A One-Woman War Against Intercountry Adoption

4 February 2005

A One-Woman War Against Intercountry Adoption


February 4, 2005

Almost fifteen years ago the plight of Romania's abandoned children shocked the world. The crazed schemes of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu had doomed hundreds of thousands of children to a life in orphanages which were little more than warehouses. Spurred by televised images of caged children, and tales of AIDS spread among children in state care through forced blood transfusions, the world rallied to help these smallest victims of totalitarian excess. Financial aid and personal volunteers flowed into the country. Thousands of children were given permanent families by people who saw them as citizens of the world in need of nurturing homes, not as property of a sovereign state.

Time passed, and the world's attention turned to new, more immediate crises. With the spotlight removed, the children once again became pawns in a political process.

Today an equally dire fate awaits Romanian children whose birth families cannot care for them. It comes not at the hands of an evil ruler but because of the machinations of self-proclaimed human rights advocates. The result is the same: children condemned to a life without a family of their own.

The Romanian government has one major political aim, to join the European Union. Romania is scheduled to achieve this goal in 2007, but only if it meets the conditions set forth by the European Union and by the European Parliament's Committee on Romania. Until recently, that committee was chaired by Emma Nicholson, Baroness of Winterbourne.

Lady Nicholson has been conducting a one-woman war against intercountry adoption (ICA), using Romania's application to join the EU as her nuclear weapon. Her view is that ICA is a cover for child trafficking and is also beneath the dignity of member states of the EU. She has yet to prove her allegations, which does not stop her from continually making inflammatory charges. These are inherently suspect as Lady Nicholson has made it clear that she believes that there is no such thing as good ICA.

Lady Nicholson has stated: "It was a mistake from the beginning to assume that for a child, a foreign adoptive family is better than the family which can not care for him. This is totally false."

Following her own logic, in 2001 Lady Nicholson pressured the Romanian government into declaring a moratorium on all ICA. Her justification was that Unicef supported such a ban because it viewed that ICA was not a preferred alternative under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).

In January 2004, Unicef clarified its position on ICA, stating that ICA was preferable to home-country institutionalization -- and undercutting Lady Nicholson's anti-ICA platform. Those of us who believe that every child should have a family of his or her own rejoiced.

But Lady Nicholson struck back as soon as the Unicef statement became public. Using the excuse that Romania had made too many exceptions to the ICA moratorium, she told the Romanians in no uncertain terms that their application to the EU was in grave trouble. She could no longer claim that Unicef opposed ICA. Instead, Lady Nicholson stated that Romania's corrupt judiciary and legal practices legitimized her opposition to ICA.

Lady Nicholson's power in large part stemmed from her position as chair of Romania's EU application committee, a post she held until September 2004. Although she was then replaced by Pierre Moscovici as committee chair, she was promoted to vice president of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, and Liberal Party adviser to Mr. Moscovici.

Her leverage in Bucharest remains enormous. She has promised EU aid for the orphanages/foster homes that will be needed to care for the tens of thousands of children she intends to keep penned up in Romania. Think of it: The Romanians get to make progress on their EU application and she provides jobs as well.

On June 15 of last year, the Romanian Parliament, caving in completely to Lady Nicholson, passed a bill that totally banned ICA except in cases of biological grandparents living abroad. This became law on Jan. 1, 2005.

While the U.S. administration of President George W. Bush has publicly and privately intervened to try to keep ICA alive in Romania, there are no new carrots to offer Romania to offset the blessing of EU membership that Romania so clearly craves. Unfortunately, the best interests of children are easily subsumed to a larger agenda. Institutionalized children have no seat on the committees that negotiate treaties among nations.

Will the world stand silent while Romania's abandoned children are sentenced to a life without families of their own? Three weeks ago, a killer wave abruptly ended the lives of thousands of children in its wake. We have seen an enormous outpouring of concern, generous grants of time and money by the international community. The knowledge that an early warning system could have saved many lives has generated vows of "never again."

We are sounding the alarm for institutionalized children, in Romania and elsewhere. Their numbers exceed those killed in the recent tsunami tragedy. Dooming them to lives without families is a preventable tragedy, in plain sight of those who have the will to keep looking when the media frenzy has moved on.

ICA may not save every abandoned child the fate of institutionalization, but it will save some children. For those it is the same as receiving the life-bestowing miracle of having ten extra minutes to flee the tsunami to higher ground. It is our obligation to ensure that the right to grow up in a family is preserved for the most vulnerable members of society.

Dr. Kunz and Ms. Reese are co-directors of the New York-based Center for Adoption Policy.