The Romanian Baby Bazaar



IT IS BEFORE DAWN ON A JANUARY MORNING, AND AS A photographer and I drive through the dark cobbled streets of Bucharest, we can barely make out the hunched workers, waiting in the numbing cold for their soot-encrusted tram cars. We are following a car in which two women from Oregon, 28-year-old Cindy Dahl and her mother-in-law, Betty Dewhirst, are being driven by a young Romanian man to the city of Ploiesti, about an hour north. He has promised to find a child for Cindy to adopt.

The night before, Cindy had arrived in Bucharest after a 28-hour trip from Portland. In the lobby of the President Hotel, the unofficial headquarters for the hundreds of adoptive parents who have poured into the country since the liberalization of Romanian adoption law last August, she met a suave Romanian in a double-breasted Italian suit who promised to find her a baby the following day. His younger half brother would act as guide. The brothers agree to give us access to their adoption business, but demand that only their first initials be used: M. for the older, and G. for his half brother.

When we reach Ploiesti, the administrator at the district hospital seems to be expecting G., and leads us to an office to wait for the doctor. Both Cindy and her mother-in-law are excited and nervous. "My husband, Steve, is a builder, and we have a 4-year-old son," Cindy says. "But my first childbirth was so difficult, I doubt I can have any more children. So I'm here to adopt a little girl."

The administrator explains that the pediatric section has about 70 to 100 children, but that only two to three infants are abandoned in the maternity ward each month. She and her assistants admire Cindy's creamy skin and natural red hair, which falls in fine pre-Raphaelite ripples, but the unrivaled hit is the Polaroid camera Betty has brought along to keep track of all the children they expect to see.

Half an hour later, Dr. Luiza Popescu strides in, a short, compact woman in her 40's. When G. tells her he is looking for abandoned babies, she snickers that most of those children are from the "baby machines," or gypsies. "How could Americans be willing to adopt gypsies ?" the doctor asks, voicing the prejudice many ethnic Romanians harbor. "The genetics is what matters from the beginning," she declares with a sweep of the hand. "Ha! Such a child will certainly steal."

"No matter, no matter," G. assures her. "The Americans have quite different conceptions." Cindy and her mother-in-law stand aside staring blankly since none of this is translated. (It is not clear that G. knows that I understand Romanian.) Leading the way into the wards, the doctor pauses as Cindy gently lifts one baby after another into her arms. No one tells her that these children have parents who intend to take them home once they are well.

A little girl named Adriana catches Cindy's eye, and the doctor tells Cindy that her biological mother brought her in for treatment a month ago and has never come to get her. Cindy beams, and asks G. to get the mother's address so they can see if she will put Adriana up for adoption.

We move on to a two-story orphanage across town, where mobs of toddlers in a sunny playroom flock to Cindy squealing "Mama." Some of them have crossed eyes, which Cindy points out can be easily corrected. When Cindy asks about one child, the nurses tell her that the parents want 100,000 lei. At the official exchange rate, this would be about $2,800; at the black-market rate it would be a third of that. The parents also want a car.

G. blurts out "no problem" in his rudimentary English, and boasts that he will knock down the parents' price. "Many gypsy people say they want 100,000 lei. Then I come back and say, the American or Canadian will give you 30,000 lei -- you want? If they say no, we leave and go in the car. Then the gypsy comes over and says it's O.K." With a nod at us he looks for approval. "That's a big difference from 100,000 down to 30,000, right? And for what? The baby machine who has nothing in his house?"

Cindy hugs a little girl and asks if she is available.

"Her parents are gypsies, and they want 100,000 lei and a Turbo car," someone on the staff says.

"Turbo?" Cindy repeats, looking up.

"Yes," the same staff member says, laughing. She also points out that a cute blond boy named Ionut has already been adopted by a French-Romanian couple, and that 13 of the 19 children in that room have been adopted and will go to another country.

Slowly Cindy realizes that the whole morning has been a bit of a charade. She has seen only two children who seem to be adoptable.

