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European parliamentarians change the course of international adoptions in Romania

Bucharest Daily News - 03-mar-06 - Denisa Maruntoiu

In spite of the general belief among Romanians that the European Union fully supports the law banning international adoptions, Bucharest Daily News found out a significant number of EU lawmakers fight a tough battle to persuade both the European Commission and the Romanian government that such adoptions are a viable alternative for orphaned children.
Among those fighting the battle is the EP's rapporteur on Romania, Pierre Moscovici.
Still, their voices remain unheard in Romania.
Why there's only one voice speaking on the subject on behalf of the entire European Union, no one knows.
But some of the MEPs accuse Baroness Emma Nicholson, the driving force behind the ban, of carrying a personal crusade against international adoptions, following the experience she had with an Iraqi boy she took care of for years.

If one would stop every meter on the most crowded street in Bucharest to ask random people if they think Romanian orphans should be up for adoption by foreign parents, the answer they would invariably receive would be "Yes," "Why not?" and "They should be that lucky!"

If one would ask people who work in child protection services, journalists and politicians why Romanian orphans cannot be adopted by foreign families according to the new law, the answers would basically be: "Because the European Union doesn't support it," "Because it leads to child trafficking and abuses" or "because there are plenty of local families who want to adopt our own orphans."

What neither ordinary Romanians nor professionals in the field seem to be aware is that a wind of change is blowing in Brussels.

A lot of the European parliamentarians have changed their views on the matter and are actually lobbying both the European Commission and the Romanian government hoping they will change the present interdictions.

This aspect was revealed to the Bucharest Daily News through abundant feedback from European lawmakers who, following the publishing in our newspaper of a series of articles ("The orphans of our discontent") covering the international adoption issue in early February, contacted our newsroom to point out that a large majority of the EU lawmakers are in favor of international adoptions and not against, as perceived in Romania.

Hence, Bucharest Daily News decided to contact as many MEPs as possible to find out which is the majority's position and its arguments concerning the controversial issue of international adoptions.

To our surprise, it suddenly became tough to find a European Parliamentarian who would speak against international adoptions.

Most European Parliamentarians changed their minds in December 2005

"Having taken over Emma Nicholson's role as the EU Parliament rapporteur on Romania, I hold her contribution in high respect and place myself in the continuity of her work, even though our approaches and sensitivities differ. We notably differ on the issue of international adoptions of Romanian children," says Vice President of the European Parliament Pierre Moscovici.

Moscovici's position on international adoptions is likely to come as a surprise to many, as never before had a European official publicly declared in Romania an opinion in opposition to that shared by Nicholson.

And the bolt from the blue might be even greater for the large majority of the Romanian public who, for many years, has believed that Nicholson's radical anti-international adoption outlook is shared by all members of the European Parliament: six other MEPs have informed us that the intense anti-international adoption campaign guided by Nicholson led to the misconception that Nicholson's view is in fact the official view of the EP as a whole. "The vote on the resolution on the extent of Romania's readiness for accession to the EU, on December 15, 2005 shows an increased awareness of a lot of MEPs on the issue of international adoptions in Romania. For instance, during the vote on this resolution, the amendments by Baroness Nicholson that dealt with child protection and adoption were all rejected, which proves that a majority of MEPs don't agree with her on this subject," says French MEP Claire Gibault.

During the ballot on Moscovici's report, the MEPs voted in favor of the oral amendment that urges Romania to act "with the goal of allowing inter-country adoptions to take place, where justified and appropriate, in those special cases".

"The amendment to the EP's latest report on Romania's progress that stated Romania should review the pending cases with the goal of allowing international adoptions was approved, as far as I could see, by virtually a unanimous show-of-hands during the vote last December. The plenary was as close to full during that vote as it has ever been, in my experience," says British MEP Charles Tannock, a member of the Group of the European People's Party (EPP).

In addition, Belgian MEP Frederique Ries, one of Nicholson's colleagues within the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), says that the only report the EP ever voted on with regards to the issue ("Improving the law and cooperation between member states on the adoption of minors," 1996), clearly states that "we (the EP) do not discourage international adoptions but promote them as an instrument of international solidarity."

The issue of international adoptions, and more specifically, "pipeline cases," which refer to the 1,110 families around the world that were in the process of adopting children when the prohibitive legislation came into effect, rapidly became the controversial point of the EP's debate in December. "But the real fight took place in the liberal group where I and others had to fight till the end Nicholson's own version, which justifies the ban in Romania. Just to give you an indication, she said that Romania's legislation is now in line with those of EU member states! The argument is false, as other member states do not ban international adoptions," says Ries.

