Child trafficking and intercountry adoption in Romania’s post-communist years

Book Review: Romania For Export Only, The untold story of the Romanian “orphans” by Roelie Post

Review by Elizabeth Willmott-Harrop

16 July 2012

Roelie

Roelie Post

In 2001, I worked on a European Union project “Public Awareness Campaign to Prevent the Abandonment of Children in Romania”. However in essence it was an anti-child trafficking project: Orphanages, where abandoned children ended up, were the equivalent of clearing houses in a supply chain of goods, the goods in this case being orphaned and abandoned children sold overseas.

While in Romania, I worked with Roelie Post (pictured), whose book Romania For Export Only narrates the story of how a country reliant on the institutional care of vulnerable children, transitions to alternative progressive measures such as family reunification, domestic adoption, family type homes and foster care. All the time running to stay ahead of the intercountry adoption lobby, which is focussed solely on the removal of children from their country of origin. This lobby continued long after Romania imposed a moratorium on intercountry adoptions in response to widespread abuses in the adoption system.

romania-for-export-onlyMost of the children concerned were not orphans. According to a Save the Children report[1], over 80% of children in orphanages around the world have a living parent and most are there because their parents cannot afford to feed, clothe and educate them.

Romania is no different: “We took them [to an institution] for the winter because we couldn’t afford to feed them. When we came to collect them, we were told they had gone,” said a Romanian father in 2000, talking about the intercountry adoption of his children[2].

Post is at pains to point out that in Romania, as in other poor or less developed countries, placement of children in protection services is not the same as abandoning them. Post comments “there is no intentional ‘abandonment’ of the children, but merely a combination of factors that led to the separation of the child from its family”. Lack of identity papers for example was cited as a hindrance to taking newborns home from maternity hospitals.

Georgiana Macavei, 25, was adopted from Bucharest when she was four years old. Her mother had left, but Georgiana was living with her father and siblings in their family home at the time of her intercountry adoption to the USA.

Georgiana comments[3]: “Many things happened in my adoptive family that have left me very scarred. I never bonded with my adoptive parents. When I was 13, the same year my real father died, my adoptive parents divorced. I was moved around from one parent to the other and was made to feel the burden of the children who still lived at home, among whom were biological children of my adoptive parents. When I was 15, my biological brother, also adopted with, me committed suicide.

“A new family and a new start, has left me with nothing. Five of my biological mother’s 10 children were adopted and I have lost contact with many of them. I have lost my heritage, my language, my Romanian citizenship and I am too poor to go home. I also happen to live in an open records state, but I have yet to find my adoption papers. I want the truth, I want justice and I have yet to find either.”

Romania proved to be hosting an orphan creation industry, netting an estimated $900 million in 10 years[4], a pattern now set to repeat itself in Africa, dubbed the new frontier for intercountry adoption.

Trafficking of children

The book confronts the fact that Romanian children were not only the subject of adoption for couples in wealthier countries, but were also allegedly trafficked for their body parts for use in organ transplants, and for paedophiles. Likewise the babies of women sold into prostitution “the mistakes of their profession” were trafficked by criminal gangs.

Post comments: “It is most likely not without reason that Europol’s (the European law enforcement agency) definition of child abuse refers not only to sexual abuse, prostitution, forced labour, kidnapping, parental abduction, ritual killing and illegal adoption, but also to the trade in abandoned children and the trade in organs.”

Best interests of the child

However that knowledge did not make Post a fan of legal intercountry adoption, because in her experience it so often failed to be in the best interests of the child, a key tenet of international child rights law codified by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

A Romanian foster mother gets a hug from her foster child

A Romanian foster mother and child who participated in a research project that removed children from orphanages and placed them in foster care. The research suggests when children are placed in high quality foster homes, they can recover from neglect and may not be permanently impaired. But placing children before age 2 is crucial to their development. Photo by Charles A Nelson, Harvard University.

