The cry that came in from the cold

Will a new measure adopted by the Putin administration change who profits from Russia's lucrative baby-selling business?


Steve Kimian
July 18, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)

Vodka, caviar, nuclear warheads, pasty men in big furry hats. Make a list of Russian exports and you're likely to come up with the preceding list. All that would be missing is babies. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, adoption -- especially in the case of children destined for homes in the United States -- is rapidly climbing up the roster.

Adoption has become a cottage industry in Russia; a back-of-the-envelope estimate suggested the country last year generated in the ballpark of $70 million in cash receipts -- equivalent to nearly 4 percent of the amount generated by Russia's growing tourism industry, according to Goskomstat, the Russian statistics agency.

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This is hardly a humanitarian victory. To take a Russian child to America via adoption is to enter a world littered with Soviet-style bureaucrats in shiny green suits, many of whom make Donald Trump seem like Mother Teresa. It's a path cluttered with dank offices in labyrinthine buildings and Orwellian interlopers who prey on naive foreigners for whom "da" and "nyet" represent advanced Russian. Many adoption agencies are little more than fronts for shady child selling; conniving translators specialize in hoodwinking adoptive parents into believing that they're doing a good thing. Meanwhile, legitimate agencies devoted to child welfare suffer.

Ironically, Russia is likely to lose its position as America's most popular foreign source for adopted children this year (4,348 Russian kids joined families in the U.S. in 1999, up from just 324 in 1992, according to the U.S. State Department). A decline is likely in 2000, however, as the result of a measure implemented in April by then President-elect Vladimir Putin that seeks to draw a distinction between baby selling and legitimate adoption. Putin has decided to put on hold all foreign adoptions by requiring foreign agencies to be accredited -- via a process developed by a bureaucracy that has yet to be created. "One of the first measures the Putin administration put into force regarding adoption is also restricting Russian kids from having a better life," says an industry observer, "at least for the time being." One suspects that Putin's interest in regulating foreign adoptions means he wants a bigger piece of this big business.

Sadly, Putin's new rules -- which are in part the product of a twisted sense of xenophobic national pride about "Russia's future" (even as this part of Russia's future rots in the country's horrific orphanages) -- are likely to result in even greater headaches and expenditures for prospective adoptive parents. Worst of all, it could mean fewer Russian kids will get the chance for a better life abroad.

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Indeed, getting children out of Russian orphanages and into Western homes -- no matter how dirty the process has become -- is one small step toward making the world a better place. In a 1998 report, Human Rights Watch described the "shocking levels of cruelty and neglect" Russian orphans are subjected to. Boris Altshuler, who heads a children's rights program at the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, recently estimated that of the 15,000 or so kids who leave the orphanage system upon reaching adulthood, 30 to 50 percent are homeless and/or criminals within a year, while an additional 10 percent commit suicide.

Stroll through a few of Moscow's train stations, dodging the legions of glue-sniffing kids begging for bread, and you get a sense of what befalls the children who escape Russian orphanages. But Russia has a lot more people interested in making a buck than in making the world a better place, and the process of adopting a child from Russia -- even under the old system -- had more in common with Kafka than with the Red Cross.

Most U.S. adoption agencies employed so-called consultants in Russia, freelancers who had good connections with court officials, judges and orphanages in particular regions or cities in Russia. Even the most well-meaning adoption agencies in the West, such as those affiliated with religious institutions or that have a clear social agenda (such as promoting the family structure, viewing foreign adoption as only a last-ditch measure to save a child), had little option but turning a blind eye to the modus operandi of their local hires.

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Excess and abuse on the Russian adoption front were the predictable result, as adoption consultants became adept at prying cash out of the planeloads of wealthy (a relative term in a country where the official monthly wage is less than $74 a month) Americans pining for Russian orphans. Many would-be parents had to fork over to their consultant $15,000 or more in cash upon arriving in Moscow, at which point the clock began to tick.

Prospective adoptive parents arriving in Russia were force-fed a small infantry of housekeepers, drivers, translators, lawyers and other miscellaneous service providers, most of whom were in cahoots with the consultant (if not the immediate family of the consultant) to maximize their short-term earnings. The local judge in the area where the institutionalized child lived was called upon to pronounce how long he would need to consider the adoption paperwork -- a decision usually influenced by the size of the cut he received from the adoption consultant; the longer the delay, the more the future parents would have to pay. Prospective parents were often prompted to offer a "donation" to the local orphanage (no receipt requested or required) -- to be used to buy food for the children, of course.