SINCE THE OVERTHROW OF THE CEAUSESCU REGIME IN December 1989 and the disclosure that thousands of Romanian children had been relegated to squalid public institutions, Americans, Canadians and Western Europeans have flocked to Romania, searching for adoptable babies. In 1990, roughly 3,000 children were adopted out of Romania; in the first two months of this year, 1,300 adoptions to the United States alone have been completed or are under way. As the competition for babies heightens, the bargaining becomes more intense.

Some prospective parents come on their own, referred to a lawyer who for a substantial fee may simply deliver a baby to their hotel. Others work through registered agencies and freelance adoption brokers in Romania. Fees range from $2,500 to $15,000 and increasingly include a payment to the birth mother. And then there are Americans and Canadians of modest means, who come on group "tours," hoping to find and adopt a child for under $5,000.

These are often the clients who seek out M., who was born in Romania 37 years ago, escaped, and made his way to Australia in the 1970's. Returning to Romania last August with $70,000 to invest in business and real estate, M. made his unofficial headquarters the lobby of the President Hotel, a former guest house for Communist Party elites. He quickly became one of the leading black-market money-changers at the hotel and recently began applying his broker's skills to babies.

As a legacy of the Ceausescu years, when abortion was largely illegal and harsh fiscal measures made it difficult to support large families, Romania has more than 600 state institutions brimming with children; some estimates run as high as 130,000 under the age of 18. But the supply of adoptable young babies is dwindling. Ministry of Health officials estimate that roughly 8,000 under age 3 remain in orphanages. But it is likely that at least half of these have been exposed to the highly contagious hepatitis B virus. In some institutions, up to 50 percent of the children are also infected with the AIDS virus. With the lifting of the abortion ban in December 1989, the hundreds of newborns once abandoned in Romanian maternity wards were suddenly reduced to a trickle. A million pregnancies were terminated last year -- three times the number of live births.

Perhaps the bitterest paradox is that hundreds of Western families were moved to act by press reports last year, which exposed the misery of older handicapped children, doomed to live in inhumane warehouses for the "irrecoverable." But these are the last to be adopted. "The majority of adoptive parents are coming back to America with infants and newborns, and about half of them are not from institutions," says the American consul general in Bucharest, Virginia Young. "To my knowledge we've not issued an immigrant visa to a single severely handicapped child."

Finally, of those who remain in orphanages and hospitals, very few are bona-fide orphans. Nor have they ever been technically "abandoned." Before any adoption can take place, the most difficult -- and often questionable -- part is locating the biological parents and obtaining their consent to give up the child.

ARMED WITH AN ADDRESS COPIED FROM ADRIANA'S FILE, G. speeds off with Cindy and Betty through Ploiesti to track down the baby's mother. The car careens around corners, screeches to a stop, turns back, lurching from one concrete housing complex to the next, G. leaping out at each to ask bystanders for leads to the address of Adriana's mother. After more than an hour hugging their tail, the photographer and I are left stranded at a red light. That night, when we see Cindy at the President Hotel, she is jubilant. "We found Adriana's mother and she's given her consent to adopt her. And G. says she only wants 40,000 lei. Well, whatever anyone says about M. he gets results!"

That night, M. triumphantly lounges on his usual couch in the corner of the lobby, surrounded by half a dozen radiant clients. One childless 40-year-old woman from Toronto lovingly holds the newborn G. found for her in a peasant family for only $300, while another potential mother announces to M., "If you can get me out of here in a few days, I'll give you all the cash I have left as a bonus!"

THE PROFITEERING in adoptions has been fueled by the frenzy for hard currency, and everyone knows that foreign adoptions bring in dollars. Crippling shortages still persist in Romania and industrial production seems to be at a standstill. But Romanians with cash -- mostly those with privileges under the old Communist system -- have plunged into an orgy of entrepreneurism. As the director of a Florida-based private adoption agency sums it up, "Romanians have figured out that this is the cottage industry of the decade -- or at least the year." In North America, some 300 self-styled agents have sprung up, according to one American law firm, all claiming to be experts on Romanian adoption. Perhaps an equal number have emerged in Western Europe.

In Romania, rings of local hustlers scramble to hook up with Western contacts like Kim Fast, a young Oregonian who adopted a Romanian child last year and drew a shower of publicity in newspapers back home. This winter, she brought a group to Romania. For $375 in fees per family, Fast arranged discount air tickets, and sent each family an information packet including hints on the preferred soap, coffee, cosmetics and candy as "gifts" for local officials.

