Babies-for-sale trade faces a global crackdown
Attempts by Western families to adopt children from poor nations have fuelled a rogue market in young lives. But at last action is being taken. Carolyn Wheeler reports from Lviv, Ukraine
The thick stack of photographs pulled from a manila envelope in Maria Chernyk's cupboard explains all she has to say about foreign adoptions. Each year, the director of Lviv's Orphanage No 1 sends a handful of children overseas: most to the United States, many to Italy, some to Germany, France and Canada, one to a Ukrainian couple in Manchester.
She tracks them with this collection of photos: a sweet blond boy with a crossed eye, a slender, solemn-faced girl who needed heart surgery, a little boy so traumatised by his past that he never spoke.
Each family paid dearly for the privilege of being parents, over £15,000 in many cases, to cover travel, agency fees and the demands of dozens of bureaucrats.
Chernyk is a staunch defender of the web of bureaucracy and money that foreign adoption has become: her orphanage is better able to care for the children left behind with donations that include a television, new carpets and medicines. And the children adopted are - judging from the photographs - well cared for far from the run-down orphanage and far from the politics threatening the adoptions of others like them.
'I am in favour of, and will continue to support, international adoption, because I have seen the results,' said Chernyk, whose orphanage is so strapped for resources she had to ask a friend abroad to collect milk powder last year.
Overseas adoption is big business, and growing: last year, more than 2,150 Ukrainian children and almost 8,000 Russian children were adopted to foreign countries. Most of those went to the US, where Russia is second only to China as a provider of adoptees and Ukraine ranks sixth. Italy and Spain adopt hundreds of children each year, as do Canadians. British parents applied to adopt 26 Russian children last year - none from Ukraine, where adoption is on hold over a disagreement over regulations.
China is still a reliable source of girls but eastern European countries are also popular. A child who looks like his or her parents leads to fewer embarrassing questions in the playground or supermarket. It is often faster to get a baby or toddler from abroad and adopting from another culture, particularly a country where adoption records are sealed and poverty is rampant, takes away some of the fear of a birth mother coming knocking.
In an industry fuelled by money and the desperation of would-be parents, and complicated by haphazard or non-existent regulations, private agencies and corruption among poorly paid officials, there are countless tales of fraud - babies sold twice to different families, adoption facilitators who have made off with thousands, mothers who were duped into giving up their newborns.
Some families spend thousands only to go home empty-handed, after finding the child referred to them is ill, or not the right age, or gender, or that the official required to approve an adoption is ill or has been fired. Even in above-board adoption cases, large donations to orphanages are considered mandatory, whether as money or in clothing, food or medical supplies and adoptive parents are counselled to bring gifts for a long list of government officials to help things go smoothly.
'I have to be careful what I say, but an awful lot of $100 bills were floating across tables in Kiev and Odessa. It did appear to open things up and get things moving,' said Brad Parr, a 47-year-old Texan who adopted a two-year-old Ukrainian girl two years ago, after weeks of arguing with officials, weeding through listings and travelling from orphanage to orphanage. 'It worked out we got a great kid but we had to put a lot of pressure on them - you're not going there to be a tourist. You're going to conduct business.'
And the business is lucrative. A decade ago, several doctors and nurses in Lviv were charged with accepting bribes and forging documents, even coercing mothers into giving up their newborns or telling them their babies had died, to allow them to be adopted abroad.
Today, Ukrainian adoption officials won't talk about that case, except to say it was the catalyst for sweeping changes to foreign adoption laws. Families from abroad who could once take babies straight from maternity homes, must now wait for older children who have spent a year listed with the National Adoption Centre's registry, and may not look at any child other than the given referral. Private agencies, which flourish in other countries, are now illegal in Ukraine, though a number operate outside Ukraine to co-ordinate documents and arrange translators.
But baby-selling accusations have popped up in almost every country that permits foreign adoptions. In June, British Children's Minister Margaret Hodge suspended all adoptions from Cambodia over charges of falsified documents, illegal adoption facilitators and the coercion of mothers to hand over their children.
For many young Cambodian orphans, adoption means a much sought-after ticket to prosperity and security but the darker side is widespread reports of unscrupulous brokers buying infants from poverty-stricken parents and selling them, at a huge profit, to Western couples.
More than 2,300 children have been adopted by foreigners in Cambodia in the last six years. The Prime Minister, Hun Sen, suspended all foreign adoptions for a short period four years ago but then lifted the ban, pending legislation regulating the industry.
'It's the worst form of exploitation. The parents are often desperate and will turn a blind eye or simply do not want to know,' said one charity worker in the capital, Phnom Penh. 'This country is without a proper system of law and pretty much everything can be bought: officials, permits, people. The problem is the demand not supply. If we stamp it out here it will go elsewhere.'
Middlemen persuade women in dirt-poor villages to give up their babies for between $20 and $50 or babies are bought directly from orphanages in Cambodia, which has a long tradition of children being sold into prostitution or slavery.
