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Saving a Lost Generation – The Rush to Adopt Romania’s Orphans

The despotic reign of Romania’s Nicolae Ceauşescu caused deplorable living conditions for Romanians and left its most vulnerable citizens – abandoned children —  to be literally warehoused. Orphanages were overrun due to Ceauşescu’s policy of making abortions and contraception illegal while also practically forcing women to have at least four or five children. Most could simply not afford to keep their children and orphanages were unable to adequately care for the children placed there. Around 180,000 children lived in inhumane conditions – no heat, poor clothing, little food, and little health care. HIV became rampant due to a misguided belief in blood transfusions and a lack of proper medical care.

After Ceauşescu was deposed and the issue was highlighted on news shows like 20/20 and 60 Minutes, thousands of Americans went to the country to adopt. While many children were initially paroled into the U.S. by Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS, now CIS), this practice was stopped after it was revealed that many of the children were not really orphans. (Photo: Josef Polleross)

This abrupt change in policy caused heartache for the prospective parents and bad PR for the embassy, even though it was INS — and not the consular officials – who was responsible. Virginia Carson Young shares the adoption problems she dealt with as head of the consular section at Embassy Bucharest from 1987-91. She was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in July 1992. She also recounted her experiences in Romania and other posts in her book Peregrina: Unexpected Adventures of an American Consul, published in ADST’s Memoirs and Occasional Papers Series. 

Go here to read about the experiences of one FSO with human rights and the Romanian secret police in the 1970s and about the rush of people trying to adopt children in the Balkans during the war there in the 1990s. You can also learn about what consular officers had to endure from the public after the Lockerbie bombing.


“Okay, here are the people, they are free to go”

YOUNG:  My first two years in Romania were probably the worst of the Ceauşescu years. He was, of course, the dictator and communist leader of Romania until the revolution in 1989. Then two years afterward, I was there to see a nation that had been under this very strict, brutal terrorist rule for 40 years, struggle to become democratic and maybe not so democratic….

In the consular section we had the one area that was open to the Romanians. Some of them were so desperate that they would defy the security police to come in and beg for some kind of refugee consideration. We were processing people who qualified for a unique refugee program that had been established just in Romania, I believe in 1975 at the time that we were trying to encourage Ceauşescu to be independent from the Soviet Union.

Most Favored Nation [MFN] status was granted to Romania during the Nixon administration, or was in the process of being granted. But then came the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which stated that a country to be eligible for MFN must permit free immigration.

So Ceauşescu then said, “Okay, here are the people, they are free to go.” What our Congress and officials in this country never said was that they wanted people free to emigrate, but only the people that we can accept under our law would be admitted into the U.S. Romanians had not traditionally been immigrants to the United States, so we did not have the family relationships established, with a pull factor from this country that would bring in relatives. Virtually none of the people allowed to depart Romania qualified under our immigration laws.

Because we wanted to grant MFN status, to make a point, we created third-country refugee processing (which was a misnomer. To qualify as a refugee, one would normally have to be in a third country and establish that you have a well-founded fear of persecution, if you were obliged to return to your own country).

Until the Refugee Act of 1980, to qualify as a refugee, all you had to do was to flee communism. So a Romanian who could get to Germany, Italy, etc. would have automatically qualified as a refugee. But, of course, most of them couldn’t get out. They were not granted exit papers and there were security police along the border. People were shot trying to swim the Danube to get to Yugoslavia. So creating this special “refugee” program was used by both sides, because we used it as well as Ceauşescu, in the political public relations wars….

By the time I got there, the Refugee Act of 1980 had established that maybe these people didn’t automatically qualify as refugees any more, because after 1980 you not only had to be fleeing from communism, but you had to establish that you feared persecution or had been persecuted on the basis of political belief, ethnic background, race, creed, sex, etc. So they reduced, and then eliminated the TCP [third-country processing] program….

At the time I got there in 1987, the TCP program was being phased out. As of 1983-84, the U.S. government said, “All of those presently registered with us, if they can get passports to leave, they will be processed, but we are taking no new names.” However, there was so much pressure that dates sort of crept up, the deadline was extended. By the time I got there, if you had registered before January 1, 1986, you could still be processed.

There were still several thousand people who could be processed but who couldn’t get passports to leave the country. At the same time, there were probably 3000 people to whom Ceauşescu had given passports but who weren’t registered with us and didn’t qualify under even our generous refugee policy. They did not meet usual immigration requirements. So it was a constant battle.

I would go to the Foreign Office every month with my list and say, “Let these people go.” Then they would present me with their list and say, “Why won’t you take these other people; it is their human right to go?” They would try to bash us on human rights because we weren’t taking the people that they were allowing to go….

Well, came the revolution….Ceauşescu was assassinated, the week between Christmas and New Year’s in 1989….

