Behind Mother Russia's Outrage Over Adoption Case

Behind Mother Russia's Outrage Over Adoption Case

By Cathy Young - May 5, 2010

The latest chapter in the ongoing international drama of American adoptions from Russia -- the outrage over the actions of a Tennessee woman who sent her seven-year-old adopted son back to Russia on a plane, unaccompanied -- has now placed all foreign adoptions in jeopardy, with the Russian government threatening a ban unless its conditions are met. Russia's response is widely seen as an overreaction to legitimate concerns. But is it about protecting children from harm, or promoting a jingoistic pseudo-patriotism?

The actions of adoptive mother Torry Hansen, which Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has branded "monstrous," were at the very least alarmingly irresponsible. The 33-year-old single woman had adopted little Artyom Savelyev (renamed Justin Hansen) from a Russian orphanage in September. After several months, she felt she could no longer cope with his uncontrollable, possibly dangerous behavior. Her solution was to simply send the boy back, arranging for a man in Russia to pick him up at the airport and take him to the Russian Ministry of Education -- accompanied by a note saying that she no longer wished to parent him. Hansen claims that the authorities in Russia misled her about the extent of Artyom's emotional and psychological problems, which is quite possible. However, she never reported these issues or tried to seek help, and a social worker who visited the family in January found the child to be well-adjusted. (Torry Hansen's mother claims that the problems began after that.)

Hansen's frustration and fears may well have been real; her response was unacceptable. An adopted child, even a problem child, is not a piece of defective merchandise to be returned to the store. Unfortunately, this act, which outraged most Americans who followed the story, also played into the worst Russian stereotypes of the "ugly American" who treats fellow human beings as consumer goods.

The controversy over American adoptions has erupted in Russia several times before -- usually after a child adopted from Russia died in the United States due to parental negligence or abuse. In 2008, two-year-old Chase Harrison, born Dmitry Yakovlev in Russia, died after his adoptive father Michael Harrison left him in a locked car in the summer heat. Harrison's acquittal of involuntary manslaughter charges by a Virginia court caused an outcry in Russia, tinged with vicious anti-Americanism. In much of the Russian media, the decision was not only treated as a sign of callous disregard for children's lives in general but, bizarrely, as proof that Americans view "foreign" children as less than human.

Dissenting voices in the Russian press, such as Vladimir Abarinov on and Anton Orekh on, have pointed out the hypocrisy of this hysteria. In the past 15 years, 16 Russian-born children in the United States have been the victims of homicide or fatal neglect by their adoptive parents. While every such death is tragic, it is important to put them in perspective: every year in the past decades, Americans have adopted 1,500 to 3,000 orphaned Russian children. (The number of adoptions has dropped recently as a result of more bureaucratic obstacles on the Russian side.) As Abarinov notes, success stories of adopted Russian children in America, including ones who overcame physical disabilities to become star athletes, are rarely publicized in the Russian media.

Meanwhile, just in 2008, nearly 2,000 children in Russia died from abuse and neglect by their own parents. Child abandonment is rampant. Last month, in the midst of the uproar over the boy shipped back to Russia, Elena Mizulina, chairperson of the Russian State Duma Committee on Family, Women and Children, presented a grim report to the parliament. According to Mizulina, there are now about 697,000 "orphaned children" in Russia -- more than there were immediately after the end of World War II. Two-thirds of these children, however, are so-called "social orphans" -- that is, children who have at least one living biological parent but have been abandoned. Moreover, Mizulina noted that domestic adoption in Russia was not faring well: in the past two years, about 30,000 Russian children were returned to institutions by their adoptive parents.

The conditions in these institutions are frequently abysmal, with rampant physical and psychological abuse as well as theft of resources allotted for the children. Last year, the Russian media exposed the scandal of a residential school where misbehaving children were packed off to psychiatric wards and shot full of drugs whose use on minors is prohibited. Such horrors have captured some public attention in Russia -- but far less than the rare tragedies of adopted Russian children in America.

The backlash against foreign adoptions in Russia ultimately has less to do with the welfare of children than with nationalism. For Russians obsessed with the idea that their country must reclaim its rightful place as a "great power," the fact that foreigners can offer Russian children a better home is a blow to the national ego. The widespread belief in the spiritual superiority of Russian culture also contributes to the notion that for children to be uprooted from that culture is a tragic loss. Several years ago, when a delegation of Russian officials and legislators traveled to the United States to see for themselves how Russian-born children were faring with their adoptive families, the head of the delegation lamented the fact that the children were not fluent in Russian and didn't know classic Russian children's verses or fairy tales.

In some cases, this backlash has already caused tragic outcomes. Take the case of Sasha (Sandra) Zarubina, whose mother Natalia, a guest worker in Portugal, had placed her in foster care and then demanded her return when facing deportation back to Russia. Sasha's foster parents wanted to adopt her, and there was evidence that her mother had shown little interest in the child over her first several years. In Russia, the return of the girl became a patriotic cause which Orekh, the columnist, sarcastically summed up as, "Let's fight for our own and save our children from the foreigners." In 2009, a Portuguese court ruled that six-year-old Sasha should be returned to her mother. While the Russian media treated this as a victory, a follow-up report by a Russian TV news program found the child living in squalid conditions being mistreated by her apparently alcoholic mother and equally unsavory relatives.

Now, the apparent Russian freeze on American adoptions threatens the welfare of many more children who have a chance to be raised by loving families. The conditions set forth in the treaty drafted by the Russian side include the preposterous demand that American adoptive parents provide their children with an environment that preserves the Russian language and culture, at least for children who were old enough to speak Russian when adopted. Far from protecting children's rights, the Russian government's actions would sacrifice children's lives to a phantom national interest.

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at and you can follow her on Twitter at @CathyYoung63. She can be reached by email at

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