As a mother of two adopted children and the wife of a man adopted from overseas, Sen. Mary Landrieu knows a thing or two about adoption. So when Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill last month banning the adoption of Russian children by U.S. citizens, the Louisiana Democrat took it personally. And she has been fighting ever since for American families left in limbo by the law.
Landrieu's husband was adopted from an orphanage in Ireland when he was 5. He remembers coming to the United States on a steamer. "He is extremely grateful," Landrieu told National Journal. "It's like a storybook ending, and this is possible for other kids. To close the door on them, to slam it shut again on them, is the cruelest thing a government can do."
Experts estimate that as many as 1,000 American families had already begun the adoption process when the Russian law passed. Many families have already traveled to Russia and met the children they were hoping to adopt.
"These are children who were introduced to their prospective parents [and] were told that in a short time that they would be coming to America," Landrieu said.
The Senate has passed a resolution condemning the Russian adoption ban. Landrieu and other lawmakers have sent letters to Putin and President Obama advocating resolution of these cases, but their efforts have hit a wall — a new Iron Curtain.
In response to the letter she and other lawmakers sent to the Russian government, Landrieu got a sternly worded response two weeks ago from Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian foreign ministry's human-rights envoy. Dolgov's letter, acquired by National Journal, blamed the United States for the problem, saying the Russian government is simply protecting children from abuse. (The Russian-language version of the letter is available here).
Last week, Russia's supreme court ruled that adoptions that had received court approval by Jan. 1, 2013, would be allowed to proceed, but those that had not reached that stage would not.
Russia's parliament passed the adoption ban in December in retaliation for a U.S. law aiming to punish those involved in human-rights violations in Russia. The ban was quickly signed by President Putin. The U.S. law, which was enacted late last year, is named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Moscow lawyer who died in a Russian prison in 2009 after implicating top officials in a $230 million tax-fraud scam. The law denies visas to Russians implicated in the Magnitsky case and accused of human-rights violations and it freezes their assets in the United States.
Russia's Duma named the adoption measure after an 18-month-old boy named Dima Yakovlev, who died after his adoptive American parents left him in a locked car in a parking lot for hours on a hot day in Virginia. The three-part bill parallels the Magnitsky bill in that it sanctions U.S. citizens involved in human-rights violations against Russian citizens, banning them from entering Russia and freezing their Russian assets and investments. On top of that, the measure suspends activities of nonprofit organizations that receive money from the U.S. and bans U.S. citizens from adopting Russian children. At his annual press conference in December, not long before signing it, Putin said that the bill is an "emotional" but "appropriate" response to the "unfriendly" Magnitsky bill.
The back-and-forth over the two measures was the latest sign of a deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations. The frictions are posing a challenge to Landrieu and other U.S. lawmakers who are urging flexibility from Russian officials.
"We'd like to impress upon the Russian government that the people they're hurting the most are the children. Some of them are old enough to know what's going on. It's just heart-wrenching and it's wrong," Landrieu said. "It's not necessarily hurting America or American families. We are going to continue to adopt. It's just that Russian children will have no opportunities."
Despite the pushback from the Russian government, she has not given up. That's because Landrieu has seen this happen before, when Guatemala rewrote its adoption law in 2007. While the underlying issues there were corruption allegations, there are still hundreds of pending cases that Landrieu and adoption advocates have been trying to resolve.
Kathleen Strottman, executive director of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, says that there are probably about 175 Guatemalan adoption cases still pending, even after five years. Guatemala's case serves as a cautionary tale for what might happen if pending cases involving Russian children aren't resolved.
"If we don't have a process in place, then kids get caught in a web of problems between governments," Stottman said.
In Russia, about 25 cases have been moved forward since the adoption ban was passed, but that is a very small percentage of the nearly 1,000 open files at various stages of the adoption process. While some of those 1,000 families have simply indicated that they want to adopt from Russia, other adoptive parents have actually begun the process. Strottman says that nobody knows exactly what that number is right now, but that the U.S. government is trying to assess these cases.
After Russia's supreme court ruling last Tuesday, Strottman says that it could be up to 100 adoption cases that will be brought to completion, but that would still leave hundreds of kids and families separated and uncertain about their future.
Oklahoma Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe, now the top GOP member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, understands their anguish.
