In Latvia, the sensitive issue of adoption has been widely discussed by parliament, government ministries, and a number of child-care organizations. In the past, international adoption presented an option for Latvian children to find a home. But as RFE/RL reports from Riga, recent changes in legislation have slowed down the process considerably.
Riga, 19 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- It's noon at the Teika child-care home in Riga. The children have just finished their lunch and are getting ready for a midday nap. The Teika center is home to infants and children up to the age of three whose parents are unable or unwilling to care for them. Children with severe health problems can stay at the center until the age of four.
A walk around the home presents a grim picture. There are babies suffering from cerebral palsy and encephalomyelitis, toddlers with Down's syndrome, a boy born addicted to alcohol, and a girl who is blind. The list doesn't stop there.
Social worker Dzintra Jermusa has spent 35 years at the Teika center. She says that only eight of the home's 96 children are healthy. The rest have health problems; 27 are severely disabled.
Teika is no different from other Latvian child-care homes. According to the country's Social Support Fund, more than 3,500 children were living in orphanages, boarding schools, and homes like Teika as of 1 January 2003.
What is the fate of these children? Jermusa says those with severe disabilities, who make up 30 percent of the children living in protective care, usually die very young. An additional 20-25 percent return to their families, and about 20 percent more are adopted.
There were 160 adoption cases last year in Latvia. Thirty children were adopted by Latvian families; the remaining 130 found parents abroad. Adoption experts say foreigners are often more willing to take on children with serious health problems than Latvians, who are burdened with their own daily hardships.
This year, however, may be different. Experts and would-be foster parents are complaining about new amendments in Latvian legislature that came into effect in January. They say the new standards will make it nearly impossible for families abroad to adopt Latvian children.
Bruno Liberts, a lawyer who has worked on adoption cases since the early 1990s, says adoption is hindered by Latvia's legislation.
"Firstly, it is the amendments in [the Law of] Civil Procedure. The amendments stipulate that adoption requests must be filed in the place of residence of the potential foster parents," Liberts says. "But it hasn't been taken into account that foreigners don't live in Latvia. Consequently, they can't file an adoption request here. A number of cases have been returned to the district courts on the grounds that the person who filed the request doesn't live in Latvia. Secondly, a possible foster parent has to be present at the court session [when the decision whether to permit the adoption is made]. It means that foreigners have to come from abroad just for this court session. Not everyone can do it. In many cases, people change their mind and decide not to adopt children in Latvia."
The unfavorable changes concern Article 259 and 261 in the Law of Civil Procedure.
Iveta Zalpetere, the head of the secretariat for the minister of special assignments for children and family affairs, says the problem has been solved.
"To adopt a child, a foreigner has to come to Latvia to spend time together with the child," Zalpetere says. "If he stays in a countryside guest house, then -- according to the Civil Law -- this can be considered his or her place of residence. The child also has a place of residence, so the request has to be accepted by the appropriate municipality. Both the Supreme Court and the court department of the Justice Ministry have explained this to the courts. As far as I know, the problem has been solved."
Zalpetere also defends the amendment requiring the presence of the potential parent at the court hearing on whether to permit the adoption. Earlier, a special representative could be authorized to appear on behalf of the potential foreign parents. But Zalpetere says the change is a good one.
"Such an amendment was considered necessary by members of parliament. They thought the court should make sure the adoption is in the interest of the child," Zalpetere says.
But would-be adoptive parents and child-care workers say the changes have only made the situation worse -- particularly for foreigners. Jermusa of Teika says the bureaucracy involved may deter many suitable families from pursuing adoption in Latvia.
"The process for foreigners is very long. First, they come to Latvia to file all the documents and take part in the meeting of the [municipal] orphan court. Then the potential parents leave. Then they have to send documents to the court and wait for the date of the court session. In this session, they only have to say 'yes' -- affirming the wish that they have already officially stated with the help of a notary many times. I don't know why these norms are necessary. Who do we trust? Don't we trust the notaries any more? Don't we trust the orphan courts? It's hard to explain why these people [from abroad] have to face so many inconveniences. What foreign family is going to agree to come here three, four, even more times?" Jermusa says.