Main Dim, 40, was divorced with five children when she became pregnant by a man who abandoned her. Worried that she would not be able to care for another child, Main Dim agreed to sell her baby for $50. 'He was crying when I let him go. So was I,' she said. Still, she is seen as 'the lucky one' in her village of Laing Kout. Unlike others, she gets $100 a year from the American family and has received dozens of pictures: the boy bundled in ski clothes, in a bath with his blond-haired sister and another Cambodian brother.
'I still miss him, but when I see the pictures I'm happy, because he does have a better life than any I could give him,' she said, showing off a radio given to her by the boy's new family. 'If they offered to give him back, of course, I'd want that. But at least I know he's being taken care of.'
Sou Soam, 64, hopes that's true for her grandson, too, but she has no way of knowing. She sold the day-old boy for $40 after her daughter died in childbirth seven years ago. 'I just want to see how he's grown, what he looks like,' said Sou Soam. 'I had no money and five other grandchildren to care for.'
Most Cambodian parents think they were doing the right thing. Run Chenda, sold by her mother into prostitution aged nine for $80, says children who go to rich foreigners are the lucky ones. 'If I could trade places with any of them, I would,' she said.
In Azerbaijan, six doctors and nurses are now on trial on charges of illegally handing over nearly 200 children to foreigners for adoption. A temporary moratorium has been declared on foreign adoptions in the country until the rules are re-examined.
Romania, which 15 years ago had massive media coverage over the state of its orphanages, passed a law in July limiting foreign adoption to a child's grandparents. Last month, France and Romania set up a committee to help 130 French couples already in the process of adopting Romanian orphans.
In Russia, where tabloids fed on the news that German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder had adopted a Russian child and that actress Angelina Jolie planned to, deputy prosecutor-general Vladimir Kolesnikov said bribery and fraud is still widespread. Last year a man was jailed after selling 558 children over the course of eight years.
'There is trafficking in children in Russia,' said Ekaterina Lakhova, head of the Duma committee on family affairs and a critic of foreign adoption. She points to reports of Russian children being abused in their new families: an American couple in New Jersey were jailed for 10 years for abusing their seven-year-old adopted son, Viktor, who died of hypothermia after being made to sleep in an unheated cellar, and a Colorado woman recently tried to re-sell her Russian daughter on the Internet.
'We are unable to monitor the support of Russian children adopted by foreigners. Russia's jurisdiction does not transcend the borders of our country,' Lakhova said.
In 2000, President Vladimir Putin required all adoption agencies in Russia to obtain certificates, a process that temporarily halted adoptions and left the country with about 90 private agencies, more than half based in America.
But Russia is now about to go further. After a series of committee hearings last week, the Duma is considering a draft law to limit adoptions to countries that have signed a bilateral agreement. This would temporarily halt adoption to Britain and Italy, and entirely end adoptions to Canada and the US. Lakhova estimates some 100 agencies work illegally in Russia.
'It is virtually impossible to bring people abusing these procedures to criminal or administrative responsibility. There is a need to establish state control over the adoption procedure in Russia and to ensure the rights of adopted children abroad.'
As the political debate continues, would-be parents are faced with a long, expensive and uncertain process while orphanage directors worry that a major source of donations will dry up.
'I would tell those politicians [who would block adoptions], then provide these children with a good life,' Chernyk said. 'I am always struggling with people like that. I am used to it. But every time I hear that, I say just try. You just try to come here and take care of these kids, wash them, feed them, clothe them.'
The orphanage, a 30-year-old brick building in a grey suburb, receives state money only for food, medicine, utilities and staff. It's a paltry amount: Employees are paid an average of 400 hryvnya, £40, per month; the budget allows 2,000 hryvnia, or £203, a year for medicine for 120 children, and 130,000 hryvnya, £13,200, for food.
Between 10 and 14 children share a room with two carers, small white beds lined up end to end, and a picture of Jesus with lambs on the wall. Murals, painted by volunteers in the common rooms, break up the monotony and each room is spotlessly clean. An upstairs room boasts a television and a new rug; a playroom is crammed with toys, all courtesy of charities in Ukraine and abroad.
But the hallways are dark, their lightbulbs burnt out with no money to replace them, or turned off to save electricity. The hallway floors and staircases are cold, bare cement. Paint peels and the smell of cabbage wafts through the hallways.
It is an existence of little hope for children caught in a legal limbo: those left here by a parent who has little to no contact, but will not relinquish parental rights. For the few available for adoption, the thought of a family of their own - even one far away that speaks a different lan guage - is an obsession. Gifts left behind by adoptive parents, books, a stack of Canadian flags, are constant reminders. Meanwhile, the children don't know the world outside these walls but they all say: 'I want a mother, I want a father.'
'All kids want a family,' Chernyk said. Adoption advocates, who are also working to make adoption more appealing to local families, say any move to tighten regulations will condemn thousands of children to a life that ends on the street.
'I feel really sick about what was pronounced there,' said Boris Altschuler of Russias Right of the Child advocacy group. 'We must be grateful that these people save our children, more than 7,000 a year, and give them the happiness of life in a family. We should not be counting the money in their pockets.'
· Additional reporting by Jason Burke in Phnom Penh