Room for one more?

by Sally Blundell / 30 December, 2006
You don't have to be a celebrity to want to offer malnourished overseas orphans a better future and many Kiwis have opened their hearts and their homes. However, loopholes in New Zealand's adoption laws have the potential for "horrific consequences".

The corridor is flanked with cots, a long row of wire-sided metal cots. No colourful quilts, no mobiles. In the orphanage in Bucharest there are just small packages of sleeping babies.

In a historic homestead at the foot of the Takaka hill, mother of nine Jonquil Graham puts away the photograph.

"When I got back from Romania, I was almost traumatised. Hundreds of babies, lying in their cots inert and unresponsive. It's just ... ghastly. You don't come back content, you're shell-shocked. Kids are left behind and that's always in your heart. You see it on TV, but you're not prepared."

Those images shocked the western world. It was the late 80s and for the first time the impact of Romanian dictator Nicolai Ceaucescu's bid to boost the country's population - no birth control, no abortion, financial incentives for women to have more children - was being seen the world over. According to NGO estimates, more than 170,000 orphans were languishing in orphanages. Thousands more were living in impoverished circumstances in overcrowded homes.

For Bryan and Jonquil Graham, the answer was clear - rescue children from the orphanages, bring them home, love them. After all, the number of babies available for adoption locally had dropped dramatically, thanks to the availability of contraception and abortion, and changing attitudes towards adoption and single parenting. Unable to have their own children, the Grahams had already adopted four within New Zealand and fostered many more.

"Can you get me a bruvver my size?" young Tristan asked, as Jonquil farewelled her young family and headed off to a small and largely unknown country.

She couldn't grant Tristan's wish, but came back from her first journey with twins Joanna and Natasha. She later went back for Cristina, then travelled to the ancient city of Arkhangelsk in northern Russia for eight-year-old twins Misha and Masha.

She tells her story in How Many Planes to Get Me?, published this year by Cape Catley, a breathless account of her expeditions beginning with a trip over the Takaka hill and ending with the same trip in the other direction with yet another brother or sister for the excited clan waiting back at home.

The Grahams were not alone. By 1990, New Zealand families had adopted 157 Romanian children. In 1992, the plight of Russia's estimated 600,000 children living in orphanages sparked a similar response and by 2000 a total of 597 Russian children had been adopted by New Zealanders. Now about 300-400 children are adopted from overseas each year, nearly double the number taken by similar-sized countries such as Ireland and Finland.

Most are of Samoan origin, usually adopted by members of their extended families, but worldwide it is the adoption of children from eastern Europe, Africa and Asia that increasingly causes concern. Reports of child abduction, child abuse and trafficking, stolen identities and uninformed birth parents stand alongside discomforting celebrity stories, such as Angelina Jolie "choosing" seven-month-old Gleb from a Russian children's home, or Madonna whisking 13-month-old David Banda from Malawi through Heathrow Airport.

In China, prospective parents at the famous White Swan Hotel in Guangzhou receive a "Going Home Barbie" doll carrying a Chinese-looking baby. A major earthquake or a tsunami, and orphans are suddenly being advertised online, even in text messages.

Critics question whether such adoptions are meeting the needs of children without families, or filling the desires of families without children. Is inter-country adoption too big a price to pay for the loss of language, culture, family history, personal name, even siblings?

Dr Rhoda Scherman, senior lecturer in psychology at the Auckland University of Technology, bridles at the idea.

"Part of that argument," she says, "is that the child is better off being raised in their own country. I don't know if that's true. If a child is adopted from overseas, there must be parents thinking, 'My child will have a better life in another country.' If a child's living in a loving home and having their needs met, that's more important than living in their birth country."

Through her research in New Zealand Scherman has found that most adoptive parents are "intensely keen" for their children to learn about the culture they were born into - although, once adolescence hits, these young adoptees usually want to be seen as ordinary Kiwi kids.

And besides, she says, how much culture are children getting in the under-stimulating environment of an orphanage?

"We need to decide what culture means - they may be getting more culture here than they would be getting from the view out of an orphanage window."

For 19-year-old Romanian-born Daniela Lester, now living in Christchurch, the country of her birth played a large part in her Nelson childhood. Her sister and one of her cousins were adopted and her birth brother was also in a Nelson family.