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One family's breakdown of expenses for adopting a Russian child provides a fairly typical example of how the economics of foreign adoption work here. Nearly half the family's total cost of $28,419 went to the Russian adoption fee, which covered the consultant's expenses and fees -- before an additional $8,000 for transportation and exorbitantly expensive miscellany. Included among the expenses is $100 per night for a home stay in the small city where the orphanage was located -- probably 10 times any kind of reasonable rate. The family's costs also included $275 for cab rides in Moscow -- this in a city where the ravages of devaluation mean that you can get anywhere in town for a $3 taxi ride (or a 14-cent subway fare) and where many university-educated professionals earn less than $300 a month.

But the distinction between legitimate adoption and baby selling, which is arguably at the core of what the Russian government is trying to address with the new certification process, doesn't lie so much in how badly foreign adoptive parents get shafted. In fact, adoptive parents will likely have to pay even more for Russian children under the new regime, since the Kremlin and the new bureaucracy will want a sizable cut as well. The key difference between adoption and baby selling is whether the child's welfare is the driver of the whole process or selling an available child to the first comer is the focus of the transaction.

Child vendors who have given the adoption industry in Russia a bad name focus on making money, despite their claims of nonprofit status, at the expense of the needs of both parents and children. Some agencies publish photos of children available for adoption, with Reader's Digest summaries of their characters. ("Victor is very polite and very caring toward other children," reads one.) The local consultant may have made a quiet deal with an orphanage and local judge to free up a particular kid, and it is the agency's role to move the merchandise. If corners are cut along the way -- and needs of both the prospective parents and the child are misdiagnosed, or not diagnosed at all -- too bad. "Baby farms do no diagnostics, make no attempt to find a good match; they're just selling bodies," comments one insider affiliated with a legitimate adoption agency. Some parents have adopted children with serious emotional difficulties that they were not told of beforehand, setting up all parties for failure.

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The more legitimate adoption agencies (some of which have left the market altogether rather than compete with the child hawkers) often aren't even focused on adoption per se, but rather on building social structures in Russia to keep families together in the first place. Foreign adoption is often one of the last options considered to save a child, since in-country adoption, for example, is far less traumatic for the child than is an international adoption. The adoption agency -- often affiliated with a religious institution -- takes the time and effort to understand what prospective parents are looking for in a child, in terms of gender, age and temperament. It matches the needs of the parent and the needs of the child, and the agency's local consultant then searches for a child who fits the bill. A match creates a family rather than a jagged jigsaw of prospective parents and frightened child from different sides of the globe.

Portions of the scenery will change, however, thanks to the new measure requiring all foreign adoption agencies operating in Russia to be certified. In 1998, the Russian press made a stink over a few isolated but widely publicized incidences of abuse by American parents of their adopted Russian children, along with rumors that foreigners were paying Russian women to have babies and then selling the babies outright. Many elements of the Russian media -- as a brief scan of the giant headlines and photos of blood and gore at the newsstand suggests -- aren't always preoccupied with the truth. Also, anyone with a few extra rubles and an ax to grind can buy an article or pay for his own to be published -- not as an advertorial but as real copy. So it doesn't take much for someone with an agenda to get his point across.

The Duma (Russia's lower house of Parliament), never a body to ignore a potentially rabble-rousing issue, started comparing international adoptions to cultural genocide. It didn't take long for Putin -- sensitive to the suggestion that Russia is a third-world hellhole that sells its own kids, particularly when its population is falling precipitously -- to in effect suspend all foreign adoptions while the certification process is established. The only problem is, the proposed certifying body doesn't even exist, and it will take at least half a year before the rusty gears of post-Soviet Russian bureaucracy create it. Many legitimate adoption agencies are optimistic about the new accreditation system, saying it is likely to flush out some of the worst offenders in the industry. Baby vendors either will be refused accreditation or will simply pick up and move elsewhere. Agencies with a mission beyond trading babies will be more inclined to see the process through, and will benefit from a more transparent, fair and reasonable process.

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Chances are, though, that adoption won't get any cheaper or easier, and that the process will basically remain the same. The Putin administration may well just be trying to centralize the cash flows from the industry, and any order imposed will be a beneficial side effect rather than an aim. Even a small percentage of the massive sums of money involved in the child trade could build a lot of Putin cronies some great villas on the French Riviera, with money to spare for some Land Rovers with black tinted windows to cruise the streets of Moscow. In the meantime, Russia's orphans suffer, with every unadopted child -- no matter how heinous the adoption system -- left to rot.


Steve Kimian

Steve Kimian is a freelance journalist living in Moscow.

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