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Russia's Halt on Adoptions Spotlights Conditions

Sergei Koloskov of the Down Syndrome Society says the number of orphans in Russia is growing and overloading the state's orphanage system.
Sergei Koloskov of the Down Syndrome Society says the number of orphans in Russia is growing and overloading the state's orphanage system.

Russian authorities have suspended the work of foreign adoption agencies. That has put into limbo the plans of many Americans waiting to adopt Russian children, even as human rights groups say a growing number of institutionalized children in Russia are living — and dying — in wretched conditions.

Most of the nearly 800,000 children called orphans in Russia still have living parents.

Thirteen-year-old Sasha says he ran away from home at the age of 6. He now lives in a Moscow boarding school called Internat No. 8.


"I left because my parents behaved badly," Sasha says. "They drank and took drugs and didn't take care of me."

Another Internat No. 8 resident, Tatyana, 12, was abandoned at birth. She says she likes drawing and sewing, and wants to become a doctor.

Compared with most children like them, Tatyana and Sasha are lucky. Their dorm rooms are clean, teachers are dedicated, and the children appear genuinely happy.

But director Vadim Menshov says that's not good enough.

"Children are traumatized even in the best orphanages because they have no time to themselves," Menshov says. "Even this school is too crowded. It needs to be bulldozed. Children shouldn't live in such places."


The government has only recently started to encourage Russians to adopt. But very few Russian families want to adopt orphans because they're often seen as sick or somehow damaged. Half of the 15,000 children adopted in Russia each year are taken in by foreigners.

Americans adopt more children from Russia than from any other country except China and Guatemala. But now the government has suspended the work of all foreign adoption agencies. Officials say it's a temporary measure, part of the new registration requirements for all non-governmental organizations.

Still, Education Ministry official Sergei Vitelis says Russian children should stay in Russia.

"Adoption by foreigners probably isn't entirely right," Vitelis says. "Any normal state should create conditions for children to grow up in their own country. That's what we're aiming for."

Children's rights advocates say the official crackdown on foreign adoptions is more about national pride than concern for child welfare. They say it condemns children to a system of Soviet-era institutions desperately in need of reform.

A baby lies crying in a decrepit, wooden maternity hospital in Russia's poverty-stricken Far North. Many child advocates say places like these are where the problems start. Hospital staff often try to persuade parents of babies with disabilities to give them over to state care. Poverty and alcoholism also drive parents to abandon their children.

Sergei Koloskov, head of the Down Syndrome Society, says that contrary to government figures, the number of orphans in Russia is growing — and overloading the state's orphanage system.

"Healthy babies are lying in hospital beds all day as if they were sick, sometimes for months or longer," Koloskov says. "They're completely ignored. No one plays with them or provides any kind of stimulation. That happens because orphanages where they're supposed to go after birth are full."

Experts say that the lack of attention at an early age seriously harms a child's development. Elena Olshanskaya started a group of volunteers to help children in hospitals after noticing abandoned babies in rooms at the hospital where she gave birth.

"I was stunned," she says. "They were completely alone. They were fed several times a day and that was it. After a while, they just stop crying."

Last winter, another patient in a central Russian hospital noticed a room of abandoned babies with their mouths taped shut to stop them from crying. Her cell phone video shocked the country when it was played on national television. Reports of babies tied down in their cots are common. Many believe that's because hospital staff are seriously overworked.

Boris Altshuler of the Child's Right group says it's often immediately clear to visitors that abandoned babies are left to "rot alive."

"First of all [there's] the smell — [the] smell of unchanged linens or even children lying on just plastic. And [a] terrible smell because nobody changes, nobody cares," Altshuler says.

Once children leave hospitals for orphanages, their experiences differ widely. Unlike the relatively happy children at Internat No. 8, most children end up in orphanages that are closed institutions.

Olshanskaya says that's a legacy of the Soviet Union, which tried to shut off anyone not considered normal from the rest of society.

"Orphanages often stand behind high walls and big gates, usually somewhere in the outskirts," she says. "People who live in such areas and pass by every day usually have no idea what's inside."

Children considered mentally or physically disabled are sent to special institutions, which Altshuler calls "terrible places."

A Human Rights Watch report says that children in such institutions may be up to twice as likely to die than those in regular orphanages. Evaluations deciding orphans' fates are often cursory. Misdiagnosis is common, and sometimes even doled out as punishment for misbehavior.

Valentina Pavlova heads the Moscow office of Kidsave, an American organization that runs foster-care programs in Russia. She says that even in standard orphanages, the lack of contact with the rest of the world leaves children utterly unprepared for adult life.

"When children leave those institutions, they enter another world they've only seen on television," Pavlova says. "Very few are able to cope because they've never had anything of their own or experienced normal relationships. Above all, they've been deprived of love."

Pavlova agrees with most other experts who say that the only way to help orphans break out of lifelong cycles of isolation and lack of education is to put them in the care of adoptive or foster families.

But Altshuler of the Child's Right group says that officials in charge of the country's state orphanages are obstructing new foster programs because they don't want to lose state funding.

Altshuler calls the current system an "orphan industry." He says it won't improve without public pressure. But he says that as long as the state keeps hiding orphans from society, attitudes about them won't change.

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