exposing the dark side of adoption
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Katherine Ellison

Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, CA)

Dateline: JUNDIAI, Brazil

The mothers come each Monday, wearing green scarves to symbolize hope and clutching snapshots of babies they insist were stolen from them and in some cases sent overseas for adoption.

Raising banners pleading for the return of their offspring, they gather below the window of Juvenile Court Judge Luiz Beethoven Giffoni Ferreira, who said that since 1992 he has sent 200 children to new homes in the United States and Italy.

For desperate would-be parents in rich nations, decisive judges such as Beethoven can be precious allies.

Yet in the past few weeks, his passionate defense of international adoptions and what some call undue hastiness to remove children from homes he deems unfit has prompted state and federal investigations.

It also has revealed ethical quandaries for those trying to adopt children in foreign lands.

"For years, he has taken children from parents who are poor and uneducated and haven't been able to fight back, until now," charged Marco Antonio Colagrossi, the lawyer for the women's group, which calls itself the Mothers of the Courthouse Plaza.

Taken against their will

The mothers, and some grandmothers 49 at last count claim Beethoven took away their children against their will, in many cases claiming without evidence the children had been abused or abandoned.

Assisting him, they charge, were spies based in hospitals and slums and deputies prowling city streets in a car known as the "cata-crianca" child-gatherer.

The 5-month-old group has drawn national attention to this town of 450,000 some 40 miles north of Sao Paulo.

Late last month, the mothers won a televised audience with Justice Minister Renan Calheiros, who called Beethoven's alleged deeds "hateful" and ordered a federal inquiry of agencies involved in international adoptions.

Calheiros also asked the foreign ministry to help track down children sought by the mothers' group.

The 1989 United Nations Convention for the Rights of Children says foreign adoptions should be considered only when it is certain that a child cannot be brought up by relatives or by an adoptive family in his or her native land.

Tug of war over babies

In the past few years, however, keen demand from the United States and Europe has led to a bitter tug of war over babies from Latin America, marked by periodic allegations that foreigners have tried to break the rules.

Bolivia, Argentina, Colombia, Paraguay, Chile, Guatemala and Peru have all recently tightened laws on international adoptions. Paraguay, once a mecca for childless U.S. couples, suspended the practice altogether in 1996.

Beethoven, 46, declined in an interview to discuss specific cases but denied he has done anything wrong. He compared himself to President Clinton, besieged by political enemies.

"Clinton brought your country the greatest era of prosperity in modern times," he said, "and I made this city a city without street kids. We have lower rates of juvenile crime here than in New York."

Despite the complications, international adoptions have fervent advocates. "It doesn't matter in what language you tell a child, I love you,'" Beethoven wrote in a recent essay for a magazine in Italy that was later posted on the Internet. "The language of love is universal."

A 60-year-old data processor in Massachusetts who adopted two sisters from Beethoven's court in 1994 agreed. "They have made me so happy," he said of the children in a telephone interview in which he asked his name not be used.

The data processor said he and his wife chose adoption in Brazil over the United States for several reasons, including their concern it would be harder for people their age to adopt at home and "a context" in the United States of biological relatives appearing in the final stages of adoptions and thwarting them.

Nonetheless, he said he felt sure that Beethoven, whom he had met, had taken all due precautions to make sure there were no relatives in Brazil who wanted to care for the sisters.

A very different story

Some of the parents whose children Beethoven has made available for adoption tell a very different story.

Outside the judge's office, Maria Aparecida Salles, 39, an unemployed nurse's aide, said she lost her three children, ages 5 through 9, four years ago after she sought the judge's help in getting their father to pay child support.

She recalls signing a document that she thought gave permission for the children to be housed in a temporary shelter.

She never saw them again.

One of Beethoven's assistants later told her they had been adopted by Italians, and gave her a photograph, in which, for reasons neither she nor Beethoven could explain, the children's blond hair had been dyed black and all three were wearing glasses.

"A welfare worker told me, It would be a pity if you got them back,'" said Aparecida. "She said it's like they've won the lottery. I don't deny they could be doing well. But no one should have the right to take children from their mothers."

Silvana Barbosa Pereira, 34, has no idea where her four children are. They were taken from her in 1994, when court documents accused her of beating them.

She claims she was never allowed to appeal, that she never mistreated her children and that her only crime was poverty.

Cristiane Lopes, 22, lost her newborn baby in November. An unemployed manicurist, separated from her husband, she has told local reporters that she had planned to give up the baby for adoption but changed her mind the moment she gave birth.

Taken from her arms

Three hours later, she has said, court employees presented her with a document she signed, even though she later said she was too groggy to understand it.

As Lopes was nursing her baby, court employees took the child from her arms.

Rita de Cassia de Freitas, 18, lost her blond 2-year-old son in May 1997. Unemployed and abandoned by the child's father, she signed an agreement to let the boy stay in a shelter until she found work, she said.

But when she sought custody two months later, newly employed and with an offer from her brother to stay at his house, she realized she had lost her child.

"The judge said, Is he the father?'" she said, referring to her brother. "I said no, and he said, Then he's not the immediate family.' I haven't seen my son since then, but I heard he has been adopted by a family here in Jundiai."

When de Freitas reviewed her court file, she found she was accused of being a prostitute, which she called a lie.

"No one ever came to interview me or talk to my neighbors. I don't know how they can say that," she said.

Brazil's international adoption requirements are among the toughest in the world. In 1990, a new law required adoptive parents to live in the country with their new child for 30 days if the child is 2 or older, 15 days for younger babies.

Some judges have been lobbying to reduce the required time period, arguing it imposes an unfair burden on foreign families. But as pressure mounts on Beethoven, it may provide fuel to those arguing the rules should be even stricter.

In San Antonio, Texas, Nancy Cameron, president of Limiar, a Brazilian adoption agency that has placed as many as 20 children sent from Beethoven to U.S. homes, said, "We have faith in his legal processes. If not, we wouldn't be dealing with him."

Cameron said Limiar works strictly within Brazilian laws, meaning U.S. adoptive parents invariably wind up with older or darker-skinned babies, or with siblings or children with medical problems.

Thousands of Brazilians are in line to adopt light-skinned newborns, which are much more in demand.

No review of circumstances

But Cameron added that Limiar never reviews the circumstances under which parental power has been revoked.

Rather, it simply receives court certificates acknowledging that has occurred. "I know there are a lot of angry mothers," Cameron said.

"I would hope that if these mothers had been to court and said, Hey, I have relatives who could take the child,' they would have been heard. It may be there was a lack of counseling. I don't know. I trust the Brazilian system to work through the ramifications."

In May, Sao Paulo State Assemblyman Renato Simoes said his human rights commission had examined 14 cases over the previous six months in which Beethoven had taken children from their parents, and that in none of the cases had he made efforts to find relatives who might have taken custody.

Another state inquiry found Jundiai's rate of foreign adoptions was nearly three times that of other state courts.

Beethoven, in an interview in his office, said he was unperturbed.

"I've sent children to Denver, Boston, New York," he said. "I'm in the middle of placing a child in a family from Washington, D.C., right now.

"You have friends who want to adopt? Send them my way!"

1998 Apr 30