Romanian suing Canadian couple over adoption

Updated Thu. Feb. 17 2005 12:51 PM ET

Canadian Press

TORONTO -- A young Romanian mother is suing the wealthy Canadian couple who adopted her as a nine-year-old, then sent her back five months later to a life of poverty -- two days after they adopted another baby girl.

The suit, filed in Ontario Superior Court by Alexandra Austin, 22, on Tuesday, identifies her legal father as prominent heart surgeon Joseph Austin, now chief of cardiothoracic surgery at Overlake Hospital Medical Center in Bellevue, Wash.

"They stole my childhood. They stole my future. They stole my life,'' Austin said in halting English, brushing away tears.

"I never had a normal life.''

The unproven suit, which seeks at least $7 million for, among other things, negligence and breach of contract, are the doctor's ex-wife, Silvana Di Giacomo, the Canadian and Ontario governments, and Swiss International Air Lines.

The couple, then of Ancaster, Ont., had four boys and wanted a girl. In 1991, they persuaded Austin's impoverished mother to let them take her to Canada even though she was not up for adoption.

When they unceremoniously sent her home alone months later, the girl found herself back with her surprised mother, but in legal limbo and stateless.

The Austins had never cancelled the adoption and the child's documents had been altered, as is customary in such cases, to show her birthplace as Canada.

As a result, Romanian authorities refused to recognize her and she was denied access to schooling and health care.

"I lost not one or two years, I lost 14 years,'' she said.

Now the mother of a four-year-old daughter herself, Austin lives in a one-room Bucharest apartment, struggling to get by on a Grade 3 education in a country where Grade 7 is the minimum requirement for street-sweeping.

Questions remain about both her and her child's identities.

Because she is not a Canadian citizen, Canadian consular officials refused to get involved until the media recently began asking questions but have done nothing to help, Austin said.

"It's like she has fallen between the cracks,'' said Mary Anne Alton, who brought Austin's plight to public attention with a documentary Return to Sender.

A secretary at Dr. Austin's office said, "He is not interested in making any comments.'' Di Giacomo lives in Rome but her exact whereabouts were not known.

The lawsuit claims the Canadian government has sloughed off its obligations to her.

Ontario Children's Services Minister Marie Bountrogianni refused to comment on the case but said the province is in the process of beefing up its adoption rules and procedures.

Ann McElhinney, an Irish journalist who worked on the documentary, called the case "a massive tragedy'' that highlights the perils of international adoptions.

Despite the family's financial straits at the time -- her biological father had died, leaving their mother with eight children -- Canadian authorities knew Austin was well cared for and should never have allowed the adoption, she said.

"It's a tragedy that she was ever sent back but the greatest tragedy is that she ever left Romania in the first place,'' said McElhinney, who like Austin, wants an end to all such adoptions.

"Canada knew what they were doing was wrong.''

As part of the documentary, Austin arrived unannounced on her adoptive father's doorstep in an effort to confront him, but he refused to acknowledge her.

She said he gave her a number to call and promised to talk to her another time, but the phone was disconnected.

While he told the documentary makers Austin was unhappy and wanted to go back to her native country, she said that wasn't true.

She maintained Tuesday she wants answers to the "many questions'' she has about why she was adopted in the first place, and why she was as suddenly wrenched from a busy life of school and friends, swimming and piano lessons, and learning to ride a bicycle.

"I do not have an idea. I was a child,'' said Austin. "It wasn't my fault.''

Austin's brother was adopted by another Canadian couple as a two-year-old and lives in Montreal.

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