While parents and the
Romanian authorities are struggling over the 1,100
orphans still caught in the middle of the convoluted
international adoptions conflict, high ranking
European officials including the Council of Europe's
Deputy Secretary Maud de Boer-Buquicchio and
European Parliament Member Baroness Emma Nicholson,
are gathering in Bucharest for the annual
International Conference on Children's Rights.
The two-day conference starting today, organized
under the patronage of the Council of Europe's
Ministers' Committee, aims to find viable solutions
for all the problems and challenges affecting the
world's children, including the thorny international
However, the stories of several Romanian adoptees,
some happy, some tragic, illustrate how difficult it
might be to find a balanced solution when it comes
to children and their future.
Every night when
Richards reads her six-year-old son Alexandru
his favorite bedtime story, she thinks about a
little girl whom she will never get to kiss
Larisa, 4, is more than 5,000 kilometers away, in
Romania, and Kathleen doesn't really know how to
tell her son that the girl who should have been his
sister will never come home to Keene, New Hampshire.
That the toys and presents brought by Santa are all
for him. That Larisa will get none.
The Richards' mission is almost impossible, as
Alexandru has been waiting for Larisa more than four
years already. Kathleen and her husband David do not
know how they can make a six year old understand why
Romania, which is Alexandru's native country too,
rejected their request to adopt Larisa.
Kathleen, a lifelong Keene resident, and David, a
city councilor, have been married for 12 years.
Immediately after their wedding, when they were both
30 years old, Kathleen found out she could not have
a pregnancy because of infertility. Because they
desperately wanted a child, they started working on
the process of trying to adopt. "The laws required
that we wait until we had been married two years
before actually starting to look for a child, so in
August 1996 we were officially granted the right to
adopt from the U.S. or abroad," says Kathleen.
After waiting over four years without any
prospective adoption due to long waiting lists,
their local adoption agency, Adoptive Families for
Children, informed them about the adoption program
they had for adopting from Romania.
"The agency, which was match-making the families
that desired a child with the foreign children
available for adoption, told us that we would likely
be able to adopt a young baby from Romania. In
November 2000, we were matched with Alexandru, a
ten-week old baby, and after six months he became
our son," recount the Richards.
But despite the fact their house was now full of
toys, baby babbles, and cheerfulness, both Kathleen
and David felt something was still missing: a little
girl. After realizing they also wanted a sister for
Alexandru, they asked their adoption agency to help
them find a little Romanian girl that they could
adopt as well.
But in 2001, Romania imposed a moratorium on
Nevertheless, the Richards, determined to get little
Alexandru a sister with whom he could share the same
origins and ethnical heritage, did not give up hope.
In October 2002, after several months of prayers,
the received the good news: The match-making agency
told the Richards they were matched with Larisa, a
six-month old baby living in a group home in
The Richards knew about the moratorium on
international adoption that had been enforced in
Romania since 2001, but thought that having an
actual match with the baby meant that they would
still be able to adopt her.
"We told our son about Larisa. We placed photos of
her all around our home and in our son's bedroom. We
really believed she would be home within about six
months or so. In our official letter to the Romanian
Authority for Child Protection and Adoption in
Bucharest on October 14, 2002, we told the adoption
committee: We will think of Larisa lovingly and
fondly as we await her physical arrival into our
lives. She is already in our hearts!" recounts
The Richards knew the adoption procedures might take
a while and decided to ease their waiting period by
focusing on the most important thing in their lives:
"Alexandru is just a super boy. He is intelligent,
outgoing, and interested in the world in so many
ways. He loves to travel and see new things; he
loves tools, planes, military machines, planets,
animals, dinosaurs, maps, karate, and more. He is
proud to tell people that he was adopted from
Romania. We have a large map of the world up in our
house and he knows where Romania is," says Richards.
But what seemed like a happy ending turned out to be
the beginning of a long, exhausting saga. Time was
passing with no news, and the Richards started to
worry about Larisa's fate.
After about seven months, when Kathleen and David
found out from the media that none of the approval
processes for inter-country adoptions had made any
progress in Romania, they started to feel that
Larisa's adoption was in jeopardy.
"During this time there were many other families
that had been matched with Romanian children who
were going through the same process. Also, during
this time, Romania's process of moving towards EU
membership was in full swing, and we realized it
could have been one of the reasons why we had no
good news," says Richards.
In October 2003, after a year of uncertainties, the
Richards wrote a very detailed and lengthy letter
asking anyone who could to help them bring Larisa
home. They e-mailed the letter to the President of
the United States George Bush, Vice President
Cheney, former U.S. Presidents Clinton and Carter.
