Letter from Montana — From the October 2013 issue
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Letter from Montana — From the October 2013 issue
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.
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.
On April 8, 2010, two years before Astakhov visited Montana, a typewritten note arrived in Moscow in the hands of a seven-year-old boy named Artyom. “To Whom It May Concern,” the note began:
I adopted this child, Artem Saveliev, on September 29, 2009. This child is mentally unstable. He is violent and has severe psychopathic issues/behaviors. I was lied to and misled by the Russian Orphanage workers and director regarding his mental stability and other issues . . . After giving my best to this child, I am sorry to say that for the safety of my family, friends, and myself, I no longer wish to parent this child. As he is a Russian National, I am returning him to your guardianship and would like the adoption disannulled.
The note was signed by Torry Hansen, a nurse from Shelbyville, Tennessee. The boy walked off the plane alone, carrying a backpack containing Magic Markers and candy.
At the time, Russia was the third leading source for international adoptions in the United States, after China and Ethiopia. Since 1991, when the country first opened its orphanages to foreigners, nearly 60,000 Russian children have become American citizens.
Astakhov had been in his post for a little more than three months. The position of children’s rights commissioner had only recently been established within the Kremlin and wasn’t especially high profile. Unlike his sole predecessor, a well-known human rights activist, Astakhov, a graduate of the Higher School of the KGB, had no background in child welfare.
In the vision of Artyom, the orphan with a knapsack walking the carpeted airport corridor, Astakhov saw an opportunity. The day after Artyom’s return, Astakhov interviewed him on state TV about his life in America. The commissioner stroked Artyom’s pale hand as the boy told him that Hansen was “bad.”
“Did she hit you?” Astakhov asked.
Artyom said no, but motioned to show that she had pulled his hair.
“And what did you do — did you cry?”
“Yes,” Artyom said.
“You are a man, you shouldn’t cry,” Astakhov told him.
Astakhov vowed that Russia would sue Torry Hansen and force her to pay for Artyom’s care and “psychological correction.” He demanded stricter screening guidelines for U.S. parents and more rigorous postadoption monitoring procedures. Within days of the boy’s arrival in Moscow, the two countries announced that negotiations would begin on a treaty — the first of its kind — to regulate intercountry adoption.
Over the next two years, as talks on the treaty’s terms commenced, Astakhov made it a priority to publicize the fact that nineteen Russian children had died in the care of American parents. He arrived at the Ranch for Kids a few weeks before the treaty was sent to the Russian Federal Assembly and President Putin, promising to inform both parties of his findings in Eureka.
The treaty was ratified that July, but that fall Astakhov began calling for an adoption ban. His TV appearances took on an increasingly nationalistic tone as he warned that foreign adoptions amounted to “child dealing” with the purpose of depopulating the Russian provinces to make the country weaker. “Those who spin us tales about the happy lives that Russian children have in America, and their bright future there, are either involved in this business or are simply unscrupulous,” Astakhov said in October.
The country’s sociopolitical climate was primed for this sort of neo–Cold War rhetoric. The many Russian bloggers who responded to the Artyom Savaliev story accused Hansen of returning the boy “like a broken toy,” “a pair of jeans,” “a defective toaster,” “a fucking FedEx parcel.” They were drawing on a narrative common in the late ’80s and early ’90s: that America was the land of abundance, while Russia struggled to feed and clothe its children. Many Russians blame Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, who looked to the United States as a model for post-Soviet Russia, for the chaos and humiliation the country suffered before the triumphant West. Putin has devoted his presidency to restoring Russia’s dignity. He says that Russia need no longer submit to assistance from the United States or listen to its lectures about freedom and human rights. Astakhov might add that they don’t need instructions on how to raise their children, either. Russia, he said shortly after Artyom’s return, can well take care of its own.
Torry Hansen filed a libel suit against Astakhov in a Russian court for comments he made about her in the press, and lost. She was sued by her adoption agency and eventually ordered to pay $87,601 in damages and $1,000 a month in child support for Artyom. The only member of the Hansen family to speak publicly was the boy’s adoptive grandmother, who said that Artyom’s problems included hitting, screaming, spitting, and threatening to kill his family. Hansen has since moved to an undisclosed address in California where she doesn’t answer the phone.
In the summer of 2012, wildfires blazed through much of Montana. When I arrived in September, smoke still lingered in the Tobacco Valley, where the Ranch for Kids is situated on 160 acres of land. Joyce Sterkel met me at the entrance.
