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MOSCOW (AP) -- Authorities said Thursday they have halted the work of all foreign adoption agencies in Russia for several months, virtually shutting down the placement of children from one of the most important countries for U.S. families seeking to adopt.
The move follows new restrictive rules imposed by China on Americans trying to adopt and U.S. warnings against adopting from Guatemala. The two countries account for the highest number of children coming to the United States.
The licensing delay in Russia is due to a law that took effect last year that imposed strict new rules on non-governmental organizations, including more complicated registration procedures. The rules were imposed after Russian officials complained that Western-funded groups were meddling in politics across the former Soviet Union.
Sergei Vitelis, an official at the Education Ministry's department in charge of adoptions, said the licenses of dozens of agencies working in Russia expired Wednesday and it will take officials about two months to consider applications for new ones. That leaves only one alternative for foreign families -- to adopt without using an agency. But adoption agencies say such adoptions are rare.
Vitelis said the delay was caused solely by technical reasons. "There are no political or other motives here," he said. The suspension of most adoptions comes amid heightened political tensions between Russia and the U.S., and Russia's strengthened sense of national pride under President Vladimir Putin. Some here say the crisis has a political dimension. "It's such a misfortune: children are suffering, children are locked in those hospitals, those baby houses where God knows what is being done to them," said Boris Altshuller, head of a Moscow-based nonprofit group, Right of the Child. "All they (lawmakers) care about is waging a Cold War with America and their argument is literally that Russian children must live in Russian land."
Western governments have also expressed concern about the new law, saying it curtails civil freedoms. Vitelis said 76 foreign adoption agencies have applied to operate in Russia, and their applications must be reviewed by the Education Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the Justice Ministry and the Health Ministry's oversight agency. Justin Herscovici, president of the New York-based Children of the World Adoption agency said his group filed all the application documents in January to have their license renewed. "We don't consider this suspension, we consider this reorganization ... and we expect to be reaccredited in due course."
Russia's move also comes amid persistent calls by authorities to limit foreign adoptions, especially by U.S. families, following rare but resonant cases of abuse of children adopted by foreigners.
The Russian media has reported extensively on cases of abuse of Russian orphans by foreign parents, especially those in the United States. The Education Ministry said in 2005 that 11 Russian children adopted by U.S. families had died violently since 1991.
Rights groups say such statements smack of Cold War rhetoric and neglect the interests of the more than 250,000 Russian orphans who live in grim institutions.
Couples seeking children in other countries also face new obstacles. China, the top source of adoptions for the U.S., is preparing to impose restrictions on foreign adoptions on May 1, giving priority to stable married couples between 30 and 50. Single people, the obese and those suffering from depression will be excluded.
Last month, the U.S. State Department recommended that Americans avoid adoptions in Guatemala, the second-largest source of adoptees coming to the United States, saying the process there is marred by fraud and extortion.
Russia is the third most important destination for U.S. adoptions. But Russian adoptions slowed to a trickle in 2005 after the commission responsible for accrediting adoption agencies was shut down in the midst of an overhaul of ministries.
About 7,000 U.S. families waiting to adopt Russian children took out a newspaper ad appealing to the government to end the bottleneck, and the accreditation process was resumed.
Today, American families seeking to adopt Russian children face a similar crisis, said Altshuller. "The licenses are about to expire, but the accreditation mechanism has not begun operating," he said. Activists say restricting or suspending foreign adoption would deny thousands of Russian orphans good homes, though they admit improvements are needed in screening adoptive families and in monitoring children post-adoption.
Although some 260,000 Russian children are listed as orphans and potentially eligible for adoption, only about 15,000 find families each year. About half of those children go abroad.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)