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The orphans of our discontent

Bucharest Daily News - 02-feb-06 - Denisa Maruntoiu

While parents and the Romanian authorities are struggling over the 1,100 orphans still caught in the middle of the convoluted international adoptions conflict, high ranking European officials including the Council of Europe's Deputy Secretary Maud de Boer-Buquicchio and European Parliament Member Baroness Emma Nicholson, are gathering in Bucharest for the annual International Conference on Children's Rights. The two-day conference starting today, organized under the patronage of the Council of Europe's Ministers' Committee, aims to find viable solutions for all the problems and challenges affecting the world's children, including the thorny international adoption issue. However, the stories of several Romanian adoptees, some happy, some tragic, illustrate how difficult it might be to find a balanced solution when it comes to children and their future.

Every night when Kathleen Richards reads her six-year-old son Alexandru his favorite bedtime story, she thinks about a little girl whom she will never get to kiss good-night.

Larisa, 4, is more than 5,000 kilometers away, in Romania, and Kathleen doesn't really know how to tell her son that the girl who should have been his sister will never come home to Keene, New Hampshire. That the toys and presents brought by Santa are all for him. That Larisa will get none. The Richards' mission is almost impossible, as Alexandru has been waiting for Larisa more than four years already. Kathleen and her husband David do not know how they can make a six year old understand why Romania, which is Alexandru's native country too, rejected their request to adopt Larisa.

Kathleen, a lifelong Keene resident, and David, a city councilor, have been married for 12 years. Immediately after their wedding, when they were both 30 years old, Kathleen found out she could not have a pregnancy because of infertility. Because they desperately wanted a child, they started working on the process of trying to adopt. "The laws required that we wait until we had been married two years before actually starting to look for a child, so in August 1996 we were officially granted the right to adopt from the U.S. or abroad," says Kathleen.

After waiting over four years without any prospective adoption due to long waiting lists, their local adoption agency, Adoptive Families for Children, informed them about the adoption program they had for adopting from Romania.

"The agency, which was match-making the families that desired a child with the foreign children available for adoption, told us that we would likely be able to adopt a young baby from Romania. In November 2000, we were matched with Alexandru, a ten-week old baby, and after six months he became our son," recount the Richards.

But despite the fact their house was now full of toys, baby babbles, and cheerfulness, both Kathleen and David felt something was still missing: a little girl. After realizing they also wanted a sister for Alexandru, they asked their adoption agency to help them find a little Romanian girl that they could adopt as well.

But in 2001, Romania imposed a moratorium on international adoptions. Nevertheless, the Richards, determined to get little Alexandru a sister with whom he could share the same origins and ethnical heritage, did not give up hope.

In October 2002, after several months of prayers, the received the good news: The match-making agency told the Richards they were matched with Larisa, a six-month old baby living in a group home in Craiova.

The Richards knew about the moratorium on international adoption that had been enforced in Romania since 2001, but thought that having an actual match with the baby meant that they would still be able to adopt her.

"We told our son about Larisa. We placed photos of her all around our home and in our son's bedroom. We really believed she would be home within about six months or so. In our official letter to the Romanian Authority for Child Protection and Adoption in Bucharest on October 14, 2002, we told the adoption committee: We will think of Larisa lovingly and fondly as we await her physical arrival into our lives. She is already in our hearts!" recounts Kathleen.

The Richards knew the adoption procedures might take a while and decided to ease their waiting period by focusing on the most important thing in their lives: Alexandru.

"Alexandru is just a super boy. He is intelligent, outgoing, and interested in the world in so many ways. He loves to travel and see new things; he loves tools, planes, military machines, planets, animals, dinosaurs, maps, karate, and more. He is proud to tell people that he was adopted from Romania. We have a large map of the world up in our house and he knows where Romania is," says Richards.

But what seemed like a happy ending turned out to be the beginning of a long, exhausting saga. Time was passing with no news, and the Richards started to worry about Larisa's fate.

After about seven months, when Kathleen and David found out from the media that none of the approval processes for inter-country adoptions had made any progress in Romania, they started to feel that Larisa's adoption was in jeopardy.

"During this time there were many other families that had been matched with Romanian children who were going through the same process. Also, during this time, Romania's process of moving towards EU membership was in full swing, and we realized it could have been one of the reasons why we had no good news," says Richards.

