Adoption logjam as Romania targets `baby trade‘

Date: 1991-06-25 
Adrian Foreman

In response to international outrage over the sale of orphaned babies to American, European and Israeli adoptive parents, the Romanian government has banned adoptions through state agencies but left foreign embassies to screen applicants for private adoptions.

The temporary ban, an attempt to deal with the „baby trade,“ the most embarassing scandal since the end of communist rule in Romania, went into effect June 1, leaving many would-be parents trapped in a bureaucratic limbo, and leaving the private adoption business almost totally unregulated. Until new legislation is passed, the only check on private adoptions are the governments of the countries of adoptive parents.

„Frankly, it’s a bit of a mess,“ said one highly placed Romanian aid worker who did not want to be quoted by name. „I can’t say that officially, of course, but unless parliament passes the new law quickly, we may have a problem.“

Meanwhile, the new legislation has become mired in parliamentary delays, including a disagreement over the title of the law.

Sitting recently in the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel here, a meeting place for some American families awaiting entry visas for their adopted Romanian children, Erv Fairbanks said he felt trapped by events.

„I just want to go home,“ said Fairbanks, a ranch manager who lives near Seattle.

After three months in Bucharest, and $8,000 poorer for travel, living and translation expenses, Fairbanks was living rent-free, courtesy of a sympathetic Romanian landlord. He said the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service was applying the rules too rigidly. They would not accept that his 2-month-old adopted daughter had been genuinely abandoned by her parents, and he would not leave Romania without her, he said.

„I hired a local attorney and did it all through the system,“ Fairbanks said. „The problem is that Enie-Marie is so young, she’s just not been abandoned for long enough for the Immigration Service to accept it. I’ve appealed, and I just hope we get humanitarian parole.“

Earlier, Fairbanks and about 50 other Americans awaiting entry visas for adopted children staged a noisy street protest outside the U.S. consulate, chanting, „Let our children go home.“ U.S. Ambassador Virginia Young told them that „certain cases“ have been referred to Washington with recommendations for humanitarian parole, in which the State Department effectively waives the Immigration Service’s objections, „but it is up to Washington,“ she said.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman said in a statement: „We’re trying to expedite and resolve the cases that are not immediately approvable with the efforts of an Immigration Service team here and the addition of one visa officer. So if there are roadblocks, we’re dealing with them as rapidly as possible. It’s the embassy’s job to administer U.S. immigration law. But to date, everyone has either been given a visa or has won humanitarian parole.“

While there was no suggestion that these families had not acted in good faith, there were unresolved questions about middlemen in the adoption process. Was the average $3,000 paid for „services“ a genuine fee or a back-door payment for a back-door sale of a baby? Had Romanian parents been pressed into giving up children they would have preferred to keep?

No one knows how many of the adoptions being processed by foreign embassies in Bucharest may involve baby sales. But police raids continue on so-called safe houses where several children at a time are kept awaiting clients. A police official in Bucharest said, „We heard about it, so we went. I don’t know how big the problem is, and I don’t think anyone does.“

Some fear the opportunists are simply being pushed underground. Reputable private agencies that work within the law but respect a client’s request for privacy confuse the picture further.

„To dig out the bad by the roots, it’s the only way,“ Ioan Varvara said sadly about the moratorium. He runs a private Romanian adoption agency, and he accepts the government position that to eradicate the baby trade, all adoptions must stop until a new system with cast-iron controls is instituted. „I’ve also got a business taxi driving, so I’ll carry on with that until things settle down,“ he said. „It’s a few people who are making it bad for the rest of us.“

The Communist regime of former President Nicolae Ceausescu discouraged abortion and contraception, and in effect forced poor families to abandon tens of thousands of children in Dickensian, barracks-like state orphanages.

After televised pictures following Romania’s 1989 revolution revealed the horrors of thousands of unwanted children, West Europeans, Israelis and particularly Americans flocked to Romania, offering adoption as a better life for the children. That created a market – and an opportunity for a fast buck.

