Some maternity wards in Turkmenistan secretly offer abandoned babies for illegal adoption to prospective parents willing to pay a bribe to skip the normal bureaucracy and long wait that goes with the process, several sources tell RFE/RL.
The illegal deal often involves employees from registry offices who provide the new parents with false birth certificates that show them as the biological parents, the sources claim.
People with knowledge of the deals blame rampant corruption in the agencies involved in the legal adoption process for pushing some parents to a "cheaper and faster" option.
RFE/RL spoke to a married couple who admitted illegally adopting a baby in 2020 after paying about $4,300 in bribes. The couple, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they initially tried for three years to adopt a child legally, but without success.
Like many other countries, Turkmenistan requires prospective parents to provide documents from various agencies to ensure their suitability to adopt a child. The couple said they diligently assembled the necessary documents and submitted them, but each official involved in the process demanded bribes and deliberately delayed the process, the husband said.
Then, in the autumn of 2020, a Registry Office worker suggested another option: to adopt a newborn from a maternity ward and "experience all the joys of raising a child from the very beginning."
"She gave me the name of a doctor at the maternity hospital who would help me to get a baby and said it wouldn't cost a lot," the man said. "I knew that such a practice existed, but I didn't know anyone who could help me."
The couple decided to approach the maternity hospital doctor, who found them an infant allegedly abandoned by his mother. Soon thereafter they became parents to a newborn baby boy through an illegal adoption.
The employee at the Registry Office helped them obtain a birth certificate. In all of the documents the couple are registered as the biological parents of the child.
The process cost the family about 15,000 manats or nearly $4,300 at the official exchange rate. It's a significant amount of money in the country, but the couple say they were happy to pay.
The new parents say they don't see "anything wrong" in the way they got their son, who "is being raised in a loving family."
"After all, the child was abandoned -- he could have ended up in an orphanage," the wife said. "The day we brought him home was the happiest day of our lives. Of course, we'd prefer everything was done legally."
The couple blame corrupt officials for leaving them "with no other choice" in the matter.
RFE/RL has asked Turkmen government officials for comment several times since interviewing the couple in June. There has thus far been no response.
Officials in the secretive, authoritarian Central Asian country usually refuse to speak to the independent media. But speaking on condition of anonymity, an official at a regional health department confirmed to RFE/RL that illegal adoptions at maternity wards do indeed take place. The official condemned the practice as "child trafficking."
"It's illegal trafficking in babies, no more and no less," the official said. "The price of the child in this unlawful trade can rise to several thousand manats."
Like the adoptive parents, the official said the "very complex adoption process and rampant bribery in the system" were the main reason some "desperate prospective parents" chose the illegal option.
"In the legal process, they have to go through dozens of government agencies and pay bribes to each of them. They usually wait for years before the documents are approved," the official said. "Also, orphanages in Turkmenistan usually offer older children for adoption, while many parents [prefer] infants."
One married couple in the eastern Farap district told RFE/RL that they had to provide documents and letters from 40 different agencies to support their adoption application. Yet three years later there was still no decision on their bid.
Meanwhile, wealthier applicants in Farap received a child for legal adoption within four months after applying because they paid up to 50,000 manats (about $14,300) in bribes, they said.
"We don't have such money to pay," the couple lamented.