“Please tell me which part of this looks like a ‘trash can,’ ” Sterkel said, pointing toward a field where cows and horses roamed.
An energetic woman with high cheekbones and a neatly trimmed bob of white hair, Sterkel, who is sixty-six, has an imperturbable demeanor and speaks in terse, assertive sentences that often make her seem impatient. She told me that allowing Astakhov entry to her ranch would only have made his publicity stunt more successful.
“You know how they would’ve used my face if I had shown up?” she said. “They would have taken whatever I said, dubbed it over in Russian, and put whatever words they wanted in my mouth. And it’s not that I wouldn’t talk to Mr. Astakhov with no cameras, no nothing. I would sit down with him — gladly! — and say, ‘Look, I’m not your enemy. I’m just as concerned about Russian kids as you say you are.’ But I didn’t want to be a pawn in his political game. I was aware of my opponent and I respected my opponent. I didn’t underestimate him, rightly so.”
Sterkel grew up in Sheridan, Wyoming, the granddaughter of Russian immigrants who came to Nebraska in 1906 and worked on a beet farm there. Her father, who was born before the move to the United States, was one of six children. He went to Wyoming and became a printer. Sterkel’s mother stayed home to raise the children and later worked as a secretary.
After graduating from college with a degree in nursing, Sterkel married Harry Sutley, a fellow nurse, and together they purchased the ranch in Eureka, where they raised three children.
In 1992, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, Sterkel embarked for the country her grandparents had left, signing up for a humanitarian mission in Nizhny Novgorod, a large industrial city 265 miles northeast of Moscow. Working as a midwife in maternity hospitals, she saw firsthand the devastation brought on by the collapse of the Soviet state. Especially upsetting was the number of babies left behind in overcrowded orphanages by mothers who couldn’t care for them.
Two years later, Sterkel returned to Montana and founded an adoption agency dealing primarily with Russia. Over the next several years, she adopted three Russian children of her own: a ten-year-old girl named Katya, from an orphanage in Perm; Michael, fifteen, given up by a Canadian family who no longer wanted him; and Sasha, fourteen, who was serving time in a juvenile-detention facility in the States for attempting to poison his second American mother. All three thrived under her care. (Four years ago, Sterkel adopted another child, a newborn girl.)
Soon word spread among therapists and adoption agencies that there was a woman in Montana who spoke fluent Russian and had a way with troubled children. Sterkel began getting calls from desperate parents asking whether their children could come stay with her, whether she could help them. “So one by one, two by two, three by three, they started coming,” Sterkel said.
In 2004, Sterkel had about a dozen children living with her and no place for the many others whose parents kept calling. That year, she bought a second property and posted a sign: the ranch for kids.
There turned out to be a lot of adoptive parents with kids they couldn’t control or understand who were ready to find an out. “There is a great sympathy for Torry Hansen among parents of Russian children,” Sterkel said. “The general public has no idea what one of these children can do to your family and to your life.”
Since 2004, some 350 children have lived at the ranch. During the day, the kids attend classes in a small red-clapboard schoolhouse that Sterkel leases from the nearby town of Rexford, Montana, and staffs with ranch employees; on Sundays, they attend church. While the kids were at school one day, Sterkel led me through the girls’ residences, a maze of bedrooms that resemble college dormitories, except a bit more cramped and without any computers. Rooms are outfitted with two or three sets of bunk beds, each personalized with a colorful comforter and a unique arrangement of stuffed animals.
At the time of my visit there were twenty-five children at the ranch. Most of the adoptees suffer from reactive attachment disorder, an inability to forge healthy human bonds that is often diagnosed in children who lacked a primary caregiver early on, and from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), an umbrella term for cognitive and physical defects that develop as a result of alcohol exposure in the womb. FASD can affect physical development, motor skills, impulse control, memory, learning, and social skills. The degrees of offenses cited by parents who enroll their children here (at a cost of $3,950 a month) vary greatly: some kids are prone to emotional outbursts and unruly behaviors; others have killed a family pet, sexually abused a sibling, or started fires. According to Sterkel, 80 percent of the ranch’s residents will eventually go back to their adoptive parents. The rest will stay until they are readopted by new families or until they turn eighteen, their parents covering the monthly costs in the interim. While I was there I met several teenagers who had been at the ranch for years and did not expect to return home.
