By Alexei Anishchuk and Megan Twohey
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Authorities in Moscow said Thursday they are investigating whether Russian children adopted by American families were illegally trafficked in the United States. The probe comes in response to a Reuters series that showed how U.S. parents have used Internet bulletin boards to offload children they regret adopting.
The news agency in September reported the existence of an underground U.S. market where distressed parents are soliciting new families for children they adopted but no longer want.
In a practice known as "private re-homing," people seeking to unload children, and adults seeking to take them, connect through online forums on Yahoo and Facebook, privately arranging custody transfers that can bypass government oversight and sometimes violate the law.
In a single Yahoo group examined by Reuters, a child was offered to strangers on average once a week during a five-year period. At least 70 percent of those children were listed as having been adopted from overseas. Twenty-six of them were said to come from Russia. Yahoo has taken down the group.
Russia's Investigative Committee said in a statement that it would investigate whether any of the 26 cases violated Russian's human trafficking laws or were otherwise illegal.
"Investigators believe that illegal exchanges have been created in the United States on Yahoo and Facebook to carry out illegal transactions in terms of children adopted by American citizens," the statement said.
The Russian statement expressed concern about "sexual exploitation." Reuters described cases of adopted Russian-born children who were passed from home to home, including one girl who said she suffered sexual abuse, and another who said she was required to sleep in the same bed as her naked guardian.
The statement didn't specify which organizations or individuals the Russians would be investigating. It was unclear whether Russia has legal authority to probe activity by Americans that took place in the United States.
Meanwhile, several of the Russian children profiled in the series told Reuters they have been contacted by Russian officials with offers of assistance - including return travel to Russia and help in obtaining or updating Russian passports.
The issue of adoption is a politicized one in the overall chilly relationship between Moscow and Washington. Moscow banned adoptions of Russian children by U.S. families nearly a year ago, in a tit-for-tat diplomatic row over a law passed by Congress that denied visas to Russians suspected of human rights violations.
The Russian Foreign Ministry's human rights commissioner, Konstantin Dolgov, told the state-run news agency RIA that Moscow had informed Washington about the probe. He said Moscow is demanding a "detailed and unbiased investigation" establishing who and where the children are, and that U.S. authorities "hold liable those engaged in these illegal activities, those guilty of violating the rights of the Russian children."
No U.S. laws specifically recognize re-homing or attempt to regulate it, and no U.S. government agencies track what happens to international adoptees. Existing rules that regulate transfers of child custody across U.S. state lines are widely ignored.
The U.S. State Department, which oversees foreign adoptions, has long insisted that any crimes committed against internationally adopted children in the United States are the responsibility of state and local officials. Russian and other foreign officials say a central U.S. authority should track what happens to these children.
In response to the Russian announcement, a State Department official said the agency was troubled by media reports of re-homing and remained "committed to ensuring that protective services and reliable safeguards for the well-being of all children are in place."
Some U.S. lawmakers say they are seeking federal action to protect children subject to re-homing. Since October, a group of officials in the departments of State, Justice, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services have held several discussions of the issue.
Ambassador Susan Jacobs, the State Department's point person on children's issues, said in an interview last month that the group would determine whether there was a need to strengthen existing laws or pass new ones. She said she was "appalled" to learn that re-homing was taking place.
"Congress is now very taken with this issue," Jacobs said. "And we look forward to working with them on finding ways that we can shut this down."
(Reporting by Alexei Anishchuk in Moscow and Megan Twohey in New York. Edited by Douglas Busvine, Mark Heinrich and Michael Williams.)