She hired Ionel Ispas, 24, a Bucharest mechanic, to recruit translators and drivers. Johnny, as Ispas is called, has set up his baby-finding business about two hours north of the capital, near Targoviste, where he works with two translators, the Anghel brothers. Before the fall of Ceausescu, 35-year-old Dan Anghel had a coveted job as a waiter at the Hotel Bucharest, one of the two leading international hotels in the capital, and a central haunt of the Securitate, the secret police. He still enjoys privileges there, like instant access to international phone lines, while ordinary Romanians wait long hours freezing in the public post office.

On a frigid morning in mid-January, Johnny Ispas and the Anghel brothers take three of the families from Oregon in a caravan of cars northwest past the giant petrochemical smokestacks to the town of Pucioasa. Leaving the tense couples parked in front of an orphanage, Johnny speeds off to telephone the "lady who has the babies." Dan Anghel, fastidiously dressed in a crisp ski parka and a gray, Ceausescu-style lamb's-wool hat, saunters over to a group of children playing on the snowy sidewalk and strikes up a conversation. Phrases like "go to America" and "candy" waft our way. The children scamper off to look for families, just as a young couple approach from the other direction. The woman is pregnant, they tell Dan, and they already have seven children to support.

Dan tells the father to get one of his children to show Leslie and Peggy Koralek, who are standing beside their car, stamping their feet trying to stay warm. Their friends, Randy and Shannon Prater, seem too culture-shocked and cold to get out of the car. About 10 minutes later the father returns with the mother and a girl, about 5 years old. Leslie and Peggy exchange bewildered glances, and then politely shake their heads, saying the child is too old to take from her family. Keeping his options open, Dan nods with a smile at the mother's stomach, and says, "Maybe we'll get back to you next September when you have the new one."

In the meantime, Johnny has come back with a tall, swarthy gypsy with an intense stare, thick mustache and wide black Russian fur hat. Mihai, as he is introduced, is the local baby-broker, and between aggressive drags on his cigarette, he promises Leslie and Peggy that he has a little girl for them. He leads them through a littered alley to a five-story apartment complex and into a stark room with two beds and a television. A woman and three barefoot children sit on one bed. One is a 2-year-old girl named Liana, with soft black curls and a spunky smile: "No sick, no sick, nothing, nothing," Mihai insists. Also in the room is a woman with thick irridescent eye shadow, introduced as Mihai's associate; she says Liana's mother, who has five children altogether, is in the maternity hospital. There is no mention of the father. The woman on the bed is not introduced.

Leslie and Peggy are visibly confused about who the two women are and glance around for a clue. Mihai motions toward their small plastic bag of gifts, and they awkwardly hand the woman on the bed a few candies and a bottle of nail polish.

"I don't know how I feel about taking a child from a family," Leslie says to his wife as they sit on the edge of the bed playing with Liana. "It must be traumatic."

Suddenly someone says "there's the father," and a young man appears at the end of the hallway. He is shoved back out by a pair of men. As Mihai and his partner with the eye shadow goad little Liana into grinning and dancing, Johnny bursts in.

"Have you decided?" he demands. Mihai and Dan say they will arrange for the child's blood to be tested for AIDS and hepatitis B.

"We're not sure!" Peggy says with a nervous giggle. "We're excited, not decided! We can't decide so quickly."

"I feel like I'm in the twilight zone here," Leslie says, his voice soft. "I'm in this house, and this kid's being offered to me, and I'm thinking, maybe not."

Half an hour later, when it is clear to Mihai and Johnny that this is not working, we are whisked out. "This is so bizarre," Leslie says. "It's a little weird -- like going around shopping."

RANGING IN AGE FROM their late 20's to late 40's, most of these adoptive parents come from solid middle-class, often born-again Christian backgrounds, and have never been exposed to severe poverty or to hard-core hustlers. Far from their own culture, they fail to pick up the signs of the black marketeers: the elaborately stitched stone-washed jean suits, the leather jackets, and above all, the thuggish manner. These men are almost stereotypes of the seedy class that has long straddled the worlds of international hotel work, taxi driving, money-changing and informing for the secret police.

