As another baby leaves the country, 'say goodbye Romania, bye-bye'


Letter from Bucharest/Ann McElhinney: It was obvious that the American couple were not the baby's parents. The middle-aged woman was trying to speed teach the child English.

"This is a hand, haaaaand, mummy's hand," she said. "That's Daddy, Daaaddy," she pointed to her husband. The child looked dazed and confused.

This was an inter-country adoption out of Romania. We were on a flight from Bucharest. There were three children being adopted that day. They were all under two years of age.

But this was all wrong. It shouldn't have been happening, I thought, remembering the pained reaction from western would-be adopters when the Romanian government banned international adoptions almost two years ago.

The ban was brought in because the system was rotten. Studies showed the money involved prevented Romanian couples adopting. It also led to a baby market with officials pressurising vulnerable parents to "abandon" children rather than offer them inexpensive support to try and keep the family intact.

In a country where the average salary is just over $100, the $30,000 paid by adopters made their wishes come true.

The inter-country adoptions have always been portrayed as heroic rescues of institutionalised children, but for many Romanian families in difficulties, they were disastrous. The pictures of handicapped children in "orphanages" brought thousands of westerners to the rescue but almost all returned, like the Americans on my plane, with a healthy baby.

Just like the Irish "unwanted" babies from the 1950s who were sold by the Catholic church to the US, Canada and Australia, Romanian "orphans" who become adults may some day ask why more was not done to ensure they could stay with their parents. Why didn't their adoptive parents help their family rather than take a child away from his mother and father and brothers and sisters forever?

But such troubling thoughts were far away from the American lady sitting in the opposite aisle. She had got her child as an "exception".

"Say goodbye Romania, bye- bye Romania," she said putting the baby's face to the window. The adoptive mother repeated over and over: "Bye- bye Romania."

The baby began to cry. "Mammi, Mammi, Mammi," the child wailed. Throughout the flight, despite the best efforts of the adoptive mother, the baby repeated the same word.

Then the child's body became rigid with fear and its tiny legs stuck out straight. Inconsolable, it was obvious the woman this child craved and called "Mammi" was not the middle-aged American sitting beside her.

Eventually the adoptive father had had enough.

"Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!" he shouted into the baby's face while banging his fists on the arm rests of his chair. "Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!"

I felt sick. I didn't know what to do. I did nothing.

Since the Romanian "ban" on all inter-country adoptions, hundreds of children have been adopted by foreigners. There have been 556 so called "exceptional" cases and hundreds more "pipeline" cases.

(In a country obsessed with statistics, exact numbers were strangely impossible to obtain.) The baby on the plane was just one of them.

According to the European Commission in Bucharest, there are more applications for domestic adoption in Romania than there are "abandoned" children in a year. How was it possible that while there are families waiting to adopt in Romania, hundreds of babies are leaving the country? How was it possible that during a ban on all adoptions, these children were waving goodbye to their homeland?

The answer lies in a very familiar battleground. The European Union and the US totally disagree on the inter- country adoption ban - as they do on so many other issues these days.

The US wants the ban lifted because of pressure from wealthy Americans. The European Union want to promote local solutions warning that inter-country adoption created a demand driven industry which insured that Romania would always have institutionalised children.

On this occasion, the European Union won the battle with a total ban on inter-country adoptions. The war however seems to have been won by the US who pressured the Romanians into allowing "exception" and "pipeline" cases.

For inter-country adoptions out of Romania, it is very much a case of business as usual.

While the arguments continue here in Bucharest, I haven't been able to stop thinking of a tiny Romanian child somewhere in the US who misses someone called "Mammi".