MOSCOW - According to Anton Zharov, a lawyer specializing in adoption, the proposals coming out of the Duma (Parliament) to solve Russia’s orphan problem are like a printer that has gone insane. 

“You can’t solve Russia’s orphan problem in one year or in three years. Instead of talking to specialists and trying to establish a strategy, the members of Parliament are just trying to find ways to make more and more declarations.”

This newfound interest in orphans has come after the Duma outlawed the adoption of Russian orphans by Americans, and has led to the establishment of orphan working groups in the Duma, and within the majority United Russia party.

United Russia is discussing ways to give orphans preferential treatment in university acceptance, and to make it easier for Russians to adopt, including lowering the fees associated with adoption paperwork.

In the Duma, one of the original authors of the law forbidding American adoptions has suggested an agency or even an entire ministry just to handle orphan affairs. Others in the Duma found it scandalous that Russia’s orphanages concentrate all of their energy on providing a home and food for the children, instead of actively working to place children in families.

There are around 110,000 orphans in orphanages throughout Russia. About 10,000 go through the adoption procedure every year and about 7,500 of those are adopted by Russian families. About 60,000 are placed in foster care but not formally adopted. More children are leaving the system than coming into it, which means that the number of children in orphanages will decrease, but very gradually.

Throwing money at the problem

According to a recent survey, around 76% of Russians supported the ban on adoptions by Americans, while around 14% said they had considered adopted a child. 

Most Russian families who adopt get financial help from the government, although the amount varies greatly, from about $330 to almost $20,000 dollars, depending on the region where the adoptive family lives. Some regions also give adoptive families monthly payments, and children adopted out of the orphanage system also benefit from other government advantages, such as free lunches in schools.

Perhaps surprisingly, when it comes to the orphanages themselves, there is no shortage of money, and it might be time to try to reign in some of the expenses. In addition, there have been several recent revelations of orphanage workers who embezzled money from the institution while letting the children live in squalor

“It’s not a secret that people steal from orphanages,” explained Anton Zharov, the lawyer. “In almost all orphanages, the cook goes home with bags full of food.”

Sergei Neverov, the vice-speaker of the Duma, says that a child’s stay in an orphanage costs the state on average around $1,000 per month. In Moscow, the amount is so high that few parents spend as much on their own children. In one Moscow orphanage, the yearly budget is nearly $4 million for 83 children, over $48,000 per child. So it’s clear that the orphan problem cannot be solved just by throwing money at it.

The healthy flow of financing is like a cruel joke. Adoption is a long process. The first step, filling out qualifying paperwork, takes about a month. Then potential adoptive parents search for a child – usually through online databases. Then they have to contact the orphanage and meet the child – which turns out to be complicated. 

Since 2009, schools, preschools and orphanages are funded based on the number of children in them. That means that orphanage directors are completely uninterested in working to place the children in their care with families. 

Potential adoptive parents often have very unfriendly relationships with the orphanages. Andri Dombrovski, an orphanage director, explained that there were 550 children in his care, which was actually more than allowed by health standards. Now there are only 395 – but everyone who works at the orphanage also got a pay cut.

The administration of an orphanage has a lot of tricks to discourage adoption – they can play up a child’s behavior problems when talking to the parents or, the opposite, speak poorly of the potential adopters to the child. They can also give a negative assessment of the family’s ability to provide for the child, which could lead a court to block the adoption.

No sick children

It will never be possible to totally solve the orphan problem just with adoptive families – there’s no system for training and supporting adoptive families, so a lot of children end up returning to the orphanage. 

Another way to reduce the number of children in orphanages is to fight to keep them with their own families – around 40% of children in orphanages have parents who are alive. Some people are now saying more stress should be put on support for families to prevent parents who are at risk of losing their children from doing so. Russia also makes it too easy – and sometimes even actively encourages – young, single mothers, especially who have given birth to babies who are not totally healthy, to give up the child at birth. 

Other countries have support for parents of handicapped children, and that is what Russia needs so that parents feel able to raise a child no matter what his or her medical needs are. A well-known actress who gave birth to a baby with Down syndrome tells of being asked, just after she had given birth, whether or not she was going to keep the baby. The question itself should be illegal, she said.

Whatever the government does for orphans now, it will not make the law forbidding Americans from adopting any less cruel. As many people know, American families were often willing to adopt even severely ill children. Russians will not start doing that anytime in the foreseeable future. The problem is both in the lack of infrastructure in the country to allow handicapped individuals to lead a normal life as well as in the way society sees both the children and their parents.