"I can't recall Mum actually telling me the story of how I was adopted, but I always knew. Mum showed me photos of my mum and dad and we used to have reunions with other families who'd adopted Romanian children. Mum was always talking about it."

Now, with her dark features and long dark hair, Daniela is used to the questions - a foreign student? Brazilian? You don't have an accent ...

She laughs.

"People look at me and think, 'She looks foreign', but I don't see myself as different. I just think of myself as a Kiwi. When I was at school, I don't know if a lot of people knew that I was adopted. I didn't tell everyone - I didn't want everyone to know. I was never bullied, but I did feel a bit different."

And now?

"Now I'm grateful. I think I was pretty lucky. I don't know much about the country, but I do know it's a very poor country and I know my house was quite small and there were quite a few of us."

Jonquil Graham has heard the argument over culture many times. In How Many Planes to Get Me? she describes her exasperation with a social worker's refusal to support their attempt to adopt a girl from Thailand.

"What culture!" she exclaims. "What good is it barely existing, miserable and loveless? Culture is a luxury."

Graham agrees that the causes of poverty still need to be addressed, but she believes that meeting the needs of just one or two children is equally important.

"I just don't think it's fair to leave a child in an orphanage. Our Russian twins were eight when we adopted them and their futures looked bleak - boys either run away from the orphanage, are conscripted into the army or end up on the street with a short life expectancy. Girls may end up in sewing factories or becoming prostitutes. All they had with them were two pairs of winter boots. No toys, no baby photos. I feel like crying for all the senseless waste of human potential."

Wendy Hawke, director of Inter Country Adoption New Zealand (ICANZ), a not-for-profit organisation that helps facilitate inter-country adoptions for New Zealanders, says the parents who wait months or years, and who spend up to $50,000 to adopt a child from overseas, are committed.

"They want to make a difference and they want a child they know is needy," says Hawke. "But you can't just be a do-gooder. You have to really want that child. You're not just a caregiver, providing a roof, a bed and an education.

"Adoption is like giving birth. That child is your legal responsibility forever. It's not just, 'Let's try it and see how it goes.' There's that commitment. It's serious."

It is serious. Many children adopted from overseas are malnourished or show developmental difficulties and problems with attachment - a response, says Scherman, to years of institutionalisation and the lack of early bonding and sensory input. And children with bonding difficulties have been found to be more vulnerable to psychological disorders as adults.

"Research shows that children lose one month of physiological and emotional development for every three months in an institution. In child development, that's huge. At the age of one, you're four months behind your peers."

Jonquil Graham is all too familiar with the impact of early institutionalisation.

"Most people go [into inter-country adoption] wholeheartedly, but people don't understand that these kids come with a lot of baggage. Teachers need to be understanding. They might see behavioural problems and then have a go at the parents. Parents can feel very alone."

The government's Child, Youth and Family (CYF) service runs a compulsory three-day education programme for prospective parents, but there are now calls for more support, more education, more post-placement programmes, including ongoing specialist psychological services.

Concerns are also being raised, however, about the contradictory legislation surrounding inter-country adoption. New Zealand is one of 68 signatory countries to the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Inter-country Adoption, a code of practice which ensures that every attempt is made to place a child in his or her own country. If a local family isn't available, any inter-country adoption must be in the best interests of the child. There must be no financial profiteering from the adoption, the child's parents must give genuine consent and each contracting state must have a central authority responsible for discharging its duties under the Convention (in New Zealand this is CYF, now part of the Ministry of Social Development).

Under the Hague Convention, parents can't just go to a country and pick a child; instead, each central authority assesses the applicant families then liaises with its sister authority in the sending country to find a suitable child.

Since it signed up to the convention, Romanian adoptions have ground to a halt. New laws limit adoptions by foreigners to grandparents or siblings. Despite pleas from the US, it has maintained a complete ban on inter-country adoptions by non-relatives.

New Zealand also has arrangements with some countries that are not party to the convention but which have safeguards that parallel Hague requirements. Until recently, Russia, which has signed but not ratified the convention, fell into this category, with CYF compiling a home-study report on applicant families then families applying directly to the Russian Ministry of Education.