“I don’t think anyone had any idea that there were thousands of children that had literally been warehoused in Romania”

Q: What happened visa-wise in your next two years?

YOUNG: One word: adoptions. We had four pending adoption cases at the time of the Romanian revolution. Ceauşescu had allowed foreign adoptions in Romania but the numbers were few. In early 1987, he terminated all foreign adoptions. So we had people who had identified children prior to 1987.

One couple in particular came back every year to visit their child. To my astonishment, the Romanians allowed the child to be with the adoptive parents for a couple of weeks in Romania, but wouldn’t let the child leave the country. By now the child was over four years old. It was really a very emotional time. I had met with the parents on two different occasions, by the time the revolution came. Of course the parents were on the first plane to Romania. We issued an immigrant visa immediately. It was a very warm and touching scene.

Actually it was filmed by [ABC’s] 20/20, a weekly news program that had very high viewer ratings and I think probably it was that film that touched off the first interest in Romanian adoptions. Well, that and a documentary that also showed the deplorable conditions in Romanian orphanages.

I don’t think anyone in the outside world, and most people in Romania, had any idea that there were thousands of children that had literally been warehoused in Romania. They were orphanages in name only. Under the Ceauşescu regime, any kind of family planning (birth control) was illegal. Couples were not only encouraged, but almost forced to have at least four or five children. Pregnant women working in factories were examined to make sure a pregnancy had not been terminated. As a result, there were many unwanted children born in Romania.

Q: What was the rationale behind this?

YOUNG: A wish to increase the population, although why, I am not quite sure. It seems irrational. The nutrition for most of the nation was terrible. There were very poor sanitary conditions in the orphanages and no trained staff. Nobody really cared about these poor little children. Another aspect of it was the fact that there was a high rate of the HIV virus found in these institutionalized children.

Romanians believed, and I think in some areas still practice, the theory that an infant who is weak or small will benefit from a blood transfusion. My understanding is that this is a total Old World, old wives’ tale and has no validity. But, particularly in the Constanta area, which is the port city, where the HIV virus was brought in. As high as 40 percent of children in institutions in that area were found to be HIV positive. Almost never was it because of an infected mother. It was because of the blood transfusion. They had no disposable needles, they had no child-size vials, so if they had a contaminated vial, it might be used on four or five different children. The virus spread rapidly.

“A lot of these children were not literally orphans” 

In any case, the first televised view of Romanian adoptions for the Western world was initially that of parents coming…such happy, glad scenes…to pick up the children they had been unable to take out, but had tried to adopt prior to the revolution. Except for the four cases I mentioned, they were French, Swiss, Italian citizens. They were not Americans. But the scenes were on worldwide television, and that sparked enormous interest.

And, as I have since learned, adopting parents are absolutely determined, single minded. If a child is available, they will spare nothing in order to adopt him and give him a loving home, a better life.

So, the American television programs about the first couple and the happy ending to their story, and then the pitiable scenes of children in orphanages, brought people to Romania by the dozens, wishing to adopt. At that point, they were not showing the ill and infected children on TV, just poor little waifs with no family.

It turned out that a lot of these children were not literally orphans. The mothers and parents of these children had been forced to bear them, but had no means to look after them. They had placed them in an orphanage. Some intended to pick them up, later.

There was a high percentage of gypsy [now called “Roma”] children in the orphanages and among those offered directly, later, to parents for “private” adoptions. The gypsy population of Romania is interesting, in itself. They are probably the only group that successfully “worked the system” under Ceauşescu. They would stand in line for food and then charge double for the item. I heard Romanians complain that this was a terrible thing, refusing to understand that one pays for service. Gypsy children would be left in an institution until they were 12, 13 or 14, old enough to help earn a living, and then parents would claim them again.

The understanding in the United States and Western Europe was that there were thousands of children in orphanages of Romania just waiting for the right family to come and choose them.

In early 1990, people began coming in quite large numbers to Romania. At one point, they were allowed entry into virtually any orphanage. They could just roam through and say, “I like that one and that one.” Then there began to be some really awful stories of almost auctions, bidding wars. Nationality was pitted against nationality and couple against couple. But, for the most part, there were plenty of children and adoptions proceeded relatively quickly.

“We became the bad guys”

At the Embassy, we processed them quickly as well. Under U.S. immigration law, it is the Justice Department that has the bottom line on an orphan petition. A petition must be filed and approved before the visa can be issued. The petition is normally an INS [Immigration and Naturalization Services] responsibility, but authority has been delegated to the consular officer, but only if the petition is “clearly approvable.” If we have any doubts, it goes back to an INS officer for final adjudication.

Well, in our case, in Bucharest the INS regional officer in Vienna, Austria, was the authority we turned to on adoption matters. I had never dealt with adoptions before. I think a lot of consular officers never do. My husband, a retired INS officer, had handled probably thousands of them in Hong Kong. Americans were adopting children from Taiwan and Korea. But I also know other INS officers who have never dealt with adoptions.

