In Armenia, government sources say that at least 10 percent of the country's orphaned children were adopted last year by foreigners, mainly American and French nationals. But information obtained by RFE/RL suggests that for foreign would-be parents, the state-administered adoption process comes fettered with thousands of dollars in "informal" expenditures that critics say amount to little more than bribery.
Yerevan, 25 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In a secluded hillside compound overlooking downtown Yerevan, a group of young children are beginning the first lessons of their life.
Sitting on tiny chairs, the 2- and 3-year-olds are learning to count. They watch as their nurse -- a middle-aged woman who is the only substitute for the parental care and love they have been denied since birth -- lays out red blocks on the table in front of them.
"Everybody is counting: one, two, three, four," she said.
Some of these children at the Nork-Marash district orphanage in the Armenian capital may eventually travel thousands of miles to experience the security of a permanent adoptive family living abroad. Some adults in Armenia stand to gain from the transaction as well. International adoptions mean lots of money.
Armenia has surfaced on the radar screens of a number of American adoption agencies. Internet discussion groups bring together childless couples looking to adopt an Armenian youngster. The reason for the growing interest was summed up by one American couple that adopted an Armenian toddler last year. They said they picked the remote Caucasus nation because they had to travel there just once and only for two weeks.
The Armenian government has the exclusive authority to sanction foreign adoptions, and support such arrangements. Officials in Yerevan like Aram Karapetian, who heads the government commission regulating the adoption procedure, says the only place for a child is with a family.
"I think that children will feel better in a family than in the best and most modern orphanage," he said.
But Armenia's adoption practices have not escaped the corruption that affects so many areas of life in the country.
Ara Manoogian is an Armenian-American charity worker living in Nagorno-Karabakh. Using the pseudonym Jennifer Smith, Manoogian has communicated extensively by e-mail with Americans knowledgeable about the adoption procedure. Posing as a woman from the southern U.S. state of Texas looking to adopt two Armenian babies, he has gained valuable insight into the darker side of Armenian adoptions.
He tells RFE/RL that his research suggests the entire process is handled by local government "facilitators" who work independently or through a Western adoption agency. The facilitators commonly charge adoptive parents between $9,000 and $13,000 in informal fees. Most of that money is said to trickle upwards to relevant government officials.
Two such facilitators based in Yerevan who were contacted by RFE/RL strongly denied engaging in such activities. They claimed they have arranged only one adoption, on solely humanitarian grounds, and did not earn a penny.
But the same two facilitators, when contacted by "Jennifer Smith" last year, gave a different message. By e-mail, they wrote: "We can be your authorized facilitators for the adoption process. Our services are to be paid." They later specified the cost of their services: at least $9,000.
The facilitators were recommended to "Jennifer" by a university professor in the United States who earlier this month succeeded in adopting a 6-year-old girl from an orphanage in the Armenian city of Gyumri. The fees, the professor explained, include financial "gifts of gratitude" to Armenian officials, and added that the facilitators "will let you know how much each official received."
Similar sums were cited by other Americans who had worked with different agents. One adoptive mother of a 3-year-old Armenian boy in February told Jennifer: "When we arrived, we gave our facilitator about $12,000. I know her fee was about $1,500; about $1,000 went into housing; probably $500 for food; and I don't know how much for transportation and gifts."
An American lawyer of Armenian descent who inquired about the costs likewise informed a friend: "Estimated expenses are $15,000, which includes $2,500 for the Armenian representatives who will run all this process. The remaining money will go you know where."
Karapetian, however, vehemently denies government officials are taking bribes in return for approving an adoption. He says the government is not responsible for the fees collected by private intermediaries.
"If someone comes up to you and says, 'I can arrange things for you, give me $20,000' and you give it, that has nothing to do with any [state] bureaucrat," Karapetian said. "I always say [to adoptive parents], 'Don't be duped.'"
The existing procedure for foreign adoptions, set by the Armenian government in February 2002, leaves a broad circle of government bodies and officials in a position to approve, accelerate, or block adoptions. The most important of them is Karapetian's commission. It is headed by Justice Minister David Harutiunian and comprises high-ranking officials, including the ministers of education, health, and social security.
The entire process takes several months and requires a chain of approval from not only the commission but also the Foreign Ministry, the police, and even the local community where the particular orphanage is located. The final clearance is given by the full cabinet of ministers.
Foreign adoption is widely practiced around the world, mainly involving the transfer of orphans from impoverished countries in Asia, Latin America, and East Europe to the affluent West. Adoption has some elements of transnational commerce, with various categories of children carrying their own market value. Healthy newborn infants, for example, are in greatest demand.
One California-based foreign adoption agency has a detailed price list of children on its website along with the number and cost of trips prospective U.S. parents have to take to a particular country. Armenia requires only a single trip for one of the adoptive parents. They can select a child through a facilitator. Furthermore, they are not even personally interviewed by the Armenian adoption commission.
The main requirement in Armenian foreign adoption procedure is a guaranteed annual income of at least $24,000 per parent. Also important, though not mandatory, is that the parents have ethnic Armenian roots. The official paperwork on the Armenian side is expected to cost no more than $100, and there are no other legally defined fees.
There are five state-run orphanages across Armenia housing about 600 children -- a relatively low figure for a country of 3 million that has gone through dramatic political and social upheavals since the Soviet collapse. Officials attribute this to Armenia's traditionally strong family bonds.
About 30 children -- a dozen of them from the Nork-Marash orphanage, have already been taken abroad this year. Those who will stay on in Armenia will face an uncertain future after coming of age. It is not uncommon for parentless children to remain at their orphanages even after they reach adulthood. Many of them have neither homes nor jobs.
Lena Hayrapetian is a senior official at the Armenian Ministry of Social Security in charge of children's affairs. She also defends foreign adoptions: "Our top priority is to return children to families. They thus get serious guarantees for leading a normal life."
Hayrapetian and other officials say foreigners are generally allowed to adopt only those children for whom the authorities have failed to find Armenian parents. They say although Armenians adopted twice as many orphans as foreigners did last year, they are less willing to accept children with mental or physical disabilities.
Disabled children make up at least half of Armenia's orphaned youngsters. As things stand now, finding new parents in the West may be their only chance for a decent life.