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U.S. jolted by Russia's proposed adoption ban

10:15 PM, Dec 26, 2012   |    comments
A protester holds a poster which reads: “Are orphans guilty of Magnitsky's death ? Stop putting shame on yourselves!” just outside the lower house of Russia’s parliament, the State Duma, early on December 21, 2012, ahead of the debate on a bill banning Americans from adopting Russian children. Photo by EVGENY FELDMAN/AFP/Getty Images
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By Wendy Koch, USA TODAY

Americans hoping to give Russian orphans a home were jolted by news that Russia's legislators have voted to ban such adoptions.

"It's very difficult," said Los Angeles resident Sharon Benamou of the potential ban. She and her husband Yehudah flew to Russia in October to meet the twin toddlers they're preparing to adopt. "I don't know what their fate is," she said, her voice cracking with emotion.

Like Benamou, hundreds of Americans with pending adoptions are anxiously watching to see whether Russian President Vladimir Putin signs the legislation, approved unanimously by the country's upper house of parliament Wednesday and by the lower house last week.

The ban is part of a larger bill seen as retaliation for the Magnitsky Act, a law President Obama signed Dec. 14 that calls for sanctions on Russians who violate human rights. Putin has called it an "appropriate" response to the U.S. law, but several high-ranking Russians have objected.

"This is children becoming pawns in a diplomatic game," said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. He says there's no Plan B for Russia's 700,000 orphans, adding: "The bottom-line victims are children."

The political tit-for-tat is the latest in a series of disputes between the United States and Russia over adoption. Many Russians have been outraged by reports of Russian adoptees being hurt or killed in the U.S. The ban was named in honor of Dima Yakovlev, a Russian toddler who died in 2008 after his adoptive U.S. father left him in a car in boiling heat for hours.

Yet Pertman says the 19 Russian kids who have died at the hands of their American parents are a tiny fraction of the 60,000 Russian orphans adopted since 1992, many of whom have special needs. To provide further safeguards for Russian adoptees, the U.S. signed a bilateral agreement with Russia that took effect last month.

"It is misguided to link the fate of children to unrelated political considerations," said the State Department's Patrick Ventrell. He said Russia should instead honor the bilateral accord, which requires that prospective parents complete up to 80 hours of pre-adoption training and provide post-adoption updates to Russian authorities.

"People don't realize how much adoptive parents go through," said Lisa Wong, an Oakland resident who brought home a 22-month-old Russian girl just a few days after Thanksgiving. She noted the extensive paperwork, FBI checks and three visits to Russia.

Wong said her heart goes out to those still waiting. Several dozen U.S. families have been matched to Russian orphans but an estimated 1,500 are in earlier stages of the adoption process.

That process can cost $40,000 to $60,000, said Janice Goldberger, executive director of Adoptions Together, an agency that assists Russian adoptions. Russia remained the third-largest source of foreign adoptions by U.S. citizens last year, even though the number of these adoptions - 962 - has plummeted since its peak of 5,862 in 2004, according to the U.S. State Department.

U.S.-based adoption agencies and advocacy groups, including the National Council for Adoption, are calling on Putin to reject the bill. On Wednesday, Russian adoptees, led by 21-year-old Alexander D'Jamoos, delivered a petition to the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Ann Suhs, who lives in Johns Creek, Ga., said the 7-year-old boy she and her husband Kurt adopted from Russia six years ago is the "love of our life." She said they've filed all the paperwork for adopting a second child but don't know what they'll do if Russia slams its doors on U.S. parents. "Now we wait," Suhs said.

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