The political influence of adoptive parents

Earlier this year a study was published, analyzing the European Union's reversal in approach towards inter-country adoption from Romania since 2007.

The study sheds some interesting light on the motivations behind this radical shift and serves as a warning when it comes to the politicization of child protection.

Initially we wanted to write a review about this fascinating, albeit very dense study.

However, while researching the topic of the Romanian adoptions early 1990s, we felt compelled to write about a subject only touched upon in this study: the political influence of adoptive parents.

We will use the Romanian adoption crisis as a backdrop for this article, although it should be noted that similar patterns emerged around adoptions from Vietnam, Guatemala, and Ethiopia in more recent times.

In fact, throughout history, adopters have been able to muster political clout, whenever the supply of adoptable infants was somehow threatened.

Without further ado, let's go almost 50 years back in history to a country, at the time firmly locked behind the Iron Curtain.

Nicolae Ceausescu became leader of Romania, in 1965. He was a relatively unknown compromise candidate, who managed to get nominated because of infighting between older and more prominent member of the communist party of  Romania.

At the time, Romania had faced very slow population growth, and in some areas even sharp decline, for several years. One of the reasons for this demographic crisis was the abortion legislation enacted in 1957. When Ceausescu ascended into leadership of Romania, abortions had started to outnumber live births by a wide margin, with the ratio of abortions to live births reaching four to one.

In response, the Ceausescu regime enacted strict abortion bans, made contraceptives near impossible to obtain, and gave incentives to women to bear at least five children. These decisions would eventually lead to large scale placement of children in children's homes -- a driving factor behind the adoption crisis almost 25 years later.

We now consider Nicolae Ceausescu to be one the great monsters of the second part of the 20th century, but he wasn't viewed that way for the first 15 years of his rule. In fact, Ceausescu was praised and lauded by Western leaders for being a maverick who challenged the foreign policies of the Soviet Union.

Unlike other Easter-block leaders, Ceausescu actively sought relations with Western countries. Romania became a member of the International Monetary Fund, became a member of the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade, was the first country in the Warsaw pact to receive a US President (Richard Nixon, 1969), and subsequently earned the status of of most-favored nation.

Due to his immense popularity in the West, Ceausescu was able to borrow billions of dollars to finance economic development programs, some successful, others deeply unsuccessful, ultimately leaving the country with mountains of debt.

Throughout the 1980s, the Ceausescu regime imposed harsh austerity measures to pay back Western loans. Most of the food produced in Romania was being exported in order to pull in foreign exchange. The country became more and more destitute over the decade, and eventually in December 1989 the regime collapsed.

Inter-country adoption from Romania had been legally possible since 1956, although it required the consent of the President of Romania. Not much has been documented about adoption in the period 1956-1989, even though it actually is the catalyst for the chaos emerging after the fall of the Ceausescu regime.

One news paper article from the Chicago Sun-Times from late 1987 sheds some light on the inter-country adoption practices in Romania under Ceausescu.

All it took was just one look. A photograph of the little girl with those great big, dark eyes captured the hearts of Barbara and Neil Blumenthal. This was the child they wanted to add to their family.

But wanting does not necessarily simplify getting, and 2 1/2 anxious years of hard work passed before the Homewood couple's dream became reality. The Blumenthals are part of the growing number of Americans who are turning to intercountry private adoptions.

Since 1980, when 51 foreign-born infants were approved for adoption in Illinois, the volume has increased dramatically.

In 1986, 431 children were approved for placement, and about one-fifth of those were adopted by parents who chose to tackle by themselves the time-consuming, costly and often frustrating process of intercountry adoption.

The Blumenthals have been married four years. He is a periodontist; she is the part-time manager at his office. She has three children from a previous marriage - ages 20, 18 and 12 - but they wanted to raise a child together. They had tried traditional adoption services, only to be told there would be a five- to 10-year wait for a healthy Caucasian baby.

At ages 38 and 42, they didn't want to wait that long for a child. The Blumenthals decided their best chance was with private, intercountry adoption. Friends of theirs had relatives who had adopted through a private attorney in Bucharest, Romania.

The Blumenthals contacted the attorney and were sent a packet of information and two photographs of infants, one of a boy, the other a girl.

"We decided that Allyson was the little girl for us," says Barbara Blumenthal.

Today the girl in that photograph, like many other local children, spends time playing in pre-school. Quite a change for a child with bleak beginnings. She was born May 16, 1984, in Bucharest. Her father was the son of a high-ranking government official, but he and the child's 17-year-old mother did not marry, and the infant was sent to a state orphanage.