An excerpt from the letter reveals their despair and
bitterness: "Please, please, please, talk to the
European Union. Please ask the European officials to
set aside the moratorium temporarily or forever.
Please ask them to understand that the new EU
standards will go into place, in time, but, in the
meantime these children cannot wait for politics to
be played out. Please ask all those who can make a
difference not to wait another minute, don't wait
until next month, or two months from now. Do
something now. Every day counts in the life of a
Nonetheless, the Richards never heard back from
anyone, so they decided to ask for the help of their
local senators and congressmen. "During 2003 and
2004, we had our local lawmakers inquire about a
resolution to the pending adoption cases. They asked
for the help of the U.S. President and any officials
in the world that they thought could influence a
positive outcome for the children and families,"
But in May 2004, after almost two years of nonstop
struggle, disaster struck: The Richards received a
letter from the Romanian authorities, telling them
that their adoption had not been denied officially,
but that the new laws on adoption required the
adopting family to be a relative.
"Of course, we were not a relative of Larisa, so our
hopes were pretty much dashed at this point. We felt
that Larisa would not be able to come home to us,
but we would not give up hope in trying to help our
little girl," says Kathleen Richards.
In June 2004, the Richards made one last desperate
gesture and wrote a letter to the President of the
National Authority for Child Protection and
Adoption, Gabriela Coman, pleading for their little
girl to be able to come home. "We told her how our
son, who was also adopted from Romania, was already
calling Larisa 'baby sister' and how he was telling
people he is a big brother. We asked her to
reconsider our petition to adopt Larisa, as she
really was our baby girl," says Richards.
The answer to their letter came after a year and a
In mid-December 2005, the adoption agency called to
inform them that Larisa had been adopted by a
Romanian family. "We were surprised, but very happy
for Larisa. We had been praying for Larisa to have a
family for all of these years. We had hoped it was
our family, and it did break our hearts that it
wasn't. But, we are just so happy that Larisa now
has a mom and dad, and that she has a chance for a
life filled with love and hugs and kisses," says
The Richards know that they will never actually have
a chance to meet Larisa face-to-face, as all the
details about the girl are now confidential.
However, both Kathleen and David are sure they will
always feel like Larisa's mom and dad, as even if
they did not get the chance to meet Larisa in
person, the little girl in the pictures, whom they
talked and dreamed about for four years, found her
way into their souls and minds.
"We will always, always, always have Larisa in our
hearts. She will never grow up in the few
photographs we have of her. We do imagine her as she
is now, a sweet dark-haired, wide-eyed girl who is
almost 4 years old now. Our son really wanted to be
a big brother, and that is probably the worst part
of all of this. He is an only child, and that is
fine, but it would have been so much better for him
to have a sister who would be part of his life,"
concluded Kathleen Richards, her voice trembling.
What went wrong: A history
The Richards' story reveals
only one side of the complex inter-country adoption
puzzle, still not solved for Romania.
A few years ago, Romania was one of the largest
sources of adoptable children. Following the fall of
the communist regime in 1989, Romania became known
for horrifying scenes of starving, neglected
children in state orphanages. When the tormenting
images of withered boys and girls, with their heads
shaved to prevent the spread of lice, were broadcast
all around the world, people of different nations
responded with various types of help, including
adoptions, 8,213 of which took place in the United
States alone between 1990 and 2004.
Thousands of families, shocked by the misery of the
Romanian babies, started to pay thousands of dollars
to adopt a child and save it from the ramshackle
orphanages. Under the Romanian law at that time a
substantial amount of the money was meant to be
pumped back into improving the childcare system and
financing the closure of hundreds of children's
homes. But the orphans' tragic situation also opened
the door to less scrupulous people, who soon
realized that international adoptions were the
perfect way to make some easy money. And Romania,
freshly free-from-communism, with a hunger for money
and a lack of capitalist experience, became a
profitable black market for child trafficking.
Several investigations initiated by European
officials found that in many cases money had gone to
middlemen and officials "at every level".
In addition, adoption agencies were accused of
paying birth parents to sign away their parental
rights, sometimes approaching the birth mothers
while they were still in the maternity ward. The
investigations' conclusions stirred fierce criticism
of the country's childcare system by the European
Parliament's special rapporteur for Romania,
Baroness Emma Nicholson, who sparked a public debate
in May 2001 with the publication of her report into
the system, in which she cited "persistent
abandonment of children, child abuse and neglect"
and "child trafficking", adding that the
"fundamental rights of children have been widely
abused in Romania in recent years".