In 1997, Laurie Jarvis of West St. Paul, Minnesota, adopted a three-year-old boy from the Yaroslavl region, just outside Moscow, and named him James. A year later, she and her husband returned to Russia to find him a brother. At an orphanage in Danilov, they met a boy who was scratching at a weeping burn on his upper arm that looked fresh and untreated. His file indicated that he had been left at the hospital as a baby, but it provided few other biographical or medical details.
[*] Dennis is not his actual adopted name, but one that Jarvis selected and asked me to use.
Over the next few years, while James grew into a spirited, loving child, his younger brother, Dennis, demonstrated a worrisome volatility.[*]Often, when Jarvis approached to embrace him, Dennis would spit at her or shove her away. His speech was delayed. He had trouble learning to read. “We kept thinking that it was the terrible twos, and threes, and fours, and that he was going to get over it,” Jarvis recalled. The family took Dennis to see more than fifty specialists.
As Dennis got older, his behavior became more threatening; Jarvis wouldn’t describe it in detail except to say that “he was hurting people and animals.” She and her husband, afraid of what he might do, hid all the kitchen knives and installed wind chimes above Dennis’s door so that they could hear if he left his room at night. Then, after years of trying to conceive a child of her own, Jarvis became pregnant, and Dennis threatened to “cut the baby into little pieces.”
Dennis’s most violent episodes were followed by stays in psychiatric facilities. Health insurance rarely covers more than thirty days at a time of inpatient state care; additional treatment, Jarvis estimates, can cost upwards of $20,000 per month. Each program had its own formula of talk therapy and medication, but Dennis always came home the same. Then, in 2005, when Dennis was ten, a doctor referred Jarvis to the Ranch for Kids.
The months Dennis spent at the ranch gave the Jarvises a much-needed respite, and they ultimately decided they could no longer be his parents. Jarvis contacted an adoption agency, which found a foster parent, a school principal, who was interested in adopting her son. From the ranch, Dennis went to live with the foster parent, but he came back to the Jarvises eight months later, before the adoption process began. The principal, who had begun getting sick, later learned that Dennis had been feeding him rat poison.
With their savings nearly exhausted, the Jarvises filed a petition with their county court to dissolve the adoption. Sterkel submitted written testimony that Dennis, who by then had been diagnosed with FASD, posed a danger to his family, an assessment shared by many of the doctors who had treated him. In 2009, Dennis became a ward of the state.
The State Department reports that only 1 percent of international adoptions are dissolved. Experts, however, say that the actual figure is likely much higher, since many petitions are handled by local courts and go unreported to adoption agencies. According to Chuck Johnson, who heads the National Council for Adoption, the number of failed adoptions has risen in tandem with the increase in Eastern European adoptions. Johnson estimates that between 10 and 15 percent of international adoptions result in dissolution or the child being placed in foster care.
Three months after he went to a new foster home, fourteen-year-old Dennis took a .22-caliber handgun from his foster father’s gun cabinet, brought it to Hastings Middle School, and threatened his classmates and teachers with it. (The gun had only one bullet, of the wrong caliber, and it never fired.) News of the incident appeared in newspapers on April 6 — the same week that Torry Hansen put her adopted son on a plane back to Russia.
Last Jarvis heard, Dennis had served time at a juvenile-detention facility near St. Paul. “The grief I feel is ambiguous,” she told me. “I think about him every day and wonder where he is. But I am also afraid of him coming back.”
On Friday morning, the day after I met Sterkel, I returned to the ranch, where the teenage girls were stowing away freshly chopped firewood. “We’ve got a little chain gang going,” said Becky Rose, an athletic woman of forty-one who ran the boys’ house with her husband, Perry. (They have since left the ranch.)
Off to the side, a teenage girl was asleep in the grass, her stringy brown hair falling over her face and shoulders. Ashley had just arrived in Eureka from a psychiatric facility in Texas. In her few days at the ranch, she had repeatedly tried to run away, and each time Rose had trailed her down to the reservoir and talked her into coming back. “Ashley is just scared and she’s unhappy,” Rose told me. “She probably thinks she’s just going to get medicated again, but we don’t really do that.”
Unlike psychiatric facilities and other group homes for kids — which Sterkel uniformly calls “lockups” — the ranch’s staff doesn’t use physical restraints or sedatives, and the children are never locked in their rooms, mostly because there are few places for them to run. Surrounded by acres of wilderness roamed at night by bears, wolves, and mountain lions, the kids rarely make it past the neighboring property before turning around on their own.
