- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 15, 2002

BUCHAREST, Romania Spania Bancuta has been alive for three months, and alone almost as long ever since her mother dropped her off at a children's hospital in Bucharest and never came back.
But it may be awhile before the Gypsy girl with placid dark eyes can leave her steel crib in Room 5.
Like thousands of other youngsters, Spania isn't eligible for adoption abroad because of a temporary ban imposed by the Romanian government that has upset Western couples trying to adopt, and prompted concerns from aid workers that children are being condemned to stay in orphanages.
"The longer they delay the foreign-adoption law, the more serious it is for the children," said Sister Mary Rose Christy, a Roman Catholic nun from Burlingame, Calif., who works in Romania. "That's who is being hurt: the children."
Romania ordered the ban in June 2001 after the European Union charged that the impoverished Balkan country had become a marketplace for children and would have a harder time winning membership in the prosperous 15-nation bloc.
The ban put the European Union at odds with the United States, which sided with American, Israeli, Spanish and French couples trying to adopt. While the United States agreed that the system didn't always protect the rights of children, U.S. Ambassador Michael Guest said his government's interest was to place the children in loving families.
Baroness Emma Nicholson, the British EU official pushing Romania to toughen its laws, says Romania is vulnerable to mobsters preying on children. Americans never would allow their children to be exported the way Romania does, said Mrs. Nicholson, 61, widowed with one foster son, and "should afford the same respect to Romanian families as their own."
One of the worst scandals to emerge with the collapse of communism in eastern Europe was the plight of abandoned children, nowhere more so than in Romania. Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu had outlawed abortion and birth control, and families who couldn't feed their children handed them off to the state.
The ghastly images emerging of starving and bereft children in state institutions shocked the world, and humanitarian agencies poured in.
The European Union advocates limiting foreign adoption to a last resort, after foster care or local adoption has failed. Efforts should concentrate on giving children good homes by Romanian standards, Mrs. Nicholson said.
The ban is supposed to expire in February but can be extended if a new adoption law isn't passed, and legislators are awaiting EU input before tackling it.
Meanwhile, the ban's opponents have won little sympathy from Romania's leadership, including President Ion Iliescu.
"Americans should produce their own children," he said last month. "If they want children, they should go to countries with high birthrates. Our main goal is to improve conditions for all children in our country."
Most of the 84,000 children in state care are not adoptable orphans but youngsters whose parents visit them periodically to retain custody rights, Romanian officials say.
To pay for the strain on state coffers, the government in 1998 began allowing adoption agencies to donate funds to the child welfare system in exchange for the right to parcel out the country's most adoptable children, especially babies.
But in a country where the average monthly wage is $130, the influx of cash proved too tempting, EU and government officials say.
"Adoption was an area with a lot of corruption," Prime Minister Adrian Nastase said. Before the ban, he said, Romanian orphans had been sold via the Internet for as much as $50,000, and the state had no legal power to intervene. He didn't elaborate or identify any suspects.
With international aid, the system has shown slow improvement. Orphanage facilities are better and the ratio of caretakers to children is better. The number of children in state orphanages has fallen dramatically from the 100,000 since the Ceausescu regime, Romanian officials say.
About 43,000 children now live in state institutions, compared with 57,000 last year. An additional 41,000 are living in foster families or with relatives, government statistics show. (For more information, visit the Web site of the Romanian National Authority for Child Protection and Adoption at https://www.copii.ro/eindex.htm.)
The total number of domestic and foreign adoptions fell from 4,254 in 2000 to 2,795 last year; there had been 1,060 through August this year. But up to 3,500 children eligible for adoption abroad have been left in limbo since the ban was imposed.
Some exceptions were made for children whose paperwork was in process, but the ban stunned couples such as John Murrow and his wife, Amanda, from Six Mile, S.C.
The Murrows had heard about a little Gypsy girl they called Samantha from a friend working with street children in Romania. The aid worker found neighborhood children in the village of Bahnea, 200 miles northwest of the capital, playing catch with what he thought was a doll. It turned out to be a 3-month-old girl.
Rescued near death, she is now 15 months old and with a foster family. The Murrows are sending aid and want to adopt the child.
"I believe in God's time we will adopt her," Mr. Murrow said. "It feels like she is part of us already. She just hasn't joined us yet."
Children like Samantha and Spania also have almost no hope of being adopted in Romania, a country where prejudice against the Gypsy, or Roma, minority runs deep.

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