According to Gibault and another French MEP, Jean Marie Cavada, even if the official position of the EP while Nicholson was rapporteur for Romania was indeed that international adoptions should be banned, "most of the EP members have now (December, 2005) found out what reality is, and consequently changed their minds."

The same aspect was maintained by Moscovici, who told Bucharest Daily News that the vote of his report "marks a turning point in the position of the EP on this matter."

Of 10,000 abandoned children, only 1,300 adopted internally

According to the EU lawmakers that granted us interviews, the change of attitude, although almost unnoticed in Romania, is the outcome of both a thorough analysis of the arguments in favor of the adoptions and the lack of factual evidence concerning Nicholson's fierce censure.

The European Parliament has realized that, despite improvements in the child welfare system in Romania, the problem of child abandonment continues, and the needs are simply greater than Romania can take care of alone amid its budgetary constraints.

A contributing factor to the change in attitude was a UNICEF survey on the situation of child abandonment in Romania, published in January 2005, which reported that about 10,000 children were abandoned in 2004.

"Child abandonment in 2003 and 2004 was no different from that occurring 10, 20, or 30 years ago," the survey also stated.

Indeed, the stream of abandonment seems very high compared to the annual number of domestic adoptions which has not exceeded 1,300 in any of the last five years, according to the statistics of the National Authority for Child Rights Protection.

"In Romania, international adoption can serve the best interest of the child. Foster families, even if they are well trained, remain temporary measures and therefore can't totally fulfill the affective needs of the children. As not enough Romanian parents currently have the means or the desire to adopt a child, international adoption remains the best solution to provide abandoned children with the permanent protection they deserve," says Gibault, who labels international adoptions not as a trade of children, but as the best way for an abandoned child to find a mom and a dad.

"Inter-country adoptions lead to cultural mixing, open-minded behaviors and tolerance. Therefore the ban on international adoption should be lifted," adds Cavada.

Although the global issue of international adoption is of profound concern, the EU lawmakers' top priority is to work out at least the pending cases, on the grounds that at least the 1,100 pipeline children could have homes with caring and loving families who have proven their commitment to the children, waiting long periods, in some cases more than four years, to adopt them.

"In cases that started prior to the new law the Government should allow the adoption to go through as soon as possible, even before the final assessment of the Commission is given in April. The fact that adoptive parents haven't given up and keep fighting for their children for so long is the best proof of the love and care those children deserve," points out Portuguese MEP Paulo Casaca, a member of the Socialist Group in the European Parliament (PSE).

No proof of Nicholson's traffic and abuse allegations

In her report into the Romanian adoption system, published in May 2001, Nicholson cited "persistent abandonment of children, child abuse and neglect" and "child trafficking."

She also said that dozens of Romanian children were adopted abroad against their will by families that did not take proper care of them.

However, both Gibault and Casaca point out that Nicholson has never presented the EP tangible evidence of such cases.

"Nicholson keeps talking about the existence of 'constant evidence,' but she has never presented any. All she can say when she is put under pressure is 'But everyone is talking about it!' We do not deny that there were some cases of abuse or trafficking, but it concerned a very small minority of children. Baroness Nicholson wants to make us believe that all international adoptions lead to abuse, but as long as she does not bring us concrete evidence of that, she will not convince us," says Gibault.

Casaca has a similar viewpoint, emphasizing that Nicholson makes a number of serious undocumented accusations regarding inter-country adoption, equating it to human exportation and trafficking violations.

"Nicholson is not the EP and her views on inter-country adoption, on Romania or on the world are not, fortunately, the views shared by me and by most of my colleagues," adds Casaca.

But the accusations brought against Nicholson do not stop here, as Gibault says that Nicholson's fierce criticism of inter-country adoption is in fact the result of a personal negative experience.

"Nicholson adopted an Iraqi child after the first Gulf war. But a rift developed between her and her child and now they don't have contact anymore, according to the Daily Telegraph. But just because she experienced an adoption failure does not mean that she has to carry on a personal crusade against international adoptions, thus preventing Romanian children from finding a family," recounts Gibault.

'Sometimes I wish I had not been saved'
(The Daily Telegraph; 05/03/2004)

"He was one of the most poignant symbols of the brutality of Saddam Hussein. Amar Kanim, then 10, suffered terrible burns after the dictator ordered his tanks and guns to fire on his own people at the tail-end of the first Gulf war.

