ANTANANARIVO – After two years of intense lobbying and longing, Pascale and Rayonde Segalen were finally ready to take their newly adopted daughter home from Madagascar.
The French couple first found Sarah when she was just a few weeks old, after she had been abandoned and left at an orphanage in the highland city of Antsirabe.
Each year, hundreds of babies like Sarah are given up by their mothers in the impoverished former French colony of 17 million people. Many are left on rubbish tips or in the bush.
For years, adoption was a murky process — with no central state controls, orphanages and adoption centres dealt directly with interested couples, money changed hands, officials were bribed for a stamp of approval and the deal was done.
Now, the government has made it tougher for foreign couples to adopt, saying the demand for orphans had become so great it was encouraging some extreme practices, like child trafficking by money-hungry middlemen.
The new rules are meant to make the process more transparent but some orphanages complain that they have been left with fewer resources, making life harder for their children.
Every year, thousands of French couples try to adopt children from the vast Indian Ocean island where three quarters of the population live on less than a dollar a day.
Many of the couples are willing to lobby politicians or pay large sums of money for the children.
The Segalens say no money changed hands for Sarah and that they fulfilled their dream simply through fierce lobbying.
But by the time the paperwork came through, Sarah had spent nearly two years in an orphanage with no heating and too few blankets. Frostbite left her cheeks scattered with pockmarks.
“She was a bit traumatised at the beginning but she’s more relaxed now,” said Pascale, a 43-year-old banker, as she cuddled the 18-month-old girl in the capital Antananarivo before heading back to France. “She’s eating properly.”
Madagascar’s government says would-be adoptive parents were offering handsome rewards for children and poor orphanages started to actively seek children to meet the demand.
In extreme and rather rare cases, unscrupulous middlemen would sometimes provide children to the orphanages, where few background checks were done.
The authorities say no statistics exist on child trafficking, partly because it has often been facilitated by corrupt officials. But police believe it was widespread.
“We started receiving complaints about missing children,” said Fulgence Rabetafika, family division police commissioner for Madagascar. “So we put these orphanages under surveillance.”
Rabetafika said evidence started to emerge of trafficking rings supplying children to adoption centres for cash. Often the centres knew nothing about the children’s real families, he said.
“We started to uncover well-organised networks. They were taking in children, doing adoption applications,” he said. ”We’ve been able to break up five of these networks. In each case, some centre was implicated.”
The inquiry prompted President Marc Ravalomanana to halt all adoption, pending a review of the system, in December 2004. In September this year, parliament passed a law decreeing that all applications for adoption would go through a central authority – orphanages and shelters would no longer do applications.
“The prospective adopter can no longer address his request directly to the centre,” said Rabetafika. “That is to avoid trafficking.”
The United Nations children’s fund (UNICEF) thinks the changes are long overdue.
It wants each country’s laws to reflect the Hague Convention on the rights of the child, which says that the best interest of the abandoned child, not the adoptive parents, must be the only priority and that adoption, especially international adoption, should always be a last resort.
“The system as it was before was driven by the demand of adoptive parents,” said UNICEF country director Barbara Bentein. ”The Hague convention wants to end the beauty contest where parents go to the centre and choose their child.”
Bentein said even when centres knew the mother of the abandoned child, they all too quickly offered adoption as a solution before examining the mother’s predicament, which might often involve poverty and inability to support another child.
“The centres do not have much interest in the biological family of the child. ’Why is the child abandoned?’ is not (their) preoccupation,” she said.
“It’s not always sure that the child is really abandoned with the parents fully understanding that this means the link will be broken forever.”
Bentein also said there was a general assumption that a poor child would be better off in a rich western family.
The rule-free system was also risky for adoptive parents — with no checks and balances, families and children were often mismatched. In extreme cases, parents “bought” a child only to find out later that the child was mentally handicapped.
Despite the dangers, aid workers at the Akany Avoko orphanage, outside the capital Antananarivo, said the new law had created bureaucratic bottlenecks that left more children growing up without families.
The centre takes dozens of abandoned babies but its resources are scant. It puts several babies together in each wooden cot and feeds them whatever it can afford.
“We take in children who are completely abandoned – in dustbins, in the road, in the forest,” said Nina Razamamana, the assistant director. “We can’t find their parents, neither can the police.”
Razamamana said such children have no hope of finding a family without adoption.
“We used to do adoptions but we were blocked. Children are coming in, we don’t know what to do with them all,” she said, balancing a crying infant on her arm and another on her knee.