoption procedure," says Astakhov. "In future, if a [Russian-born] child finds himself in a complicated situation, we'll be able to trace what happens to him and, if necessary, bring him back home to find an adoptive family in Russia."

In the past 15 years, US families have adopted around 60,000 Russian children, of whom 17 have died in their adoptive American homes, in some cases as a result of parental abuse. These episodes have led to frequent Russian crackdowns on foreign adoptions, including one lengthy freeze three years ago.

But the story of 8-year old Artyom Savelyov, who was sent back to Russia alone by his adoptive mother with a note of rejection in April, triggered a storm of controversy. Some members of the Russian Duma, or lower house of parliament, called for a permanent halt to all international adoptions.

About 3,500 Russian children are currently in the process of being adopted by American families. Although the machinery has been slowed in the past three months, threats of a complete suspension did not materialize.

Retroactive agreement

Experts say the agreement soon to be signed will be retroactive, which will enable Russian authorities to prosecute Artyom's adoptive mother, Torry Hansen of Tennessee, for returning her son to Russia with a note claiming he had severe psychological problems and posed a danger to the family.

Nina Ostanina, a Duma deputy who introduced a bill -- which was delayed by the Duma -- to halt all international adoptions on the heels of Artyom's case, says she's not entirely satisfied with the deal that's been struck.

"Our children are not protected, and I hope the new agreement will change this situation," she says. "But nobody will ever convince me that our children do not have the right to grow up in the land of their birth. A child has the right to speak his own language and find happiness in his own country."

The murder earlier this month of another Russian child, 8-year old Kirill Kazakov, who was found stabbed to death near his adoptive home in Francisville, La., appears to have convinced US and Russian authorities to redouble efforts to reach agreement on an adoption framework.

"Against the backdrop of the recent tragic incidents involving Russian children adopted in the US, [Kazakov's death] only adds determination in getting the Americans to restore order to adoptions, primarily through the soonest possible conclusion of an appropriate bilateral agreement," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said in a statement this week.

Boris Altschuler, a longtime campaigner for children's rights who contributed to drafting the new accord, says many of the key issues have been successfully addressed.

"The main achievement is a ban on independent adoptions" carried out without the mediation of a professional agency, he says. "Because of the level of corruption in Russia, it is really impossible to properly supervise independent adoptions and ensure they're done properly. This was the main source of problems in the past."

Other changes, such as the requirement that adoptive parents undergo special training, are not especially new, says Alyona Senkevich, Russia coordinator of the Arizona-based Hand-in-Hand adoption agency.

"We've always done this with our clients," she says, referring to methods of preparing parents to deal with a child with whom they have no common language at first, and other international complications. "In the past, Russian courts have often demanded that prospective parents provide details on the child until it reaches adulthood. So, there's not that much new here."

But, she says, a formal deal will put an end to the threat of a total freeze on international adoptions that has been hanging over the agencies' heads since the Artyom Savelyov case broke.

"This is definitely very positive. I hope Medvedev and Obama will confront these tragic cases that have happened, and see them as our common problem. After all, we're dealing with children, who deserve to be protected," she says.