Letter from Montana — From the October 2013 issue

Cold War Kids

The international dispute over Russia’s orphans

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Just before U.S. Route 93 crosses over into Canada, it bisects Eureka, Montana, a ranching town that sees few visitors apart from the handful of hikers and fishermen who trek to the area each summer. On a mild day in June 2012, a caravan of vehicles with tinted windows sped a few miles past the town center and turned off onto a winding road leading up into the mountains. The cars reached a cluster of modest clapboard houses in a vast green pasture, and several Russian government officials climbed out. They wore dark suits and sunglasses that shielded their eyes from the warm western sun.

The group was led by Pavel Astakhov, Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights. He had come to inspect the Ranch for Kids, an unlicensed care facility for children adopted from abroad. Many of the ranch’s wards had trouble adjusting to life with their new families in the United States, often because of the lasting effects of abuse, neglect, and prenatal alcohol exposure. Almost all of them are from Eastern Europe, though there are also children from other parts of the world.

Photograph from the Ranch for Kids by Misty Keasler

Photograph from the Ranch for Kids by Misty Keasler

Joyce Sterkel, the ranch’s owner, had turned down Astakhov’s request for an official visit. He came anyway, and brought along a television crew to document the expedition for the state-owned news stations Channel One and RT. Astakhov was also narrating the events of the day on Twitter: “Here live 23 Russian children, ‘returned’ by American parents who adopted them.” In another post, he tweeted, “They are basically abandoned and betrayed.”

Astakhov is a tall, fit man of forty-seven, with combed-back light-brown hair and a confident stride. In Russia he is something of a celebrity. In addition to his position within the Kremlin, he is a prominent attorney and the host of Chas Suda (“Hour of Judgment”), a mock-courtroom TV show modeled after Judge Judy. He is also the author of a series of novels whose hero is a fearless renegade lawyer who triumphs over his corrupt enemies and punishes them ruthlessly.

In Eureka, Astakhov paced energetically at the end of the ranch’s driveway, his perfectly shined shoes collecting dust — a bull eager to charge. In his hand was a red folder, embossed in gold with the Russian Federation’s coat of arms, that he claimed contained files on children who were supposed to be living in their American homes but who in fact had been deposited at the ranch. “There are so many lies in regard to the well-being of our children,” Astakhov told the cameras, “that we cannot say if our children lead a normal life, if they are in need of anything.”

He would not be allowed beyond the front gate, but that didn’t seem to trouble the commissioner. On Twitter he posted a photo of the ranch’s main house and deserted basketball court set against the gorgeous mountains. He captioned it “Wild West.” Astakhov claimed that the empty grounds were evidence that Sterkel had taken the children and fled to Canada. That it was the middle of the afternoon on a Friday and the kids were in school mattered little to the Russian newswires, which later printed the statement as fact.

In his final tweets, Astakhov called for the Ranch for Kids to be “liquidated” and the associated adoption agencies shut down. “What is it, a pretrial detention facility? A penal colony? A trash can for unwanted children?” Astakhov asked later on his website. He promised to deliver a report on the matter to President Putin.

After about an hour of standing around, Astakhov left the ranch, and judging from the photos of lakes and mountains subsequently posted to his Instagram account, he went to do a little sightseeing. In the early evening, Astakhov, heading out of Eureka, set off along Route 93. So did the children, who returned to the ranch in time for dinner, not knowing who or what had been outside their gate.

A month later, the Russian foreign ministry urged the U.S. State Department to grant Astakhov access to the ranch. At a press conference in September, a ministry spokesman made the point more forcefully: “We demand that the American side grants Pavel Astakhov access to the Ranch for Kids.” In October, Astakhov began advocating for a ban on adoptions by U.S. citizens, and by the end of the year, on December 28, 2012, Putin signed such a bill into law.

Though the adoption ban was widely seen as retaliation for the passage of the Magnitsky Act, a U.S. effort to punish Russian officials accused of human rights violations, it was Astakhov’s reports about the mistreatment of Russian children by Americans that Kremlin lawmakers cited in defense of the new law. The ban, which went into effect immediately, halted the adoption of an estimated 1,500 children.

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  • cynthia m

    I just read this article and I was surprised by how little this journalist bothered to find out about the problems with international adoptions and the controversy around the diganoses of Reactive Attachment Disorder. A look at Wikipedia is all that’s needed to find out that this is a diagnostic term that is frequently, incorrectly used by non conventional practioners of therapies that have been shown to be harmful and to have, on a number of occasions, resulted in the death of a child. Had she looked closely into the 19 deaths of adopted children in the US, instead of glossing over it as if it’s of no consequence, she might have learned something about the misuse of this rare diagnoses, by people who are not qualified, to pathologize children for all kinds of behavior that have nothing to do with actual RAD.