Poor hospital practices, particularly the transfusion of cheap blood and the reuse of hypodermic needles, had left some children afflicted with the AIDS virus. Orphanage officials allegedly listed some children wrongly as HIV-positive so they would be quarantined and not offered for adoption through the state. Then, with their correct medical certificates, the children were offered directly to westerners for cash.

Doctors with contacts scoured orphanages for „spare“ children, charging „consultancy“ fees to process adoptions through friendly lawyers. Other opportunists simply acted as middlemen between westerners and Romanian parents desperate for a relief from poverty and pleased to give their children what seemed like a golden opportunity in the West.

One doctor, who requested anonymity to protect his position in a state hospital, said a blond, blue-eyed child could command up to $10,000 in fees and what he called gifts. „It’s nothing for someone from the West to pay this sort of money,“ he said. „It’s a fortune for people here.“

Romania had suddenly become the biggest adoption market in the world, processing more than 50 adoptions a day, more than in any other nation. Nearly 90 percent were to prospective parents from abroad. The U.S. consulate here alone has been processing up to 40 adoption cases a day, 1,500 since the beginning of this year.

Facing adminstrative chaos and the rising scandal of the trade in babies, Romania’s quick response last year was to make a list of all children in state institutions who appeared to have been abandoned. Only those on the list could be offered for adoption. Prospective parents were not even allowed to see the child until after the adoption formalities. The list was everything – handwritten sheets of paper giving a child’s name and the barest of personal details.

A few days before the moratorium on new adoptions was announced, a bleak room at the back of the huge Foreign Ministry building was filled with hopeful faces of potential adoptive parents whispering to one another in a mixture of foreign languages. „Tell them you’ll take one who’s handicapped,“ a young Irishman advised a newcomer. „Not very handicapped, you know, just retarded or something. You’ll get through much faster.“

In another room others were trying to persuade a young official to give them early hearings before Romania’s Adoption Committee. „I’ve been here for six weeks,“ said a young woman from Minnesota. The official, ignoring the bedlam around her, ushered the woman into another room in which sat three people. The Adoption Committee was in session.

The woman, who asked that her name not be published, explained that she had specifically wanted a handicapped child from Romania who would fit in with the ages of her other children. Her pediatrician had visited Romania earlier and taken photos of Romanian children available for adoption. She had selected Valeria, 4, so neglected she had never been taught to walk, who was living in a Bucharest orphanage.

„Yes,“ said Dr. Alexandra Zugravescu, chairwoman of the national Adoption Committee. „Valeria is on the list.“

As the questioning proceeded, suddenly there were tears in the young woman’s eyes. Her home study report, written by social workers detailing whether the home circumstances were right for such an adoption, was still being translated into Romanian.

„You don’t understand. I just want to be able to see her,“ she pleaded. „What’s the problem, my dear?“ Zugravescu said soothingly. „Bring your home study tomorrow, and then you’ll see her.“

Zugravescu said later, „Some people, they don’t want to spend the time going through the procedures, or they don’t want the child they first chose, or they want a baby only with blue eyes, and they’re prepared to pay although our procedure is free. There are many private adoptions which we cannot control. We just aren’t able.“

Now a rising star in international child care circles, Zugravescu, who says she is „over 50 years old,“ was brought out of retirement by the Romanian government to reform the baby trade. Her response was to build a new system from scratch.

Under the draft law, prospective parents may choose a child by any means. But they must go through registered adoption organizations in their home countries to complete the process, including provisions for follow-up checks by officials.

The Adoption Committee in Romania must issue a certificate that the natural parents have freely given up the child and that he or she is suitable for adoption. The courts will be unable to register an adoption without such a certificate. But until the new law goes into effect, nothing can be done.

Sympathetic but not sentimental, Zugravescu admitted that some people will suffer. „For two or three months, those here to adopt a child will simply have to wait,“ she said. „But it will be better afterwards. Our concern, you see, is only for the child.“