The family of Albert Chauve, a 42-year-old computer engineer from the French village of Megevette, has already adopted two Vietnamese children. This Easter, Chauve came to Latvia, where a court granted him the right to adopt a three-year-old boy living in an orphanage in Daugavpils. But the child could not leave with his new adoptive father. Chauve was due to return to Latvia in May, and only then would he be able to return to France with his adopted son. It would be the third trip he had taken to Latvia.
RFE/RL asked Chauve what he thinks about the Latvian adoption procedure. It's "not easy," he says. "In most countries, we must go only one time. In Vietnam, for example, it's much easier. [There is] no justification for [coming] three times. I think it's not a good solution because during this time the children must live here, and we are waiting in France. Everybody is losing time."
Chauve says he's not sure if he would adopt another child from Latvia. "In every country there are different problems, but if we have to come three times again, we won't do it," he says.
When asked whether he finds the officials helpful, Chauve says: "They should think about the children first, and that's not the case. In every administration there are a lot of papers and procedures. There's no justification for that. I think children are not at the center of this [process], and it's not a good thing for children."
In France, Chauve says, it takes a long time to get a child. "It can take up to six or seven years. We didn't want to wait for such a long time. First we went to Vietnam, where it only took six months between the moment we began the adoption and the moment we came back with the child. It's very, very quick," he says.
At a time when there are few local families looking to adopt Latvian children, why are foreigners facing more and more obstacles? The answer may partly lie in the general suspicion, and not only in Latvia, that international adoption is tied to illegal trafficking rings and child abuse.
RFE/RL asked Iveta Zalpetere if she is aware of any adoption cases that have resulted in the children being traumatized or harmed. "I have no such information," she said. Jermusa also says she has no evidence to suggest any adopted children are faring poorly in their new homes.
"We have 99.9 percent of all the information about [the adopted] children. We can show photos, reports and tell stories," Jermusa says. "We have no indication that the adopted children are not doing well. Why don't we want to trust anyone? It's so hard for me to understand. We want to go and check ourselves and decide on who will go and for how many years. [Children's rights and adoption] conventions clearly state that -- in case of international adoption -- the adopted child is taken care of by the offices and agencies of the foreign foster parents' country. Why do we all want to go there and check everything ourselves? We have to do so much here [in Latvia]. We have so many socially unstable, poor families. [I hear,] 'Let's not give children away! Let's not sell them!' You know, these people deserve monuments for adopting such children!"
RFE/RL asked Zalpetere who was responsible for the recent legislative amendments. "There was a very long debate about the amendments in many committees of the Saeima (parliament)," she said. "Based on the information that the MPs had, they created norms that, in their opinion, were in compliance with Latvia's international obligations and served the interests of our children."
Jermusa, however, disagrees. "The changes in the legislation may have helped to meet some requirements set in the [European Convention on Adoption] and may have systematized the flow of documents. But they hardly serve any of the real interests of children. I would like those MPs who are opposed to international adoption to visit our center and find out what adoption really means. I haven't seen a single MP here in 35 years."
Lawyer Liberts says the situation amounts to a political game that has left Latvia's parentless children worse off than they were before.
"Once these promises -- [to help children, to find families for them, and thus empty child-care centers] -- are made, they have to be fulfilled. Apparently, some political parties are doing all they can not to allow their political rivals to fulfill their promises. It's a political game where all means are possible, in spite of the dire consequences for children," Liberts says.
In the meantime, the children in centers like Teika and their potential adoptive parents have to wait until Latvia's legislators, government, and courts create and implement an adoption model that will really help them.
(This article was originally broadcast on 25 April by RFE/RL's Latvian Service.)