Police raids uncover 'orphans for sale' racket
Arrest of woman in Russia reveals web of bureaucratic corruption around adoption of 600 children by Italians
Ian Traynor in Moscow and Rory Carroll in Rome
When the secret policemen raided Nadezhda Fratti's flat in Volgograd, in southern Russia, they were fascinated to find sheafs of fake documents bearing the signatures of judges, education officials and local heads of social services.
There were wads of roubles and US dollars, said a source in the FSB counter- intelligence service, and lists of clients. There were scanners and a computer to create the documents, and official stamps without which no Russian bureaucratic transaction can be made.
Ms Fratti, in her 40s, a native of Perm, Siberia, who is married to an Italian and has dual Russian and Italian citizenship, was remanded in custody last Friday after the raids at the end of January. She is charged with falsifying official documents related to the adoption of Volgograd orphans over a period of seven years for desperate Italian couples.
Between 1993 and last year she is suspected of having arranged the illegal adoption in Italy of up to 600 children. Nikolai Bichekvost, a senior investigator in the Volgograd prosecutor's office, said Ms Fratti was paid £1,700 for every child.
"I've been working as an investigator in Volgograd for 20 years and this is the worst case of its kind I've seen," he said.
Gennady Romodanov, director of the biggest infants' orphanage in Volgograd, confirms that Ms Fratti was a well-known mediator in foreign adoptions in the region. "She had dealings with my home and two other children's homes, all institutions with new-borns to three-year-olds. And she had dealings with orphanages for older children. In the past few years 200 babies in my home have been adopted by foreigners in arrangements brokered by Fratti."
After emigrating to Italy in 1989, Ms Fratti came to Volgograd in 1993 and set herself up as a translator, assisting Italians seeking to adopt children in Russia. She was the local representative of the Arcobaleno, or Rainbow, adoption agency based in the affluent northern Italian town of Padua. The agency was set up the same year as Ms Fratti arrived in Volgograd.
She is alleged to have pocketed around £1m in seven years, illegal earnings under Russian rules which ban adoption profiteering but were only introduced last year by President Vladimir Putin.
According to the Italian embassy in Moscow, Arcobaleno is a reputable agency which has been operating in Russia for years. However, last November Italy's Commission for International Adoptions - a branch of the department of social affairs - excluded Arcobaleno from a register of 45 authorised adoption agencies.
The education ministry in Moscow, which under the law has to accredit all foreign adoption agencies in Russia, says it has not heard of Arcobolena.
The Fratti case has outraged Russians and alarmed children's rights experts in Russia. But Arcobaleno's rival agencies were already suspicious, astonished at Ms Fratti's success in bringing high numbers of children from Russia to Italy. "We knew they must be breaking the rules. We work flat out and at most get two dozen kids a year. The magic formula was obvious," said the head of another agency in the Veneto region of northern Italy.
"With the Russian authorities it is always difficult. You would be asked to make so-called donations to mysterious institutions," said Lisa Trasforini, of Ai.Bi, an agency in Melegnano, near Milan. "We have authorisation to operate in Russia but we are not going there until the situation improves. It is too corrupt."
The legal morass and the pervasive corruption surrounding Russian adoption procedures mean that it is the institutionalised children, living in abject conditions in a country in the throes of a major public health crisis, who are the victims. According to a recent western study, there are 650,000 abandoned children in Russia, a figure which has doubled in three years, while 230,000 are in the crumbling state orphanage system.
The conditions are so wretched that 90% of the children require psychiatric treatment within four years of living in an orphanage, said Galina Krasnitskaya of the Russian Children's Fund.
It was effectively impossible for foreigners to adopt a Russian infant until 1991. But in the past decade the country has been flooded with foreign adoption agencies. The number of foreign adoptions rose to 6,200 in 1999, two-thirds of them going to America, while financially-strapped Russians are adopting in ever fewer numbers - 7,000 the same year.
Italy is the second biggest recipient of Russian children, the number increasing from 197 in 1996 to 834 in 1999.
The 1990s was a period of "legal chaos", said Irina Kuznetsova, a lawyer in the Russian parliament specialising in adoption. "Western agencies were working in a legal vacuum for eight years. Because of that, there was lots of abuse of the system.
"There's a huge number of foreign agencies from most European countries operating here, from New Zealand, Canada, Israel, and around 90 from the US," said Vladimir Ustinov, the prosecutor general. "They're turning adoption into a market. Cases of inhuman treatment of Russian children by foreign citizens are frequent."
The popular tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda proclaimed this week: "Our bureaucrats are sending healthy children for foreign adoption while potential Russian adopters are being offered invalids."
The authorities keep a databank of 80,000 children available for adoption and in theory there have to be three Russian refusals on a given child before he or she can be adopted by a foreigner. In practice, as is alleged to be the case with Ms Fratti, orphanage directors, local education officials and judges demand and receive bribes from the foreigners.
A Russian television documentary on the Volgograd scandal, to be screened on Monday, will demand to know what has happened to the 600 children, and imply that they have fallen into "bad hands", though there is no evidence of anything untoward happening to any of the 600-plus children involved in the Fratti case.
Mr Romodanov, the Volgograd orphanage director, enjoys a good reputation in the city as a caring and skilled child expert. "If we had had any doubts about this woman, we would never have cooperated with her," he said. But Russian investigators say they have already examined 200 of the 600-plus cases and found fiddled paperwork in 173 cases. A secret police source said he suspected that senior education officials in Moscow were involved.
A glimpse into Ms Fratti's world has been given by La Repubblica, the Italian daily, which reported that she was an orphan who was adopted. She is quoted as saying that she knew "in her heart the best thing for abandoned children".