Discovered close to death by Lady Nicholson in an Iranian hospital, he became the focus of a national appeal after he was brought to Britain.

Since then he has made a remarkable physical recovery thanks to 26 major operations and the charity named after him, the Amar Foundation, has raised more than £8 million to ease the suffering of the Iraqi people.

But what looked like being a happy ending has since turned sour after a rift developed between him and the woman who saved his life.

Now 23, unemployed and homeless, Amar claims he has been abandoned by Lady Nicholson, the former Tory and Liberal Democrat MP. Lady Nicholson, now an MEP for a constituency in the South East, denied she had abandoned Amar and said he had left her.

But he said yesterday: "Sometimes I wish that I had never been saved. I have no family over here and I am a long way from my own culture and now I feel like I have been abandoned.

"Emma said that she would be my mother for ever. Then she turns around when I am an adult and says she doesn't want anything to do with me. You don't do that to your own child.

"If you save someone's life and you bring them to another culture away from their family then you have a responsibility for them. I am very grateful that she saved my life but I feel like I have been used. Now that I am older I feel I am past my sell-by date. (...)"

The adoptions ban is not the best solution to prevent abuses

Although the MEPs consent that in many cases previous to 2001 parents from abroad simply bought Romanian babies, thus encouraging the corruption in the adoption system, they do not consider the ban to be the most appropriate solution for preventing illegal maneuvers.

"If the Romanian authorities lead this fight resolutely, and we are sure they do, corruption shouldn't stand in the way of a proper working of international adoption anymore. Moreover, when the Romanian authorities resume international adoptions, they will have to enforce rigorous procedures to prevent those illegal practices from recurring," says Cavada.

As for the cases in which Romanian orphans have been abused by adoptive parents, Tannocks underlines that there is no evidence that abuses are more frequent in domestic or international adoption cases than they are in their natural biological families.

"Trying cynically to allege that other interests are involved in anything but a miniscule minority of cases not only does not square with the facts, but also does an injustice to the interests of abandoned children in finding families to raise and love them," he points out.

The new Romanian law on adoptions not only has sparked protests among the families whose adoption cases were in the pipeline, but also influenced the Helsinki Commission to accuse Romania in mid-September 2005, of trading its children for EU membership. On the other hand, the Romanian government explained that the new adoption laws were developed along with a group of experts from the European Commission, based on the U.N. Convention for child rights, the Hague Convention for Child Protection and European practices in the field.

The MEPs disagree, pointing out that the U.N. Convention establishes the principle of subsidiarity for international adoption, specifying that such adoption "may be considered as an alternative means of child care, if the child cannot be placed in a foster or an adoptive family or cannot, in any suitable manner, be cared for in the child's country of origin."

In addition, the Hague Convention, adopted four years after the U.N. Convention and also ratified by Romania, also confirms in its preamble the principle of subsidiarity for international adoption.

"It is the view of experts that there are no relevant international conventions that forbid international adoption. The Hague Convention sets out rules for international adoption under the assumption that it can be the best solution for children who cannot find permanent, family-based solutions in their own country," says Tannock.

His position is reinforced by Casaca, who believes that the virtual elimination of international adoption as an option for child protection in Romania is particularly surprising since countries such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Spain have the highest rates of international adoption in the world.

"And they all have signed, acceded or ratified the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Cooperation in respect of inter-country adoption," adds Casaca.

Another serious issue tackled by those pleading for the resumption of international adoptions is related to the fact that the new legislation was applied retroactively, thus leading to the blocking of the pending adoptions requests.

"The EP called for a solution to be found for those pipeline cases - to which the Romanian government responded by announcing the establishment of a 'committee of experts,' to look into the pipeline cases. In practice they didn't look into the cases to find the best for the child and the adopting family, to see if there is an emotional bond, if the child knows his adopting family or if they've met and maintained contact," argues Casaca.

"The Romanian law was obviously set because of EU pressures"

The issues concerning the new adoption legislation have stirred yet another storm, which links Romania's decision to enforce a restrictive law on adoptions to the European Commission's stance on the subject. Thus, several voices within the EP state the European commissioners have pressured Romania into imposing both the ban and the new law, without having a clue about the real situation of Romania's abandoned babies.

"It is not my wish to question a Romanian law, but what I profoundly regret is that it was obviously taken because of EU pressure. Yes, there have been unscrupulous agencies, yes, there have been abuses, but do you forbid all marriages because some men beat their wives, because some of them are marriages of convenience?" says Ries, referring to Nicholson's repeated assertion that the EC shares her anti-international adoption view.

