Alex was the envy of his friends. After years languishing in a Russian orphanage, he had been adopted by an American couple and was moving to the land of cowboys and Indians, America.
Less than two months after his arrival, Alex Pavlis' promising life ended tragically. The 6-year-old was beaten to death by his adopted mother.
Irma Pavlis, 34, of Schaumburg, Ill., was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the December 2003 death. During her trial, she said she loved the boy but that he was mentally unstable and suicidal. Although she recently was sentenced to 12 years in prison, the repercussions of the case continue, both in the United States and in Russia.
As Russia underwent massive social and political reform known as perestroika in the late 1980s, the number of orphans doubled. The opening of the borders had one advantage. Foreigners were all of a sudden allowed to adopt parentless children.
Foreigners adopt about 1 percent of the 700,000 Russian orphans each year, Russian government officials say. Americans adopted 5,865 Russian children in 2004 compared to 1,896 a decade ago, according to the U.S. State Department. In terms of orphans coming to the United States, Russia comes in second behind China, followed by Guatemala and South Korea.
But Russians' disgust over Alex's sad fate is fueling a backlash against foreign adoptions. Adoption advocates say violence in families with adopted children is rare, and Americans -- and Russian orphans desperate for homes -- shouldn't be penalized for this one case. But more politicians are arguing that foreign adoptions are depleting Russia's most precious resource: its youth. They're threatening to impose strict limits on the number of Americans adopting Russian children.
"What is being called for in response to this is a shutdown, a moratorium, which would result in children without families," said Thomas Atwood, president and chief executive officer of the National Council for Adoption.
Irma and Dino Pavlis married in 1995 after meeting in Chicago three years earlier. After two miscarriages, the couple decided to adopt. In 2003, they fell in love with the photo of a young boy on a Web site and decided to adopt him.
Taken back by the $20,000 fees, the couple decided to forgo American agencies and use an independent agency instead, Irma Pavlis' attorney, Shannon Lynch, testified during her trial. Two trips to Siberia and $11,000 later, the Pavlises returned to their suburban Chicago home with Alex and his younger sister in November 2003.
But instead of thriving in his new surroundings, Alex became subject to violent mood swings. He would bang his head against the wall and urinated and defecated throughout the house for no apparent reason, according to testimony in his adopted mother's trial. Pavlis testified that she didn't know what to do about his behavior but decided not to ask authorities for help because she was afraid of jeopardizing the adoption.
On Dec. 18, 2003, she called 911 to report that Alex wasn't breathing. He died the following day.
During the trial, jurors saw a videotaped interview with police in which Pavlis admitted to hitting Alex hard in the stomach and slapping his face. Defense attorneys said Pavlis disciplined the boy but argued that his brain injuries -- and his bizarre behavior -- were caused by fetal alcohol syndrome, a result of his birth mother's excessive drinking during her pregnancy.