Putin’s Hidden Victims

It has been nearly three years since Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law banning American families from adopting Russian children.  Many viewed the law as retaliation for the Magnitsky Act, which the US Congress had passed the month before, rebuking the Russian government for its terrible human rights record. Putin’s tit-for-tat response brought Russia’s deplorable human rights situation— especially in Russian orphanages—into focus.

Harvard Law professor and child welfare expert Elizabeth Bartholet described the ban as “cynical and brutal.”

But the outrage was not limited to the international community. Even within Russia there was a significant backlash.  Shortly after Putin announced the ban, 20,000 Russians marched with protest signs, shouting “Shame on the scum!”  Putin’s political game unfairly victimized children and condemned many to live out their childhoods in state-run institutions.

Putin responded to the criticism coyly. “We must do all we can so that orphaned children find their families in their home country, in Russia,” he said.

Today there are approximately 700,000 children in the country’s orphanage system. Nearly 95 percent have at least one living parent.  These children are not “orphans” in the traditional sense; the government coined the handy phrase “social orphan” to describe children whose parents have relinquished their parental rights.  According to official statistics, more than 100,000 children are abandoned annually.

Prior to Putin’s draconian ban, Americans adopted the highest number of Russian children each year.  In 2011, Americans adopted more than 1,000.

While developed countries rejected orphanages decades ago—placing children in adopted families or foster care—Russia has maintained its vast labyrinth of institutions, which house children from birth to the age of emancipation (generally age 17). The orphanage system and the physical buildings themselves are holdovers from the Soviet Union. Children are typically undernourished and receive inadequate medical care. International human rights organizations have documented physical abuse and neglect of the children in Russia’s residential care, including the widespread practice of tying children with ropes or rags to their cribs, leaving children lying on floors for hours at a time, and medicating children with sedatives to get them to sleep.  

Children in orphanages are isolated and hidden from view.  They do not attend regular schools, and the education they receive within the orphanage, if any, is insufficient. The official protocols state that children in residential care should not visit family members for fear that they may get used to the attention and become “spoiled.”

The situation for children with disabilities is even worse. Disabled children spend the vast majority of their day in so-called “lying down” rooms—rooms with cribs where children are left in cribs or on floor mats, unable to move. They have few, if any, opportunities to play outside, interact with other children, or play with toys.

State officials and doctors often pressure parents of children with disabilities to relinquish their parental rights, making the false claim that state institutions can provide better care for children with special needs. This pressure accounts for why more than 40 percent of children in residential care have some form of disability.

Back in 2012, as Russia banned US adoptions, the government promised to ramp up its efforts to de-institutionalize children and place them in families. But for the hundreds of thousands of children trapped in the system, Putin’s promises have amounted to very little.  His adoption ban, ostensibly aimed at harming the United States, has denied thousands of children the opportunity to escape Russia’s orphanages and become part of a family.

If Putin’s administration wants make good on its 2012 promise, it should take three steps immediately: first, it should increase the resources for programs and initiatives to keep families together and prevent children, especially disabled children, from entering the orphanage system; second, it should accelerate the process of de-institutionalizing children by increasing the number of adoptions both domestic and international and encouraging Russian citizens to become foster parents; and third, it should improve the care children in state institutions receive, ensuring that children are not abused and that they receive adequate nutrition, medical care, and education.

It’s time to put an end to the horrific treatment of Putin’s hidden victims and demand that Russia modernize its backward orphanages.  

Shonda Werry is an expert on Russia and international adoption. Melinda Haring is a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.  

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