Like all ranch employees, Becky and Perry Rose are not certified in child psychology or social work. Previously, Becky worked as a nanny and then as a teacher at a Christian school; Perry was a logger. Sterkel believes that institutionalized children need a traditional family setting, and she hires married couples to act as their surrogate parents. Loretta and Delbert Headings, who run the girls’ residence, own a feed store in town. Sterkel’s daughter Angela, a stay-at-home mom, and her husband, Bobby, a professional horse trainer, look after kids aged five through twelve. Though the staff will facilitate sessions with a local psychologist if the parents request it, traditional therapy isn’t part of the program. “The best kind of treatment is the daily grind,” Sterkel told me.
A typical workday at the ranch may include cooking, cleaning, stacking bales of hay, mending fences, milking cows, and, in the winter months, shoveling snow.
“These kids have not had a good upbringing,” Sterkel said. “They’ve never really seen people work.” Children in her program improve, she said, because living on a ranch teaches them accountability and self-reliance.
As the girls stacked firewood, I asked them whether coming to the ranch had been a difficult adjustment.
“It took me a while to get used to this,” said Elizabeth, who was adopted from Russia’s Samara region, which is near the Kazakhstan border. “I don’t like changes. Most of us here don’t like changes.”
“I don’t mind changes,” said Victoria, who is also from Samara.
“We don’t have the kind of freedom we had at home, but I guess that’s a good thing,” said Elizabeth. “I got in trouble when I was at home and that’s why I’m here.”
“We had a close relationship with our parents. We just ruined it,” said Odin, who was born in Haiti. “Part of being here is helping us overcome our disabilities with FASD.”
“It’s what happens if your birth mother drank,” Elizabeth explained.
Some of the girls appear perfectly healthy but have poor cause-and-effect thinking and struggle making decisions. Others, like a twenty-one-year-old resident named Emily, are cognitively no more developed than young children. Though they perform chores at the ranch, young adults like Emily will never be able to live or work on their own.
I asked Dana Johnson, founder of the International Adoption Clinic at the University of Minnesota, what he thought of Sterkel’s approach to treating kids like Elizabeth and Victoria. He praised her work and told me that her methods were consistent with his recommendation that parents create a calm, structured family environment. When Johnson opened his clinic, in 1986, adoption medicine was virtually nonexistent. The specialty thrived after Americans began adopting from orphanages in Eastern Europe in the early ’90s, bringing an influx of children with constellations of deficits that American doctors had rarely seen. “The kids who arrived here are survivors,” Johnson told me. “They survived in an environment that human beings aren’t supposed to develop in.”
Johnson referred me to Ronald Federici, a neuropsychologist who has made the treatment of Russian adoptees his specialty. When I emailed him to arrange an interview, he wrote back: “Call my manager to set a time.” I did, and we connected the following day.
“There are three things indigenous to Russian adoptees,” Federici told me. The first, he said, is the psychological damage caused by abandonment and neglect in state-run institutions. The second is neurological damage caused by parents’ “drinking and drugging.” And the third is the “physical, sexual, and emotional abuse that run rampant in these institutions.”
Federici lives on a farm in Virginia, where he has raised seven children adopted from Russia and Romania and fostered forty others. He told me that he had treated exactly 11,147 children. “I pick kids up at baggage carousels, at state hospitals, at psychiatric facilities. A couple of people have left them at my property and driven off,” he said. Federici estimates that he has personally seen 658 cases of dissolved adoption, and thirty-eight in which parents have taken the child back to Russia. Torry Hansen, he said, “was just the only one who was dumb enough to put the kid on a plane.”
The goal of the Federici program, as the doctor calls it, is to deinstitutionalize the child. His patients learn proper behaviors, language skills, and how to understand and express emotion, and he teaches parents how to gradually assimilate the child into American family life. According to Federici, the success rate of his treatment, which starts at $8,000, is 83 percent. “And my model is all family centered vs. ditch the kid,” he added over email.
Federici was featured in a 2006 episode of This American Life dedicated to attachment disorders, in which his work was depicted favorably. But in our phone conversations he delivered harsh assessments of the kids he’d treated, and occasionally he went off on strange, paranoid tangents. Below is some of what I jotted down in my notebook while he talked excitedly about his work:
The kids I see are feral as animals — they kick, spit, bite, shove, push, stab.
