THE BLOG
12/31/2014 12:49 am ET Updated Mar 01, 2015

Russia's Adoption Ban Two Years Later

"International adoptions remain in effect, no one banned them. But these kinds of adoptions do not play a major role in solving the problem of underage orphans." Thus spoke Olga Batalina, chairperson of the Russian Duma's Committee for Labor and Social Policy a few days ago (as quoted in the government-owned news agency TASS), just in time for the second anniversary of a flat ban of on the adoption of Russian children by parents in the United States. What she said seems true and not true at the same time and is, therefore, in keeping with the Kremlin's replacement of facts with disinformation.

In a withering New York Times op-ed on December 11, Peter Pomerantsev pointed out that the Russian government, led by President Vladimir Putin, aimed at controlling "all narratives, so that politics becomes one great scripted reality show," pursuant to the idea that there was "no such thing as objective truth." Moreover, Pomerantsev observed that, at the same time, this control over most Russian media sows division to disorganize "the enemy" (as well as the own population, one would want to add) through an information war.

That sorry state of (media) affairs was highlighted in an article that also appeared in the New York Times. Pressure on the few remaining independent media outlets had intensified in 2014 "as the Kremlin sought to unify the country behind the annexation of Crimea and Russia's involvement in Eastern Ukraine." However, Putin was been careful, for example, not to order to shut down the independent Dozhd channel, but "a Kremlin-instigated smear campaign" had driven this broadcaster "to the brink of demise." At the same time, outrage about this situation seems non-existent and this can be explained by the deep belief of Russians in the supremacy of a real or alleged national interest.

Therefore it falls to the few remaining indispensable professionals and news organizations who still believe in the duty of journalistic integrity to report regardless of an approval of Russia's government. In addition to Dozhd this would be RTVi, the independent channel that is being watched and trusted by many viewers in Russia and the United States alike. Thanks to veteran journalists such as RTVi's Katerina Kotrikadze we learn about the other side of news stories such as the Russian ban on U.S. adoptions. Just a few days ago the channel broadcast a feature that put to rest Duma Deputy Batalina's claim that "no one banned" international adoptions of Russian children. And while she allowed for the possibility that these might play a role, even though not a major one, we learn from RTVi's investigative reporting -- in this case about Aaron and Jenny Moyer and their prospective adoptive son Vitaly -- that when it comes to orphans any single one of the now-banned international adoptions would have made a tremendous positive impact.

It was exactly two years ago that Vladimir Putin signed a bill that became known as the Dima Yakovlev Law. It includes an article that prohibits American families from adopting children from Russia. The law was named for a young Russian adoptee who died after being left in a hot car by his adoptive father and there is broad consensus that it was enacted in response to the adoption of a bill passed by the U.S. Congress on December 6, 2012, and signed into law by President Barack Obama. Known as the Magnitsky Act, it bans selected Russian officials charged with human rights abuses from entering or holding assets in the United States.

The immediate effect of that law was, what the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) called the "indiscriminate disruption of inter-country adoptions already in progress." Forty-six Russian children whose adoption by American parents was nearly completed were blocked from leaving the country. RTVi's report on the Moyer's blocked adoption of Vitaly, shows the despicable and devastating effect of this entanglement of orphaned children in politics. There were an estimated 200 to 250 sets of parents who were affected after they had already identified their children they planned to adopt. While the United States strongly criticized the Russian measure internal considerations about the potential implications for other aspects of the bilateral relationship will have played a role that the issue faded away. It is interesting to note that the adoption ban had set off a passionate debate in Russia during which even high-ranking officials spoke out strongly against it.

In the New Yorker magazine, Masha Lippman, right at the end of December 2012, captured that debate in her article "What's Behind the Russian Adoption Ban?" She correctly pointed out that what made the internal Russian outrage agains the Dima Yakovlev Law especially intense was "the essentially moral nature of the adoption issue." The proponents of the ban used that debate to launch a "massive propaganda campaign filled with many distortions and fabrications." Michael Bohm valiantly responded to 10 of these myths in to The Moscow Times.