"My daughter went through the same thing," he told National Journal, detailing the drawn-out adoption process his daughter faced when trying to adopt his granddaughter, Zigita Marie, from Ethiopia. "There were a few points at which we thought that the adoption wasn't going through when it was already agreed to," he said. "Here I am — a United States senator and she's a university professor. It took us eight months to get through this process and each time, it could have fallen apart."
Inhofe is working with Landrieu and other lawmakers to try to help families affected by the Russian adoption ban.
Also part of the effort is Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who knows perhaps more than anyone in Congress about Russian adoptions.
Several years ago, Blunt and his wife adopted their son, Charlie, from Russia, dealing with the court approval process and visiting Russia several times before finalizing the adoption. Charlie is now 8 years old.
"Using these defenseless children as political pawns is outrageous," Blunt said in a statement. "Our first priority must be to bring the children who are already matched with their new families to America as soon as possible."
Several other senators also have firsthand experience with adoptions, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., whose daughter, Bridget, is adopted from Bangladesh. Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat nominated by President Obama as secretary of State, has an adopted niece named Iris, who was born in China.
The Senate on Jan. 2 unanimously passed a bipartisan resolution, led by Landrieu and Blunt, which condemns Russia's adoption ban. Reps. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and Karen Bass, D-Calif., have introduced a House measure.
Bachmann, who accused Putin of "placing politics before the needs of children," also has personal ties to the issue. In addition to their five children, Bachmann and her husband have fostered 23 other children, three at a time, between 1992 and 2000. Bachmann and Bass are the House cochairs of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption.
In addition to Bachmann, Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., has two adopted children, Chloe and Victor. Rep. Alan Nunnelee, R-Miss., meanwhile, is personally invested in the issue of adoption. In addition to their four biological children, his parents adopted three other children. On top of that, according to the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., and Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., are passionate about the issue of adoption for their own reasons; Camp dealt with adoption cases as a lawyer and Franks is "interested in adoption issues because he became a parent later in life."
U.S. lawmakers in both chambers of Congress penned letters to Obama and Putin urging them to put aside their differences to either reverse the adoption ban or at least deal with unresolved cases.
The response was less than encouraging.
The three-page response from the Russian government defended the ban as a "difficult but necessary measure provoked by a consistently non-constructive position of the U.S. federal and local authorities." The letter cited cases of abuse by American families who have adopted Russian children.
Russian officials accuse the United States of not doing enough to prosecute abuse and neglect cases and of not allowing Russian officials to keep tabs on children adopted from their country.
In its coverage of Russian protests of the adoption ban, state-owned Rossiya 1 showed dramatic scenes of ambulances taking children to the hospital in America and child-abuse footage pulled from Dr. Phil, as the host of the channel noted that the United States is not party to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.
About 60,000 have been adopted from Russia in the last 20 years. Of those, 19 have died from abuse and neglect. But government statistics cited by The Moscow Times show that a child adopted by Russian parents is 39 times more likely to die than one adopted by parents in Western countries.
"It is an urban myth that is destroying opportunities for kids," Landrieu said of Russia's argument in favor of the ban.
"The evidence does not substantiate that. The most cruelty occurs with children who are biological," said Landrieu, who has been the leading lawmaker on adoption issues for a long time. "It's just critics of international adoption that are just using complete emotional falsehoods that are trying to take down adoptions."
Strottman said the Russian letter underscored that there is a "big hill to climb" for lawmakers pushing for flexibility. "We need leverage — we clearly don't have it right now," she said.
Landrieu's office said the lawmakers are still exploring what options they have left.
Landrieu, who has met with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak, is now trying to arrange a meeting with him and other lawmakers.
Adoption advocates would like lawmakers to consider reopening the Magnitsky human-rights bill to target for sanctions the Russian lawmakers who voted for the adoption ban, a controversial move that would exacerbate already strained ties with Russia. The idea has not gained much traction in Congress and experts say it would be counterproductive.
"The most effective way for the U.S. government to approach this is quietly though backchannels," said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Kuchins recalled being in Russia during another tense time in U.S.-Russian relations, when Putin's government similarly pushed out foreign influence following the color revolutions that swept the former Soviet states of Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. Nongovernmental organizations had played major roles in moving the revolutions along, alerting the Kremlin to the foreign funding of Russian NGOs and leading to the passage of a restrictive bill tightening state control over such groups.
"Things are worse now," said Kuchins, noting that further public back-and-forth would only lead to a further deterioration in the relationship.
"This is not something where our Congress is going to have any chance of being effective," he said. "It will just further inflame the situation because of the public nature of it."
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