In October 2003, after a year of uncertainties, the Richards wrote a very detailed and lengthy letter asking anyone who could to help them bring Larisa home. They e-mailed the letter to the President of the United States George Bush, Vice President Cheney, former U.S. Presidents Clinton and Carter.

An excerpt from the letter reveals their despair and bitterness: "Please, please, please, talk to the European Union. Please ask the European officials to set aside the moratorium temporarily or forever. Please ask them to understand that the new EU standards will go into place, in time, but, in the meantime these children cannot wait for politics to be played out. Please ask all those who can make a difference not to wait another minute, don't wait until next month, or two months from now. Do something now. Every day counts in the life of a baby."

Nonetheless, the Richards never heard back from anyone, so they decided to ask for the help of their local senators and congressmen. "During 2003 and 2004, we had our local lawmakers inquire about a resolution to the pending adoption cases. They asked for the help of the U.S. President and any officials in the world that they thought could influence a positive outcome for the children and families," recounts Kathleen.

But in May 2004, after almost two years of nonstop struggle, disaster struck: The Richards received a letter from the Romanian authorities, telling them that their adoption had not been denied officially, but that the new laws on adoption required the adopting family to be a relative.

"Of course, we were not a relative of Larisa, so our hopes were pretty much dashed at this point. We felt that Larisa would not be able to come home to us, but we would not give up hope in trying to help our little girl," says Kathleen Richards.

In June 2004, the Richards made one last desperate gesture and wrote a letter to the President of the National Authority for Child Protection and Adoption, Gabriela Coman, pleading for their little girl to be able to come home. "We told her how our son, who was also adopted from Romania, was already calling Larisa 'baby sister' and how he was telling people he is a big brother. We asked her to reconsider our petition to adopt Larisa, as she really was our baby girl," says Richards.

The answer to their letter came after a year and a half.

In mid-December 2005, the adoption agency called to inform them that Larisa had been adopted by a Romanian family. "We were surprised, but very happy for Larisa. We had been praying for Larisa to have a family for all of these years. We had hoped it was our family, and it did break our hearts that it wasn't. But, we are just so happy that Larisa now has a mom and dad, and that she has a chance for a life filled with love and hugs and kisses," says Richards.

The Richards know that they will never actually have a chance to meet Larisa face-to-face, as all the details about the girl are now confidential. However, both Kathleen and David are sure they will always feel like Larisa's mom and dad, as even if they did not get the chance to meet Larisa in person, the little girl in the pictures, whom they talked and dreamed about for four years, found her way into their souls and minds.

"We will always, always, always have Larisa in our hearts. She will never grow up in the few photographs we have of her. We do imagine her as she is now, a sweet dark-haired, wide-eyed girl who is almost 4 years old now. Our son really wanted to be a big brother, and that is probably the worst part of all of this. He is an only child, and that is fine, but it would have been so much better for him to have a sister who would be part of his life," concluded Kathleen Richards, her voice trembling.

What went wrong: A history of abuses

The Richards' story reveals only one side of the complex inter-country adoption puzzle, still not solved for Romania.

A few years ago, Romania was one of the largest sources of adoptable children. Following the fall of the communist regime in 1989, Romania became known for horrifying scenes of starving, neglected children in state orphanages. When the tormenting images of withered boys and girls, with their heads shaved to prevent the spread of lice, were broadcast all around the world, people of different nations responded with various types of help, including adoptions, 8,213 of which took place in the United States alone between 1990 and 2004.

Thousands of families, shocked by the misery of the Romanian babies, started to pay thousands of dollars to adopt a child and save it from the ramshackle orphanages. Under the Romanian law at that time a substantial amount of the money was meant to be pumped back into improving the childcare system and financing the closure of hundreds of children's homes. But the orphans' tragic situation also opened the door to less scrupulous people, who soon realized that international adoptions were the perfect way to make some easy money. And Romania, freshly free-from-communism, with a hunger for money and a lack of capitalist experience, became a profitable black market for child trafficking.

Several investigations initiated by European officials found that in many cases money had gone to middlemen and officials "at every level".

In addition, adoption agencies were accused of paying birth parents to sign away their parental rights, sometimes approaching the birth mothers while they were still in the maternity ward. The investigations' conclusions stirred fierce criticism of the country's childcare system by the European Parliament's special rapporteur for Romania, Baroness Emma Nicholson, who sparked a public debate in May 2001 with the publication of her report into the system, in which she cited "persistent abandonment of children, child abuse and neglect" and "child trafficking", adding that the "fundamental rights of children have been widely abused in Romania in recent years".