"We've already started to change even in only the last four days," Leslie admits. "We're getting worried about rumors; we're not sure whom to trust."

Recognizing their clients' absolute dependence on them, M., Johnny and the others deftly employ the model of intimidation that worked so efficiently for the security apparatus under the former regime. They alarm them with rumors that adoptions will be suspended, and warn them not to say too much on the phone.

But few adoptive parents could be considered to be simple victims, nor do many fit the popular image of desperate childless couples. Of some 50 adoptive families followed for this article, almost half already had biological children. Some, including single mothers, had as many as three or four. Almost half said their compassion for the scabrous children in orphanages and their deep religious faith played an important part in their coming. Their convictions clash head-on with the constant demands for bribes, falsified documents and outright payments for babies. But prevented from getting into orphanages by corrupt directors and endless red tape, they turn to other sources. "Sometimes I feel sort of guilty, like the babies are being sold," Cindy admits. "But then when you think about open adoption in the States, and all the costs of that, that's like buying a baby. Besides, look at the conditions of these children's homes."

HUSTLERS LIKE JOHNNY Ispas and his fierce-looking broker Mihai know that poverty often drives a Romanian mother eventually to place her child in a state institution. On the premise that these mothers are sure to abandon their infants sooner or later, Mihai and Johnny persuade a shy young nurse identified only as Paula, whose husband has stayed back in Oregon, to accompany them to a maternity hospital not far from the orphanage in Pucioasa. En route, we pick up the father of the infant Paula will see. He proudly introduces his only other child, an 18-month-old boy named Valentin. Mihai and Johnny tell Paula, who has not understood the father, that the couple is struggling with seven children.

At the hospital, a nurse brings in the baby, wrapped tightly like a loaf of bread in a dingy cotton cloth. Paula weeps softly, murmuring, "It's so tiny."

While she gazes at the baby, the young mother, named Vania, hobbles in, clutching a faded robe to her chest. Mihai abruptly demands Paula's plastic bag of trinkets, and pulls out two gifts for her: a family pack of Reese's peanut butter cups, and a lipstick. As an afterthought "for the father," Mihai whips out a cellophane package of pink disposable razors.

Paula whispers to Johnny that she wants to talk to the mother about her life in America, but he and Mihai hustle Vania out into the hall where her husband and older child are waiting. Still tender from her delivery, the mother gingerly shuffles over, braces herself with one hand on the back of a bench, and gradually lowers herself into a sitting position. A few minutes later the couple are shouting, and the mother is waving her arms angrily.

The whole visit, including some inaudible negotiations over the price of the baby, is over in half an hour. (At some later point, Paula will decide not to take this baby.) Johnny and Mihai pull out ahead of us, and we stop our car at a street corner to speak with the father and his little boy. Suddenly a man who has trailed us in a car with Bucharest license plates gets out and barges up to us. "Who are you?" he bellows at me in Romanian. "What are you doing with him?" The father's smile turns to terror. "What are you talking about?" the stranger barks. "What are you writing?"

"It's our business," I answer, as the father grips little Valentin in his arms. "Friends," I say.

The stranger makes a move toward my notebook. I jump into the car, slam the door, and we take off after Mihai and Johnny.

In hospitals across Romania, scenes like the one with Paula take place every day, with doctors and nurses orchestrating surreptitious visits often under cover of night. Romanian lawyers use much the same methods, only they work through a more elite "old boy" network -- fellow lawyers, doctors and social workers. One young gynecologist in a major hospital in Bucharest says he was approached by three separate lawyers to keep them informed of any babies abandoned at birth. "They offered me $100 for every baby I could produce, and $200 if I presented it already with the mother's consent to put it up for adoption."

Recently the police caught up with a ring of medical baby-brokers in Pitesti, where they were preying on a group of Canadians who had come to Romania with a private adoption agent named Sonya Paterson. The local ringleader is Roland Roventa, a low-level doctor -- and import-export dealer -- who takes his daily cut from the translators and drivers he hires. Jeff Shaw, one of the Canadians who was duped by the ring, says the translators were told to show them only one or two orphanages.