Nicholson said that the country's childcare system
was corrupt "from top to bottom", and recommended
that Romania be excluded from the accession process
to the EU if a thorough investigation and overhaul
of the system failed to take place.
In addition, Nicholson successfully lobbied for a
moratorium on international adoptions of Romanian
children, except in cases of children with special
needs, which was enforced in June 2001.
But despite the ban and Romania's promises to spare
no efforts in tackling corruption and improve the
legislation on child protection, a series of new
scandals involving adoptions shocked and angered
both the media and governments worldwide, after
The first setback came to light in January 2004,
when the media revealed Romania had sent 105
children for adoption to Italy despite the ban on
international adoptions. Nicholson strongly
condemned the incident as a "flagrant breach of the
UN Convention of the rights of the child", accusing
the Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase of
closing a secret deal with his Italian counterpart
Silvio Berlusconi to continue to deliver Romanian
babies to Italy for adoption. Following the
controversy which came at a delicate moment for the
government, as Nicholson was drafting a report for
the European Parliament on Romania's readiness for
EU accession at the time, several MEPs called for
the suspension of EU entry talks with Romania.
In November 2004, a new scandal involving a
nine-year-old boy who had been adopted from a
Romanian orphanage by an American citizen broke out,
outraging the international media.
37-year old William D. Peckenpaugh from Marion
County, Oregon, was accused of years-long sexual
abuse of his son, after a sexually graphic video was
found in a camera which had been returned to an
electronics store. Peckenpaugh, who had completed
the adoption in 2001 when the boy was six years old,
was arraigned on six counts of first-degree sodomy,
two counts of first-degree sexual abuse and for
using a child in the display of sexually explicit
The 9-year-old boy was placed in the custody of the
Department of Human Services and remained in a
foster home in Oregon.
In December 2005, Peckenpaugh pleaded guilty to all
33 charges and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Another sad story caught the media and governments'
attention in 2005, when a Romanian-born girl,
Alexandra Austin, recounted how the Canadian couple
who had adopted her in 1991, when she was nine years
old, sent her back to Romania after only five months
because they had adopted another baby from Romania
and no longer wanted Alexandra.
Austin, now 23, told the media how she had been
stateless for the past 14 years as the Romanian
authorities had refused to recognize her as a
Romanian, while Ottawa said she did not have
Canadian citizenship either. And because her
identity was not clear, Austin was denied medical
care or education, leaving her with only a Grade 3
educational level. "Nobody should ever do this to a
child. I've lost my childhood and my identity",
Austin told the media.
Struggle goes on for 1,100
Since June 2004, however, in
an effort to stamp out corruption and abuses against
children once and for all, Romania has passed new
legislation cutting off all foreign adoptions except
those by grandparents living abroad. Child orphan
visas have fallen from 1,122 in 2000 to 57 in 2004.
The new law, which came into effect in January 2005
and states that international adoptions are "the
last recourse" in protecting children who are
orphans or have been abandoned, giving "absolute
priority" to Romanian couples, has affected more
than 200 U.S. families that were in the process of
adopting a Romanian baby, stirring criticism on the
other side of the Atlantic.
he U.S. State Department has accepted that most
countries that allow inter-country adoptions first
try to place orphans with extended family, then with
unrelated families in the same region, then with
other citizens elsewhere in the country, and only
then with foreign parents.
However, several U.S. officials have said that
although the best interests of the child have played
a large part in recent procedural changes by some
countries, rising national pride has also played a
role, suggesting the new Romanian laws on adoption
are result of pressure from the European Union.
Many U.S. officials have spoken out against the law,
claiming that children remain in orphanages because
not enough Romanian parents have the means or the
desire to adopt a child.
In addition, Washington said it wants Romania, which
hopes to join the European Union in 2007, to handle
adoption petitions registered before the ban
involving about 1,100 Romanian orphans and abandoned
A spokesman for the U.S. State Department, Adam
Ereli, called on the Romanian authorities to set up
a "legal and transparent mechanism" to process the
n mid December 2005, the European Parliament's
special rapporteur for Romania, Pierre Moscovici,
also called on Bucharest to resolve cases begun
before the moratorium, "taking into account the real
emotional suffering of the adoptive parents." The
European Parliament also stressed the Romanian
government should resolve these cases "with the goal
of allowing inter-country adoptions to take place,
where justified and appropriate."
In their calls, the U.S. officials invoke the
universal principle of a loving, reunited family as
being the fundamental grounds for each decision
making process that involves a child.
Their pleas are supported by dozens of happy stories
like the one of 15-year-old Jonathan Peter Douglas
Jonathan, Jon for short, was adopted from Romania in
1991 by Edward and Elaine Yourtee, a U.S. couple
living in Windham, New Hampshire. He had been
abandoned in the town of Constanta when he was just
few days old.