Nicholson said that the country's childcare system was corrupt "from top to bottom", and recommended that Romania be excluded from the accession process to the EU if a thorough investigation and overhaul of the system failed to take place.

In addition, Nicholson successfully lobbied for a moratorium on international adoptions of Romanian children, except in cases of children with special needs, which was enforced in June 2001.

But despite the ban and Romania's promises to spare no efforts in tackling corruption and improve the legislation on child protection, a series of new scandals involving adoptions shocked and angered both the media and governments worldwide, after 2001.

The first setback came to light in January 2004, when the media revealed Romania had sent 105 children for adoption to Italy despite the ban on international adoptions. Nicholson strongly condemned the incident as a "flagrant breach of the UN Convention of the rights of the child", accusing the Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase of closing a secret deal with his Italian counterpart Silvio Berlusconi to continue to deliver Romanian babies to Italy for adoption. Following the controversy which came at a delicate moment for the government, as Nicholson was drafting a report for the European Parliament on Romania's readiness for EU accession at the time, several MEPs called for the suspension of EU entry talks with Romania.

In November 2004, a new scandal involving a nine-year-old boy who had been adopted from a Romanian orphanage by an American citizen broke out, outraging the international media.

37-year old William D. Peckenpaugh from Marion County, Oregon, was accused of years-long sexual abuse of his son, after a sexually graphic video was found in a camera which had been returned to an electronics store. Peckenpaugh, who had completed the adoption in 2001 when the boy was six years old, was arraigned on six counts of first-degree sodomy, two counts of first-degree sexual abuse and for using a child in the display of sexually explicit conduct.

The 9-year-old boy was placed in the custody of the Department of Human Services and remained in a foster home in Oregon.

In December 2005, Peckenpaugh pleaded guilty to all 33 charges and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Another sad story caught the media and governments' attention in 2005, when a Romanian-born girl, Alexandra Austin, recounted how the Canadian couple who had adopted her in 1991, when she was nine years old, sent her back to Romania after only five months because they had adopted another baby from Romania and no longer wanted Alexandra.

Austin, now 23, told the media how she had been stateless for the past 14 years as the Romanian authorities had refused to recognize her as a Romanian, while Ottawa said she did not have Canadian citizenship either. And because her identity was not clear, Austin was denied medical care or education, leaving her with only a Grade 3 educational level. "Nobody should ever do this to a child. I've lost my childhood and my identity", Austin told the media.

Struggle goes on for 1,100 children

Since June 2004, however, in an effort to stamp out corruption and abuses against children once and for all, Romania has passed new legislation cutting off all foreign adoptions except those by grandparents living abroad. Child orphan visas have fallen from 1,122 in 2000 to 57 in 2004.

The new law, which came into effect in January 2005 and states that international adoptions are "the last recourse" in protecting children who are orphans or have been abandoned, giving "absolute priority" to Romanian couples, has affected more than 200 U.S. families that were in the process of adopting a Romanian baby, stirring criticism on the other side of the Atlantic.

The U.S. State Department has accepted that most countries that allow inter-country adoptions first try to place orphans with extended family, then with unrelated families in the same region, then with other citizens elsewhere in the country, and only then with foreign parents.

However, several U.S. officials have said that although the best interests of the child have played a large part in recent procedural changes by some countries, rising national pride has also played a role, suggesting the new Romanian laws on adoption are result of pressure from the European Union.

Many U.S. officials have spoken out against the law, claiming that children remain in orphanages because not enough Romanian parents have the means or the desire to adopt a child.

In addition, Washington said it wants Romania, which hopes to join the European Union in 2007, to handle adoption petitions registered before the ban involving about 1,100 Romanian orphans and abandoned children. A spokesman for the U.S. State Department, Adam Ereli, called on the Romanian authorities to set up a "legal and transparent mechanism" to process the existing applications.

In mid December 2005, the European Parliament's special rapporteur for Romania, Pierre Moscovici, also called on Bucharest to resolve cases begun before the moratorium, "taking into account the real emotional suffering of the adoptive parents." The European Parliament also stressed the Romanian government should resolve these cases "with the goal of allowing inter-country adoptions to take place, where justified and appropriate."

In their calls, the U.S. officials invoke the universal principle of a loving, reunited family as being the fundamental grounds for each decision making process that involves a child.

Their pleas are supported by dozens of happy stories like the one of 15-year-old Jonathan Peter Douglas Yourtee.

