HOUSTON, TEXAS— The death of an adopted Russian child in Texas last month has stirred controversy over how such adoptions are arranged and what safeguards are in place for children once they are in their new homes. Adoptive parents sometimes need support when dealing with children.
The death of three-year-old Max Shatto in Gardendale, Texas, has sharpened tensions between the United States and Russia only a few months after Russia banned further U.S. adoptions.
Jennifer Lanter, a spokesperson for the Gladney Center for Adoption in Fort Worth, the agency that handled the Shatto adoption, says children from Russia are in demand.
“It is one of our most beloved programs. The children are beautiful. The parents are excited to travel to Russia. It is a country filled with such great history. We treasured our Russia program and we are so sad that that decision was made to ban adoptions because we truly believe it was in the best interests of the children,” Lanter said.
But some Russian officials say the United States needs to provide better safeguards. In some cases, that is true, according to Michele Goodwin, a University of Minnesota Law School professor and author of the book “Baby Markets: Money and the New Politics of Creating Families.” She says many U.S. couples want children from Russia and eastern Europe simply because of their race and do not focus on cultural differences.
“They may think this is a white child coming into a white family and they don't take into account the fact that this happens to be a child coming from Russia. That means the child has a Russian name. That also means there is a language barrier and a language barrier that may be very difficult to overcome,” Goodwin said.
In Russia, the birth mother of the boys in the Shatto home has been among those calling for their return, but last week she was removed from a train for allegedly being drunk and disorderly. Michele Goodwin says Russia has more than 100,000 children in orphanages, many of them damaged by drugs and alcohol before they were even born.
“Kids exposed to alcohol in utero may have very difficult hurdles to overcome. There may be tendencies toward violence. There may be psychological conditions that are difficult for families alone to treat,” Goodwin said.
Goodwin says parents who have adopted such children are sometimes desperate for help.
Lanter says the Gladney agency keeps in close touch by phone and home visits after parents bring an adopted child home.
“In six months, 12 months, 24 months and 36 months we go out and perform a post-placement visit. That means we go in and check on the family, check on the child, making sure that everyone is okay and adjusting well, and if they are not that is the time we would provide resources and help them with referrals to doctors and counseling,” Lanter said.
Chuck Johnson, president of the National Council for Adoption, says agencies are performing much better thanks in large part to U.S. adherence to an international agreement.
“The system is much better today and has been since 2008 when the U.S. ratified the Hague Convention on Inter-country Adoption and that multilateral treaty set a whole new standard for inter-country adoption. It set new standards for the agencies who do inter-country adoptions. It just reformed the whole system,” Johnson said.
Russia did not sign the Hague Convention, but did sign a treaty with the United States last year. That agreement had only been in effect for seven weeks before the ban was imposed.
Johnson says he understands why Russians are upset by possible abuse or neglect of adopted children from their country, but he says most U.S. parents are providing a good home for these children.
“As we focus on these tragedies - and we should because we need to try to prevent them in the future - you cannot lose sight of the fact that most children and most families do very well. Even for the children who come here and are struggling, they are going to get better services here in the United States," Johnson said.
Johnson and others involved in international adoptions say they hope Russia will reconsider its ban on adoptions and allow more U.S. parents to take in these children in need.