November 2005

Romania through international eyes
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International adoptions: an update

Ten years ago couples from all over the world came to Romania to adopt children. An estimated 30,000 children were adopted internationally between 1990 and 2001, when the practise was banned by the Romanian government. In the first of two features looking at Romania’s children in state care, Vivid provides a comprehensive update on international adoptions – looking at what led to the ban, where the US and EU stand on the issue, and what is the international context.

by Rupert Wolfe-Murray
November 2005

The chidren in these photos are winners of the national Edelweiss contest – nine categories of prizes in sports, arts, science and drama – and are seen here enjoying a holiday camp in Buzau. The annual Edelweiss contest is open to children who are living in state care. (All photos by Horia Marusca).

What went wrong with international adoptions in Romania? Things were looking so good in 1997, when bold new legislation was introduced, the social welfare system started to be reformed, and international adoptions were built into the reform process. Prior to 1997, international adoptions had been somewhat of a free-for-all and this new legislation was designed to bring order to a corrupt and chaotic system. The considerable sums of money which adoptive couples were willing to pay to adopt children was to be made available to local authorities and new social services were to be built up.

Unfortunately it didn’t work as planned. The sums of money that adoptive parents were asked to pay (up to $30,000 per child, according to the websites of adoption agencies in the United States) did not generally find its way into the coffers of the local social services; but the legion of intermediaries who assisted with the paperwork – fixers, lawyers, judges and directors of children’s homes – were in a better position to negotiate a fee and benefit from the process.

Theoretically, international adoptions are a good thing. According to the Hague Convention on Inter Country Adoptions – the international set of standards regarding this issue – international adoptions are only supposed to take place once the local solutions have been exhausted. The standard procedure is that a child which has been separated from its family should be placed within the extended family, if possible, or adopted nationally. As a short term solution, foster families are considered the best option. Only after it is clear that these “local” solutions are not possible should the international adoption process begin. In practise, local officials were often susceptible to the considerable cash incentives involved in finding “international” solutions as a priority. According to Jonathon Dickson, a British sociologist who published a research paper on the issue in 2001, the international adoption process distorted the Romanian social welfare system. “Inter country adoption may be used to secure some resources – financial and professional – for the development of domestic (social assistance) services, but paradoxically it undermines the effectiveness of those services for the children who are left behind.” The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which pumped $15 million into reforming the child welfare system, also issued a report in 2001 which outlined the negative effect that international adoptions was having on Romania’s social welfare system.

Other identified problems include those of institutionalised children adjusting to family life, and the fact that adoptive parents want newborns and not children from institutions. This last point overturns one of the main pro-adoption arguments which is that it helps empty the child care institutions. In fact, international adoptions were said to have created a so-called “pull factor” of children into Romanian institutions; children could then be declared abandoned and then made available for adoption.

Scandals were common in the late 1990s but things started to look really ugly when Baroness Emma Nicholson, the Rapportuer on Romania for the European Parliament, spoke out. Her outrage about international adoptions has become almost legendary in Romania, and by making the connection between adoptive children, the high number of Romanian street children in Western Europe, people trafficking and the international trade in organs, she was bound to stir up a hornets nest.

The fact is that the vast majority of adoptive parents are good, middle class people who just want a child, and I am sure that none of the couples who came to Romania with good intentions have anything to do with organ trafficking or any other illegal practice. However, by going to another country to adopt a child you are entering a legal minefield which may have an impact in ways that may not be immediately apparent. It also opened to the door to less scrupulous types who may be involved in illegal practices – and international adoptions are poorly regulated in many countries. Britain is one of the few countries which require a full social service evaluation for those who wish to adopt internationally.

International adoption is a fiercely complex legal issue and it is no coincidence that the countries which facilitate the most adoptions – China, Vietnam, Guatemala, and Kazakhstan – have weak legal systems which can be subverted by those with enough financial resources. These countries also tend to have an easily intimidated media, so cases of abuse may not reach the public’s attention. In this context, Romania is to be congratulated for facing up to the fact that its institutions and officials were unable to resist the temptations involved.

