Tales of Stolen Babies And Lost Identities;A Greek Scandal Echoes in New York
Tales of Stolen Babies And Lost Identities;A Greek Scandal Echoes in New York
By RAYMOND BONNER
Published: April 13, 1996
The baby girl, swaddled in rags, was abandoned on the steps of an orphanage in Patras, Greece, with a simple note giving her name (Maria Ioannou), date of birth (Aug. 15, 1955) and a plea that she be fed.
At least that is what official papers say, papers that allowed her to be adopted by a family in Holliswood, Queens. She arrived at Idlewild Airport aboard Swissair Flight 850 at 9:15 A.M. on Dec. 28, 1955.
Forty years later, Maxine Deller -- she has used that name since her adoption -- says she believes that much of her official past is a lie. Ms. Deller, a car saleswoman in Queens, is convinced that her natural mother is still alive, that she has brothers and sisters in Greece, and that she was not abandoned at all but was illegally adopted as part of a large-scale baby-selling scheme at several municipal orphanages in Greece.
To adopt Maria Ioannou, George and Joanna Deller paid $1,000 to a prominent New York magistrate, who was later indicted on charges of conspiracy.
Last year, a national scandal erupted in Greece after several people told their stories of illegal adoption on a popular television show there. Since then, hundreds of adopted children, their siblings and parents who put their children in orphanages have been poring over records in Athens, Thessaloniki in northern Greece and Patras, a sprawling port on the Peloponnesus.
And while the institutions in those cities are considered well-run today, suspicions run high that they operated a baby-selling racket from the 1930's to the 1970's.
In Greece, those who think they are victims of a scheme have formed a group, the Association for the Search for Children Adopted Without the Consent of Their Natural Parents, to unite adopted children and their natural families. And from New York to California, Greek-Americans like Ms. Deller have formed an Internet support group as they search for their pasts.
In the 1950's, Greece was impoverished in the wake of World War II and a bitter civil war. Many families who could not afford to keep their children put them in the orphanages, some with the intent of eventually reclaiming them.
Child advocates say the illegal adoption schemes relied on a winding trail of false documents. In some cases, parents who had put a child in an orphanage would be told that the child had died, and be given fake death certificates. Other times, adoptive parents would be given a false document saying that a child's natural mother had died, paving the way for an adoption. While no one knows how many children may have been adopted through falsified records, hundreds, if not thousands, are thought to have come to the United States.
Greek officials have promised investigations, and in February, the Mayor of Patras announced that all files in that city would be opened. But association leaders complained that their efforts to obtain files were meeting resistance. Their search has been complicated by the fact that most of those thought to have been involved, from doctors and nurses to priests and orphanage officials, are now dead.
In her search for the truth about her natural parents, Amalia Balch of Phoenix, who helped found the Patras arm of the Search for Children group, said she had faced "lies, secrecy, denial, smoke screens, threats and much anger."
Ms. Balch, 45, who has been to Greece four times in the last 10 years, has put together a list of 35 children from the municipal nursery in Patras who were adopted by American families and whose suspiciously identical files, she said, reported that the children were illegitimate and had been abandoned. That is what her papers said when she was adopted by a Los Angeles family in the 1950's.
A hint of irregularity reached New York in 1959 when Stephen S. Scopas, a magistrate who had been appointed by Mayor Robert F. Wagner and who was active in Greek-American civic, political and religious circles, was indicted on charges of selling 30 Greek children to New York couples. In a scandal that captured front-page headlines, Mr. Scopas was charged with accepting payment for placing the children and for doing so without authorization.
It was to Mr. Scopas that Maxine Deller's adoptive parents paid $1,000, according to a letter from him that her parents, now deceased, left in her possession.
Though forced to resign, Mr. Scopas was acquitted. A judge ruled that because the adoptions had been legal in Greece -- as it was believed at the time -- Mr. Scopas could not be convicted in New York.
Mr. Scopas, now 85, is still living in Queens. His wife, Cleoniko, said that he is suffering from Alzheimer's disease and could not comment, but added that the charges against him were false.
In Athens, Christo Pantelidis, who runs a photography studio, has been on a crusade of sorts, reviewing records at nurseries, compiling related documents and talking with those involved. He estimates that at least 2,000 Greek children were adopted by American families in the 1950's without their natural parents' permission. In 1954, he points out, 1,400 adoptees sailed to the United States aboard one ship alone, the Greek liner Queen Frederika.
