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.
Before her sentencing in early May, Pavlis encouraged prospective parents to seek more information before rushing to adopt. "If anything, learn from what happened to me," she said.
At sentencing, Judge Thomas Fecarotta said he believed Pavlis was sorry but that she was unwilling to accept responsibility for her son's death. She blamed the adoption agency for not telling her the full extent of his problems, the judge said.
Pavlis is now in the Dwight Correctional Center and will be up for parole in 2009. Her husband was not charged in the case. Alex's sister was removed from the home after the boy's death. She remains in foster care.
Riding the Anti-American Wave
While the trial and sentencing barely made news in the United States, the Russian press seized on the story. Russian newspaper headlines appeared claiming that American parents were selling the organs of Russian-born children. Rumors of babies being sold for up to $150,000 started circulating.
Debates raged on in the Duma, Russia's parliament, as the anti-adoption faction called for reform. Federal prosecutor Gen. Vladimir Ustinov sent the government proposals May 5 to draft special agreements with countries whose citizens were seeking to adopt Russian orphans. He would like the government to keep track of all Russian adoptees and be allowed to take action if a Russian orphan falls victim to violence after being placed overseas. The government still hasn't made a decision whether they will pursue the proposals.
Russian-born Natasha Shaginian-Needham, founder of the New York-based adoption agency Happy Families International Center, says if these measures were imposed, they would bring foreign adoptions to a screeching halt.
"There is no way the United States will give Russia control over their adopted children once they are in America," she said.
Americans have adopted more than 43,000 Russian-born children since 1991, according to the National Council for Adoption. In that 14-year period, eight to 12 children have been killed [depending on whom you ask] by their adoptive parents.
"Death could happen with biological or adopted children," said Shaginian-Needham. "Child abuse happens everywhere and it's very hard to predict."
Adoption advocates say the success stories largely outnumber the deaths and almost anything is better than staying parentless. One in three former orphans in Russia is homeless and one in 10 commits suicide, according to Kidsave, an international adoption advocacy group with an office in Moscow.
Kidsave President Terry Baugh said Russia's proposed bilateral agreements aren't necessary, since there is already a multilateral protection agreement called the Hague Adoption Convention in place. And Russia's licensed agencies demand post-adoption placement reports (twice the first year, once for two years after that) filed by a social worker who tracks the children in the American family's home state, she said.
In her opinion, parents need more education about orphans before they bring them home and they also need better post-adoption support. "Families are so eager for blond-haired, blue-eyed kids they don't really listen to the training," she said.
Every child coming from a foster home or an orphanage has been neglected at one time or another, and that creates a whole range of problems, she said.
That's even more reason, says Shaginian-Needham, why Russia should not bar foreigners from adopting. "There's still a stigma about adoption in Russia, not to mention adopting disabled kids," she said.
Those Russians who would be willing to adopt have a difficult time because of the stringent salary and housing requirements, she said. She believes orphans would be unfairly penalized by the government's recent efforts to have Russian children remain listed in a regional databank for eight months -- compared to the current three -- before they can be added to the international database of children for adoption.
The adoption process in Russia also became hampered by President Vladimir Putin's government overhaul. For a year, mass confusion surrounded each ministry's role so that international adoptions remained overlooked. The backlog of adoption requests piled up, with parents and children in limbo. A Russian-American game of ping-pong ensued as adoption advocates pushed to get Putin to act. In March, the Ministry of Education took over the process and started re-accrediting agencies to move international adoptions forward.
Meanwhile, some lawmakers continue their attack on adoption by foreigners, calling it "international trafficking of children." A member of the Duma's Committee for Women, Family and Youth, which is led by lawmaker Ekaterina Lakhova, said foreign adoptions were stimulating the country's demographic crisis, according to a Moscow Times report.
Shanigian-Needham accuses Lakhova of riding the anti-American wave for political advancement. "Only 1 percent of children are adopted by foreigners," she said. "What about focusing on the 99 percent that stay in Russia?"
Reform needs to take place in Russia, Shanigian-Needham said. "Start by weeding out corruption and illegal adoption."
Irma Pavlis said she wished she had been better informed about Alex's background, and she blamed the independent adoption agency for not giving the family a full picture. That's why, Shanigian-Needham argues, families should only use accredited agencies.
Kidsave's Baugh couldn't agree more. Meanwhile, her agency is trying to get more Russian orphans placed with families in their native country. "We are trying to move more kids into Russian families and get laws changed," she said.
Baugh suggested creating adoption incentives and easing restrictions on Russians looking to adopt. She also called for programs where prospective parents and young orphans would be able to get to know each other before taking the plunge.
"Once people meet these kids, they fall in love and stay connected," she said. "And that's what these kids need."