For our Orphans

By Mark Vicher
Translated from Russian by Jennifer Tobias

Mark Vicher spoke to some of those involved in the Hansen adoption case about the ramifications of the new ban by the Russian government on adoptions by Americans.

Artem Justin Savelyev HansenIt is unfortunate that there are no criminal laws against the treatment Russian child Artem Savelyev received at the hands of his adoptive mother Torry Ann Hansen.  After flying 8-year old Artem back to Russia alone with a note in his backpack, Hansen should have hardly been surprised at subsequently becoming the target of widespread local and national criticism. However, according to claims by Hansen’s mother, sending him back was necessary for the well-being of Hansen and her family — including her other adopted son.  The alternative, Hansen’s mother said, could barely be called a life at all.  In truth, who can really know what mental anguish the nurse from Shelbyville, a backwater town in Tennessee, went through before making the decision to send Artem-Justin back to Russia. 

Politicians in the Duma and Russian governments and their supporters demanded retaliation. Immediately after the circumstances of the boy’s return were revealed, we were reminded by child protection lawyer Pavel Astakhov, delegate Valentina Petrenko, and others, that 7 children adopted from Russia have been brutally killed by their American adoptive families over the last ten years. What they did not mention, however, that in those 10 years 25,000 adoptions took place, and sad though they are, the statistics are little different from child abuse figures among non-adoptive families toward their biological children. 

      Political correctness aside, I’d like to note that a great deal of the human ‘material’ sent from Russia to the US is already ‘damaged goods.’ Many of the children adopted from Russia by American parents suffer from severe developmental problems. But of the millions of orphans in Russia, not all, we must hope, suffer from congenital or acquired physical or mental disabilities. However, “by virtue of the fact that under Russian law international adoption of a child is possible only after the final withdrawal of potential Russian adoptive parents, American parents can only rely on those children who have not been selected for adoption by Russian parents," says Julia Greenberg, one of the founders of the Russian program at the adoption agency New Beginnings Family & Children Services, Inc. and former director for 9 years. I was especially curious to meet with her, as Julia, born and raised in Sakhalin, dealt mostly with the adoptions of children from the Far East and coastal regions of Russia – like Artem. 

      I met with Julia directly after the Russian government announced a moratorium on adoptions by Americans. “I stopped dealing with US-Russian adoptions several years ago,” says Julia. “But when I heard about the ban I felt immense bitterness and disappointment. At any time not less than 300 American families are waiting to be allowed to rescue their newly adopted children from Russian orphanages. Needless to say, it is unnecessary to go into great detail about the conditions generally found in orphanages in Russia. These families are waiting anxiously to be able give these unlucky children the love and warmth that they have been deprived of so far in life, and to teach them to overcome their disadvantaged start. For these 300 children, this moratorium has immediately condemned them to a future of hardship and poverty, where many, if not most, will fall into organized crime and prostitution.”

      Around 70% of these aforementioned children suffer serious physical or mental disabilities, often hereditary, which can only be properly cared for by loving families with sufficient financial resources. Thus, the moratorium imposed because of Hansen’s actions is unwittingly inflicting a cruel and inhuman punishment on many thousands of children and their future adoptive families. 

      Another side effect of the case has been the closure of WACAP, the accreditation agency involved in the failed adoption. I have observed the work of this agency on more than one occasion, and I can state that it is virtually flawless. WACAP cannot afford to make even the slightest deviation from the proper regulations or it faces severe consequences. Not surprisingly, the investigation into Artem Savelyev, or Justin Hansen, barely begun, has determined that no violations occurred in the adoption process.

       The agency has a unique network of connections to state qualified social workers, doctors, psychiatrists and lawyers, and provides its clients with the complete psychological, legal and medical support to better deal with the special situations and difficult behaviour that adoptive parents face every day.  Parents are actively supported ‘in the field’, and closely monitored.  If insurmountable problems arise after the adoption, contact between the parents and the agency and authorities should be made, and the reaction should be immediate: the child should be found another guardian.