But Jon has been trying to forget the old said days.
He is now a happy freshman in a Catholic high
school, whose life other than school means music,
baseball, and skiing, sailing, and aggressive inline
"I have a passion to play piano, clarinet, hand
bells, and try to play anything that is put in front
of me. I would like to go to college at Berklee
School of Music, and when I grow up, my dream job is
to have a permanent professorship at Berklee,
teaching music," he recounts.
Jon is as happy and vivid as a teenager could be
with one exception. "As I was born right after the
fall of the communism, I had horrible conditions to
deal with as a newborn in the hospital. As a result
of not having the nourishment that I needed, and not
enough maternal attention when I was a baby, I have
had a very mild condition called Reactive Attachment
Disorder (a condition in which individuals have
difficulty in forming loving, lasting
relationships), for which I am getting help," says
Other than that, Jon believes he gets to have all of
the opportunities that he ever could have dreamed
"I have a few close friends, and I also have lots of
people supporting me. Some of my friends are
children that have been adopted from Romania too,"
Although he is a happy and optimistic boy, Jon often
thinks about the life he could have had if he
wouldn't have been adopted. "I probably wouldn't
have lived. When I think about what my life would
have probably been, I think of living on the street,
having to steal for my food," says Jon.
Nevertheless, Jon wishes to visit Romania. "I would
like to see where I was born, and see Constanta, and
also see the Transylvanian mountains. I would love
to ski there," he confesses.
In addition, Jon says he is much attached to the
Romanian orphans as he has often helped the Nobody's
Children organization to provide medical and
humanitarian resources for needy children throughout
the world, including Romania. Nobody's Children, a
tax-exempt organization that relies primarily on
small private donations, local fundraising events,
and support from churches and community
organizations, was founded by his parents in 1991 as
a result of their experience in Romania while
"I have helped Nobody's Children by packing boxes,
playing piano at different press conferences, and
playing piano at our annual fund raiser, the Harvest
of Hope," explains Jon.
Despite being only 15 years old, Jon has strong
opinions when it comes to Romania's policies on
international adoptions. "I think that the abandoned
children of Romania should have a chance to be
adopted internationally, if they are not adopted by
a Romanian family. I also advise the Romanian
authorities to allow international families to adopt
Romanian children because the children would get to
feel what it is like to actually have a life where
they are loved by a family, because without love, it
is not really a life," he says.
Jon is thoroughly American, but he is Romanian by
birth and feels he must do something for the
children in Romania who he thinks still desperately
"I have a message for the Romanian government: I
pray that you do the right thing and let these
children come home. I light a candle almost everyday
and pray almost every day for the children of
your/our country," Jon says, adding he cannot finish
his story without also sending a message to all the
"Don't give up! Life is like a roller coaster. A
roller coaster has ups and downs just like life. But
eventually the ups come out on top of the downs on a
roller coaster, and that is exactly what happens in
life," Jon concludes.
Government, not willing to
change the new law on adoptions
However, according to the
Romanian authorities, the non-stop pro-adoption
lobby initiated by the U.S. officials and families
has much to do with the fact that the U.S.
authorities have mostly got in touch with the
emotional and individual side of the international
The head of the Romanian Office for Adoptions, State
Secretary Theodora Bertzi considers that there are
many important, unknown details about the
international adoption issue which should also be
taken into account.
"During the moratorium, the Romanian authorities
have approved 1,115 international adoption requests.
All of these cases were considered exceptional,
meaning they complied with a set of criteria,"
explained Bertzi. The criteria were established by
the National Authority for Child Protection, but
were never made public and were used as instruments
by the special group that was entitled to decide
which cases were special.
The remaining 1,399 requests, made by 1,104 families
(several families made multiple requests) were not
approved because they did not comply with the
adoption criteria. "For example, one of the criteria
stated that the child should have been older than
three. The authorities considered that children
under the age of three had high chances of being
adopted by Romanian families or taken back by their
biological families," said Bertzi. However, out of
1104 requests, 800 were for children under the age
Bertzi cannot explain why the Richards, who wanted
to adopt a six-month baby, were not immediately
informed that their request would never be approved
as the girl was not old enough to be put up for
"It is very hard for me to explain why some things
were not done as they should have been. There was a
time when the adoption issue was debated at a high
level, among prime-ministers, and children were
given away for the sake of bilateral relations
between various countries. But we don't want this
anymore. Children shouldn't be a means of trade for
political privileges," stressed Bertzi.
