NEW YORK (AP) — U.S.-based advocates of international adoption, who have grown accustomed to discouraging news in recent years, have a new cause for dismay: a bill moving through Russia's parliament that would bar Americans from adopting Russian children.
The measure, which won overwhelming approval Friday in the lower house of parliament, is retaliation for a new U.S. law imposing sanctions on Russians deemed to be human rights violators.
"It's two countries duking it out," said Adam Pertman of the Donaldson Adoption Institute. "The adults are playing politics, and it's unfortunate to the extreme that children are being used as pawns."
The fate of the bill is uncertain. It needs approval by parliament's upper house and by President Vladimir Putin. Yet already it has added to an array of controversies and policy changes that have muddled the image of international adoption in the U.S.
Adoptions from abroad seemed to be on a perpetual upswing but peaked at 22,884 in 2004 and have declined steadily since then to 9,319 in 2011, because of factors ranging from corruption and fraud to nationalist pride.
In the case of Russia, UNICEF estimates it has more than 700,000 orphans and abandoned children. More than 60,000 of them have been adopted by Americans over the past 20 years, but the annual figure has plummeted from 5,862 in 2004 to 962 in 2011.
Chuck Johnson, CEO of the National Council for Adoption, said there is a faction of Russian politicians who have long-term antipathy toward foreign adoptions and have seized upon the pending bill as a vehicle for their cause.
"The Russian Duma is ignoring the many thousands of very happy children who have been adopted by loving U.S. families," Johnson said. "The bottom line is children should not fall victim to senseless politicking."
Among the adoption advocates who have been following the Moscow events closely is Alexander D'Jamoos, a 21-year-old sophomore at the University of Texas.
D'Jamoos, who was born without legs, grew up in one of the many Russian orphanages that accommodate children with disabilities. In 2006, at age 15, he was flown to Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children in Dallas, where physicians fitted him with prosthesis to enable him to walk.
The Dallas couple who had agreed to host him temporarily, Helene and Michael D'Jamoos, became so fond of him that they proceeded to adopt him in 2007. Since then, the young man has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, became a talented skier, and is pursuing studies in government, international relations and Russian.
He has been following the progress of the proposed adoption ban in Russia with growing anger.
"It uses children as a tool for political demagoguery," he said. "It's extremely insensitive to children in Russia who've spent their whole lives in those orphanages, and insulting to the happy families here in the U.S. who have adopted Russian children."
Russia has tried to increase domestic adoptions over the past several years, but there also has been resentment about adoptions by Americans, fueled by a few high-profile incidents.
In 2010, a Tennessee woman sent her 7-year-old adopted Russian son back to Moscow on a plane alone, saying he had emotional problems and she could no longer care for him. In 2008, a Russian toddler adopted by a Virginia family died after his father left him in a hot car for hours; the father was found not guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
According to the National Council for Adoption, 19 Russian adoptees have died at the hands of their American parents. Those deaths were among the factors that led to a painstakingly negotiated U.S.-Russia adoption agreement that took effect Nov. 1.
The agreement tightens oversight of adoption agencies, requires prospective adoptive parents to complete up to 80 hours of training and permits Russia to engage in post-adoption monitoring of children adopted by U.S. families.
The bill pending in Moscow would nullify that agreement. Its fate may rest with Putin, who on Thursday described the measure as a legitimate response to the new U.S. law targeting human rights violators but did not specify whether he would sign it.
The U.S. law, called the Magnitsky Act, stems from the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who was arrested after accusing officials of a $230 million tax fraud. He was repeatedly denied medical treatment and died in jail in 2009. Russian rights groups claim he was severely beaten and accused the Kremlin of failing to prosecute those responsible.
Regarding the retaliatory adoption ban, the U.S. says it would needlessly stop hundreds of Russian children from finding families.
"The welfare of children is simply too important to be linked to other issues in our bilateral relationship," U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul said in a statement.
U.S.-based adoption advocates indicated there were intensive efforts under way to derail the bill.
The Joint Council on International Children's Services, which represents many U.S. groups interested in adoption and child welfare, said it was working with both American and Russian officials to resolve the matter, urging them to "put the needs and best interest of each child as the primary consideration."
Others tracking progress of the bill include Denise Bierly of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys, who called it "a significant step backward for the welfare of children," and Bill Blacquiere of Bethany Christian Services, one of the largest U.S. adoption agencies.
Blacquiere said that child welfare needs in Russia are extensive, and that its special-needs children would be better served if Russia availed itself of American expertise rather than strain bilateral relations. Russia has taken some steps to improve its foster care system and move more children out of orphanages, he said, but needs to invest more government funds.
Several adoption advocates suggested that the Russian bill was damaging even if it doesn't become law.
"Even if it just bravado, it still does harm," said Adam Pertman, the Donaldson Institute's executive director. "International adoption is already cast in a bad light, and some people will say, 'This is just a minefield. I'm not going to go there.' The losers are the children."
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