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Government Plans Fresh Changes In Armenian Child Adoption Rules

Armenia -- Children at an orphanage.
Armenia -- Children at an orphanage.

The Armenian government is planning to make fresh and potentially far-reaching changes in its rules and procedures for international adoptions of children from Armenia following an RFE/RL report suggesting that they may still be riddled with corruption.

Relevant proposals drawn up by Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian’s office aim to increase the transparency of the process and reduce the role of obscure local middlemen working for Western adoption agencies. They are also meant to make it easier for Armenian families to adopt or bring up orphans.

An April 2011 report by RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) said that U.S. adoption agencies seem to continue to make thousands of dollars in informal payments to Armenian officials dealing with foreign adoptions. In particular, it cited a sample contract signed by one such agency, Hopscotch Adoptions, with Americans wishing to adopt Armenian and Georgian children.

The contract, offered to a potential client in the United States in 2007, explained that almost $5,000 of more than $30,000 charged by Hopscotch for every adoption would be spent on “gifts to foreign service providers and government functionaries performing ministerial tasks as an offer of thanks for prompt service.” It claimed that such gifts are “customary” in Armenia and Georgia and do not violate U.S. law.

“Gifts and gratuities” were also a separate spending category in a sample agreement that was offered by another U.S. agency, Adopt Abroad, at least until last April.

Officials at the Armenian Ministry of Justice as well as anti-corruption campaigners in Yerevan agreed at the time that such payments amount to bribes and are therefore illegal in Armenia.

Government sources say Prime Minister Sarkisian took the report very seriously, instructing his senior staff to initiate a major revision of existing adoption rules. They were quick to come up with relevant proposals. Those were submitted in June, along with copies of the Hopscotch contract obtained by RFE/RL, to an inter-agency government commission on adoptions headed by Justice Minister Hrayr Tovmasian.

“The root cause of this problem is a lack of transparency, and we must do something about it,” one senior government official told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).

Under the existing rules, the Armenian Ministry of Labor and Social Issues draws up and keeps a national registry of children available for domestic and foreign adoption. The list is supposed to be accessible to prospective adoptive parents.

U.S. -- A screenshot of the website of the Hopscotch Adoptions agency..

But according to a department on social affairs at the prime minister’s office, this has not been the case in reality as even government bodies have trouble accessing information about all children listed on the registry, officially called Manuk (Child) Database.

In a written statement to the government, the Ministry of Labor said that the database comprised a total of 171 children (135 them kept in orphanages) as of May 1, 2011. However, the head of a ministry division handling adoptions, Lala Ghazarian, spoke of only about 90 such orphans when she was interviewed by RFE/RL’s Armenian service in April.

In its written proposals discussed by Tovmasian’s commission this summer, the government department said that “in some cases” children’s inclusion in the database has been a mere formality that legalized pre-arranged adoptions fraught with “corruption risks.” It said this is especially true for healthy babies, the most in-demand category of orphans.

The department suggested that the entire database be posted on the ministry website and made available to anyone considering an adoption from Armenia. Tovmasian is said to have personally backed the idea, which also envisages the creation of a separate electronic database of adoption applicants. The latter would thus be put in direct online contact with relevant Armenian authorities in the initial stages of the adoption process.

Officials say this would narrow down the scope of shady activities of Armenian “facilitators” receiving lump sums from U.S. and other foreign agencies. Hopscotch paid them $10,500 per child at least until 2007, while Adopt Abroad currently charges a “facilitators fee” of as much as $19,000. Whether a part of this money is also spent on “gifts” is anybody’s guess.

None of the Yerevan-based adoption brokers is known to be registered with tax authorities.

Another major proposal from Prime Minister Sarkisian’s staff would increase from three to six months the minimum period of time, after an orphan’s inclusion on the database, during which he or she cannot be eligible for international adoption. This requirement, meant to facilitate domestic adoptions, appears to have been violated in at least two cases in 2007.

In one such example, an American couple living near Washington, DC adopted a little Armenian girl through Hopscotch in May 2008. Sonia Vigilante, the adoptive mother, revealed on her blog that the girl was less than one month old when she and her husband were first shown her pictures and offered to adopt her in October 2007.

Vigilante reacted to the RFE/RL report with a litany of abusive e-mails sent to Ara Manoogian, an Armenian-American activist and blogger who privately interviewed her and several other U.S. adoptive parents and shared their experiences in Armenia with an RFE/RL correspondent. Using a fictitious identity, Manoogian posed as a childless man from Texas interested in adopting an Armenian child.

“The girl is mine mine, mine!!!” Vigilante wrote on May 31. “I win, Armenia loses. Hahahahahahahaha!!!” “I don't give a shit what the Armenian crooks think of me anymore,” she said in a subsequent note.

Sarkisian aides want to curb foreign adoptions also by reinvigorating a 2004 government program that pays local families to host and raise the orphans until they come of age. The program has had only a limited success, with only 24 children currently placed with foster care providers.

The government launched the child fostering scheme as part of a broader toughening of adoption rules that followed another, June 2003 RFE/RL report that likewise exposed possible corrupt practices. The number of annual foreign adoptions has not changed significantly since then. According to the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, 61 Armenian children were adopted by foreigners in 2010.

The ministry informed Justice Minister Tovmasian’s commission in July that it has started drafting amendments to Armenia’s adoption-related laws and regulations. Those amendments have not been submitted to the commission yet.

Whether ministry officials, who have long played a key role in the controversial adoptions, will propose the kind of radical changes that are sought by Sarkisian aides remains to be seen.