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Doctor Acts to Heal Romania's Wound Of Baby Trafficking


Doctor Acts to Heal Romania's Wound Of Baby Trafficking

Published: October 3, 1991
Dr. Alexandra Zugravescu has spent most of her life in Bucharest hospitals, tending to the health of Romanian children. Now, this 66-year-old pediatrician is tending to the well-being of her country, trying to cure one of its most publicized scandals: the selling of babies for adoption. Her task, as she explains it, is to wipe out "the dirty business of baby trafficking."

Efforts by Dr. Zugravescu and the new Government agency that she heads, the Romanian Committee for Adoptions, will affect a great many families in the United States. In the last year, Romania, which has a large population of abandoned and orphaned children as a legacy of the Communist dictatorship that was deposed in 1989, has overtaken South Korea as the leading source for foreign adoptions by Americans.

A ban on abortion and contraception under the old regime and grinding poverty that left many people unable to support a family turned children into a commodity that was sometimes sold on the streets.

As a first step in carrying out a new law to control adoptions, Romania has temporarily halted adoptions by foreigners. Those adoptions will not resume again until January, at the earliest, Dr. Zugravescu said here last week.

Dr. Zugravescu completed a 10-day visit to Washington, during which she met with Government officials and child-welfare experts, just as her country was thrown once again into political turmoil. The Prime Minister resigned last Thursday after violent protests against the Government in the streets of Bucharests led by miners upset over economic hardships.

Officials at the State Department and the Romanian Embassy said that despite the sudden political uncertainty, they did not expect the new adoption law, which went into effect in July, to be affected.

According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 2,287 Romanian children were adopted by Americans from Oct. 1, 1990 to Sept. 4, 1991. In that period, Americans adopted 1,534 Korean children; until a few years ago, South Korea provided more than half of all foreign babies adopted by American families. But that country, while the No. 2 provider of children for adoption in the United States, has drastically reduced the number of babies released for overseas adoption.

"It is a tremendous turnaround," said William L. Pierce, president of the National Committee for Adoption, an advocacy group. "In two short years, Romania has eclipsed the world's most active country in terms of adoption."

Dr. Zugravescu said the purpose of her country's new adoption law was twofold: to eliminate private adoptions and to give priority to Romanian families to encourage domestic adoptions. In effect, Romania is trying to establish an organized, Government-controlled system patterned after those of other major sources for international adoptions, as in South Korea and Colombia.

When international adoptions resume in Romania, foreigners will be required to go through agencies in their own countries that have been selected to work with Romania's adoption committee. The adoption committee is now reviewing applications of licensed agencies in the United States, Canada and many European countries. No agencies have been selected yet. Dr. Zugravescu said Romanian courts would not consider any case that did not originate with an accredited agency.

The new law also requires a six-month waiting period before an international adoption can occur. During that time, efforts will be made to find a Romanian home for an abandoned or orphaned child. Romanian families seeking to adopt a child will not be subject to the waiting period.

Dr. Zugravescu said several dozen foreigners in Romania had ignored warnings of the impending change in the adoption law and were now caught in a legal nightmare. They have custody of children, but the courts have not approved the adoptions because they presented their papers on July 17, the day the law changed. As a result, they cannot leave Romania with the children.

Dr. Zugravescu said at least 7 American families and nearly 50 from Canada and Europe were in that situation "in a hotel in Bucharest with the children." She said she could not predict what would happen because her committee had no authority in those cases. "Only the courts can decide," she said.

Some people smuggled babies out of Romania and completed adoptions in neighboring countries, Dr. Zugravescu said.

The penalty for breaking the new law is one to five years in prison. United States immigration officials have issued an advisory warning Americans that they may be subject to criminal prosecution if they try to evade the Romanian law by trying to take children out of the country.

Romania's adoption industry sprang up after the overthrow of the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu in December 1989, when the plight of tens of thousands of children in squalid public institutions received widespread publicity.

Americans, Europeans and Canadians flocked to Romania in search of children to adopt. Unwanted children were suddenly a valuable commodity, and entrepreneurs sold babies to raise hard currency.

There will be fewer Romanian babies available for adoption in the future, Dr. Zugravescu said. The birth rate has decreased sharply with the legalization of abortion and contraception.

Nonetheless, more children may become available for adoption from other Eastern European countries, said Dr. Pierce of the National Committee for Adoption. Stories about orphans "in desperate straits" in Albania are starting to circulate, he said.

Information on the status of Romanian adoptions can be obtained from the State Department, which provides a recorded telephone message. The phone number is          (202) 647-3444      .

Even now, Dr. Zugravescu said, she finds it hard to believe that her country has made a name for itself as a baby bazaar.

"It pains me that this could happen," she said. "There were such abuses. Who could have imagined such a thing?"


1991 Oct 3