Under pressure from the EU, the Nastase/PSD government imposed a moratorium on international adoptions in 2001. This led to a series of diplomatic wrangles, as parents who were in the process of adopting Romanian children proceeded to lobby their governments to help. Over 1,000 international adoptions took place during the years of the moratorium, in secretive circumstances involving much prime ministerial lobbying (most notably, from Silviu Berlusconi). However dubious these cases seemed, the fact is that they were the so-called “pipeline cases”, in other words applications to adopt that had been made prior to the moratorium coming into effect. Today, all such cases have been resolved and there are even 16 children in Romania who have been approved for international adoption, but the foreign parents no longer want them.

New legislation passed in the Romanian Parliament last year – for the “Protection and Promotion of Child Rights” – makes international adoption possible only for grandparents. The new law also puts into place a complex de-institutionalisation process and establishes ways for local services to place children in substitute families.

The new legislation came into effect this year and one of the results has been the setting up of the Romanian Office for Adoptions. This office, run by Secretary of State Theodora Bertzi, is empowered with implementing the new legislation based on the principles of child rights. On the one hand this is good – the main principle involved is that any decision made on behalf of a child in difficulty must be in the interest of that child. On the other hand, facilitating national adoptions has become more complex.

According to the Romanian Office for Adoptions there are over 1,200 Romanian families who have registered their interest in adopting children. Unfortunately, less than 350 adoption cases have been processed this year (in previous years, up to 1,000 children a year were being adopted nationally). Although the solution to those children who have been separated from their families is here – national adoptions – the procedures are now more complex and the resources are not yet in place to facilitate the process effectively.

It is well known that birth rates have been in decline in the West for some time now, especially the Mediterranean countries of Italy, France and Spain. Families which are unable to have their own children are faced with the possibility of adoption; but adopting in most Western countries is both complex and time consuming. Not only are the procedures complex but there are simply not enough young children available for adoption each year. Demand far exceeds supply.
International adoption is not a new practise. It started as an organised state-to-state process following the Korean War when American families would adopt children displaced or orphaned by the war. What started as a genuine humanitarian action became distorted as the adoption agencies built their capactities and began prioritising their American clients, who were paying “top dollar,” instead of deciding what was best for the child.

One issue which haunts the entire international adoption practise is the meaning of the word “orphan.” Is the child really an orphan, or has an agreement been made with a poor family to make their child available for adoption? It is a word that carries much value in terms of public relations (“adopt a child and give it a family”) but can hide a more complex reality, and even a family who may have been willing to take back the child.

In Romania’s case, the vast majority of international adoption cases were not real orphans. These issues raise fundamental ethical questions which are not easy to answer.

In Africa, Latin America and the Arab world the practise of international adoption is frowned upon and generally not permitted. Thus, until the 1990s, international adoption was not a widely carried out practise. This all changed with the fall of the Iron Curtain and the opening up of scores of formerly oppressed countries. During the early 1990s Romania “led the way” in the international league table of adoptions. By the end of the 1990s Russia and China were at the top of the league. According to a recent article in the Daily Mirror over 50,000 Chinese children have been adopted by American families in the last ten years.
The international adoption business has grown exponentially over the last 15 years, as countries like Spain, France and Israel encourage the practise to boost falling population numbers. But this growth is erratically monitored and is, in effect, unregulated. Scandals have started breaking out around the world – the London Times recently exposed a trade in child body parts from Ukraine and made a connection with international adoptions and the Russian parliament has been outraged about the murder of 15 Russian children by adoptive parents in the United States. Consequently, a moratorium on international adoptions has been imposed in these countries. Does this spell the beginning of the end for international adoptions, or will it be possible to regulate the practise effectively?

See the Recent Statements on International Adoptions this issue ...


Rupert Wolfe-Murray is an independent consultant who works on child rights, regional development and public communication projects. This comment was submitted to Vivid in a personal capacity.

In next month’s Vivid Rupert Wolfe-Murray looks at Romania’s child welfare system and assesses how many children are still in institutions, how many have been placed in “substitute families” and what new services are available to those mothers who are considering abandoning their baby in maternity hospitals. He will examine the reform of the child welfare system and assess how effective it has been.