Anyway Bob Looney, the INS officer in Vienna, was a wonderful, thoughtful and very sympathetic person. He wanted to follow the rules, wanted to do it right, and also wanted to be generous and helpful if he could be. We worked very closely, consulting by phone and cable. He sent instructions and INS regulations and precedent cases to me. As the process went on, we began to wonder if some of these children actually qualified as orphans.

Under U.S. law, a child must be literally an orphan to be adopted and brought into the United States, or the child of a sole or surviving parent who is unable to look after the child and relinquishes unequivocally, or, if there are two known parents, they must have abandoned the child prior to the adoption. INS does not have a definition of abandonment. All they have is the law that says, “Must be abandoned” and INS Board of Inquiry decisions that say what abandonment is not. Birth parents simply releasing a child to adoptive parents doesn’t constitute abandonment.

We approached, more and more, a situation where a small percentage of the adoptions were not “readily approvable.” Even one adoption case that the Embassy doesn’t approve, just like that, has enormous repercussions. We would say, “We are not saying no, but we have to refer the case to the INS in Vienna and they have to make the decision, because it does not appear that this child was truly abandoned. There are two parents. They are still living together with several other children. It looks like sort of a deal.”

We are the only country that has this “orphan” requirement. The Canadians, the British, the French, none of the major adopting nationalities in Bucharest, were running up against this particular requirement. If the Romanian authorities processed the adoption, then it was a simple procedure to come into an embassy and obtain a visa. We were the only ones who had the additional requirement. We became the bad guys.

Well, we found and INS Vienna found, that if the adopting parents had good connections in the United States…high-level congressional or administration contacts, etc….they would appeal to the INS Central Office and the children would be paroled into the United States. Now, there are no requirements under the U.S. Immigration Act concerning parole. The INS Central Office can decide that for humanitarian reasons, anybody can be paroled into the United States….

But it seemed to me that these little children, infants for the most part, were the most unwanted children, even if they came from a so-called two-parent family, and that the parents were willingly giving them up. The children would not have any future in Romania. A high percentage of them were gypsies. People would say that you should give the Romanians first chance to adopt them. Romanians would not adopt a gypsy. They have very strong feelings about that.

“If we knew the truth, we would probably refuse a lot more”

I came back to Washington in April 1991. By then, our volume of adoptions was increasing twofold, threefold, fivefold, and the small percentage that was being referred back to the INS was causing us lots of grief. The press was interested, the adopting parents were furious and we were getting a lot of Congressional mail on the subject.

I thought that I was coming back to talk to INS about a quick and easy way to just apply for humanitarian parole, right away, in these cases. I went to a meeting at INS. John Adams from the Visa Office went with me, but he had another appointment, and he left.

So I was the only State Department person there. I have always had very good relations with INS. My husband is a thirty-year veteran and distinguished INS officer. I have always felt we (State and INS) represented two halves of the whole immigration process.

So at this meeting, INS officers questioned me about whether these children had two parents and how many of them we would find were possibly not actual orphans under the law, if we knew the truth. Our denial or referral rate was running about 3 percent.

I said, “Well, half of them are still coming out of orphanages and, I believe, really meet the orphan definition. About a third of the remainder comes from a single parent, and thus meet the definition. So, it is a very small percentage of those at the present time that I think have two parents and don’t really meet our definition.”

Someone said, “Well, if you knew the truth in all these cases, how many do you think you would be referring or denying?” I said, “Oh, probably about 30 percent, if we really knew.”

And I really meant it in the context of discussing mutual problems with a colleague. If we knew the truth about our NIV applicants, we would probably refuse a lot more. If we knew the actual facts in an immigrant visa interview…whether the guy really had the job experience, or whether this marriage is really bona fide…it would perhaps be an additional 30 percent denial. So, that was the context of my remark.

“INS didn’t get the bad publicity; by and large, it was us”

It turned out that the INS people were not interested in processing a quick and easy parole. Quite the opposite. They were facing hearings in a congressional Judicial Subcommittee on adoptions.

Just before my visit to Washington, another big television show, 60 Minutes, which is the CBS news magazine that is the most popular news show going, had done an adoption segment. I was interviewed by Leslie Stahl in my office. The whole thrust of that program was baby buying, baby selling.

The commentator had gone in a black wig posing as an adopting mother into a village and actually negotiated for a child on camera. Of course, everyone in the segment discussed the idea of selling children. Obviously it was happening, although I believe it is not surprising that birth parents begin to extract something in return for giving up their children. It is reprehensible, but I don’t think it was the rampant baby market that they made it out to be.

