Child traffickers prey on Romania

CATALINA OPREA has shiny new shoes. She also has a bicycle, a collection of dolls and a best dress for Sundays. This three-year-old “rescued” from Romania and now living with a middle-class Spanish family has every material possession she could want.

To the casual observer, Catalina appears to be one of thousands of abandoned children said to have found their only chance of a decent life abroad with adoptive parents. But her story of being rescued from a country where no one seems to care is a fiction.

She was not taken from a children’s home. She is not even an orphan. Catalina was living happily with a foster family who wanted to adopt her in her own country. Her real mother never consented to her adoption. That was decided by a court dealing with foreign adoptions without her mother’s knowledge.

She was eventually given to a man of 62, Jose de la Torre Coll, and his wife, Anamaria, 32, in Majorca.

In short, Catalina left Romania even though she was loved and wanted. She left despite a moratorium on foreign adoptions that was imposed because of rampant baby-trafficking.

She left even though Romania and Spain are signatories to the UN’s international convention on children’s rights, which forbids inter-country adoptions of children in foster care. Those who miss her in Romania say they will never recover.

Her foster mother, Elena Copcealau, who had brought her up from the age of four months, and her real mother, Luminita Oprea, who was forced to give her up three days after birth, were no match for the sophisticated lobbying that accompanied her adoption. Nor could they match the sums of money that were spent on her “rescue”. All they can think of now is that Catalina is gone.

Catalina is at the centre of a cash-for-babies scandal. Hundreds of children like her have been plucked from poor but decent families in Romania in a sordid trade in children that has preyed on the most vulnerable.

It shames Romania and has led advocates of reform to criticise possibly naive politicians in Europe and America who have lobbied assiduously for the adoption of Romanian children to be allowed to continue.

Among the European advocates are Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, and Romano Prodi, president of the European commission. Across the Atlantic, the pro-adoption lobby includes Senator John Kerry, the Democrats’ presidential candidate, and Donald Rumsfeld, defence secretary.

Michael Guest, the American ambassador in Bucharest, has made foreign adoptions a personal crusade. But an official US government report is highly critical. It says Romanian children who would not have been put up for adoption at all have been adopted abroad because of “financial incentives”.

Measures were taken to stop this sad trade in 2001, when, under pressure from the European parliament, Romania barred all foreign adoptions. Led by Baroness Nicholson, the British campaigner, MEPs condemned a corrupt child welfare system that allowed more than 30,000 children to be spirited abroad in 10 years.

The trade, in which many children were being auctioned, was estimated by Nicholson to have generated $1 billion for officials and middlemen acting as facilitators for international adoption agencies.


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