Russian law would OK more foreign adoptions Bill calls for increase in regulations, awaits president's approval

June 14, 1998|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Traveling 5,000 miles from Baltimore by airplane and overnight train into the unknown, their luggage disappearing just long enough to provoke anxiety, Mary Lou Kenney and David Bolton arrived in the Russian city of Ulyanovsk to find their new baby daughter covered with bright green spots.

The orphanage staff received them warmly and provided immediate reassurance. Nine-month-old Anna had a perfectly normal case of chicken pox, and the eruptions had been painted with an antiseptic routinely swathed over children here.

The current of uneasiness that had flowed through the adoption process began to dissipate. The Kenney-Boltons had begun their search for Anna as the Russian parliament was threatening to severely restrict or even cut off adoptions by foreigners. But since they adopted their child, legislation has been passed that will enable thousands more foreigners to adopt children from Russia's overcrowded orphanages.

The Baltimoreans, who had chosen their child with the help of a 30-second video, wondered if they would find unreported health problems. And they asked themselves a natural question: Would they love this child?

"After being with her half an hour," Bolton says, holding Anna and grinning at her, "she was so engaging there were no doubts at all."

Just as this newly expanded family was reveling in its good fortune, Russia's parliament, the Duma, was preparing to pass a bill that would offer thousands of other American families a similar opportunity to rejoice. Overcoming nationalistic rhetoric that compared foreign adoptions to baby-selling, the Duma listened to the pleas of doctors and orphanage directors and agreed that more than anything, children need families, no matter their nationality.

Significance for Americans

The bill, passed by the Duma June 5, holds enormous significance for Americans. Since foreign adoptions became legal here in 1992, more and more Americans have been coming to Russia to adopt. By last year, when Americans adopted more than 3,800 children here, compared with 3,500 from China, Russia had become the most popular overseas destination for Americans seeking to adopt.

"People here waiting to adopt are hungry for news of these changes," Kenney said from Baltimore.

The Duma bill, which awaits President Boris N. Yeltsin's signature, would require adopted children to keep their Russian citizenship until they are 18, would order Russian consulates to monitor the welfare of the children and would permit "intermediaries" to act on behalf of adoptive parents.

"I think the changes will be invisible to most adopting parents," says Michele Thoren Bond, first secretary and consul in the immigrant visa department of the U.S. Embassy here.

However, Bond says, the agencies parents work with would be subject to new requirements. The bill demands more thorough licensing and regulation of foreign adoption agencies, though the details have yet to be spelled out in actual regulations.

In general, agencies would have to document their staff's qualifications and provide evidence of licensing in their home state and tax records to show that they are not-for-profit.

"Now they want better regulation," Bond says, "and that's completely understandable."

Adoptive families' godsend

With fewer and fewer infants available in the United States and with economic hardships here increasing the population of orphanages, Russia has become a godsend for adoptive families.

In 1992, Americans adopted 324 children here. In the last fiscal year, the U.S. Embassy's consular office in Moscow issued visas for 3,851 adopted children, and even higher numbers are expected this year. In the first eight months of this fiscal year, 3,311 children were adopted, with 697 in December alone.

On some days, as many as 50 children and their parents crowd into the visa department's cramped waiting room.

The first versions of the Duma bill proposed a moratorium on foreign adoptions and would have prohibited agencies from acting on behalf of adoptive parents -- which would have made it nearly impossible for most Americans to adopt a child in Russia, where they would be bewildered by language and bureaucracy.

Backlash against foreigners

Though most Russians are grateful that children are being adopted by foreign families rather than spending their lives in institutions, the adoptions have inflamed nationalist sensibilities in some political circles. And even legislators who don't object to foreign adoptions have been uneasy about the operations of private adoption agencies.

"Adoption has always been perceived as a state function, such as marriage," Bond says. "They don't see how a private agency can fit into that. All of that is alien."

Some officials regard the fees agencies charge as tantamount to buying a child.

"Paying $10,000 for a child -- it's a new slave trade," Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist party leader, said during debate on the bill.

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