COUPLE BOUGHT A BABY GIRL AND HIT A NATIONAL NERVE TRIAL WAS A MATTER OF ROMANIAN PRIDE
Author: Barbara Demick; Philadelphia Inquirer
BUCHAREST, Romania - On July 6, a Romanian customs officer stationed at the border with Hungary peered into the back seat of a car with English plates.
What he saw set off a ferocious national debate over one of Romania's most tenacious problems: unwanted children.
On the floorboard of the car, behind the driver's seat, wrapped in a blanket in a cardboard box, lay a 5-month-old girl.
The British couple were arrested and charged with smuggling a human being and with violating Romanian adoption laws. On Friday, in a Bucharest courtroom, they were convicted and drew prison sentences of 28 months.
Adrian Mooney, 42, the manager of a brewery near London, and his wife, Bernadette, 40, a computer technician, readily admit that they paid $6,000 to a group of shady middlemen who purchased the baby from her poor, unmarried, teenage Gypsy parents.
In their defense, they say they were following the dictates of their hearts: trying to provide a loving home for a child who might otherwise have faced a Dickensian future, either languishing in an orphanage or begging on the streets of Bucharest.
"Children should have a better life, and that cannot always be provided by the parents," said Ioana Floca, a Bucharest lawyer representing the Mooneys. Her clients, she adds, are not the first foreigners to "try to adopt like this. They're just the first ones to get caught."
Their case, though, touched a raw nerve of national pride in Romania. Here, as in other impoverished nations, foreign adoption is an ultra-sensitive issue. Many Romanians view prospective adoptive parents not as humanitarians trying to help but as "adoption vultures" robbing the nation of its young.
The Mooneys, since their arrest, have been just about the most famous
criminal defendants in Romania. Certainly, they seem the most unlikely people ever to land in Bucharest's Tribunal Sector No. 3 Criminal Court of Justice.
With her Princess Diana haircut, gold earrings and white silk blouse, Bernadette Mooney looks every bit the proper British matron. Throughout the monthlong trial, she and her husband sat patiently on the hard wooden benches of the stiflingly hot, not-so-clean courtroom, trying to ignore the whirl of Romanian television cameras in their faces.
Romanian editorialists jumped on the Mooneys as rich, arrogant foreigners trying to treat Romanian children like commodities, and the prosecution likened their offense to trafficking in slaves.
"This baby, a human being, was treated like a thing, and that is unacceptable. You cannot buy any human being," prosecutor Emil Dinu said in his opening statement to the court.
At the heart of the matter, though, is how Romania is coping with its tens of thousands of unwanted children.
Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu tried to increase Romania's population by banning abortion, sex education and birth control. After his overthrow and execution in December 1989, horrific reports filtered to the West about conditions in Romania's overcrowded, understaffed orphanages. It led to a free-for-all, as Europeans and Americans rushed to adopt 10,000 children in little more than a year.
The Mooneys were among them. Bernadette knew Romania well, having worked here with a humanitarian group just after the revolution.
In 1991, the childless couple adopted a critically ill Romanian infant, now a robust 3-year-old.
Later that year, the Romanian government pulled the plug on foreign adoptions. It passed new laws requiring a six-month wait and a daunting series of bureaucratic approvals. The law also made it a crime to buy and sell children.
"You just couldn't have a system where the parents were corrupted to sell their babies," says Tatiana Radulescu of the Romanian Committee on Adoption, which now approves all foreign adoptions.
Under the new law, the adoptions all but stopped. The number of Romanian babies going to the United States fell from 2,552 in 1991 to 88 last year.
But the glut of unwanted children remained. Even though abortions here now outnumber births by 2-1, the population of Romania's orphanages has crept back toward the 100,000 level where it stood just after the revolution.
Child beggars are everywhere. On the streets of Bucharest they dart barefoot between automobiles, trying to wash windshields.
It was against this charged backdrop that Monica Baiaram was born last February in Alexandria, a village 35 miles from Bucharest.
Her parents are Florina Dimir, 16, and Florin Baiaram, 17, unmarried and illiterate Gypsies now supporting themselves by picking corn for $2 a day. Both have been charged with child-selling, as have three Romanian men who served as intermediaries.
In the Bucharest courtroom, the parents looked generations, continents, even centuries removed from the middle-class Mooneys. It was hard to imagine how two such dissimilar couples would ever meet.
