Painful Lessons from Romania’s Decade-Old Adoption Ban

Russia's decision Jan. 1 to end adoptions to the U.S. could have lasting effects for parents and children caught in limbo.

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Micheline Pelletier / Corbis

Abandoned children rest in a hospital in Constanta, Romania, Oct. 16, 2006.

Four-year-old Alina stood in her diaper, her bright eyes looking past the end of her bottle at the American woman who intended to adopt her from a maternity hospital in rural Romania.

This is how Mary, who planned on raising Alina, recounts one of her earliest meetings with the girl. With the adoption paperwork complete, a signature from Romania’s prime minister was all that stood between Alina’s placement in a stable American home and a childhood in Romania without a family. It never happened.

In 2001, Romania placed a moratorium on international adoptions, and officially banned the practice four years later, citing widespread corruption in adoption practices across borders. Alina, now 16, is one of a thousand “pipeline kids” left in limbo when Romania banned international adoption.

A similar fate may now await hundreds of orphans in Russia, which ended adoptions to American parents on Jan. 1. Some 1,000 Russian adoption cases are said to be in the pipeline — meaning that paperwork has been completed and, in most cases, prospective parents have met with their intended adoptees as many as three times.

Russia’s decision to end American adoptions is seen as a political response to the U.S.’s Magnitsky Act, an anticorruption law aimed at human rights abuses in Russia. But the adoption of Russian children by Americans has been a contentious issue for years.

(MORE: 2 U.S. Adoption Agencies Closing, Citing Woes Abroad)

Tempers flared in 2010 when an American woman put her adopted seven-year-old son on a flight back to Russia, where he now lives, with a letter citing “severe psychopathic issues.” And in February, a three-year old Russian boy died two months after his adoption to a Texas couple, not long after another toddler from the same orphanage died after being left in a car by his American adoptive father. (The former death was ruled accidental, and the father was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter for the latter.)

While Russian officials have said that some of the pipeline cases may be completed, it remains unclear whether these children will make it to the U.S. The situation is hauntingly familiar for many of the families that intended to adopt children from Romania a decade ago.

“What I feel for these families right now and for these children, they are going to have a lot of unresolved grief,” says Julie Murrell, who was in the process of adopting a two-year-old girl, Cristina, when the Romanian ban went into effect. “After about a year we moved on. A lot of the families haven’t really been able to move on.”

After Romania blocked their adoption, Murrell, 52, and her husband, 48, sent a private investigator to the foster home where Cristina had been living. They learned that several potential Romanian adoptive families had visited and that the foster mother chose one for the little girl. Julie and her husband have not heard from Cristina since.

“We thought the country might reopen,” Murrell says. “Now we realize we were the luckiest because we had closure.”

Murrell and her husband went on to adopt twin girls from Russia five years ago. But the wound from their Romanian experience remains. Their son, in elementary school at the time, had told all of his friends he was getting a sister. Murrell’s mother keeps a photo of Cristina with those of her other grandchildren.

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Before giving up the fight for Cristina, now 13, Murrell joined with other pipeline parents in an effort to pressure the Romanian government to allow pending adoption cases to go through. Members of the group traveled to Romania to petition officials. Murrell wrote a letter to President Traian Basescu, and met with then Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase when he came to Washington, D.C.

“He did say very positive things and I remember leaving there thinking this is a really positive thing,” Murrell says. “When you are in the situation you hear what you want to hear. But when I look back at it I think, you know, he just wanted us to shut up.”

For many pipeline families, the most difficult moment was deciding whether or not to stay in contact with the Romanian children they had hoped to adopt. More than 10 years later, many of the cases remain unresolved.

Another American woman, Ann, and her husband had already adopted two brothers and had completed the paperwork for two girls from the same orphanage in Romania when the ban went into effect. Ann spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for the welfare of the girls.

Patricia and Gabriela are now 9 and 10. Ann used to visit them twice a year, but eventually stopped going because she was concerned about how it would affect the girls as they grew older. It has been four years since she last saw them.

“They knew that someone was going to adopt them,” Ann says. “It was a little devastating – that’s why I stopped visiting them. I felt it was unfair emotionally for them. They had pictures of me. … I am not sure what they have been told. I kind of don’t want to know.”

Though the girls have not been adopted, Ann says she believes they are being well taken care of in a private, Christian orphanage that houses about 35 children. Because of their age and the fact that they are of Roma descent, it’s unlikely they will be adopted domestically in Romania. “They will never have family,” Ann says.

(MORE: Adoption)

For children like Patricia and Gabriela, the adoption ban may have serious consequences as they enter adulthood.

Like other American prospective parents, Rita filed paperwork and paid thousands of dollars in fees in her effort to adopt one-year-old Delia, whom Rita’s aunt and uncle had come to know during their time in the Peace Corps. Rita spoke on the condition of anonymity because her family continues to visit Delia, now 12, and is still looking for a way to get her to the U.S.

“We were told she was Roma and that she probably would not be adopted,” Rita says. “I know that she’s never going to have a family. She’s going to turn 18 and she’s going to be turned out on the street, and I’m not going to let that happen.”

Romania has no formal national assistance program for orphans after they leave state institutions. Most must leave at age 18, when they become legal adults. Few of the country’s 75,000 orphans know how to manage money, find an apartment, prepare food or search for a job. Many end up homeless and turn to crime, like prostitution, when they age out.

The same challenges face many of the tens of thousands of Russian orphans lingering in state institutions. U.S. families adopted nearly 1,000 Russian orphans in 2011.

After her adoption fell through, bright-eyed Alina lived in a series of foster homes before landing in a state-run orphanage. Mary, the American who failed to adopt Alina but became her godmother a decade ago, worries about what will happen when she turns 18 and is still trying to get her to the U.S.

“There are always bad people lurking in the shadows,” Mary says a teacher in the orphanage’s small town told her, “observing, and waiting for their opportunity. Children like [Alina] often become prostitutes.”

She says Alina looks forward to turning 18 because she’ll be “free.”

“She doesn’t understand what that even means,” she says. “This is what wakes me up in the middle of the night.

The names of some children and parents were changed in this article.