Jonathan, Jon for short, was adopted from Romania in 1991 by Edward and Elaine Yourtee, a U.S. couple living in Windham, New Hampshire. He had been abandoned in the town of Constanta when he was just few days old.

But Jon has been trying to forget the old said days. He is now a happy freshman in a Catholic high school, whose life other than school means music, baseball, and skiing, sailing, and aggressive inline rollerblading.

"I have a passion to play piano, clarinet, hand bells, and try to play anything that is put in front of me. I would like to go to college at Berklee School of Music, and when I grow up, my dream job is to have a permanent professorship at Berklee, teaching music," he recounts.

Jon is as happy and vivid as a teenager could be with one exception. "As I was born right after the fall of the communism, I had horrible conditions to deal with as a newborn in the hospital. As a result of not having the nourishment that I needed, and not enough maternal attention when I was a baby, I have had a very mild condition called Reactive Attachment Disorder (a condition in which individuals have difficulty in forming loving, lasting relationships), for which I am getting help," says Jon.

Other than that, Jon believes he gets to have all of the opportunities that he ever could have dreamed of.

"I have a few close friends, and I also have lots of people supporting me. Some of my friends are children that have been adopted from Romania too," he says.

Although he is a happy and optimistic boy, Jon often thinks about the life he could have had if he wouldn't have been adopted. "I probably wouldn't have lived. When I think about what my life would have probably been, I think of living on the street, having to steal for my food," says Jon.

Nevertheless, Jon wishes to visit Romania. "I would like to see where I was born, and see Constanta, and also see the Transylvanian mountains. I would love to ski there," he confesses.

In addition, Jon says he is much attached to the Romanian orphans as he has often helped the Nobody's Children organization to provide medical and humanitarian resources for needy children throughout the world, including Romania. Nobody's Children, a tax-exempt organization that relies primarily on small private donations, local fundraising events, and support from churches and community organizations, was founded by his parents in 1991 as a result of their experience in Romania while adopting Jon.

"I have helped Nobody's Children by packing boxes, playing piano at different press conferences, and playing piano at our annual fund raiser, the Harvest of Hope," explains Jon.

Despite being only 15 years old, Jon has strong opinions when it comes to Romania's policies on international adoptions. "I think that the abandoned children of Romania should have a chance to be adopted internationally, if they are not adopted by a Romanian family. I also advise the Romanian authorities to allow international families to adopt Romanian children because the children would get to feel what it is like to actually have a life where they are loved by a family, because without love, it is not really a life," he says.

Jon is thoroughly American, but he is Romanian by birth and feels he must do something for the children in Romania who he thinks still desperately need help.

"I have a message for the Romanian government: I pray that you do the right thing and let these children come home. I light a candle almost everyday and pray almost every day for the children of your/our country," Jon says, adding he cannot finish his story without also sending a message to all the Romanian orphans.

"Don't give up! Life is like a roller coaster. A roller coaster has ups and downs just like life. But eventually the ups come out on top of the downs on a roller coaster, and that is exactly what happens in life," Jon concludes.

Government, not willing to change the new law on adoptions

However, according to the Romanian authorities, the non-stop pro-adoption lobby initiated by the U.S. officials and families has much to do with the fact that the U.S. authorities have mostly got in touch with the emotional and individual side of the international adoption issue.

The head of the Romanian Office for Adoptions, State Secretary Theodora Bertzi considers that there are many important, unknown details about the international adoption issue which should also be taken into account.

"During the moratorium, the Romanian authorities have approved 1,115 international adoption requests. All of these cases were considered exceptional, meaning they complied with a set of criteria," explained Bertzi. The criteria were established by the National Authority for Child Protection, but were never made public and were used as instruments by the special group that was entitled to decide which cases were special.

The remaining 1,399 requests, made by 1,104 families (several families made multiple requests) were not approved because they did not comply with the adoption criteria. "For example, one of the criteria stated that the child should have been older than three. The authorities considered that children under the age of three had high chances of being adopted by Romanian families or taken back by their biological families," said Bertzi. However, out of 1104 requests, 800 were for children under the age of three.

Bertzi cannot explain why the Richards, who wanted to adopt a six-month baby, were not immediately informed that their request would never be approved as the girl was not old enough to be put up for international adoption.

"It is very hard for me to explain why some things were not done as they should have been. There was a time when the adoption issue was debated at a high level, among prime-ministers, and children were given away for the sake of bilateral relations between various countries. But we don't want this anymore. Children shouldn't be a means of trade for political privileges," stressed Bertzi.

