BABY-SELLING TRADE SUSPECTED IN POLAND
POVERTY IS HARD. ABORTION CONTROLS ARE TIGHT.
FOREIGN PARENTS STAND READY TO PAY $25,000 FOR A CHILD.
The Philadelphia Inquirer
When Elzbieta returned home one night without her newborn baby, her neighbors in this eastern Polish town grew suspicious.
Their worst suspicions were confirmed when they alerted police and the young mother admitted depositing her baby with a man alleged to be part of a ring selling children abroad.
The case, the first of its kind in this country, has focused attention on what experts fear is a thriving underground baby trade in which Polish children are sold to Westerners for amounts thought to reach $25,000 or more.
"Nobody knows how widespread it is," said Dr. Barbara Passini, head of the Children's Friend Association in Warsaw, a respected organization that deals with legal adoptions.
"There are people making a good living through this. It's hard to catch anyone red-handed because nobody who is involved in a deal is interested in uncovering it."
The go-between accused of selling Elzbieta's baby is awaiting trial on charges of selling 10 children to rich Westerners. Several similar cases are also being investigated by authorities in nearby Lublin.
Passini and other officials fear many more cases of child-selling go undiscovered in a country where poverty is growing, abortions are tightly restricted and travel abroad has become easier since the end of communist rule four years ago.
Elzbieta's situation is not unusual. An unemployed widow in her early 30s, she was already bringing up two children in a small apartment on a rundown housing estate in Zamosc when she became pregnant by her boyfriend.
Bringing up a third child would have been difficult with little money. Legal abortion was ruled out by tough laws imposed earlier this year in this predominantly Roman Catholic country. Illegal abortions are risky and expensive.
Elzbieta is quoted by officials as saying she gave her baby away in the hope of finding it a better home. Under Polish law, she faces no charges even if she sold her child, but the intermediary could be jailed for three years or more.
"I thought it was odd when she came home from the hospital without the baby," said an elderly neighbor outside Elzbieta's apartment.
When neighbors alerted police, an intermediary was tracked down in a nearby town with lists of contacts in his apartment linking him with the baby trade. He is alleged to have worked with a Canadian lawyer who sought out new parents.
"He looked for mothers who had decided to have a child but for many reasons, mainly material, did not want to raise these children," said the prosecutor investigating the case. He declined to be named.
"He helped these women during pregnancy and organized the sale of the child," he said.
The prosecutor would not say how much the babies were sold for, but other officials said healthy boys appear to fetch about $25,000 or more. Girls cost slightly less.
In some cases, the prices are thought to be higher. Last month police uncovered a ring in Italy in which a Polish woman is alleged to have sold Polish children for up to $50,000.
Like crime in general in Poland, the baby trade has probably increased since communist rule ended in 1989.
Officials say it may have been thriving earlier but was not stopped because the former communist authorities, who always said crime was low, had no interest in publicizing it.
"Poland is now an open country. More people come and go across the borders," Passini said.
"There are three ways to earn money: trade in artworks, drugs and children. These are three negative forms of trade and all this has now intensified in Poland."
Officials decline to give exact details of how go-betweens advertise babies they want to sell or how they take children out of the country.
But under Polish law a man does not have to prove paternity if he and the mother want to register him as the father of her child, provided the child has no registered father. That man can then take the baby abroad.
Polish children can be adopted legally by foreigners only if no suitable parents are found in Poland, but experts suspect many more find homes abroad than official figures suggest. In 1991, more than 650 Polish children were adopted abroad.
Officials say there have been clear links in the baby trade with Canada and new parents appear also to have been found in Germany, Italy and other rich Western countries.
Some officials suggest unidentified hospitals may also have been involved in adoptions which skirted the normal procedures to help foot ever-increasing bills.
They say the unofficial market exists because legal adoption can be a long process and many people prefer to adopt good-looking and healthy children.