Florina is less than five feet tall. She walks haltingly because of a hip defect, and wears a ragged green sweater, long skirt and plastic sandals.
Florin is a bashful teenager who hangs on the arm of his mother. He stares fixedly at his black-and-white sneakers, avoiding eye contact.
The teenagers told the court they were approached about selling their baby while waiting in the Bucharest train station.
"We wanted to get a house," Florina said. "We live eight of us in a single room."
They say they were promised $1,200 but received only $500. That money has all been spent on clothes and taxi rides between Alexandria and Bucharest to attend court hearings.
The Mooneys, meanwhile, had decided earlier this year to adopt a second Romanian child. They contacted a British adoption lawyer who gave them the name of a Romanian, Ioan Batrana.
After initially balking at Batrana's demand for $6,000 in "legal fees," the Mooneys agreed. They drove to Romania in late June, met baby Monica at the home of Batrana's mother and consummated the deal.
"We saw the baby and we liked her," Bernadette Mooney told the court.
Other facts remain in dispute. The customs officers accuse the Mooneys of giving the baby a sedative to keep her quiet while they sneaked her across the border in a box on the back floorboard of their car.
The Mooneys say that they only gave the child a syrup to ease her teething
pains, and that they put her in the box on the floor for her own safety, so she wouldn't roll off the seat.
But their first line of defense was ignorance of the law. They say they were misled into believing that the consent of the teenage parents was sufficient.
"I (first) realized I had broken the Romanian law the moment I was seized by the police," Adrian Mooney told the judge.
Under Romanian law, the Mooneys would be expected to serve at least half of their 28-month prison terms. For now, they remain free pending appeal - a process that should take about two months.
The British Foreign Office in London released a statement Friday saying that "of course our embassy in Bucharest will continue to do all that they properly can for the couple."
The Mooneys have already spent one week in prison. Though later released on bail, they have not been permitted to leave Romania. Their lawyer and others involved with the case had not expected that they would draw any more jail time, especially since both are in danger of losing their jobs if they don't return to England soon.
"Everybody was surprised. I don't think anybody expected something as harsh as this," said Floca, the lawyer. She described her clients, who were not in the courtroom when the verdict and sentence were announced, as in "a state of shock."
In London, Adrian Mooney's stepfather told Reuters: "We'd always been led to believe that they'd just get a rap over the knuckles and be deported. . . ." He complained that the jail term would tear their 3-year-old, Grace, away from her parents.
"There's a little girl out there who loves her mummy and daddy, and the Romanian authorities are going to tear the family apart if the sentence is put into effect. If they allow this to go ahead, they are quite heartless."
Meanwhile, the future is not looking terribly bright for Monica Baiaram, now 8 months old. She is living in the generically named Orphanage Number One in Bucharest. Neither her family nor the Mooneys have been permitted to visit.
"I want to take care of Monica," complained the child's grandmother, Floara Baiaram. She said she didn't know about the selling of the child and would have disapproved if she had. "She slept with me from the time she was born. We want to at least see her," the grandmother said.
If she doesn't go back to her family, Monica's chances of adoption seem virtually nil. In the aftermath of the Mooney case, fewer and fewer foreigners are daring to come to Romania to adopt.
And no Romanian family is likely to adopt Monica because, as Nicuta Nicolae, manager of another Bucharest orphanage, bluntly puts it, "the Romanians want only Romanian children. They will never adopt a Gypsy."
"For Monica, it would have been an extraordinary stroke of luck to go to England," says Brigitte Miron, a lawyer for the Baiaram family. "And now she is stuck in an orphanage."
Not everyone thinks the Romanian government went so far afield in prosecuting the Mooneys. Under international adoption standards that were drawn up last year at a conference at the Hague, and that Romania is about to sign, foreign adoptions should only be permitted if there is no suitable home for a child in the country of birth.
Furthermore, in determining whether a home is suitable, prospective parents should be judged by their ability to raise a child according to the local standard of living.
"It is nice to say, 'What about the baby? Aren't they better off in a Western home?' " says Jeremy Condor, who works with the Romanian Orphanage Trust, a British nonprofit agency.
"But when people come into a place like Romania throwing thousands of dollars into a fragile economy, it corrupts the whole system," Condor says. ''It makes it less likely over the long term that Romania is going to be able to cope with its children and get them out of institutional care."