Little residents of this secluded compound on a hillside overlooking downtown Yerevan are learning the first lessons of their life. Sitting on tiny chairs, a group of children aged between two and three are taught to count red cubes laid out on the table by their nurse. A middle-aged woman who is supposed to substitute for parental care and love they were unjustly denied upon their birth.
Some of these children at the orphanage in the city’s Nork-Marash district will eventually feel the irreplaceable warmth of a family thousands of miles away from their country. For some adults in Armenia, that will translate into something very material: money. A lot of money.
Armenia has become one of the focal points of the worldwide practice of cross-border adoptions in recent years. Government data show that at least 57 Armenian children, or roughly 10 percent of its orphan population, were adopted by foreign, mainly U.S. and French nationals in 2002 and about 30 of them in the first half of this year. The country is now on the radar screens of several U.S. adoption agencies. There is even a special discussion group on the Internet bringing together childless couples interested in Armenia.
The reason why they are interested was summed up by a U.S. couple that adopted an Armenian toddler last year. They said they picked remote Armenia because they had to travel there once and spend there only two weeks, and because “the children are beautiful.”
The official view of the Armenian government, which has the exclusive authority to sanction foreign adoptions, is that a child can be happy only when living in a family. Officials also stress that most of the foreign adoptive parents are of ethnic Armenian origin.
“I think that children will feel better in a family than in the best and most modern orphanage,” says Aram Karapetian, the secretary of a special government commission regulating the process.
The problem is that this highly delicate sphere does not appear free of corruption that has engulfed so many aspects of life in Armenia. Documents obtained by RFE/RL suggest that the government-administered adoption process involves thousands of dollars in informal expenditures, apparently bribes paid by adoptive parents and their agents.
The scale of the practice is revealed by an online investigation conducted by Ara Manoogian, an Armenian-American charity worker living in Nagorno-Karabakh. Disguised under the pseudonym “Jennifer Smith,” Manoogian has extensively communicated by e-mail with Americans knowledgeable about the process. Posing as a Texan woman seeking to adopt two Armenian babies, he has extracted valuable insights into the dark sides of the foreign adoptions in Armenia.
It emerged that the whole process is handled by local government-connected “facilitators” who are either linked to a Western adoption agency or operate independently. Various sources put the amount of hefty fees charged by them at between $9,000 and $13,000 per child. Most of the money is said to be spent on “gifts” to relevant government officials.
Two such Yerevan-based facilitators, a man and a woman called Gagik and Hasmik, strongly denied engaging in such activities when contacted by this correspondent last week. They claimed that they have arranged only one adoption on solely humanitarian grounds, without earning a penny.
But what Gagik and Hasmik told “Jennifer” in a series of e-mails was just the opposite. “We can be your authorized persons and facilitators for the adoption process. Our services are to be paid,” they wrote in December before specifying the cost of their services: at least $9,000.
The facilitators were recommended to “Jennifer” by Jan Bartlett, an Iowa State University professor who adopted a 6-year-old girl from an orphanage in Gyumri earlier this month. The fees, Bartlett explained, include financial “gifts of gratitude” to Armenian officials. “G & H will let you know how much each official received,” she said.
Similar sums were cited by other Americans who had worked with different agents. Dana Nyholm, the adoptive mother of a 3-year-old Armenian boy she and her husband named Sam, wrote last February: “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.”
A U.S. lawyer of Armenian descent who inquired about the costs involved likewise informed a friend: “Estimated expenses are $15,000, which include $2,500 for Armenian representatives who will run all this process. Remaining will go…you know where.”
Karapetian, however, vehemently denies that any government official may be taking bribes in return for approving an adoption and 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 [dollars]’ and you give it, that has nothing to do with any [state] bureaucrat,” he says, adding that the entire paperwork inside Armenia should not cost over $100.
The existing procedure for foreign adoptions, set by the Armenian government in February 2002, leaves a broad circle of government bodies and officials who are 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 positive decisions not only by the commission but also the Foreign Ministry, the police and even the local community where a particular orphanage is located. The final clearance is given by the full cabinet of ministers headed by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian.
As recently as on June 18, it authorized the adoption of three children by citizens of the U.S., France and Turkey, the latter being ethnic Armenians. Incidentally, such decisions have never been made public by Markarian’s office.
Foreign adoptions are widely practiced around the world, mainly involving the transfer of orphans from impoverished countries of Asia, Latin America and East Europe to the affluent West. The practice has some elements of transnational commerce, with various categories of children having their own market value. Newborn healthy infants are in greatest demand.
One California-based agency, for example, has a detailed pricelist of children on its web site 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 to them is a guaranteed annual income of at least $24,000 per person. Also important, though not mandatory, is to have ethnic Armenian roots.
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 it to traditional family values still espoused the vast majority of Armenians.
The Nork-Marash orphanage currently has 77 children all over the country aged up to six, making it the main target of people planning an adoption in Armenia. A dozen kids have already been taken abroad this year.
According to the orphanage director, Liana Karapetian, many of her children were temporarily placed there by their parents, mostly single mothers who claim to be too poor to feed and raise them. She says only a small part of them will be sent to other orphanages once they reach schooling age.
What they will do after coming of age is much less certain. The economic situation in Armenia hardly augurs well for their future. It is not uncommon for orphan grown-ups to stay in their orphanages because they have neither homes nor jobs.
“Our top priority is to return children to families. They thus get serious guarantees for leading a normal life,” says Lena Hayrapetian, a Social Security Ministry official in charge of children’s affairs.
Hayrapetian and other officials say foreigners are generally allowed to adopt those children for whom the authorities have failed to find new Armenian parents. According to them, although Armenians adopted twice as many orphans as foreigners last year, they are less likely to accept kids with mental or physical disabilities.
The latter make up at least half of the overall orphan population. As things stand now, finding new parents in the West may be their only chance for a decent life.