Rupert Wolfe Murray, Cotidianul, Dec 2005
The child welfare system has been fundamentally reformed over the last 10 years and it is well known that the number of children in institutions has crashed, the number of children in family placement has shot up and all sorts of things are being done to stop women abandoning babies.
On the international stage there is now recognition that Romania has made progress. Even the media have taken note and positive articles on the child welfare reforms have been published in the New York Times, the London Guardian and the Dutch daily paper NRC Handelsblad.
All this is under threat with the increasingly strident US-led pressure, culminating in the visit to Romania of Condoleezza Rice, to lift the ban on international adoptions. Although there are several EU countries which are pro international adoption - namely France , Italy and Spain - none are as brazen and aggressive in their lobbying tactics as the Americans.
Arch conservative Congressman Chris Smith (Republican, New Jersey ) recently demanded that Romania repeal its child rights law and re-introduce international adoptions. The newly appointed US Ambassador to Romania and political friend of Condi Rice, Nicholas Taubman, has vowed to make adoptions a priority and the Washington DC based international adoptions lobby have succeeded in keeping this issue on the diplomatic agenda since adoptions were banned in 2001.
The current and previous Romanian governments have stood surprisingly firm on this issue and have continually refused to lift the ban on adoptions. I congratulate them for standing firm in the face of this international pressure and not giving in to an interest group which represents a multi-billion dollar industry.
But why is international adoptions not a good solution for abandoned Romanian children? And how would the re-introduction of international adoptions undermine the child welfare reforms? Both these questions are reasonable and need to be addressed, as many people are not aware of the nature of the reforms here, or of the effects that international adoptions had on Romania .
International adoptions had a very negative effect on the emergence of social services in Romania , even though the 1997 law was supposed to channel the payments for adoptions into the social services. International adoptions are supposed to be a "final resort" after it is found to be impossible to place abandoned children locally. With large cash payments (up to USD 30,000) available from international adoption agencies, the international solution often became the priority - even if against the interest of the child. Also, social workers were sucked out of the emerging social work system and hired by the adoption agencies.
There are numerous case studies and arguments about why international adoption is not in the best interest of the child. Although there are scores of successful examples, it has been particularly difficult for foreign families to cope with Romanian children that were brought up in institutions - as these children had been starved of affection at critical points and they had probably been abused in some way. These children found it difficult to form attachments, behaviour disorders were common, the impact on the western family unit was often disastrous and in some cases the family could not cope and the child was dumped onto social services. Romanian adoptive families are in a better position to understand the cultural factors and deal with the reality of bringing up these children.
The worst thing about the 1997 to 2001 international adoption regime in Romania was the fact that a market in children was created by the 1997 law, which set up a complex "points system" whereby adoption agencies could earn points (by investing in social services) and with enough points they would be given a child for international adoptions. A veritable market in children was created.
According to a report on 'Inter Country Adoption' by USAID, published in January 2001, "almost every discussion we had on adoptions in Romania involved the use of commercial terms, terms such as 'auction' and 'price'. Frequently those with whom we spoke would apologise for using such disquieting terms but would explain that they best describe the situation."
If Romania 's child rights law (which was hailed by Baroness Nicholson as "a triumph" last month in Strasbourg ) is repealed and international adoptions is resumed, there is a risk that similar things will happen. Local officials may lose motivation to find local solutions to children in difficulty; the few social workers who are working for the state will be recruited by the agencies; and financial concerns may once again outweigh what is in the best interest of the child.
A major reason that Romania's position should be defended is that the child welfare reforms are working - not only are the number of children in institutions falling but it is no longer possible to send an abandoned baby to an institution; they must be placed in a substitute family (foster or extended families). Last year, 4,600 children were left by their mothers in hospitals and out of this total almost half were returned to their natural parents thanks to the efforts of social workers (who are the real heroes in this story). There are also big efforts going on to prevent abandonment, and last year 24,000 counseling sessions took place in this regard. Romania is the only country in Central and Eastern Europe which has reformed its child welfare system so thoroughly.
The final factor that needs to be taken into consideration is national adoptions. Under the new law (272/2004) national adoptions are encouraged, but the new law does give natural parents more rights and thus the adoption process is not easy or fast in Romania (or any civilized country for that matter). The newly formed Office for National Adoptions says that 1,355 families have registered their interest in adopting, but only 393 children are available. According to Theodora Bertzi, the Secretary of State for National Adoptions, this number is relatively small: "if we promoted the adoption service more, I am sure that many more families would be interested in adopting children in difficulty."
There are still massive problems with child protection in Romania and we monitor the national and regional press and see regular stories of murders, rapes, abuses and abandonment. How can the system be considered reformed if such things keep happening? I would say that this is normal. In every country there are scandals when it comes to child protection, but if there is a free press these abuses will be exposed in the media. For example, in the USA , there are hundreds of cases every year of children being abused by their foster parents; but the cases are identified and the media and criminal justice system play their roles effectively. By exposing the problems in the system - and having developed ways of dealing with them - Romania has proven that she has truly reformed what was one of the most shameful legacies of the Communist era.
Rupert Wolfe Murray was a volunteer with disabled children in Botosani between 1990 and 1993 and currently works for the Phare project " Education Campaign on Family Advisory Issues and Child Rights" .