‘Child wanted, cash paid’ The shady world of adoption

By Thomas Schuler, March 2010

Former EU official Roelie Post campaigns worldwide against foreign adoption. She says the line between foreign adoption and child trafficking is too often blurred. She also sees potential danger in plans to introduce a trans national “European Adoption” authority.

When Roelie Post, along with a translator and a film crew, set off for Romania some months ago and visited Marineta Ciofu, the story the child rights’ activist heard was a very familiar one. Ciofu had no idea what had happened to her child. Almost 10 years ago, poverty had forced the single mother to leave her daughter in a children’s home. But it was her firm intention to get her back as soon as her situation improved. The last time she saw her daughter was when she was two-and-half years old.

But her daughter had disappeared. Officials did not want to give Ciofu any information. It was only 10 years later that Ciofu discovered that an American family had adopted her daughter. The transaction was recorded in documents found by Post that Ciofu did not understand.

“How can someone take a child away without my signature,” she asked. Golineh Atai, a journalist from the German regional public broadcaster WDR, recently traveled to Romania with Post and made a film on the subject. The film, “Suche Kind, zahle bar – Die Adoptionslobby” (Child Wanted, Cash Paid – The Adoption Lobby) was broadcast last September on WDR and can be watched on YouTube.

Post, 50, was a European Union official for 20 years. From 1999 to 2005 she was responsible for foreign adoptions from Romania and EU enlargement. Since then, the Brussels official has been working to expose cases of child trafficking that are masquerading as foreign adoptions.

“Poverty is no reason to take children away,” she said. “Poverty is not a disease and international adoptions are not a solution. If on top of everything else, people also lose their children it only worsens their overall situation.”

Ciofu was prevented from visiting her daughter in the children’s home after she gave her up. And because she did not visit the child, her legal guardianship was taken away from her. Tactics such as relocating a child to make it impossible for parents to visit them is a trick used by child traffickers to gain access to “abandoned” children through official channels.

Following the end of Romania’s communist rule, foreigners adopted more than 30,000 children from the country within 10 years. Most of them were not orphans.

Romanian couples seeking to adopt, in contrast, did not stand a chance. They could not afford it. Americans, for example, paid some $30,000 in fees for one child. Multiplied by 30,000 children, that amounts to a turnover of $900 million. The former director of Romania’s adoption authority, Theodora Bertzi, in 2006 said that this number was “not exaggerated.”

This lucrative amount created an unchecked, mafia-like system of adoption agencies in Romania that put profit ahead of child welfare.

Around half of these children ended up in the US and the other half in European countries, including Germany. In Germany, there are about 10 couples wanting to adopt for every child given up for adoption. Consequently, many German couples try to adopt from a foreign country.

In Romania today, 43,000 children live in state-run children’s homes or in foster care. Just 800 are regarded as suitable for adoption. And in each one of these cases, there are two Romanian couples waiting to adopt, said UNICEF representative in Romania Edmond McLoughney. So in actual fact, there is no need for international applications.

In 2001, Romania imposed a moratorium on foreign adoptions. Soon after, an American adoption agency took Romania unsuccessfully to court. Afterward, the US demanded numerous exceptions. These theoretically only concerned applications that had been made before the moratorium. But in fact, they didn’t. Until 2004, exceptions were made on an almost daily basis – and another 1,000 children were placed with foreign families, according to documents from the Romanian adoption authorities.

In regards to adoption, Romania became a place where people felt they could just come and help themselves. And people like Post who did not want to turn a blind eye to the situation were viewed as annoying interference. When her boss, Günter Verheugen, gave up his post as EU Commissioner for Enlargement, Post was transferred elsewhere overnight. She felt manipulated and fell ill.

Committing her experiences to paper became therapy for Post. The resulting book, “Romania – For Export Only,” was self-published in 2007. In an interview with WDR, her former boss Verheugen confirmed what Post wrote in her book. “There is a very well organized lobby that is in truth operating a kind of child trafficking system under the guise of adoptions,” said Verheugen. He also spoke of what he called a “child acquisition policy.” He said he had “seen with his own eyes how catalogues were passed around to interested parties, in which one could choose a child.”

When Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase visited US Defense Secretary Colin Powell in Washington in 2001, their talks officially centered on Romania’s NATO membership. But in actual fact, Powell wanted to talk about thousands of American couples who had applied to adopt from Romania and who were waiting for their children. Powell called for exceptions to be made to the moratorium on adoptions.