Home to 500 children, the cramped orphanage often was forced to sleep four and five infants in a single crib, while as many as nine toddlers were crammed into one playpen.

Daily meals consisted of water and oatmeal for breakfast, water and bread for lunch, water and rice for dinner. In 1986, the couple flew to Bucharest to meet Allyson and her caretakers. They were shocked at the orphanage's conditions and the country's oppresive surroundings.

Electronic listening devices were uncovered, concealed in their hotel room. They discovered the state's unadopted boys would be trained to be policemen. Unadopted girls faced a life as street sweepers. "I saw women with babushkas pulling wagons with two wheels and handles, actually sweeping with old cornhusk brooms," Barbara Blumenthal recalls.

"I saw the policemen, young boys of 16 and 17, standing on every corner with machineguns ." Upon their return to the United States, the Blumenthals were determined to get Allyson out of the orphanage as quickly as possible.

What followed was a year filled with red tape and a flood of anxious phone calls to the American Embassy in Bucharest to check on progress. To their dismay, they discovered the Romanian officials routinely returned American papers to the bottom of the stack waiting for releasing signatures. A barrage of letters from the United States - written by the Blumenthals and elected officials from the governor on down - eventually ended the bottleneck.

Two-and-a-half years and $12,000 after the initial contact, the Blumenthals in August brought Allyson to Chicago to join her new family.

On the surface, this is just one of many adoption stories so often featured in the news, but since this is the only article about adoption from Romania prior to 1990, it is interesting, both in what it tells and in what it omits.

The big omission of the article is the political background. Around the time of this story, Ceausescu had frozen all inter-country adoption. The reasons for this decision are unknown, but it certainly angered many prospective adopters who were in the middle of an adoption procedure.

There were not only Americans, like the Blumenthal's who had received an okay for the adoption of a child, there were also couples from France and Italy facing similar situations.

Political pressure, like the Blumenthal's were able to muster from the Governors mansion down, was strong enough to have some case treated as an exception. By 1989, some 30 adoptions in total were allowed, but that didn't clean out the entire pipeline of adopters anxious to see finalization of the adoption they started.

During those final two years of the Ceausescu regime, the situation in the country further deteriorated. At the same time the entire Eastern-block was crumbling, and finally December 25, 1989, after weeks of unrest and fighting, the Ceausescu regime fell.

Six days after the end of the communist rule over Romania, the first documentary about "Ceasescu's orphans" aired on British TV channel BBC. At the time, the images evoked too much of an emotional nerve around the world to make a dispassionate assessment of the time frame involved.

In hind-sight however, it becomes evident when we look at the news during the following week, how all the attention towards the "orphans" in Romania, was primarily geared towards the pipeline cases still in existence.

On January 2, 1990, only eight days after the end of the communist regime, an Associated Press article appeared under the title "Ceausescu's orphans". The title and the introduction suggested the article was all about the conditions of Romania's orphans, but in reality it was almost entirely about one particular pipeline case and one particular orphanage where some 129 children are housed, all approved for adoption to foreign countries.

The article further casually notes that foreign citizens had been paying thousands of dollars in fees and more under the table to get a child. Similar statements were made in other news outlets at the time.

The corrupt nature of the Ceausescu era adoptions, didn't raise a single red flag with leaders of foreign countries. Instead diplomatic pressure was put upon the new leaders of Romania to prioritize the release of hundreds of children for adoption. Romania's leadership quickly complied, and allowed a transport of 130 children for adoption in Italy. On January 6, 1990, the first batch of 61 children were released for adoption in France.

While the press unanimously condemned all actions of the Ceausescu regime, no one at the time questioned the legitimacy of the adoption procedures, even though it was out in the open that corruption was involved. It is ironic how all decisions made by the Ceausescu regime were seen as illegitimate, except for these few hundred adoption cases.

The political pressure on Romania to approve these pipeline cases quickly resulted in disaster. Already on January 10, the first American adventurer adopers appeared on the scene. The "orphan issue" was no longer about those children already ear-marked for adoption prior to the revolution, it became open season on all children of Romania that could somehow be obtained for adoption. A full-blown adoption craze was born.

In the summer of 1990, Romania's leadership paused inter-country adoption over growing concern of baby selling, however, under international pressure, adoption was resumed a few months later.

Meanwhile, in France the adoption craze reached a fever pitch. Private TV channel TF1 planned a week dedicated to “help to the abandoned children from Romania”, by means of a Telethon titled “1000 Romanian children to adopt”. Fortunately the French authorities had the wisdom to intervene, and prevented the airing of these shows.