Then there are those non-signatory countries with which New Zealand has no such arrangement. This is where the highly contentious section 17 of the 1955 Adoption Act kicks in. Originally intended to meet the needs of immigrants to New Zealand who had adopted children in their state of origin, this provision allows adoptions undertaken by New Zealanders overseas to be recognised as legal adoptions irrespective of whether the adoption meets Hague standards. CYF does not usually get involved in the process unless the child's birth country requires a report.

Under this system, says adoption law specialist Robert Ludbrook, there is no need for adopting parents to obtain a New Zealand adoption order and no judicial scrutiny of the circumstances of the adoption. Any protection afforded to the child thus depends entirely on the law of his or her country of origin. The suitability of the adopting parents is not examined - so New Zealand could find itself recognising adoptions made without the consent of the natural parents or as a result of money having changed hands.

There have been repeated calls for adoption law reform. Action for Children and Youth Aotearoa is one of several groups urging the exclusion of inter-country adoptions from this part of the 1955 Act, arguing that under the present law:

- adoption can occur without the child's consent (even if that child is 16 or 17 and married);

- the names of children can be changed (contrary to recommendations by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child);

- and only married or single people - not de facto couples - can apply to adopt.

Nor are Maori customary adoptions recognised; and private agencies are authorised to make inter-country adoption arrangements.

In 2000, a Law Commission report recommended that this section of the Act be narrowed to apply only to people normally resident overseas who adopt a child and seek to have that adoption recognised in New Zealand.

At the darker end of the scale, ECPAT (End Childhood Porn_ography, Prostitution and Trafficking) is calling on the government to ratify the optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child related to the sale of children, child prostitution and pornography.

"We've signed it," says director Jane Foster, "but we haven't ratified it because our adoption legislation doesn't comply. If inter-country adoption is going to happen, we need all possible legal protection for children to ensure that trafficking for sexual purposes isn't behind that adoption.

"We should have state-of-the-art protection for children to ensure that the best interests of the child are paramount. People in New Zealand are well motivated but you do see overseas cases that have horrific consequences."

New Zealanders are well intentioned - as the minister responsible for Child, Youth and Family, Ruth Dyson, says, we aren't out there shopping for babies, "we are doing it for genuine reasons" - but existing loopholes preserve the potential for "horrific consequences" in this country.

This year, CYF decided to temporarily suspend the assessments of new families wanting to adopt children from Russia. This came after the Russian Government announced plans to ban independent inter-country adoptions, because of mounting concerns that children were being "bought" by foreigners and outrage over the murder of several adopted Russian children in the US.

Foreign citizens now have to go through an adoption agency in their own country that has been accredited by the Russian Ministry of Education. New Zealand does not have such an agency, although ICANZ is working towards this accreditation.

Should New Zealand refuse to recognise non-convention adoptions? Or require documentation approved by the Hague Convention as a prerequisite to having their adoption legally recognised, as Sweden has done?

"No one would be unmoved by those scenes of malnourished children in cot after cot in institutions," says Dyson. "But most research shows that if a child can be placed in their own family or in their own country then that's the best.

"Clearly there are some children who can't be. You have to start with what's in the best interest of the child. It would be better if we could support parents so they don't have to go through the independent route, then we could say that the Hague Convention has the safest process."

Zoe Griffiths, director of inter-country adoption with CYF, is clear that CYF prefers to work with other Hague signatory countries - if we are looking to adopt from a new country, she says, we will look only to a Hague Convention country.

Back in Takaka, as the government shuffles through the reams of reports and reviews (six since 1979) on the subject, Jonquil Graham is planning a trip to Romania with her three Romanian daughters. In the old wooden kitchen - virtually unchanged over its 130-year history - a battered dictionary of colloquial Romanian stands propped on the shelf.

There is, she explains, a small hole in their hearts.

"We just thought it was time to take the girls back to see their country. They need to know what life was like. The Russian twins were eight when they came here. They've got memories - they have no interest in going back. But these girls have no memories."

Sixteen-year-old Natasha is only mildly interested. She looks at the photograph in Jonquil's hand.

"Look, Natasha, that's your mother.

Natasha shrugs her shoulders.

"Bet she won't recognise me. She hasn't seen me for a while."

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