Suffer Russia’s Little Children?

Are children adopted from foreign countries more likely to be maltreated than other children?

At least 20,000 Russian opposition supporters rally on Sunday on the Boulevard Ring in the center of Moscow against a Kremlin law that banned US adoptions of Russian orphans.

Russian opposition supporters rally in Moscow against a Kremlin law banning U.S. adoptions of Russian orphans.

Photo by Andrey Smirnov/AFP/Getty Images.

Thousands of people protested Russia’s recent ban on American adoptions of Russian children in Moscow over the weekend. Supporters of the ban say it is justified by the deaths of 19 Russian adoptees in the United States since 1991. Are international adoptees more likely to be maltreated than other children?

Almost certainly not. There have been no studies on child abuse and neglect that distinguish among foreign-born adopted children, domestically adopted children, and children who are raised by their biological parents. However, only 0.7 percent of parents determined to have caused or allowed the maltreatment of their child were adoptive parents, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ most recent annual child-maltreatment report. And studies that compare adopted children to non-adopted children have found that adopted kids generally do as well or better than their peers psychologically and behaviorally. A 2007 study of adopted children by HHS found that adopted children are less likely to live below the poverty line than the general population. Since there is a correlation between poverty and child maltreatment, this would seem to suggest that adopted children are at less risk than non-adopted children to be maltreated.

Moreover, the stringent legal requirements that potential adoptive parents must meet are intended to weed out most abusive or neglectful parents. People who wish to adopt must go through a “home study,” in which they submit to a background check, undergo training to prepare them for the adoption, supply income and health information, provide references, and meet with a social worker in their homes. Parents who adopt internationally must also meet requirements set by their child’s home country, which sometimes involve restrictions related to parental age and marital status.

Indeed, even the 19 Russian-born children who died while in the care of their adoptive parents are a tiny minority of the 60,000 Russian children who have been adopted in the United States since 1991. Using this number, the death rate of Russian adoptees is 1.5 per 100,000 per year. By comparison, the general child fatality rate due to neglect and abuse has hovered around 2.2 deaths per 100,000 children per year over the past few years.

However, internationally adopted children may face challenges related to other factors. Compared with domestically adopted children, who are usually adopted at birth, trans-country adoptees tend to be older. In 2009, only 25 percent of the immigrant orphans adopted by U.S. citizens were under the age of 1 at the time of adoption; 51 percent were between the ages of 1 and 4; 14 percent were between the ages of 5 and 9; and 10 percent were older than 9. The Hague Adoption Convention (which the United States and 88 other countries, but not Russia, are party to) requires that “Proper effort [be] given to the child’s adoption in its country of origin,” and children who are put up for trans-country adoption may have health or behavioral problems or a history of abuse or other trauma that have made it difficult for them to be placed with a family in their country of origin. This, combined with language barriers, means trans-country adoptions can be difficult to adjust to, but thanks in part to the training that adoptive parents receive prior to adopting, dissolution of international adoptions is rare.

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Explainer thanks Stella Gilgur-Cook of Spence-Chapin Adoption Services and Megan Lindsey of the National Council for Adoption.