Early 1991, only a year after the fall of the Ceausescu regime, the press started to notice the issue of baby selling too. CBS 60 minutes aired a video, showing the actual negotiations between a baby broker and his client, while a New York Times article followed an American couple in their pursuit to acquire a baby. A couple of weeks later, the Observer had a lengthy article about  Gypsies selling their babies to Western adopters.

The NYT article for the first time questioned the use of the horrendous imagery from orphanages in Romania.

Perhaps the bitterest paradox is that hundreds of Western families were moved to act by press reports last year, which exposed the misery of older handicapped children, doomed to live in inhumane warehouses for the "irrecoverable." But these are the last to be adopted. "The majority of adoptive parents are coming back to America with infants and newborns, and about half of them are not from institutions," says the American consul general in Bucharest, Virginia Young. "To my knowledge we've not issued an immigrant visa to a single severely handicapped child."

In the summer of 1991, the Romanian government again decided to halt inter-country adoption. UNICEF later estimates that between January 1990 and July 1991, 10,000 Romanian children left abroad.

In the following years an endless battle was fought between those who wanted to maintain access to a flourishing baby market, and those who wanted to end the Romanian baby market, and institute a proper child care system.

Romania itself was reluctant to conform either way. The country needed an enormous amount of money to get back on track, so in no way was it in a position to offend any major contributor to their reconstruction, whether it was the United States of America, Italy, UNICEF, France, Save the Children or the European Commission. On top of that Romania could use the currency that would be obtained through orphan tourism too.

The United States of America played a most perfidious role in prolonging the trafficking of children for adoption. In 1993, a resolution passed the House of Representatives; the resolution made Romania's trade status with the US contingent upon the release of children for adoption. Romania was in no position to withstand such pressure and passed this new Abandonment Law.  This action led to an increase of the number of children exported for adoption.

European governments were in a bind. On the one hand they very much tried to appease the desires of Europeans wanting to adopt children from Romania, on the other hand, they were faced with the consequences of the adoption craze. Apart from diplomatic fall-out over Western citizens being caught purchasing children in Romania, a serious child protective issue in European countries emerged -- Romanian children were sometimes as easily discarded as they had been obtained by their forever families.

The European Commission, much less bothered by direct pressure from adopters, was able to take a firmer stance, and pushed for child welfare reform and an end of inter-country adoption. This created the duplicitous situation, where individual members of the European Union (mainly France, Italy and Spain) pushed Romania to keep inter-country adoption going, while as a collective they pushed for an end of inter-country adoption from Romania.

In the end, Romania chose compliance with the EU, and its associated funding and finally closed its borders for inter-country adoption. Again there were many pipeline cases. Again prime-ministers, secretaries of state, and ambassadors lobbied the Romanian government on behalf of prospective adopters, but this time with limited success. Some pipeline cases were processed, but to this day Romania's borders remain closed for inter-country adoption.

The Romanian story shows us how the political influence of prospective adopters can create an adoption crisis. It also shows that this influence can obstruct reform of an adoption system that has gone wildly out of control. 

Romania is not exceptional. We could have told a similar story about Guatemala, where adoption continued for years, despite widespread corruption and blatant child trafficking.

Not hindered by any ethical considerations, many American prospective adopters flocked to Guatemala in a free-for-all quest for young and healthy infants.

Another adoption craze had formed, and again the political influence of adopters and prospective adopters helped sustain a criminal situation for years. The Department of State and various politicians pushed the Guatemalan government to keep the gravy train going, and for years they were successful at it.

In the end, an adoption craze is unsustainable. Eventually every sending country becoming overly popular has to reduce supply drastically. Romania did, Guatemala did, and even Ethiopia has taken reductive measures in recent years, much to the chagrin of prospective adopters. In all these situations politicians in receiving countries stood on the wrong side of history, and chose electoral gain over ethical conduct.

Political influence of adopters is not just limited to periods of adoption craze. The influence is much more persistent, and has been institutionalized. In the US, the existence of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI) is a perfect example of how enmeshed the political system can be with adoption interests. 

Initially, CCAI was set up by members of congress to promote adoption from foster care, but that mission was quickly broadened to encompass all forms of adoption. Since then CCAI has become an important lobby group representing the interests of adopters and of the adoption industry.

A similar situation exists in Europe, where adoptive parents have successfully put pressure on their governments to move the European Commission towards adopter-friendly  policies.

Ten years after Romania closed its borders, the European Commission has made a U-turn, and is now firmly in favor of inter-country adoption. This reversal of approach towards adoption from Romania is meticulously researched in the study by Ingi Iusmen, mentioned in our introduction. It is not an easy read, but for a good understanding of the politics of adoption, it is an indispensable document.

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