According to Ries, the EC seems to have made Nicholson's creed its own, despite the fact that a ban was never imposed on other new members (Poland, Hungary), which clearly angers the members of the Bureau of the Hague Convention. "What appalls me is that the principal obstacle to the protection of the child seems to be found in Brussels, not in Romania," stresses Ries, adding that dozens of MEPs are currently trying to bring the EC, which is "largely biased" on the issue, to re-consider its position.

On the other hand, Gibault believes that the EC shares Nicholson's view on international adoptions because she managed to convince the commissioners with arguments she was never able to prove.

"In a press release from November 2005, the EC states that 'there are 1355 Romanian families registered to adopt one of the 393 children available for adoption. Thus there is little scope, if any, for international adoptions. However, according to Romania's National Authority for Child Protection and Adoption, in August 2004 there were 81,233 children in care, but only 393 children are officially available for adoption! The gulf between these figures should lead the European Commission to question the capacity of this data to reflect the reality," says Gibault, underlining the fact that the EC should take the change of outlook of the European Parliament as a sign that "it's time to stop ignoring reality."

Nevertheless, some EU lawmakers are quite optimistic that the EC could reconsider its position and publicly express support for inter-country adoptions.

"We believe that the EC, although it is a slower and less publicly visible institution than the Parliament, will support international adoptions for the pending cases. Contacts between MEPs and the Commissioners are ongoing and the EC is normally sensitive to the democratically elected representatives of the people of Europe," says Tannock.

Olli Rehn sticks by the adoptions ban for Romania

But the EU lawmakers' expectations regarding a possible turning point in the EC's attitude might be a little too optimistic, as European Commissioner for Enlargement Olli Rehn, questioned by Bucharest Daily News, not only defended the law banning the inter-country adoptions, but basically dashed any hopes of the parents still waiting for the 1,100 children stuck in the middle.

"This rather strict measure must be understood within the context of former abusive practices relating to international adoptions in Romania. The new law does not foresee any special cases which would be open for international adoptions. After a first analysis it seems clear that the new legislation applies to all cases. Consequently, it is highly unlikely that any of the requests will be accepted," says Rehn.

However, Rehn declined to answer a very important question that was the basis for all the anxiety surrounding the international adoption issue:

Would Romania jeopardize its EU accession, scheduled for January 2007, by resuming international adoptions?

On the other hand, the MEPs give assurances that Romania's EU accession process will not be endangered if the government reestablishes international adoptions. What's more, such a measure, they say, would be regarded as a step forward.

"After the fall of Ceausescu, the Romanian authorities had to face a very difficult situation in the field of child welfare. By resuming the international adoptions, Romania would make a great step forward and if it acts resolutely in the best interest of its children, Romania will have our support," says Gibault.

According to both Tannock and Casaca, the clear meaning of the EP's amendment is that Romania should allow the pending international adoptions to go forward as a signal of its progress and readiness for EU accession.

"The EP gave its assent to Romanian accession and an undertaking was made by Commissioner Rehn that Parliament's views will be taken carefully into consideration in the run-up to accession currently foreseen for January 1, 2007 unless the safeguard clause is applied," underlines Tannock.

Despite EP's calls, PM Tariceanu chooses to remain silent

As a consequence, after the vote on Moscovici's report in December, Ries, Tannock, Gibault, and another four EU lawmakers wrote a letter to Romanian Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu to inform him of the position taken by the EP with respect to international adoptions, urging the government to "move as quickly as possible to give the children whose international adoptions were pending before the new adoption law came into effect the loving homes that are already waiting for them in many EU and non-EU member states."

In addition, the letter called on the authorities not to apply the law on adoption retrospectively to cases registered before the law came into effect, cases in which relationships between the children and prospective parents often had already been formed.

"This issue has been an irritant in Romania's EU accession process for too long. It need not be. We all want Romania to be part of the Union; hopefully on January 1, 2007. There is no question about our conviction that Romania will fulfill the political commitments made in the Accession Treaty. But now is the time to act in the best interests of the children," stated the signers of the letter.

The letter was sent on December 22, but the authors of the letter haven't received a response yet.

Seeking to find out the reasons for which the prime minister did not answer the EU officials' letter, we contacted the government's spokeswoman, Oana Marinescu, asking her to inform us if the prime minister had received the letter and requesting an interview concerning the issues pointed out in the letter.

In reply, we were informed that the government can neither confirm, nor deny if Tariceanu had received the letter.

However, Tariceanu's statements in December indicate that he considers the new legislation banning the inter-country adoptions to be a positive measure.