Post’s book charts her time with the European Commission from 1999 until 2005, when she was charged to support Romania in its efforts to reform their child protection system. The book is part diary, part historical and political record, part personal blog, interwoven with lonely vignettes of childhoods seemingly stolen by intercountry adoption. Three stand out:

  • The case of Romanian twins, who were abused by their adoptive father in Northern Ireland to the point one of the children died. The birth mother was not aware her twins had been adopted – they had been removed from her when she asked the authorities for milk powder.
  • An adoptive mother on a plane to London held her baby’s face to the window and said “Say goodbye to Romania, bye-bye”. The child cried “mammi, mammi” for its Romanian carer, continuing until the adoptive father started banging his fists on the arm rests of his chair shouting at the baby “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!”
  • A child sent overseas for adoption despite his Romanian foster parents being willing to adopt him. The child was happy and settled with his foster family and expressed his desire to remain with them. His views were ignored despite article 12 of the CRC which requires the views of the child be “given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child”.

The book’s most poignant testament is to the fact that so few people have the courage to stand up and fight for the justice they say they believe in. Not as an organisational representative giving key messages in press conferences, but as a lone individual bravely exposing the most corrupt of abuses against the most vulnerable members of society, saying “this is who I am, this is what I saw, this is what I know”. That individual is Roelie Post.

Post has now been seconded to Dutch NGO (non-governmental organisation) Against Child Trafficking, after repeated threats and harassment, documented in her book, made it impossible to remain working on child rights at the European Commission.

Political pressure

I imagine her work at ACT is a rather singular role, compared to the many-headed beast of her European Commission position. The book reveals how Post was constantly forced to navigate different political interests and choose personal vilification over complacency.

Post unashamedly charts the machinations of organisations and individuals working within the political, intergovernmental and NGO worlds in Romania at that time. In many cases Post directly names and exposes those who she alleges abused their positions to underplay the effectiveness of reforms to Romania’s child protection system, and push for intercountry adoptions despite domestic alternatives for the children.

Post tells of Spanish parliamentarians lobbying on behalf of couples who had made a down payment for an as yet unidentified adoptable child, which “Romania needed to deliver”, and how pressure was applied by the US government in linking the reopening of adoptions by US citizens to NATO accession.

International law

Post also addresses the controversial role of the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption. Romania fully implemented the principles of the convention in 1997 legislation, with the result that intercountry adoption rates soared from a few hundred in 1998 to more than 3,000 adoptions in the year 2000, despite the fact that intercountry adoption should only be used as a measure of last resort.

Indeed article 21b[5] of the CRC places intercountry adoption after residential care. Important factors include that children in care should always maintain contact with their parents or relatives, except where not in their interest, and children should return to their families whenever possible.

The Independent Panel of Family Law Experts of EU Member States produced a “Summary of opinion on the matter of adoptions” for Romania in 2004, stating that adoption should not be seen as a child special protection measure and that “it must be clear that residential care comes also before (intercountry) adoption”. Noting further that “especially with intercountry adoption, there is a risk that the institutions responsible for children may impose adoption in cases, which are unsuitable, so as to compensate for their own lack of resources”.

Post claims that one effect of the Hague Convention was that “more and more children were drawn into the child protection system, as being ‘abandoned’ ” with Hague certificates for each child (unwittingly) legitimising what continued to be the exchange of children for financial gain.

Post concludes her book with a call to action to the new swathe of sending states: “The demand for children has moved to other vulnerable countries. I hope these countries will feel strong enough to follow Romania’s example and place the rights of their children first: the right to be protected and raised in their country; the right of their families to receive support and the obligation of the State to provide this.”

Romania For Export Only will go at least some way to making that vision a reality, by showing in vivid prose the price children pay when their best interests are placed below commercial ones.

Romania for Export Only is available to buy online at 22.90 Euro, with all proceeds to Against Child Trafficking. Visit: www.romania-forexportonly.eu/buy-the-book

ENDS

[1] Save the Children: Keeping Children Out of Harmful Institutions: Why we should be investing in family-based care, November 2009 http://www.savethechildren.org.uk/resources/online-library/keeping-children-out-of-harmful-institutions-why-we-should-be-investing-in-family-based-care

[2] Ibid

[3] Correspondence with Elizabeth Willmott-Harrop August 2012

[4] http://www.atlantic-times.com/archive_detail.php?recordID=2113

[5] CRC Article 21 (b) “Recognize that inter-country adoption may be considered as an alternative means of child’s 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”.

Liberty & Humanity

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