A Ukrainian woman and a Czech nurse are being accused by police of child trafficking after the Ukrainian, on two occasions, allegedly sold her unwanted babies to two childless Czech couples. The case has brought to light the practice that some childless couples use to circumvent the lengthy Czech adoption process. Typically, they find a woman who is pregnant with an unwanted child and who agrees to hand over her baby as soon as it is born -- sometimes, but not always, for money. The practice is being defended by a leading charity, which says it saves the children from having to wait in orphanages until they are adopted. But as RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox reports, these so-called "direct adoptions" are causing unease.
Prague, 29 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Czech parliament deputy Jana Volfova recently caused quite a stir at a seminar in the Czech parliament.
Volfova claimed that babies are being sold in Czech maternity hospitals. She said she knew of six cases in which women gave birth under a false name -- that of the would-be adoptive mother, who then took the child away as her own.
Several days after Volfova made her allegations, police confirmed they had one such case under investigation -- that of a Ukrainian woman and a Prague maternity nurse, who both stand accused of child trafficking.
The Ukrainian woman is said to have given birth twice in the last three years, each time handing the baby over to a couple the nurse is said to have sought out. In each case, the husband of the couple put his name down as the natural father.
In some Western countries, a similar practice known as "surrogacy" has received a lot of press in recent years. In such cases, a woman is paid to carry someone else's baby, effectively "renting" her womb for nine months.
The recent Czech cases differ from surrogacy in that neither the would-be adoptive mother nor father is the biological parent of the child involved.
A notorious international case may offer a cautionary tale.
Last year a British couple tried to adopt U.S. twins over the Internet. Alan and Judith Kilshaw bought the twins for $11,500 from a California-based Internet adoption agency. But an American couple claimed they had already bought both babies two months earlier. The twins' birth mother, in the meantime, re-sold them to the Kilshaws, who later lost them when they were taken into care by British social services.
In the Czech case, the police are investigating only because the woman allegedly received a fee in both instances, which is illegal according Czech law. But what happens when no money is involved?
Libuse Tomkova is a social worker with the children's charity "Fond ohrozenych deti" (Children in Danger Fund, FOD). She says the fund has arranged two such "direct adoptions" and stresses that no money changed hands.
Asked why the charity acted as go-between, she says: "We simply want to help the child get adopted into a family as quickly as possible because it's best for them. It's so that they can grow up in a happy family as soon as possible."
Those words -- "as soon as possible" -- are key. Tomkova is tactful about the length of the adoption process through regular channels, saying only that "a number of children could be adopted sooner." But she says that would-be adoptive parents approach her charity in the hope that they can cut down on the time that they -- and children in orphanages -- may have to wait.
The Czech daily "Mlada fronta Dnes" asked visitors to its website if they agree with the Children in Danger Fund's practice. Those who did outnumbered objectors by almost 10 to one. But direct adoption is not without its critics.
One is the Labor Ministry's Lenka Prusova, who works in the family and children department. Prusova says that despite its drawbacks, direct adoption is not technically against the law.
"If the mother decides that she'll hand over the child she's given birth to to another specific person [without receiving any money], then the state does not take part in this at all, but nonetheless the law allows it."
But she says the practice presents great risks and that the state-organized adoption process does not involve direct adoptions.
"These applicants who have [adoptions] arranged by the fund run the risk that the child won't meet their expectations. And what could happen is that the child is put back into care. Also, because the [birth] mother knows the adoptive parents, after a certain time she could disagree with the way the child is being cared for and there could be a court case or blackmail. It's not just the FOD. We have information from various sources that this is happening [elsewhere]. But we think it carries a great risk for the children as well as for the would-be adoptive parents."
Prusova says couples going through the regular channels typically have to wait 12 to 18 months for a child, though what she calls the "social gestation period" varies from region to region. She says this isn't that much different from the time it can take a woman to become pregnant and have a child on her own. What is important, she says, is that the child's needs come first.
"I can't say if it's too long or if it should be shortened. But we should realize that the children that are put up for adoption or foster care are children that are unwanted, neglected, or have been harmed. We must realize that these children will require extraordinary care and only certain, chosen applicants are able to take care of them. It's not about meeting the needs of the would-be adoptive parents, [it's about] meeting the children's needs, and we have to guarantee that they'll be cared for continually.
"Children are adopted up to the age of 3. That means they'll live with adoptive parents at least till they're 18, and this means that for 15-18 years this environment has to be stable. With applicants who aren't scrutinized, I don't think we can guarantee the stability of this environment or that the applicants have personally and socially what it takes to bring up a child with such a social [case history]."
Tomkova counters that each couple her charity deals with is tested thoroughly for suitability -- and that not everyone makes the grade.
"I'd like to put to rest the information that the families are not checked out by the state. We have families who are always checked out, and have gone through state psychological tests. So this information isn't correct."
She continues: "It is better when adoption is anonymous, but some mothers want to know the family and where the child is. Some families welcome this and they can get a clear idea of what kind of family the child is from and perhaps better accept the child and bring it up better. These families are not afraid of possible contact at a later stage or they can deal with it. So if both sides want this there's no reason why this kind of adoption shouldn't take place."
She says her fund may arrange more direct adoptions in the future.