For example, he counters the portrayal that Russia's orphans are in more danger in U.S. families than in Russian orphanages. There have been "more than 60,000 U.S. adoptions of Russian children over the past 20 years, and 19 of those children died -- a death rate of roughly 0.03 percent. " Statistically, Russia's overall child death rate from parents is more than two times higher, given that the U.S. population is more than twice as large as Russia's. Moreover, Russian claims that U.S courts were soft on U.S. parents in child abuse cases if the children were born in Russia. In this regard, Russian officials and media like to focus on a few highly publicized cases where negligent or abusive parents received no or lenient sentences. These stories of troubled adoptions have gained prominence and most abuse cases, in tended to carry heavy sentences. All the while less attention is paid to the fact that most adoptions of Russian children had gone well. And while there were some horror stories, properly screened American provided loving homes to Russian children who otherwise had little hope.

Bohm rips into the especially egregious Russian claim that all civilized countries banned foreign adoptions:

"Simply banning foreign adoptions will not make Russia any more "civilized" in this respect as long as its orphanages remain overcrowded and largely substandard. (Notably, the U.S. allows foreign adoptions. Does this make it "uncivilized?") There are a few Western nations that ban foreign adoptions, but they can afford to do so because they have a modern social and health care infrastructure to support adoptions, their orphanages provide quality care, and there is a long line of parents who want to adopt their countries' own children."

Bohm concludes that none of that could be said of Russia.

"International adoptions remain in effect, no one banned them," we heard from Duma Deputy Olga Batalina in December 2014. This blanket statement is contradicted by the fact that adoptions by foreign same-sex couples were banned in July 2013 but also by the fact that single people (gay or straight) who live in any country where gay marriage is legal were banned from adopting Russian children. This affected people in the more than a dozen countries that allow same-sex marriage. It is of small comfort that, simultaneously, Russia enacted a simplification of domestic adoption procedures and increased state allowances to adopting families.

John M. Simmons, who adopted two Russian orphans, writes over on his Huffington Post blog that he had tried to put himself into the position of Russians. He comes to believe that we might have had similar reactions to the complex field of international adoptions if we had found ourselves in a comparable socio-economic situation. Simmons, not willing to let go of his love for Russia -- the country that gave him his two daughters -- holds the hope that Russia actually wants to properly take care of her own orphans through an adequate system. This is what the Duma's Batalina claims when she says that "these kinds of [international] adoptions do not play a major role in solving the problem of underage orphans." President Putin had issued a decree calling for more Russians to adopt children and for improvements in the orphanage system. The effectiveness of this political declarations are questionable and "improvements seem to be concentrated in prominent cities while more rural institutions are ignored and promises for universal progress are forgotten." Moreover, there are common examples of institutional corruption involving bribery at various levels of the highly bureaucratic system. This calls for a more effective enforcement of more aggressive screenings of orphanage administrators during the adoption process.

In the best analysis of the Dima Yakovlev Law available, Abigail Stowe-Thurston concludes that it was primarily a political act of revenge and that if Russian claims of concern for its own orphans should be taken seriously this would require "high impact reforms [that] can be made at a low cost. Such improvements might include better training, higher salaries, and increased prestige for orphanage staff," among other important and overdue measures.

A renewed shining a light on the second anniversary, by RTVi and others, on the devastating effect of the adoption ban will help to educate more Americans as well as Russians about the benefits and challenges of adopting children. On its second anniversary it is clear that the Dima Yakovlev Law is here to stay. The pain of Aaron and Jenny Moyer and Vitaly, and of all others who were blocked by the law from uniting as families, will persist. Russian politicians will maintain that they are interested in alleviating the burden of the country's orphans. And the hope remains that these politicians will actually do as they say contrary to the prevailing political culture and attitude to truth. News organizations such as RTVi will hold them accountable. Orphans, these most vulnerable children, deserve it.