"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," Tariceanu backed the legislation in December 2005.

His stance seems to be twin to that of Nicholson, but the MEPs have an explanation for the unwavering position of the government.

"The baroness has been active on this issue for years, and it takes a while for it to sink in that she is no longer dominating this issue, and that the European Parliament has made an informed decision to reject her view," says Tannock.

NGOs: Adoption ban, a result of fears Romania would lose EU funds

UNICEF's position on inter-country adoption appears to reinforce the idea that such adoptions are indeed an alternative for the children who are not wanted by Romanian families or cannot be re-integrated in their biological families.

"Inter-country adoption is one of a range of care options which may be open to children, and for individual children who cannot be placed in a permanent family setting in their countries of origin, it may indeed be the best solution," reports UNICEF.

In addition, the organization points out that having recognized that uncontrolled international adoptions might put the children at risk, many countries around the world have ratified the Hague Convention on Inter-Country Adoption, which is designed to put into action the principles regarding inter-country adoption which are contained in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

"These principles include ensuring that adoption is authorized only by competent authorities, that inter-country adoption enjoys the same safeguards and standards which apply in national adoptions, and that inter-country adoption does not result in improper financial gain for those involved in it," says UNICEF.

The same idea is embraced by the Solidarity for Abandoned Children in Romania (SERA), an NGO that fights for the rights and welfare of the abandoned and discriminated children.

"If the authorities would create a correct and coherent system of the international adoption procedures, then Europe would accept it. But as the European officials cannot tell us what to do because it would mean they would interfere in Romania's internal policies, the authorities do not have the courage to create such a system without their suggestions," says SERA Romania's President Bogdan Simion.

In addition, according to Simion, the new law on adoptions is based on incorrect principles as instead of encouraging the adoptions, it has only destroyed an alternative.

"The new legislation on adoptions did not have the desired result, and that is to increase the number of national adoptions. According to the Romanian Office for Adoptions, only 79 children have been domestically adopted in accordance with the new law in 2005," explains Simion, who maintains that inter-country adoptions should function as a rescue valve at least until the number of domestic adoptions increases.

One more quandary concerning inter-country adoptions was identified by the French Association of Adoptive Families of Children Born in Romania (AFAENER), which says that one of the reasons that the government banned inter-country adoptions was that Romania was afraid that the EU would stop granting the country the earmarked funds for the restructuring of the child protection system. In addition, the NGOs stresses that Romania's fear was the result of Nicholson exerting "very strong pressures in the name of Europe".

"The use of European funds is not intended to exert control. Furthermore, European aid was not supposed to interfere even indirectly with the process of international adoption," underlines the French association.

In spite of the NGO's worries, the lack of communication on the government's part, and Rehn's support for the adoption ban, the EP's rapporteur for Romania seems to be confident that the local authorities will change their position as soon as possible.

"Many MEPs are sensitive to the pain faced by the families involved and view favorably the possibility of international adoptions in those special cases. Their stance is, of course, born out of compassion and concern for the children involved above all; and certainly not an interested maneuver. I remain in close contact and excellent relations with the Romanian president and government; and I truly hope that this issue can be resolved in the coming months," says Moscovici.

Box:

In order to ensure a balance approach, Bucharest Daily News has also tried to find out the government's stance concerning international adoptions, Nicholson's opinions and arguments, as well as the views of all the MEPs whose e-mail addresses were published on the EP's official web page.

  • Hence, since February 17 we have contacted: Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu's office, MEP Emma Nicholson's office and the National Authority for Child Rights Protection.
  • They have all received numerous phone calls, e-mails and faxes with lists of questions concerning the international adoption issue in Romania.
  • We have also solicited Nicholson's help in order to obtain the contact information of some EP members that share her vision, informing her that we would also like to forward them several questions with respect to the inter-country adoption issue.
  • We have clearly stated that the deadline for our story was February 28 and we have kindly asked all the above to answer our calls before the specified date. However, by March 8 no answer had come from any of them.

We believe that both points of view should be thoroughly debated in Romania for the best solution to be found. We assure all European officials interested in making public their view on the matter of inter-country adoption that Bucharest Daily News is willing and interested to present their viewpoints as well, and we encourage them, no matter their stance, to write to us at info@daily-news.ro

Box:

In subsequent issues of Bucharest Daily News you will have the opportunity to read the full interviews granted to us by the EP's rapporteur on Romania, Pierre Moscovici, French MEP Claire Gibault, Belgian MEP Frederique Ries, and British MEP Charles Tannock.

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