Verheugen said in these meetings, the US had “drawn a political link between the clearance of children for adoption and Romania’s accession to NATO. I didn’t think that could be possible.” He went on to say that the political pressure “repeatedly came from the same countries”: from France, Italy, Spain, Israel and the US. In other words, from countries with high foreign adoption rates. The mayor of Bucharest even declared those exceptions on a “lobby list”: For every child adopted, a top politician was named as a sponsor. American senators such as Edward Kennedy and John Kerry and EU Commission President Romano Prodi even appeared on that list.

“I was horrified,” said Verheugen. Prodi eventually withdrew his sponsorship but Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi called for an exception to be made and secured the clearance of 100 children for adoptive parents. “The question of the Romanian children was one of the bitterest and most painful experiences of my entire political life,” Verheugen said of the situation.

He was speaking in the past tense but does the situation look any better now? When the European Commission and the Council of Europe invited around 150 experts and government representatives to a two-day conference in Strasbourg early last December, Post says that although the agenda ostensibly focused on the introduction of a pan-European adoption policy, talks actually centered on the opening up of the Romanian adoption market. And indeed, as a commission employee confirmed to a Romanian journalist, the aim of the conference was to secure an end to the moratorium.

Preparations for the opening of the market in Romania have been going on for years. One of the key actors in the process is the head of the French adoption organization SERA, Francois de Combret. He may not have been present in Strasbourg but the conference echoed his views. Three years ago in the same place, the adoption lobby managed to convince EU parliamentarians to call for a lifting of the moratorium. Afterward, both the European Commission and the European Parliament began working on an adoption policy for Europe.

Romania does not want to lift its moratorium but this is not a problem for the adoption lobby. This is because in the future, every adoption within Europe will be exactly that: European. All adoptions will be registered and monitored by a European adoption authority. This would mean scrapping adoptions on a national level. Responsibility would no longer lie with the national governments but with the EU. At the close of the second day of the conference, the European Commission representative presented studies claiming to provide evidence that the citizens of Europe are in favor of such European regulations.

Post continues to work for Brussels and is officially permitted by the EU to work at her organization, Against Child Trafficking. It is an unusual situation because her organization campaigns against EU policy. Post pays all expenses linked to the organization out of her own pocket. She has an assistant, 36-year-old Arun Dohle from Aachen.

Both share the common goal of abolishing foreign adoption. It is an extreme position but one they hope will become a reality in five years because they believe the world of adoptions is a world without real controls. The office of the Hague Convention, which establishes the rules governing adoption, conducts just as few investigations as national authorities.

The largest German adoption agency, International Child Care, had its license withdrawn due to irregularities although an inquiry has not yet been held. Family For You, the largest agency in Austria, went bankrupt following a series of compensation claims because it had negligently arranged the adoptions of children who were not orphans. Public prosecutors are taking no action. Pro Infante, another German adoption agency, also closed down because the agency placed Indian children with German families and incorrectly declared them orphans. Hundreds of cases were never investigated and never cleared up. Terre des Hommes, the largest German agency in the 1970s, ceased its adoption activities due to irregularities and at the request of its members.

Post and her colleague Dohle repeatedly come across cases where documents have been tampered with and children are wrongly declared orphans and put up for adoption. At the end of the day, this arrangement is highly lucrative for some people. They have collected hundreds of such cases to date and believe that many more adoptions are flawed. In 2009, Dohle spent a week traveling through Malawi, talking to human rights groups, journalists and court judges about Madonna’s planned adoption. Post says people in Malawi were not aware of the legal concept of an adoption and its consequences. Though the courts may have eventually authorized Madonna’s adoption attempt, Dohle and Post still view their efforts as a success. Their assessments and arguments appeared in many reports, including court documents, and Madonna’s adoption has remained an exception in Malawi.

Dohle and Post’s work is important, says Wolfgang Weitzel, head of the National Center for Foreign Adoption in Bonn, because there are too many people who will do anything to achieve their adoption goal. Any irregularities must be investigated, he says.

Thomas Klippstein, head of the German delegation sent to Strasbourg by the German Justice Ministry, said at the conference that although the Hague Convention is in need of improvement, he was “not convinced of the need to incorporate an additional legal interface,” or in other words, to transfer responsibility to the EU. This would in any case only be possible if all member states voted in favor of such a move. Plans to introduce a European adoption authority could be halted by just one ‘no’ vote – from Germany, for example.

Picture above: Madonna’s adoption of two children from Malawi inspired international criticism. So far, the African country did not have binding regulations on adoptions from abroad, which was exploited by adoption agencies.