American families' battle for adoptions resumes in Romania

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

BUCHAREST, Romania -- Flushed from his game of hide-and-seek, 4-year-old Vasile munches a brownie as his mother recalls the day he entered her life.

It was February 2001, and Emily Wilcox and her husband, Andy, had traveled to Romania to adopt a child.

"He just stood up in his crib and jumped into Andy's arms," Emily Wilcox said of the boy squirming in her lap. Soon Vasile, then 13 months old, was on his way to Lee's Summit, Mo., the first real home he had ever known.

Now the couple, both 38, are back in Romania in hopes of adopting another child. But the odds are against them this time around.

Vasile was one of the last Romanian children to be adopted before the government suspended foreign adoptions in June 2001 at the request of the European Union. The EU was concerned about allegations that the system was corrupt and children were being sold to foreigners.

That ban looks set to become permanent in coming weeks as Romanian lawmakers prepare to enact severe restrictions on international adoptions, despite an impassioned plea from would-be adoptive parents.

Letters of protestTwo dozen U.S. congressmen, along with politicians from EU countries, have written letters of protest. And this month, 20 American families who adopted Romanian children traveled to the Balkan country to show the Romanian government what the orphans will be missing.

"Every child has the right to a permanent family," said Debra Murphy-Scheumann, who runs Special Additions, a nonprofit organization based in Stilwell, Kan., that helps arrange adoptions and provides aid to orphanages.

"These children have become political pawns," she said. "People say we are supporting corrupt practices, but that is so far from the truth. This is not about the United States and the European Union... This is about the life of a child."

Murphy-Scheumann, 49, has four children of her own and five others she has adopted. Although she has never adopted in Romania, she has become a spokeswoman for the plight of would-be American adoptive parents.

Adding to the outrage over the planned law is that millions of dollars of aid flowed into Romania after the 1989 ouster and execution of Nicolae Ceausescu, the communist dictator who had run Romania for a quarter century.

His death led to the revelation that nearly 100,000 children were living in squalor and misery in state orphanages -- the result of his ban on abortion and birth control.

Romania quickly became a magnet for American and European couples willing to pay as much as $19,000, roughly the cost in the United States, to adopt in Romania. Not surprisingly, allegations of baby trafficking soon followed.

The Wilcoxes believe such cases are the exceptions, however, and they offer themselves as proof. Andy is a science teacher and swimming coach in Lee's Summit. Emily gave up a job in advertising to become a full-time mom to Vasile.

Remembering Romania

They haven't forgotten their son's homeland. A Romanian flag flutters outside their Missouri home, and Vasile, who is wearing an embroidered Romanian smock and sneakers, calls his father "Tata," Romanian for "Daddy."

An estimated 30,000 children have been adopted by foreigners since 1989, international agencies say. That includes 1,000 children adopted after 2001 because their cases were considered exceptional or were planned before the moratorium.

Many Romanians still leave children in orphanages because they're unable to support them with average monthly salaries of $170.

Although about 40,000 children currently live in state institutions, many are technically ineligible for adoption because they're occasionally visited by their families.

The Wilcoxes don't doubt there is corruption within the system, or that there are horror stories when adoptions go wrong. But they say the little girl they wish to adopt should have a home, either in Romania or abroad.

"If there is corruption in the adoption system, then fix the problem," Andy Wilcox said. "Don't punish thousands of children."

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