As a mother of two adopted children and the wife of a man adopted from overseas, Sen. Mary Landrieu knows a thing or two about adoption. So when Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill last month banning the adoption of Russian children by U.S. citizens, the Louisiana Democrat took it personally. And she has been fighting ever since for American families left in limbo by the law.
Landrieu’s husband was adopted from an orphanage in Ireland when he was 5. He remembers coming to the United States on a steamer. “He is extremely grateful,” Landrieu told National Journal. “It’s like a storybook ending, and this is possible for other kids. To close the door on them, to slam it shut again on them, is the cruelest thing a government can do.”
Experts estimate that as many as 1,000 American families had already begun the adoption process when the Russian law passed. Many families have already traveled to Russia and met the children they were hoping to adopt.
“These are children who were introduced to their prospective parents [and] were told that in a short time that they would be coming to America,” Landrieu said.
The Senate has passed a resolution condemning the Russian adoption ban. Landrieu and other lawmakers have sent letters to Putin and President Obama advocating resolution of these cases, but their efforts have hit a wall—a new Iron Curtain.
In response to the letter she and other lawmakers sent to the Russian government, Landrieu got a sternly worded response two weeks ago from Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian foreign ministry’s human-rights envoy. Dolgov’s letter, acquired by National Journal, blamed the United States for the problem, saying the Russian government is simply protecting children from abuse. (The Russian-language version of the letter is available here).
Last week, Russia’s supreme court ruled that adoptions that had received court approval by Jan. 1, 2013, would be allowed to proceed, but those that had not reached that stage would not.
Russia’s parliament passed the adoption ban in December in retaliation for a U.S. law aiming to punish those involved in human-rights violations in Russia. The ban was quickly signed by President Putin. The U.S. law, which was enacted late last year, is named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Moscow lawyer who died in a Russian prison in 2009 after implicating top officials in a $230 million tax-fraud scam. The law denies visas to Russians implicated in the Magnitsky case and accused of human-rights violations and it freezes their assets in the United States.
Russia’s Duma named the adoption measure after an 18-month-old boy named Dima Yakovlev, who died after his adoptive American parents left him in a locked car in a parking lot for hours on a hot day in Virginia. The three-part bill parallels the Magnitsky bill in that it sanctions U.S. citizens involved in human-rights violations against Russian citizens, banning them from entering Russia and freezing their Russian assets and investments. On top of that, the measure suspends activities of nonprofit organizations that receive money from the U.S. and bans U.S. citizens from adopting Russian children. At his annual press conference in December, not long before signing it, Putin said that the bill is an “emotional” but “appropriate” response to the “unfriendly” Magnitsky bill.
The back-and-forth over the two measures was the latest sign of a deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations. The frictions are posing a challenge to Landrieu and other U.S. lawmakers who are urging flexibility from Russian officials.
“We’d like to impress upon the Russian government that the people they’re hurting the most are the children. Some of them are old enough to know what’s going on. It’s just heart-wrenching and it’s wrong,” Landrieu said. “It’s not necessarily hurting America or American families. We are going to continue to adopt. It’s just that Russian children will have no opportunities.”
Despite the pushback from the Russian government, she has not given up. That’s because Landrieu has seen this happen before, when Guatemala rewrote its adoption law in 2007. While the underlying issues there were corruption allegations, there are still hundreds of pending cases that Landrieu and adoption advocates have been trying to resolve.
Kathleen Strottman, executive director of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, says that there are probably about 175 Guatemalan adoption cases still pending, even after five years. Guatemala’s case serves as a cautionary tale for what might happen if pending cases involving Russian children aren’t resolved.