Mr. Pantelidis's mission began last year after watching a television program on which a Thessaloniki lawyer revealed her suspicions of having been illegally adopted. In 1949, Mr. Pantelidis's mother had checked into a clinic with complications after the birth of her son Yannis. She took Yannis with her to the clinic, where she died. When Mr. Pantelidis's father went to fetch Yannis, he was told the child had died, too.
His own suspicions newly aroused, Mr. Pantelidis, 46, began searching records for his brother. Last year, he found a document in the Thessaloniki nursery saying that Yannis had been taken there by an unknown person; other papers said he had been brought by his father. One document said he had been rebaptized as Paul; another said he had died. Finally, he found a document saying that his brother had been adopted, and he tracked him down.
"He's a real copy of my father," Mr. Pantelidis said with a big grin, recalling his reaction when he first saw his brother.
In the last year in the United States, an informal network has slowly sprouted among Greek-American children of the 1950's to help one another find their natural parents.
Constantina Altobello was adopted by a Westchester County family that was told that her natural parents had died in an earthquake on the island of Zante in 1954. Now living in California, she is communicating on the Internet with 15 other Greek-Americans searching for their parents.
Ms. Deller, who says her adopted parents gave her a "wonderful life," is nonetheless eager to know her past. She put a notice on the Internet and has been contacted by four people who believe they may also have been illegally adopted.
Sitting around a dining room table on a recent Sunday afternoon in Queens, a friend of Ms. Deller's, Lori Weinstein, talked of the tragic past that drives her search.
According to adoption papers signed by an official at the American Embassy in Greece, Ms. Weinstein was born on April 15, 1958, and was named Maria at birth -- "That's Jane Doe in Greece," she said.
Last year, after publicity in Greece over the adoptions, Ms. Weinstein gave a Greek-American friend the power of attorney to look at her documents in Greece and to talk with people who might know about her past.
"I don't know how to tell you this, but I believe that you were stolen from the hospital," she says her friend told her. "I also believe you have a twin."
It was often the case, Mr. Pantelidis said, that a twin was taken so that the mother would be left with a child.
Ms. Weinstein's adoptive parents paid $4,000 for her -- a large amount at the time. The going rate was $1,000 to $2,000. Her adoptive parents paid more, she said, because her mother had a history of mental illness that rendered the couple unable to adopt in the United States.
Her adoptive mother, a paranoid schizophrenic, died of hepatitis two years ago. Her father and stepmother died a year ago.
"This year has probably been the worst year of my life," said Ms. Weinstein, a counselor for homeless children who lives in Brooklyn. "I need to find my family. It's more than want, it's need, in order for me to go on with the next part of my life. I need to know somebody looks like me. I want to know if somebody has my sense of humor, my knees, my smile.
"I would like to be able to say the word 'mother' and really feel it in my heart."
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My whole life is one big question mark. I also was adopted, blindly by Americans in 1957 who never set foot in Greece, and was sent by plane to Idlewild Airport, then to a suburb in Long Island, New York in 1958 due to a delay in Greece until February, 1958 at the age of 5, which was highly unusual to be adopted at such a late age. I spoke fluent Greek and knew no English. But all that was destroyed when I was sent on a plane to an unfit family who were wicked and cruel towards me; there was no official interpreter and I was scared! (by their own admission, they never conneced with me nor loved me due to my age, I guess?) I had 8 years of madness with this family where I lost all my Greek heritage and language; when finally after being sent to various homes and institutions I was rejected by them for good and became a ward of the State of New York. I have buried my past for it is just too painful to report all the abuses I suffered and also the loss of my identity, with no paperwork, birth certificate nor even being a citizen of my adopted country of America. I have tried to search but came into brick walls; even going to Greece in the year 2000 but was under suspicion by the news celebrity, Nikoloulou who declined to help me and her associates even questioned my motives who suggested that I might be on a 'gold digging' exposition. Interpol in Athens was more helpful and took a copy of the documents I did have but a number of months later; they were all sent back to me with no explanation except that they couldn't help further. And these internet search organiztions in Greece all promise to help; but they want your documents, originals and also money; which I don't have and further, due to my suspicious upbringing and repeated lies from my adopted family who have disowned me since a child; I am hesitant to trust anyone. Is there an agency that can help find something about me; even for my birth certificate for free? or is it too late. I am now 61 years of age; I don't expect my birth mother or father to be alive; but I do demand and expect to know how and where I came from and what day and year I was born in. I possess a made up birth certificate from Greece that was given to me in 1985 which states nothing I didn't know before (my so-called year of my birth, my adopted name and where I was born; but no birthdate and no family name, nothing! Who ever heard of a birth certificate to state no date of a birth except the year? Again, my whole life is full of questions. But before I die, I would now like some answers.