Proposed ban on U.S. adoptions divides Russians

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MOSCOW -- The orphans' faces can be called up on screen, their photos the size of postage stamps, along with a few data points and a note about their personalities, often just a word or two.

Kirill P., age 6, from Rostov in the south -- hazel eyes, brown hair -- wears a sweatshirt with dragons on it and is described simply as "sociable." Angelina F., 16 months, from Khabarovsk in the Far East -- gray eyes, brown hair -- is actively developing an interest in her surroundings and "responds to any caring and affection." Maksim N., who just turned 11, is "mobile, restless, outgoing, likes to play games." This is Russia's "federal database of orphans and children without parental care," a publicly available electronic repository of the forlorn and forgotten -- more than 118,000 of them.

Child-welfare advocates say that it is orphans like these who are likely to be hurt most if Russian lawmakers succeed in banning adoptions by Americans -- a move intended as retaliation for U.S. criticism of Russian rights abuses. The advocates say a ban would end up further fraying a disastrously overwhelmed foster care and orphanage system.

"Members of Parliament today say, 'Russia Without Orphans,' " said Boris Altshuler, the chairman of the advocacy group Right of the Child who also serves on a Kremlin advisory panel, his voice sputtering in anger as he described the slogan behind the new bill. "They know the slogan. The motto is very good, but there is nothing in their minds behind it."

The bill's rapid advance, in less than a week, has ignited an emotional debate, with critics of the ban using the moment to focus attention on Russia's troubled child protection system, even as supporters say they are trying to keep children out of foreign hands.

More than 650,000 children are living without parental supervision in Russia, according to statistics maintained by the Ministry of Education and Science, with more than 500,000 in foster care and more than 100,000 in orphanages -- the children in the federal database, which is available to prospective adoptive families, even though not all the children are eligible. By contrast, the Children's Bureau of the Department of Health and Human Services in the United States has reported only about 400,000 living without parents, and only about 58,000 living in institutions or group homes, in a country with a population more than twice Russia's.

While more Russian children are adopted into homes in the United States each year than any other foreign nation, the overall numbers are relatively small -- fewer than 1,000 out of 3,400 international adoptions in 2011. More than 7,400 were adopted by Russian families that year, according to the education and science ministry.

Still, Mr. Altshuler said a ban would be devastating. Some of Russia's orphanages are badly overcrowded, with children institutionalized throughout their young lives, and many are ill-equipped to deal with the wide array of physical and mental problems common among the children, including fetal alcohol syndrome and congenital disabilities.

"A thousand kids per year will not go to the United States and will stay in Russian institutions with all the tragic consequences," he said. As for members of Parliament, he said: "They are cannibals. They kill the country and they kill the children."

Supporters of the ban say the U.S. government has not done enough to protect adopted Russian children and has not lived up to an agreement on heightened oversight that went into effect on Nov. 1. Though there is a strong nationalist streak in their arguments, occasionally ugly cases have generated international attention: including a 7-year-old boy sent back to Russia alone by his adoptive mother in Tennessee in 2010.

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