       “But what oversight, then, could have led to Hansen feeling that she had no choice but to do what she did?” I asked. “There may be a whole host of reasons. The psychology of motherhood may also play a role. Perhaps some crisis occurred”, she answered.

       The vice-president of one of the major adoption agencies, who prefers not to be named here, agrees with Greenberg. “You must understand”, as he explained the request for anonymity, “that there is a huge amount of money invested in this business.”

       He refers to the numerous well-oiled links with Russian ‘subcontractors’, who profit financially from the adoption business. For many here and in Russia, it is their livelihood. 

       As for Torry Hansen, there is little doubt that all the permits that allowed her to adopt Artem were issued lawfully. However, it is rare that the path to an adoption is smooth. Usually the adoptive parents must make three trips to Russia before being allowed to take the child home, where they must take part in court hearings, often long drawn out and tedious. All parties involved in the adoption must be paid, and not only the official fees charged by the Russian state and the fee to the agency – virtually everyone that adoptive parents come into contact must have their palm greased ‘to speed up the process’. The price of using an agency would be many times lower if they did not have to line the pockets of bureaucrats at each stage in the chain on behalf of their clients.

      Then, having lived through many months of hardship and having spent 20 to 50 thousand dollars, or even more, some adoptive parents find that they have brought a monster to the family and are quite unprepared for this. They believe that they have been used, that they have been deceived – and they are right. The whole truth is rarely reported to the adoptive parents about the circumstances of the biological parents, the child’s behavior, and mental abilities. The truth is that almost all the orphanage children have been diagnosed with one or more conditions, but the local trustees are either not aware of this or deliberately hide it from the adoptive parents. Once the child has been adopted and the truth is revealed, it is too late.

       This is how Russia sells its unwanted children, through extortion and bribery. It is only to be expected that not all adoptive parents want to take in a child with severe difficulties – naturally, most of those seeking to adopt desire a healthy child.  There are of course exceptions, who happily adopt children with conditions that mean a life-long commitment to caring for them, like Down’s syndrome or cerebral palsy.

       Five years ago I wrote an article on the charity Operation Hearts & Homes, which is located in a respectable part of Brooklyn. In the 1990s, a time of great hardship in Russia, they brought children from Russian orphanages on vacation to the US, often providing them with desperately needed medical treatment as well. These exchanges often happily ended in adoption by the American families who took them in.  The head of the organization and mother of three biological children, Marybeth Cassidy, herself took in three Russian orphans. Now they are grown: the eldest boy is a college student.

      Today I learned that Marybeth now has eight children: two more, one from the Philippines and one from Ethiopia. When I looked again at the website of Operation Hearts & Homes, I saw that Russia had disappeared from the list of countries in which the organization conducts its operations. Most of the orphans now come from Ukraine and Ethiopia. I asked Marybeth: why?

      “It’s simple: the care of the Russian orphans rests in the hands of people who are absolutely indifferent to their fate. Our dealings with the Russians in the past five years turned into continuous extortion. We want to feel that we are doing good work, out of charity, and they want us to feel like criminals. We have spent millions of dollars on entertainment and therapy for children who are brought here. We do not wish to support this human pond scum any more, and it is the orphans who suffer.  In their hands these children have even less of a chance of growing up as normal people.”

       “No chance at all”. Marybeth is echoed by Julia Greenberg. “Millions of children are doomed. Sometimes abstract figures are superimposed on the  reality found in children’s homes and orphanages, and I am seized with horror. It fills me with disgust when I see bribe-takers and swaggering officials using these children as leverage in their political games, in a kind of patriotic tokenism, a xenophobic orgy. It seems that they have united behind the unfortunate, but not more serious than that, case of Artem-Justin. In fact, nothing really terrible happened: the boy was brought home on a comfortable plane ride, and under the supervision of flight attendants in Moscow,  he was handed over to the Ministry of Education. But the fact that every day in Russian orphanages and foster families, thousands of children are starved, forced into physical labor, sexually abused, and even killed, is not found in the statistics. Of course, we here in the United States condemn the actions of Torry Ann Hansen: we believe in our public morality. Just as Russia believes in hers.


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