"Roland said: 'When you see there are no children in the orphanages, come to see me. I have doctors who set babies aside for me,' " Jeff says. One of Jeff's friends took Roland up on his offer and was shown a set of twins at the Pitesti hospital. The price was $20,000.

"Roland has threatened everyone if they talk to journalists -- no adoption," Jeff goes on. "He says he has many friends in court."

Back in Bucharest, Roland's boss, Cristian Grigorescu, fends off journalists. "Everything we are doing here is totally illegal," Cristian says bluntly.

While Jeff does not accuse Paterson of being a party to the scam, he does criticize her for not reacting more forcefully to Roland and Grigorescu.

Jeff feels profoundly misled. "I brought almost 200 pounds of medical supplies for the orphanages here, and figured I'd pick out one or two children the first couple of days, and then do volunteer work in the orphanage while the paper work went through. Instead you find out you're driving around villages, basically asking what's the price per pound for babies."

MANY COUPLES inevitably are drawn directly into village homes. This is the case for Randy and Shannon Prater, who, working with the other Anghel brother, Marian, brave a snowstorm to drive to a gypsy village 60 miles south of Bucharest on the border with Bulgaria.

With Marian in the lead car with Randy and Shannon, we turn off the main road, and rumble over the frozen mud toward the village, where our cars are besieged by dozens of children pressing against the windows.

Marian hoists his bulky frame out of the car, meticulously smooths the knot on his wool scarf and trudges cautiously toward the nearest house. Fear is an essential element in the Romanians' loathing of the gypsy minority, and most ethnic Romanians will avoid setting foot in a gypsy neighborhood.

People swarm in from everywhere, pushing and pulling us, and shouting in the gypsy language. Before long, Marian locates a baby, and as we walk toward the mud-and-grass house, men, women and children holler, "You want babies?" to everyone in our group. One man offers me his frightened-looking 6-year-old daughter, who is clinging to her mother's heavy knitted sweater. Another man points to his wife's pregnant stomach and then holds up his hands to signal "a hundred thousand lei." Two girls charge up to me, shrieking in Romanian: "What do you do with the children? Do you kill them?"

Inside the dark two-room hut, it is almost impossible to see either the mother or the baby through the smoke that billows from the stove in the center of the room. At least 20 agitated villagers are packed into the tiny space, and the cacophony is deafening.

After hugging and admiring the year-old baby, who is called Florin, for a few minutes, the Praters move outside, where Shannon laughs and plays in the crush of village children. Randy, nervously chewing gum, squints toward the far corner of the yard, where Marian and a village man puff on cigarettes and talk with a minimum of eye contact.

"The father's not here, but that guy Petre seems to be the chief negotiator," Randy says. He thinks the family is asking for about $180. It is his fifth day in Romania. "The first two days I was blown away. We expected to come here and find orphanages with a lot of babies, totally abandoned and available for adoption." Shaking his head he murmurs, "Everything we're doing here seems illegal."

That weekend, the adoption scandal broke in Romania, when the state-run television broadcast a lurid report, showing three gypsy children in a village being sold to undercover Romanian journalists. Three days later, Prime Minister Petre Roman ordered the formation of a National Adoption Committee, headed by Dr. Alexandra Zugravescu, a pediatrician. In her first step to stamp out the profiteering in babies, Zugravescu ordered an immediate census of all orphanages, and an official list of all children who are clear candidates for adoption. At the same time, she asked the Parliament to establish legal criteria for abandonment.

Zugravescu recognizes that reforms can affect only those abuses related to institutional adoptions. And even in institutions doctors alter documents to indicate that a given child has been returned to the biological home when in fact the child has been placed for adoption. Zugravescu hopes to appeal to the adoptive parents. "I am offering an honest, legal avenue for the adoptive parents to follow," she says. "It will be up to them to choose if they want to follow a way that they know is incorrect."

A spokesman for the Government, Bogdan Baltazar, is not optimistic. "It's big business, and it's very dirty, because it plays on holy emotions, and it's used by these sharks who prey on these emotions. It's a hell of a job to try to bring some order to it."

