Petition drive urges Russia not to halt adoptions

By David Crary
AP National Writer / April 14, 2010

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NEW YORK—Worried over a threatened freeze of adoptions from Russia, thousands of American adoption advocates are petitioning leaders of the two nations to prevent such a step even as they decry a Tennessee woman returning her adopted son to Russia.

Poignant pleas from would-be adoptive parents were included in the petition to President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev, that was being coordinated Tuesday by the Joint Council on International Children's Services. The council, which represents many U.S. agencies engaged in international adoption, estimates there are about 3,000 pending U.S. applications for adoptions from Russia.

"My husband and I have been working toward a Russian adoption for two years now," wrote Susan Busek, a teacher from Loveland, Colo. "Please know that there are many would-be parents like us, who want only the opportunity to be parents and give our love."

The petition, which quickly gathered more than 11,000 electronic signatures, is a response to the outcry in Russia over the incident last week in which a nurse from Tennessee arranged to send her 7-year-old adoptive son back to Moscow alone on a plane, asserting that the boy had severe psychological problems.

Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and its children's rights ombudsman, Pavel Astakhov, have suggested that Russia suspend all U.S. adoptions until Moscow and Washington sign a bilateral adoption agreement.

"How can we prosecute a person who abused the rights of a Russian child abroad?" Astakhov said in a televised interview. "If there was an adoption treaty in place, we would have legal means to protect Russian children abroad."

Lavrov called the return of the boy, Artyom Savelyev, "the last straw" after a string of other cases in which adopted Russian children were mistreated.

As of Tuesday, however, no freeze had been imposed, and U.S. agencies handling adoptions from Russia told their clients that applications remained active.

The U.S. State Department is arranging for a high-level delegation to visit Moscow next week to discuss the incident and the possibility of some sort of new adoption agreement.

In the past, the United States has resisted Russian entreaties to sign a formal adoption pact, contending that an international accord called the Hague Convention would be sufficient once Russia ratified it. But the latest incident appears to have softened the U.S. stance.

"We're willing to talk about some sort of bilateral understanding where we would ensure that these kinds of things could not happen," the U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Beyrle, told CBS's "The Early Show."

Tom DeFilipo, president of the Joint Council on International Children's Services, said he was not sure if a possible U.S.-Russian pact would require ratification by the Senate, but pledged that his group would help work for ratification if that was the case.

The petition being promoted by the council calls the abandonment of the Russian boy "an isolated incident ... not at all indicative of the thousands of successful adoptions between Russia and the United States."

It calls on Medvedev and Obama to ensure that "every child's right to a permanent and safe family is not interrupted due to the suspension of intercountry adoption services." It calls on the two governments to "aggressively prosecute any individual involved in child abuse to the fullest extent of the law."

Larisa Mason, executive director of an Oakmont, Pa., adoption agency called International Assistance Group, urged the American government to be flexible in the upcoming talks with the Russians.

"We need to work with the Russians on putting together something that will protect children in circumstances like this," she said. "This is the most unfortunate incident, and maybe this will push our government to do something more."

Mason said many Russians felt that 7-year-old Artyom -- and other adopted Russian children -- were treated like "second-class citizens" in the United States. She said Russians were outraged that no charges had been filed as of Tuesday against the adoptive mother in Tennessee, Torry Hansen.

One of the couples working with Mason's agency to adopt a Russian orphan expressed understanding for the outrage being voiced in Moscow.

"The number one objective has always got to be the welfare of the children," said Sharon Johnson of Atlanta. "But I'd ask them to not penalize all of the waiting families who can provide loving homes to raise these children."

Johnson and her husband, Don -- both attorneys -- already have an adopted 4-year-old daughter from Russia and embarked last year on efforts to adopt another girl. They fervently hope the abandonment incident won't delay the process.

"The families seeking to adopt are not represented by this woman," said Sharon Johnson, referring to Hansen. "We want to help children, we want to love them and grow old with them, and watch them do sports and ballet, and give them the opportunities here that they can't get growing up in an orphanage."

In recent years, the number of foreign children being adopted by Americans has sharply declined -- and Russia has been a big factor. There were more than 5,800 U.S. adoptions from Russia in 2004, and only 1,586 last year.

Louise Schnaier, director of international adoption at the Spence-Chapin agency in New York, said there is a perception in the adoption community that many of the children being adopted out of Russian orphanages can present special challenges -- due to such conditions as fetal alcohol syndrome.

"Ultimately we have to depend on the families to give us feedback so we can help them," she said. "There's inherently a lot of unknowns, and families need to be clear about that."

Natasha Shaginian-Needham, co-founder of the Happy Families International adoption agency in Cold Spring, N.Y., said she had no sympathy for Torry Hansen.

"She had many sources to go to, to get help: the adoption agency, the Department of Social Services, counseling, post-adoption support groups, and many more who would guide her appropriately in this crisis situation," Shaginian-Needham said.

"There is a child who cannot be treated as a broken toy that gets sent back to the store if it stops working," she added. "This abominable action is a crime."


Associated Press writer Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.


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