How to Restore U.S. Adoptions of Russian Children

The restoration of American adoptions of Russian children is a logical first step in improving U.S.-Russia relations.

June 1, 2017

By Rachel Bauman


RIAN_archive_918254_Military-patriotic_and_cultural_events_for_students_and_children_of_GUFSIN_employees_in_Russia's_Primorsky_KraiPhoto: Wikimedia Commons

In December 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama signed the “Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act (“the Magnitsky Act”) into law. The act contained provisions for the sanctioning of individuals for their involvement in the political persecution of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian attorney who was allegedly singled out for abuse by the Russian authorities due to his investigation of government corruption. Less than a week later, the Russian State Duma nearly unanimously passed a bill “On Sanctions for Individuals Violating Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms of the Citizens of the Russian Federation.” Originally designed as an “anti-Magnitsky Act,” lawmakers later added a provision which banned the adoption of Russian children by Americans. The law (“the Dima Yakovlev law”) was justified in part by the 2008 death of Russian adoptee Dima Yakovlev, who was left in a hot car by his American parents for more than nine hours.

As U.S.-Russia relations deteriorate from bad to worse over conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere, the story of Russia’s adoption ban demonstrates the human costs of geopolitics. While not without challenges, the restoration of American adoptions of Russian children would signal a positive shift in the working relationship between the United States and Russia. However, the failure to reach such a settlement would exhibit the intractability of the present crisis in bilateral ties.

Adoptions in Russia

Historically, Russia has been the most popular country for U.S. international adoptions after China. Since 1999, American families have adopted more than 46,000 Russian children. The number of annual adoptions after the Dima Yakovlev law came into force dropped to zero by 2015-2016. At the same time, international adoptions from Russia have decreased markedly since the implementation of the ban, and in-country adoptions have not increased to compensate for this drop—rather, they have decreased since 2012.

The net result of these trends is poorer opportunities in Russia or abroad for orphans. Children with physical or mental disabilities are most at risk for abuse and neglect in Russian orphanages, and those who are judged fit to leave an institutional setting in their late teenage years are often unprepared for life after the orphanage.  Frequently ill-equipped to find a job or continue their education, they are more likely to turn drugs, prostitution, or suicide than their peers.

Given the sensitivity of the subject, the public’s reaction to the Dima Yakovlev law has been mixed. In early 2013, thousands of Russians (estimates range from the government’s suggestion of 9,500 to an activist’s estimation of 24,000 people) protested the ban in a “March Against Scoundrels.” However, a recent poll found that 54% of Russians are “strongly against” abolishing the law (though the rate of opposition has fallen since 2014-2015). Yet a sizeable percentage (41%) want the adoption ban lifted. These data reflect general anti-Americanism among Russians, but also apathy for the societal consequences of U.S.-Russia tensions.

Meanwhile, most American families who were in the process of adopting a child from Russia before the ban were blocked from completing their adoptions.  Forty-five such families filed suit against the Russian government in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which in January, ruled that the Dima Yakovlev law “unlawfully discriminated against prospective parents on the basis of nationality.”  The Russian Ministry of Justice has stated that it will appeal the decision, even though Russia’s Constitutional Court has the final say as to whether or not any ECHR rulings are implemented in the country.

Ending the ban

Despite pressures not to appear weak before the West, there has been some discussion between U.S. and Russian officials about negotiating an end to the adoption ban. In February 2017, U.S. Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), who has been a long-time advocate for the restoration of adoptions, met with a Russian delegation during the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) parliamentary assembly. Pyotr Tolstoy, Deputy Chairman of the Russian State Duma, said no serious talks on the ban have taken place, but should not be ruled out. Tolstoy added that any successful agreement must be a “two-way street,” and the United States must guarantee that Russia can monitor the status of adopted children.

Other Russian statements have shown the degree to which the ban relates to other tensions in the U.S.-Russia relationship. Mikhail Fedotov, head of Russia’s presidential human rights council, stated:

The ECHR decision on the Dima Yakovlev Law is an excellent reason to revise it.  But we won’t forget that it was passed in response to the unfriendly U.S. steps and the law was an answer to the U.S. so-called Magnitsky Act… If the U.S. side shows good will, I think that Russia should make advances on its part and allow the adoption of Russian orphans by US citizens.

From public remarks, Russia’s primary interest in the case is to ensure access to post-adoption checks on families. Shortly after the passage of the Dima Yakovlev Law, Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed U.S. authorities for their “dismissive attitude” toward Russian adoptees and not “the individual U.S. citizens, who adopt Russian children guided by the kindest considerations in most cases, and perhaps even always.” He stated that the United States “[does] not allow Russian representatives access to these cases, even as court observers.”  Similarly, Valentina Matviyenko, Speaker of the Federation Council, Russia’s upper chamber, suggested that the United States would have to take “some steps,” but that “[e]verything can be changed back…the fate of children is the most important thing.” 

A way forward

In the short-term, the United States should first seek to enable those American families whose adoptions were cut off to complete the process.  For Washington, the long-term goal would either be the elimination of the adoption provision of the Dima Yakovlev law altogether, or a compromise measure which would place stricter limits on American adopters so long as such regulations do not block adoptions de facto.

However, if the Magnitsky Act is invoked as a quid pro quo, Washington should be more cautious.  A repeal of the sanctions in the legislation will likely not pass congressional muster. Moreover, no American politician wants to appear “soft” on Russia, regardless of the actual effectiveness of the sanctions. Thus, U.S. negotiators should inform their Russian counterparts that a total repeal of the Magnitsky Act is unrealistic.

Due to Russia’s aversion to Western meddling in its internal affairs, any negotiations should be viewed strictly with the goal of allowing Americans to adopt Russian children, and should not serve as an opportunity to berate Russia’s social services or orphanages, abysmal as they may be. Instead, the United States should emphasize the opportunities and benefits of children having an increased chance of finding a loving home and should firmly express U.S. commitment to ensuring the safety and suitability of adoptive families.

To do so, the United States and Russia should re-commit to honoring the provisions of the previous agreement on U.S.-Russian adoptions, which came into force in November 2012.  Such terms include requiring Russian approval of adoption agencies, periodic monitoring of the child’s well-being (even before the ban, four post-adoption reports were required to be submitted to the Russian government over a period of 37 months after the adoption court order), and a full briefing on the physical and psychological needs of the child and training for adoptive parents very early in the process.  

The United States must take seriously any threat to the well-being of adopted Russian children (who are dual citizens), and ensure that adoptive families have access to the resources needed to properly complete the necessary requirements, including State Department contacts. If not simply re-instated, the 2012 agreement should serve as a template to be amended or a framework from which to draft a new agreement.  International protocol for adoption between Russia and other Western nations can also be referenced as an example of the oversight guarantees the Russian government seeks. 

Now, in this new chapter of possible U.S.-Russia cooperation, it is time to see whether Russia and the United States can move past politics for the welfare of Russian children.


Rachel Bauman is a member of the 2016-2017 CGI Rising Experts Program and a student at the Institute of World Politics, where she is pursuing an MA in Statecraft and International Affairs.  After graduating from Messiah College with a BA in English and minor in politics, she taught English at a summer camp in Kostroma Oblast’, Russia and later was a Resident Junior Fellow at the Center for the National Interest.

The Center on Global Interests does not take institutional positions. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect those of the affiliated institutions.


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