New U.S.-Russia accord aims to deal with troubled child issue

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HELENA, Mont. -- On one side of the gate stood a group of Russian government officials with a Moscow television crew in tow, demanding entry into the ranch that one of them had called "a trash can for unwanted children."

On the other side, indoors and away from the camera, were Joyce Sterkel and 25 adopted children in her care at the Ranch For Kids in remote northwestern Montana.

In the decade the ranch for troubled adopted children from foreign nations has operated, it has been lauded by parents, advocates and media as a refuge for adoptive parents to bring their children when they have nowhere else to go.

But on June 28, some of the outrage and suspicion Russians have toward U.S. adoptions of their children landed on its doorstep.

At Ms. Sterkel's gate were Russian children's rights ombudsman Pavel Astakhov and human rights envoy Konstantin Dolgov. Mr. Astakhov claimed, in comments carried by the news agency RIA Novosti, that the children at Ms. Sterkel's ranch near the Canadian border were completely isolated from the outside world, and he questioned whether they were getting the necessary care or treatment.

Ms. Sterkel, who bristles at Mr. Astakhov's claims and says he's wrong on every count, suspected she was being set up for a made-for-TV confrontation for political gain in Russia. She decided they wouldn't step foot on her property without State Department officials, parental permission and an independent film crew on hand to document the visit.

Mr. Dolgov spoke of the Montana visit in July 5 comments carried by the Interfax news agency. "We regret that we have been denied access," he said. "For all our respect for American law, we think there are channels which must allow Russian officials to visit Russian citizens. All of these children are Russian citizens."

Ms. Sterkel said she is concerned that the pair will attempt to try again after a bilateral adoption accord between the United States and Russia wends its way through the ratification process.

"This is a test case. This is to test the integrity of the bilateral agreement to see if they have the muscle to come onto American soil and push their way in," Ms. Sterkel said. "I think they want to see if they really can come in and visit children without parental consent."

The accord, signed last year by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, was approved Tuesday by Russia's lower parliamentary body. It still must pass the upper house and get President Vladimir Putin's approval. A text has not been publicly released, but The Associated Press obtained a draft Wednesday.

The agreement would allow a U.S. adoption of a Russian child to occur only through authorized adoptions agencies. The adoption agency would be required to monitor the child's conditions and upbringing and report back to Russia on the child's development. Russia would provide prospective parents with all available information on the social situation and medical history of the child, along with a description of any special needs the child has.

Negotiations for the deal began in 2010, after Torry Hansen sent her then-7-year-old adopted son, Artyom Saveliev, back to Russia with a letter saying he was violent and disturbed, and that she didn't want to be his mother anymore.

Ms. Sterkel, who said she has read the accord, said she believes that it would give Russian officials the right to come into U.S. homes to check on adopted children if accompanied by a local official, such as a sheriff or social worker.

A State Department spokesperson who would speak only on background said Wednesday that Russian officials may request access to the adopted children, but the agency cannot require families to grant it.

National Council for Adoption president and CEO Chuck Johnson said the bilateral pact was needed to bring important fixes to an inter-country adoption process almost permanently shut down after Ms. Hansen sent her adopted son back to Russia.



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