Ending the Child Export Business

by Razvan Amariei
3 May 2004

A proposed new law to limit international adoptions will give the European
Union exactly what it wants, and the United States precisely what it doesn’t.

BUCHAREST, Romania–Five months ago, when the European Union threatened to
suspend accession negotiations with Romania over the country’s breach of an
EU-imposed moratorium on international adoptions, Romanian political leaders
shifted into major damage-control gear. With appeasement and promises, the
country managed to avert punishment for allowing more than 100 Romanian
children to be adopted abroad in 2003.

Now, on the verge of codifying the moratorium into law, the country finds
itself under pressure from the United States not to do so.

On 15 April, the Romanian Senate approved legislation that would only allow
Romanian children to be adopted abroad after every option for keeping them in
Romania had been exhausted, and then only by a „close relative.“

The bill is awaiting a vote in the Chamber of Deputies, and if successful, it
will close thousands of pending international adoptions that were begun before
the moratorium took effect in June 2001. Most of the open cases involve
Americans trying to adopt Romanian children, and not surprisingly, some
powerful allies have emerged since the Senate vote to argue their case.

AMERICAN BIG GUNS

In an opinion piece called, „Let Your Children Go,“ published by the
International Herald Tribune on 24 April, no less than U.S. Deputy Secretary of
State Richard Armitage told of his own experience as an adoptive parent and
wrote, „If approved by the Chamber of Deputies and enacted into law, this
decision will deprive Romania’s abandoned children of the better lives they
deserve.“

He continued, „For the children who remain in Romania’s child-care institutions
today, and for those who will be placed there tomorrow, the Romanian
government’s new draft law would be a tragedy. For their sake, the law should
be changed, and inter-country adoptions, with all appropriate protections,
permitted again.“

Romanian officials‘ reply was swift: Gabriela Coman, president of the Romanian
National Authority for Child Protection and Adoptions, defended the bill and
told the press that Romania „no longer wants to be among the countries that
‚donate‘ children, like Russia, Ukraine, and China.“

With a bit more diplomacy, Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana offered a
neutral characterization of Armitage’s piece by calling it „a sign of
friendship for our country, and in the interest for Romanian children.“
Although Romania was open to discussing a „more relaxed“ version of the law, he
added, it was essential to balance the desires of the United States with those
of the EU.

But the U.S. full-court press had only just begun: A few days after Armitage’s
article ran in the IHT, two dozen members of the U.S. Congress sent a letter to
Romanian officials asking for the draft bill to be rewritten. Then the U.S.
ambassador in Bucharest, Michael Guest, issued a statement that said, „We all
want Romania’s adoption system to be clean of corruption. But this doesn’t mean
that thousands of children should spend their childhood in state-run
institutions only because there are no families in Romania to adopt them.“

Meanwhile, the head of the Romanian Prime Minister’s Chancellor’s Office, Alin
Teodorescu, was summoned to Washington to discuss–what else?–his country’s
adoption policy.

WASHINGTON VS. BRUSSLES

Enter Jonathan Scheele, chief of the European Commission’s delegation in
Bucharest. After a hastily arranged meeting with Geoana, Scheele told a
reporter from the BBC that „what really matters is these children’s interest
and not that of some foreign citizens.“ Shortly thereafter, Romanian officials
announced that a group of independent experts would study and report on the
effect of the proposed new adoption regulations.

Most observers say U.S. pressure won’t succeed in significantly changing the
language in the draft law. With NATO membership, Romania has what it wanted
most from the United States, they say. The EU is a different matter. The
country has a long way to go to satisfy European officials ahead of its
anticipated membership, in 2007, which is why many people feel the odds are in
Brussels‘ favor on the adoption issue.

Moreover, this is an election year (local elections are scheduled for June).
Although the nationalistic Greater Romania Party opposes international
adoptions, most political parties in Romania–including the governing Social
Democratic Party (PSD)–have not taken a position on the issue and are not
likely to now, since public opinion favors keeping the children in the country.

That’s a dramatic change from the pre-1989 era, when sending one’s child to be
raised in state-run institutions was not unusual among Romanians too poor to
cope with another mouth to feed. And there were a lot of mouths to feed, since
in his zeal to increase the population, Ceausescu had banned all forms of
contraception and outlawed abortion. By 1989, Romania’s rapid birth rate and
deep poverty had sent 100,000 children (most of them abandoned) to orphanages
to live in conditions that visitors said reminded them of Nazi-era
concentration camps.

The children’s‘ plight was widely publicized by the Western media–television
images of emaciated toddlers lashed to steel-railed cribs triggered an adoption
frenzy abroad, and during the 1990s, tens of thousands of Romanian children
went to new homes in Western Europe and North America. Foreigners who wanted to
adopt Romanian children were viewed as merciful saviors. (It’s a memory
Armitage evoked in his IHT column: „When communism collapsed in Europe in
1989,“ he wrote, „many Americans also opened up their homes, providing these
children with loving families and, indeed, with the bright futures they
deserve.“

By the end of the decade, with significant sums of money changing hands between
lawyers, judges, government clerks, hopeful parents, NGOs, and travel agencies,
adoption had become a business: The seller was Romania, the product was
children, and the buyer was the West. For a country with EU aspirations,
however, it was a liability. In 2001, when the EU made it clear that it wanted
Romania to put a halt to all international adoptions, a moratorium was adopted
(though ultimately flouted).

It’s still possible to find Romanians who believe a child’s best hope lies with
a family abroad, but the majority of Romanians have undergone a reversal in
opinion, fueled in part by media stories of children being mistreated by their
new parents and by sensational, but never proven, anecdotes of orphans sold
into organ-trafficking networks. Nationalistic fears have played a part, too,
in the form of worry that adoptions weaken the country because Romanian
children are „turned into“ Americans, Germans, or Italians–whatever the
nationality of their adoptive parents.

As of this writing, the Chamber of Deputies had not scheduled a vote on the
draft bill, and a committee was still studying the legislation’s potential
effects. U.S. officials continue to try to convince Romanian officials to
change the language. Meanwhile, the fate of more than 40,000 abandoned and
orphaned children still in Romania’s state-run institutions hangs in the
balance.