Most Government officials, who earned their stripes under the Ceausescu regime, blame the Communist dictatorship for warping compassion into greed. But the avid exchange of baksheesh has long been a cornerstone of professional customs in Romania. Surgeons routinely expected a "tip" of 5,000 to 10,000 lei in advance of any procedure. Ward nurses expected gifts of soap and coffee from families simply to guarantee that their relatives would receive their daily food and medicines.

Notwithstanding the labyrinth of influence-peddling and outright bribery involved, a Romanian adoption decree, issued in a local court, is generally recognized as a legal adoption in the United States.

RANDY AND SHANNON Prater's gypsy family agreed to put Florin up for adoption, and soon he was staying with them in their temporary apartment in Bucharest. The process was stormier for their friends Leslie and Peggy Koralek, who finally found a little girl named Ionela in an orphanage. The 24-year-old mother immediately signed the consent form for the couple to adopt her child, but later refused to give her up. A riot almost broke out as the whole village ganged up on her for reneging. The mother claimed that Dan Anghel, the interpreter, had been a "liar and a thief" and had not translated correctly. Later, after the local police intervened, the mother patched up relations with Peggy and Leslie, and the agreement went through.

Vania and her tiny infant, who'd been offered to Paula, the nurse from Oregon, resurfaced a week later as players in a bizarre con game. One evening as we and two couples from Canada happened to be looking over snapshots of the children they'd seen, it became clear that Vania and her baby had shown up in a variety of places. One of the couples had been invited by M. to see a particular child, and instead were taken to an apartment to meet Vania and her newborn. The couple was uncomfortable with what seemed to be the coercion of Vania. When they expressed their disgust, M. threatened them. Then Mihai appeared, introduced as M.'s driver. When the Canadians saw that Mihai "packed a piece" under his left arm, as they told it, they got out of there as soon as they could.

The following week, two other Canadians found themselves in the home of Mihai and his eye-shadowed partner -- now identified as his wife, Aurelia Marinescu. They had been taken there by the director of an orphanage, who identified Aurelia as an employee. Mihai and Aurelia took the adoptive family to the same mother, Vania. To their horror, they found her "hysterically screaming 'I am not a whore.' " As they turned to leave, they recalled, "Vania's husband, a little guy with a thin mustache, came running after us, offering their other baby, Valentin, for adoption."

Cindy Dahl's euphoria began to wane after spending several days with Adriana in the hospital at Ploiesti. She began to suspect that the baby was not healthy. To allay her fears, M. repeatedly assured her that Adriana had tested negative for AIDS and hepatitis B. But the latest results came back positive for hepatitis B, which can have grave long-term complications. Cindy was devastated. "They take such advantage of our vulnerability," she recalls. "They keep taking you out there to visit the baby and her family, and you become more and more attached, and then you can't get out of it."

The same week, M. lost two Irish clients when a second purportedly healthy baby tested positive for hepatitis B. A third client, from Quebec, dropped him in horror when the 6-year-old girl he had located for adoption threatened to commit suicide if she was forced to leave her biological mother. Stung by a scathing article in the British press, M. warned me: 'Tell that journalist if I see her again, I'll shut her up. I got a lot of friends."

After Adriana was found to be sick, Cindy dropped M. and G. and hired a more reliable intermediary, who found her an infant named Alexandra in a maternity ward about an hour from Bucharest. The young mother, deserted by her lover, was barred from returning to her father's house until she gave up the baby. "It was hard at first to let myself go and really love her," Cindy confesses. "But as soon as I got the news that her test results were negative, I just bawled."

Thrilled with the child in her fuzzy yellow sleeper, Cindy and Betty look back on the emotional and moral upheaval of their month in Romania, and say they think people can go through a "pretty fairly legitimate adoption" if they find the right person to work with. "Some people actually do come here and buy babies," Cindy says, "and justify it by saying that what they're getting and what they're giving the child in the end justifies what they do to get the child. But I don't agree with that. I want Alexandra to feel like she can be proud of how I handled the situation, when she gets older and I explain it to her. A child shouldn't have to feel like you've betrayed what she had before you came into her life."

Pound Pup Legacy