I’ve dealt with four Russian kids who’ve murdered their parents.
I got bit yesterday. I’m still looking at my hand that’s bloody.
Torry Hansen called me but she wouldn’t accept free help.
I help Angelina Jolie. I take care of her kids.
These idiots who write nasty things about me are all Scientologists. . . . They’re all crazy people. One of them has had a sex change.
Most of them are stalkers. I get a lot of stalkers.
Tom Cruise has written me terrible letters.
After speaking with Federici, I decided to email Johnson to make sure Federici was a reliable expert. This is what he wrote back:
Ron is a controversial figure without a doubt. People love him or hate him . . . Good luck. As you may already know, the passion and range of opinions on a topic is inversely related to the amount of actual data on a subject.
Federici, for his part, was critical of Sterkel’s program.
“The Ranch for Kids — what a catastrophe! What a catastrophe!” he shouted over the phone. “They don’t have a single licensed person there. It’s a ridiculous program. It’s a warehouse program that offers respite care but no treatment. It’s a necessary evil. There is no other place that can be a holding pen for these kids.”
Federici then recommended I look into a residential treatment facility that he’s affiliated with in Eugene, Oregon, called Jasper Mountain. A month’s stay there costs $12,500.
Walking around the ranch on Saturday afternoon I came upon sixteen-year-old Olya, who was sitting on an overturned bucket washing carrots under an outdoor spigot. She had a round face, long pale-blond hair, and fingernails painted sapphire blue.
When Olya was five years old, her biological mother died of liver failure and she went to live at an orphanage in Orenburg, where she remembers being hit often. “I have a high pain tolerance so I didn’t really care,” she said. “It hurt, but I got over it. It could have been worse. I didn’t get molested or anything.”
At ten, Olya was adopted by a couple in Fort Myers, Florida, who had four other children from previous marriages. “I wasn’t a perfect fit,” she told me. “They expected you to pretty much be perfect — the mother did. Perfect size, perfect this, perfect that. The older daughters were, like, skinny.” Often, Olya got in trouble for hoarding food in her room, a habit she had developed at the orphanage. “But me and my Florida mom have a better relationship now because I hardly talk to her,” she said.
As we were speaking, Ashley came over wearing a blue terry-cloth robe embroidered with green frogs. Since I’d seen her the day before, Ashley had chopped off her long brown hair; the new boy’s cut accentuated her large green eyes.
“Yeah, so I got a haircut,” she said.
I told her that I liked it very much.
“I hate it,” Ashley said.
A cat with scraggly fur and a slight limp was pushing his head against her legs and Ashley bent down to pet him.
“Don’t touch him, he’s sick,” Olya said.
“So?” Ashley replied. “I am, too.”
After Ashley walked away, Olya told me she thought Ashley wouldn’t last very long at the ranch. “When she was trying to run away, I told her, ‘This is a great place. You just have to get used to it,’ ” Olya said. “But no. She wants to go home.”
When I reached Olya’s adoptive parents, John and Kimberley, at home in Fort Myers, they put the phone on speaker and explained that living with Olya was very difficult. (They also asked that I not use their last names.) Olya was never violent, they said, but she was dishonest and manipulative. Often, she pitted them against each other, putting a strain on their relationship. “Our marriage was definitely in jeopardy,” said John, who is an orthodontist. “Anyone who knew us before her or even now would say that they wish they could have a relationship like ours,” Kimberley said.
John and Kimberley struggled with Olya for two and a half years and then began asking whether any of their friends might be willing to take her. One couple came forward but brought the girl back two weeks later. Another friend took Olya for six weeks, and again she was returned. Olya would go on to stay in three other homes, including that of a high school friend of John’s in Maryland who became interested in adopting Olya permanently.
John paid for Olya’s schooling and offered to cover the adoption costs, but as time went on, the Maryland couple became increasingly reluctant to make the arrangement permanent. “It just started to turn into them saying things like, ‘Well, if you pay me this amount of money per month to raise her then we’ll keep her, but we’re not going to adopt her,’ ” John said. One night Olya threatened her Maryland mother. The next morning, she was put on a plane to Montana, where Sterkel met her at the airport.
“The Ranch for Kids was a godsend for us,” John said.
As we talked, John apologized for a yelping noise in the background, explaining that it was the couple’s dog. “This puppy is biting like crazy,” he said. “We’re going to have to put her down. She’s just too rambunctious.”