    I found it very strange that after contacting Federici and hearing him demonize children, put forth some manifestly paranoid theories about his enemies, and even expose his homophobia, she chose to ask the very person who recommended him to her for an opinion about him. Again, there is quite a bit of information about him if she wanted to look. He is an advocate of “therapies” for children that any sane person would recognize as physical and emotional child abuse. In adition to this he has tried numerous times, unsuccessfully, to sue his critics.

    Here’s a more critical take on Federici by some people who did do some research: http://www.childrenintherapy.org/proponents/federici.html

    There were numerous other red flags, not followed. For instance, we gather from the article that the children are given work to do as a form of therapy. Fine, but she never mentions whether or not they go to school and in fact, frequently, adopted children going through “treatments” are not sent to school. She never addresses this. Strangely, when the question of the 1.6 million dollars brought in by the facility strikes her as a large amount of money she wonders about it and concludes, “But it seems improbable that anyone would choose this line of work with the objective of turning a profit.”
    Maybe the Ranch For Kids is a great place, but I don’t think any real effort was made to find out. Instead, we are given an impression of buffoonish and evil Russians thumbing their noses at America out of spite. Russia is not the only country to have stopped US adoptions. In addition to abusive therapies and child rearing practices tthat are popular here, there are thousands of adopted kids being given away online, and there is no governmental oversight and nobody tracking what happens to kids who are adopted from overseas. http://www.reuters.com/investigates/adoption/#article/about
    I’ve always thought of Harper’s as the best magazine out there. I hope you will publish an article that takes a closer look at what kinds of things are happening to these so called RAD kids that nobody wants, and who profits from it.

  • http://askbiblitz.com/ ASKBiblitz

    Like Cynthia, I am anxious to read part 2 of this story, which is how the hell do professionals address what ails these kids? Many of us have seen the YouTube video of the little girl who was physically and sexually abusing her little brother after she herself had been abused and neglected. Her adoptive parents sent her to some kind of ‘tough love’ group home that somehow allowed her to heal – to develop a conscience and to understand and forgive herself. Propaganda? Child abuse? What to do when children are violent? Are they doomed to a life of confinement? Surely at the very least experts should be interested enough to start tracking these kids. They have been thru so much and deserve the very best medicine available. Surely the medical establishment – Doctors Without Borders, anyway – feels some obligation to relieve their suffering? Canada, with thousands of native children in similar circs, should very interested in the case studies.

    Please follow up on this story.

    It’s ironic that it ran in the same issue as the column defending studies in arts and humanities. There is certainly little or nothing in math, technology or engineering that would help any of these kids.

  • Peggy Thatcher

    If Ms. Aleksander had looked at the Ranch for Kids website, she could have determined much about this company by the “Resources” it recommends for “RAD.” It appears that the fringe psychotherapy called Attachment (Holding) Therapy, not religion, is Ranch for Kids’ operational belief system.

    In 2006, a task force for the esteemed American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children denounced the abusive Attachment Therapy, its highly authoritarian parenting methods (aka Nancy Thomas parenting after its leading proponent), and its unrecognized, overly-inclusive definition of Reactive Attachment Disorder.


    The APA’s Division 34 (Child Maltreatment) adopted the APSAC task force’s findings and recommendations, included one that advises child welfare workers investigate where these practices are used as suspected child abuse.

    Nancy Thomas parenting is based on isolation, deprivation, humiliation, manipulation with food, forced age regression, and excessive chores/exercises. Her methods have been linked to several high profile criminal child abuse and death cases. (http://www.childrenintherapy.org/proponents/thomasn.html)

    The Russians are more disturbed by this “therapy cult” than Americans. Attachment Therapy/Parenting is still recommended by state and county child welfare departments and adoption agencies. Attachment Therapy’s unconventional beliefs about attachment (e.g. that it begins in utero) and the bogus “RAD” diagnosis even worm their way into Hague-approved adoption education. This is an under-reported scandal.

    Dana Johnson and Ronald Federici have apparently been associates for many years. It’s not surprising that either one of them would recommend the other. But how can a physician ethically associate with anyone who promotes a potentially lethal prone restraint to enforce a child’s compliance?

    Scientologists? Sex change? I dare say these are an incredible ruse to deflect legitimate criticism about Federici’s unvalidated, inhumane, and dangerous methods.


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