Another very important concept, which seems to have
created much confusion among foreign officials, is
that of the "pipeline case".
A pipeline case is one in which the request has been
approved, and adoption procedures have been
initiated but then stopped. "But none of these 1,104
requests were initially approved, so they cannot be
labeled as pipeline-cases," said Bertzi, adding that
everyone should also know that the Romanian
government has never promised to approve all
international adoption requests.
n addition, 103 of the requests were for children
who were not adoptable at the time of the request,
Bertzi pointed out.
According to the previous law on adoptions, an
adoptable child was one who either had no parents or
whose biological parents had been deprived of their
rights as parents. A child could be put up for
adoption if the biological parents gave up their
rights in court. "But these 103 children were
non-adoptable, which means the families were not
even supposed to know about them, or to have
information about them. Despite this, it seems those
who were mediating international adoptions somehow
found out about them and informed the families. The
mediators had information about the children because
they were probably linked to certain persons working
in the Romanian adoption system," said Bertzi,
adding that the Hague Convention clearly states that
no information about a non-adoptable child is to be
According to Bertzi, the mediators of international
adoptions should also be taken into account when
analyzing the problem.
The most common mediators for international
adoptions are adoption agencies.
But even if they are licensed to mediate the
process, not all adoption agencies are capable of
properly handling an international adoption case,
and that is mostly because they lack accurate
information on the children put up for adoption, and
the specific legislation of the children's native
However, not many agencies refuse an international
case as such cases are very profitable. The average
cost for an inter-country adoption, which usually
includes agency fees, travel expenses, as well as
the fees required by the country from which you are
adopting, is between twelve and thirty thousand
dollars. The adoption agencies' fees vary between
1,500 dollars and 10,000 dollars, depending on the
"I know that many families have spent great amounts
of money trying to adopt a child. But sometimes it
is just not our fault. Sometimes the adoption
agencies might be the ones who make the mistakes,"
Turning to the criticism made against the new
legislation on adoptions, Bertzi says this is not
justified at all.
"The previous law on adoptions took the child away
from its biological family very easily. The law
stated that if the parents had not visited their
child for six months, then these parents are to be
deprived of their parental rights. Instead of trying
to reunite them, the authorities' main preoccupation
was to break the relationship between the child and
the mother. And it was wrong!" said Bertzi.
On the other hand, the current law tries to do
everything possible to reunite the child with its
biological family, the state secretary believes.
"Social workers are compelled to spare no effort in
convincing the parents or other members of the
family to take and raise the child. Only if all
attempts fail can the child can be put up for
adoption," said Bertzi.
Bertzi knows that both the moratorium and the new
law on adoptions have broken the hearts of many moms
and dads. She doesn't expect these parents to agree
with the government's approach to international
adoptions, but she hopes they will some day
understand that the authorities only care about the
welfare of children.
"I cannot tell the Richards much about Larisa, but I
can tell them she is now with the Romanian family
that wants to adopt her. The adoption will probably
be finalized soon, as her new family loves her and
she is healthy and happy," said Bertzi.
However, the pro-international adoption lobby
initiated by the U.S. is likely to continue, as only
in the past two months two top U.S. officials have
called on Bucharest to reconsider the law banning
At the end of December 2005, the U.S. Assistant
Secretary of Consular Affairs Maura Harty organized
a video-conference stressing that the main concern
of the U.S. government is that hundreds of children
have been caught up in the middle of a legislative
process which has left them with no chance of being
integrated into loving families. Harty also said the
new law on adoptions should at least include some
provisions about the adoption cases initiated before
the 2001 moratorium. "The U.S. State Department
urges the Romanian government to identify a legal
mechanism that could solve the international
adoption pipeline cases as soon as possible," said
On January 10, another U.S. high official,
Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler came to Romania
to plead for the resumption of international
adoptions. Wexler met with President Traian Basescu
and Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu, hoping
to make them understand the suffering of an American
family who had been trying for three years to adopt
two Romanian twin girls, the biological sisters of
the Springers' daughter Gabriella, adopted from
Romania eight years ago.
The new U.S. ambassador to Romania, Nicholas Taubman,
supported the same position, underlining that local
authorities need to solve the requests they received
before the ban.
Nevertheless, Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu
recently backed the legislation, underlining that no
children will be entrusted to foreign families if
they can find homes in Romania.
"I feel obliged to repeat that Romanian law since
January 1, 2005, cannot be changed because it is
perfectly suited to European requirements, with a
view to the superior interest of the child. Those
who have made applications after the moratorium came
into effect should have known that they were taking
a risk," Tariceanu said.