John and Kimberley haven’t been to the ranch and haven’t seen Olya in several years now. Lately, they’ve been talking about repairing their relationship with her. “And we feel bad all the time,” Kimberley said, just before we concluded our call. “Yeah, we feel bad,” John said.
Olya no longer harbors any resentment toward her American parents. “At first I was mad at them for always trying to send me away and for always not wanting me,” Olya said, “but then I realized that it turned out good and I don’t hate them anymore.”
Russia currently has more than 700,000 children living in orphanages and foster homes — four times as many per capita as does the United States. More than 80 percent of them are not orphans at all but have living parents who can’t take care of them. (In 2005, an estimated 70,000 Russian citizens had their parental rights revoked.) Child-welfare advocates have come to derisively call this system Rossirotprom (“Russian orphan industry”), a pun on Rosspirtprom, the country’s state-owned vodka monopoly.
Unlike the United States, which has a vast social-services system in place — counseling, rehab, welfare programs — Russia offers few resources to families in trouble. According to Right of the Child, a Moscow advocacy group, only 9 percent of children who enter state care each year are returned to their parents. Boris Altshuler, the group’s chairman, told me that the state spends $18.5 billion a year (about $50,000 per child) on care for those in orphanages and foster homes, most of which flows into the pockets of the bureaucrats who operate the system. “They need this great flood of new inmates — this supply of goods,” Altshuler said. “If children leave the system, the system will be destroyed.”
In recent years, there have been some efforts at reform. While American couples spend upwards of $40,000 to adopt a Russian child, in Russia citizens willing to foster a child can apply for a stipend — as much as $1,300 a month, roughly equivalent to an engineer’s salary. Many families take advantage of the financial incentive for a few months and then bring the children back.
Following the Torry Hansen affair, a member of the Russian Duma’s Committee on Family, Women, and Children pointed out in a report that while Americans may have returned one boy, 30,000 children were brought back to institutions in Russia over a three-year period. The report also stated that Russia has more orphans now than it did at the end of World War II, in which an estimated 25 million Soviet citizens died.
I asked Altshuler whether there was any hope for change, and he repeated a popular Russian joke. “There are two scenarios of future Russia: one realistic and one absolutely fantastical. One is that aliens from another planet come and make some order in Russia. The other is that we here in Russia create social order all by ourselves.”
In the past few years, Sterkel has been battling a suit filed against her by the state of Montana for operating her facility without a license. The dispute dates back to 2009, when the Department of Labor and Industry cited a number of building- and electrical-code violations at the ranch and declined to renew Sterkel’s provisional license. Sterkel joined her church’s ministry, which, she argued, made her ranch exempt from state regulation. The case had been awaiting a court date for two years without much progress. Then, a few weeks after Astakhov’s appearance in Eureka made national headlines, the Lincoln County District Court scheduled a hearing for November 2012.
Sterkel thought there might be a connection between the Russians’ visit and the court’s decision to expedite the case. “I’m going to throw this out to you because it’s taken me a while to put this together,” she told me. “It was kind of out of the clear blue sky that Astakhov came to see us. Why would someone of that level in the Russian federal government fly here to see us? We’re nobody.” For the next twenty minutes, Sterkel put forth a detailed conspiracy theory, the crux of which was that it must have been the Montana Department of Labor, and specifically its lawyer, Mary Tapper, who called the Russian Consulate in Seattle to draw attention to the ranch and put pressure on Sterkel to give in to the state’s demands. “So I think they cooked it,” Sterkel said. The cost of a license, she said, had recently ballooned to $5,000 per year.
“Of all the people for us to deal with is a childless woman,” she continued, referring to Tapper. “I know that because she told me. I met her once, and I was looking for some point of commonality with her, and most women talk about their kids or, you know, something feminine, I guess. My whole life is wrapped up in working with children, so unless we decided to talk about our hobbies, we didn’t really have much to talk about. She was very nice, though. I don’t want to say anything disparaging about her.”
When I ran Sterkel’s theory by Tapper, she told me that she has had no contact with Russian officials. The November hearing was ultimately postponed to early 2013, when the court ruled against Sterkel, ordering her to comply with the state’s licensing requirements or end operations. She has made the necessary adjustments to the ranch’s facilities and has applied for a license.