In any case, the American parents already had these children in their custody. They were legally adopted in Romania. The birth parents were not going to take them back, so why not use the parole facility? Well, INS suspended parole. So I went back to Romania, and we had 200 American couples with babies in their arms, and the babies did not meet the initial requirements of the law. Parents had applied for parole but it was not being granted.

At one point, they picketed the Consulate. In fact, on one given day I had a band of my “miserables” that INS was delaying a decision on, and American parents, both demonstrating against the consulate. In both cases, it seemed to me, it was INS’ fault, not ours.

The upshot of it was that INS, at a cost of thousands and thousands of dollars, sent investigators into Romania, so that any of these cases that were deferred, instead of going on a quick basis to INS in Vienna, received a personal investigation in the country. INS sent out 7 officers, none of whom spoke Romanian, none of whom had been in the country before. They hired interpreters, rented cars and went whizzing off into different parts of the country to interview the birth mother of a given child.

Well, that didn’t really prove anything very much. Even if they found that the birth mother was living with the birth father, in no case was parole ultimately denied. Over 200 cases of parole were finally approved, but after thousands of dollars, weeks of anguish and lots of bad publicity for the consulate.

INS didn’t get the bad publicity; by and large, it was us. In this particular case, I didn’t get the support I needed and deserved from the Department and from CA [the Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs].

Q: How did this lack of support manifest itself?

YOUNG: The waiting room was so crowded and I said we had to have some more space. They sent a CAT (Consular Affairs Team) team out. The team stayed about a day and a half and just recommended that we cut things up a little differently in the space we had.

This, then, came to the fore when these American adopting parents were claiming that they had to wait outside in the rain, they couldn’t get into the consulate. I asked that part of another floor in the building, that was occupied by USIS [U.S Information Service], be given to us so that we could get all the Americans inside. But I didn’t get any support from my front office or the Department on that.

When there was the discussion about parole and whether these people qualified or not, and whether we were interpreting the rules correctly, the Department’s Consular Affairs people were more sympathetic.

The people in the Visa Office — there were some hardliners there who also took the INS point of view, that people are selling babies and we don’t want to be a part of that. I said it was not against the law, for one thing. The law does not say anything about an exchange of goods for the child. It is morally wrong, but it is not illegal. In fact, I said that on 60 Minutes, which probably didn’t endear me to anybody.

Final Frustrations 

I think the final point of my frustration was reflected in the congressional hearing. The senior Deputy Assistant Secretary represented the Assistant Secretary at the hearings. It was Jim Ward, who is a friend of mine. I have known him for years. But I really had the feeling when I saw the transcript of his remarks and the questions that were asked that he was somewhat equivocal and gave a “Well, I will sure look into that” kind of response.

We at the embassy were not given the opportunity to provide information, except for what we volunteered. We weren’t told that they might ask such and such, what information can you give? So, the hearings were really disappointing and dispiriting.

Right after that, Jim Ward came out to Bucharest with the INS Number Two. They were very concerned about the situation. They lent their weight to my concern about space. Then, all of a sudden, the front office decided that the cafeteria on the ground floor would have to be evacuated, and we could use it for interview space. We were doing, during the July and August period of 1991, between 40 and 50 adoption cases every day.

I also had no additional help. I had been asking, and the DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission] said, “Well, maybe we can get some volunteers, some spouses, to come in and help you.”

I said, “That isn’t what I need. I need three contract employees to do the clerical work.” But he said there wasn’t any money. When it hit the papers and when it was a congressional hearing, they found the money for three contracts, and they found money to send Peter Murphy out for 90 days to help with the interviewing. So you can tell I have some bitter feelings.

And, of course, under our present law, HIV would make the child excludable. Even if the individual parent wishes to bring in an HIV-infected child, it is forbidden. I know of one case where an HIV infected child was brought in, under parole. As I say, there are no rules for parole, so anyone who can persuade the INS Central Office that this is of humanitarian interest, they can do it. I know of only one child. I was surprised that it happened.

One of the things that would preclude bringing in an HIV infected child is that you would have to either have medical insurance or a huge amount of money because my understanding is that the average cost for treating an HIV infected person is upwards from $100,000. And, under the law, a person–even a child–is ineligible to immigrate if it appears he or she will become a public charge. (Photo:  Taro Yamasaki/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

At the time I left Romania…, a woman who had come as a volunteer to help out in the orphanages wanted to adopt four children that she had been looking after. They were in an institution for HIV-positive children. To my surprise, her insurance company, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, wrote me a letter saying they would cover expenses, even for that.

So I said we could ask for parole in this case, but asked her why, really do you want to do this? These were children 2, 3 years old and they weren’t expected to live beyond age 4, at the most.

She said, “Well, it would give them maybe one more year of loving care,” as opposed to what they might find in the institution after she left. And, of course, they are ever-hopeful that some new discovery will come along that will prevent these children from dying. As I say, I don’t know what finally happened.