Another very important concept, which seems to have created much confusion among foreign officials, is that of the "pipeline case".

A pipeline case is one in which the request has been approved, and adoption procedures have been initiated but then stopped. "But none of these 1,104 requests were initially approved, so they cannot be labeled as pipeline-cases," said Bertzi, adding that everyone should also know that the Romanian government has never promised to approve all international adoption requests.

In addition, 103 of the requests were for children who were not adoptable at the time of the request, Bertzi pointed out.

According to the previous law on adoptions, an adoptable child was one who either had no parents or whose biological parents had been deprived of their rights as parents. A child could be put up for adoption if the biological parents gave up their rights in court. "But these 103 children were non-adoptable, which means the families were not even supposed to know about them, or to have information about them. Despite this, it seems those who were mediating international adoptions somehow found out about them and informed the families. The mediators had information about the children because they were probably linked to certain persons working in the Romanian adoption system," said Bertzi, adding that the Hague Convention clearly states that no information about a non-adoptable child is to be made public.

According to Bertzi, the mediators of international adoptions should also be taken into account when analyzing the problem.

The most common mediators for international adoptions are adoption agencies.

But even if they are licensed to mediate the process, not all adoption agencies are capable of properly handling an international adoption case, and that is mostly because they lack accurate information on the children put up for adoption, and the specific legislation of the children's native countries.

However, not many agencies refuse an international case as such cases are very profitable. The average cost for an inter-country adoption, which usually includes agency fees, travel expenses, as well as the fees required by the country from which you are adopting, is between twelve and thirty thousand dollars. The adoption agencies' fees vary between 1,500 dollars and 10,000 dollars, depending on the case.

"I know that many families have spent great amounts of money trying to adopt a child. But sometimes it is just not our fault. Sometimes the adoption agencies might be the ones who make the mistakes," said Bertzi. Turning to the criticism made against the new legislation on adoptions, Bertzi says this is not justified at all.

"The previous law on adoptions took the child away from its biological family very easily. The law stated that if the parents had not visited their child for six months, then these parents are to be deprived of their parental rights. Instead of trying to reunite them, the authorities' main preoccupation was to break the relationship between the child and the mother. And it was wrong!" said Bertzi.

On the other hand, the current law tries to do everything possible to reunite the child with its biological family, the state secretary believes. "Social workers are compelled to spare no effort in convincing the parents or other members of the family to take and raise the child. Only if all attempts fail can the child can be put up for adoption," said Bertzi.

Bertzi knows that both the moratorium and the new law on adoptions have broken the hearts of many moms and dads. She doesn't expect these parents to agree with the government's approach to international adoptions, but she hopes they will some day understand that the authorities only care about the welfare of children.

"I cannot tell the Richards much about Larisa, but I can tell them she is now with the Romanian family that wants to adopt her. The adoption will probably be finalized soon, as her new family loves her and she is healthy and happy," said Bertzi.

However, the pro-international adoption lobby initiated by the U.S. is likely to continue, as only in the past two months two top U.S. officials have called on Bucharest to reconsider the law banning inter-country adoptions. At the end of December 2005, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Consular Affairs Maura Harty organized a video-conference stressing that the main concern of the U.S. government is that hundreds of children have been caught up in the middle of a legislative process which has left them with no chance of being integrated into loving families. Harty also said the new law on adoptions should at least include some provisions about the adoption cases initiated before the 2001 moratorium. "The U.S. State Department urges the Romanian government to identify a legal mechanism that could solve the international adoption pipeline cases as soon as possible," said Harty.

On January 10, another U.S. high official, Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler came to Romania to plead for the resumption of international adoptions. Wexler met with President Traian Basescu and Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu, hoping to make them understand the suffering of an American family who had been trying for three years to adopt two Romanian twin girls, the biological sisters of the Springers' daughter Gabriella, adopted from Romania eight years ago.

The new U.S. ambassador to Romania, Nicholas Taubman, supported the same position, underlining that local authorities need to solve the requests they received before the ban.

Nevertheless, Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu recently backed the legislation, underlining that no children will be entrusted to foreign families if they can find homes in Romania.

"I feel obliged to repeat that Romanian law since January 1, 2005, cannot be changed because it is perfectly suited to European requirements, with a view to the superior interest of the child. Those who have made applications after the moratorium came into effect should have known that they were taking a risk," Tariceanu said.

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