During his visit, Astakhov had accused the ranch of profiteering from Russian adoptions. According to the organization’s 2011 tax returns, its revenues have doubled since 2006, to $1.6 million, most of which, Sterkel’s son Bill told me, goes toward overhead. When I asked Sterkel about it, her voice took on an abrasive tone. “You can take my job. See if you like it,” she said. “See if they can pay you enough to do this. We have very modest incomes — very modest.” (Sterkel and her son each reported yearly salaries of slightly more than $30,000 to the IRS.) Given Eureka’s low cost of living, I had difficulty determining how Sterkel could be spending so much on overhead. But it seems improbable that anyone would choose this line of work with the objective of turning a profit.
Sterkel’s ranch is an unsettling answer to an unsettling question, but so far she is one of the few people to have offered one. If Astakhov sees his work as the rescue of Russia’s children from the abuses of American parents, Sterkel sees hers as the triumph of American ingenuity over an arthritic Russian bureaucracy.
When I asked Sterkel why she thought Astakhov and the Russian government wanted to see the ranch shut down, she replied, “I think out of embarrassment. We’re doing something that they should be doing. You should be dealing with this problem, and we’re providing a solution. We pointed the finger that your citizens are defected because of your alcoholism, and your orphanages, and your system, and the way you handle infants, and now we have to clean up your mess.”
Two weeks after President Putin signed the adoption ban, an estimated 20,000 Russian citizens took to the streets of downtown Moscow in a so-called March Against Scoundrels, carrying posters with the word shame stamped across photographs of politicians who supported the law. Representatives from United Russia, Putin’s ruling party, dismissed the protest, calling it the March of the Child Sellers and asserting that “not that many” people had participated. “All the enemies of Russian sovereignty have revealed themselves as ardent supporters of American adoption,” read a statement on the party’s website. Yekaterina Lakhova, the Duma member who sponsored the ban, gave an interview to the news site PublicPost in which she said, “Normally, economically developed countries don’t give away their children.”
Since the passing of the adoption ban, the United States and Russia have clashed over missile defense and arms control, Putin’s continuing support of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and Russia’s granting temporary asylum to Edward J. Snowden, the fugitive intelligence analyst wanted by the United States for leaking national-security secrets. When President Obama canceled a September summit meeting with Putin, he was the first president to have done so since the Cold War. Appearing on The Tonight Show in August, Obama said, “There have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality. And what I consistently say to them, and what I say to President Putin, is that’s the past and we’ve got to think about the future.”
Astakhov is currently seeking to extend the adoption ban to all countries. And he has proposed, under the slogan “Russia without orphans,” to increase the stipend provided to foster families and to close most of the state’s orphanages. Boris Altshuler sees this proposal as an absurdity and has called the adoption ban “cannibalistic law.” I asked him whether there was any hope for its reversal.
“What can I tell you, life is struggle,” Altshuler said. “I’ve lived in Russia since 1939. It is an extremely unpredictable, unstable country. Every day of my life here I could say that. Russia is one of the most interesting countries in the world, and perhaps the most dangerous — for Russian people themselves, and for the world. I don’t know what will happen to the adoption-ban law. I can’t even tell you what will happen to Russia tomorrow.”
In late January, a month after the ban was passed, a three-year-old boy died of internal injuries in Gardendale, Texas. Max Shatto, born in Russia as Maksim Kuzmin, was brought to a hospital with more than thirty bruises on his arms, legs, and torso. Astakhov wasted little time, tweeting, “Urgent! In the state of Texas, an adoptive mother killed a 3-year-old Russian child.” He alleged that the boy’s parents had fed him antipsychotics and beat him to death. It became widely understood in Russia that the twentieth Russian child had been killed by American parents.
The boy’s biological mother, Yulia Kuzmina, had lost custody of Maksim and his younger brother, Kirill, also adopted by the Shattos, as a result of her alcoholism. Shortly after Maksim’s death, Kuzmina appeared on state television pleading that her other son be returned to her. On her way home from the studio, she was removed from a train after getting into a drunken brawl with her boyfriend.
The autopsy results ultimately concluded that Max’s injuries were self-inflicted, and that there were no drugs in the boy’s system. A grand jury has decided not to bring manslaughter charges against the Shattos, who told U.S. authorities that Max suffered from severe behavioral problems and had a tendency to hurt himself. Astakhov has refused to accept the autopsy’s results, and he has promised to help Yulia Kuzmina regain custody of her remaining child.
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