The train leaves Bucharest in the evening, and as night falls, the last views of modern Romania fade from view. We are carried through the night, across the Transylvania Alps, and fifty years into the past. As dawn comes to Transylvania, farmers are seen riding high atop horse and ox-drawn wagons piled with straw and firewood. The wagons are stopped at rail crossings by manually operated gates, rigged with extensive cables and pulleys so that a solitary man can close the gates on both sides of the track from one spot. The smell of smoke from fireplaces and wood stoves is carried in the air. As the train slowly pulls to its last stop on the long journey, I listen intently, wondering whether the modern diesel engine which pulled us out of Bucharest had been transformed into a coal-fired steam locomotive during the night. Within a few hours I am greeting the director of the Camin Spital pentru Minori Deficient (literally, the Home for Deficient Children) in Sighetu Marmatiei, Romania. After a cool welcome, I am given permission to see the children.
A few moments later, as I climbed the stairs to the second floor, I remembered the pledge Anne had made four years ago to Alex and Costica, and which I had repeated to them two years ago: “We will come back for you.” I wondered whether Alex and Costica would even remember me after all this time, and whether they would believe I was really going to take them with me this time. I slowly opened the door and stepped in. As with any outsider, my entrance immediately commanded the attention of all the children in the room. Whatever activities had been going on ceased, and an aura of excitement spread through the room. Children began running in from adjacent rooms to see who was here, and in a very short time I saw Costica’s face appear for the briefest of moments. As he disappeared back into the other room, I heard his overpowering screams of “Alex! Alex! Alex!”
A moment later the two boys charged toward me, their faces radiating excitement, and grabbed hold of me. Pulling my arms with both their hands, and with smiles stretching from ear to ear, Alex and Costica looked into my face and shouted nonstop to me and everyone else in the room. Although my knowledge of Romanian limited my understanding to only the slightest bit of what they said, it was clear that my fears had been in vain.
They knew who I was and why I was there. For nearly four years they had been waiting for the promised trip to their new family in America and this hope is what they lived for every day. If it materialized, they would be given so much of what they had only dreamed about: a family, an education, eyeglasses, and modern medical treatment. Without it, they would live out their childhoods in a notorious warehouse for “unsalvageable” children, only to be moved to an indescribable insane asylum upon reaching adulthood.
Our efforts to adopt the two boys had begun in 1991 when Anne met them while visiting the “Home for Deficient Children” in Sighetu Marmatiei, a small town in the northernmost part of Transylvania along Romania’s border with Ukraine. Anne had been devastated by her first views inside the institution where children judged to be unsalvageable were warehoused until they reached adulthood. She saw hundreds of children suffering from severe malnourishment, wearing only worn out, ill fitting clothes. Many sat on cold concrete floors, rocking rapidly back and forth, tightly clenching their fists, or biting into their own hands. The smell of stale urine, so pervasive in Romania at the time, blended with other foul odors to create a stench which was nearly overpowering.
Downstairs in the lobby, between shots of homemade whiskey, the director of the institution was conducting his regular sale of clothing and medical supplies. These had been donated by people of other nations to help the children, but he found them to be a ready source of personal income in the severely depressed post-revolution economy. Townspeople wandered in from the street to buy desirable western-made clothes, shoes, and largely unavailable medications while children in tattered rags looked on.
Anne spent nearly a week in Sighet, returning to the institution numerous times. As difficult as it was to see these children locked away like this, Anne recognized that many, if not most, of them would probably require institutional care even if they were moved to another country. The years of neglect and abuse had simply been too much for them. But there were a few exceptions, and during her visits, her attention was continually drawn to two seven-year-old boys. No taller than a typical four-year-old, Costica showed an unparalleled enthusiasm for life and an almost constant smile in spite of his miserable surroundings. Alex was much more subdued as he sat alone in a chair most of the time. He clearly had the respect of the other children, but a recent illness had left him paralyzed from the waist down. Several of the staff members told Anne that Alex had been the smartest boy in the institution before he got sick, as though the physical disability had drained his mind of its abilities. Perhaps even more heartbreaking, both boys had been selected by families in America for adoption, but the families had given up within months of beginning the process because of the difficulties they ran into with the Romanian government. Anne observed and spoke (in broken Romanian) with these children for hours during the week she was there and by the time she returned home, she couldn’t get them out of her mind. There was just no way that these two boys would not thrive in a loving family environment.
When Anne got back in June 1991, we began what we thought would be a six-month process to adopt them. Unfortunately, just as we began, the very publicity which had led us to Alex and Costica initiated a chain of events which put everything on hold. The worldwide exposure of the deplorable conditions in which thousands of Romanian children were living had generated a flood of adoptions by foreigners. Unfortunately, many of the adoptions were of healthy infants who had been living with their families, rather than the institutionalized children who needed the help. As more and more westerners traveled to Romania in search of babies, a black market emerged with Romanian lawyers and translators arranging midnight meetings between foreign couples and Romanian parents. With a quick exchange of cash, the baby was handed over and adoption papers were drawn up. The Romanian government responded by shutting down all international adoptions until a new set of laws could be developed.
Although originally expected to take about six months, the laws actually took over a year to formalize. While we were waiting for the new laws, we got started on the U.S. issues which could be done in the meantime, such as the home study and INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) approval. Before the laws were enacted, it became clear that certain areas were obviously going to be included. Even for children who had been abandoned at birth, the biological parents would have to be located and give their consent to the adoption. If the parents could not be located, the children would have to be declared abandoned by a Romanian court. So we tried to get the search for the parents underway through numerous telephone calls to Romania.
We called the Romanian Committee for Adoptions, a group which had been appointed by the government to oversee all international adoptions. But it soon became very clear that this group had no authority, and many of its members did not support adoptions. Various suggestions were made about others to call, and all these leads were followed up. Each call was a disappointment. Only the institution itself could initiate a search for a child’s parents, and their involvement was limited to requesting the local police department to conduct the search. Both of Alex’s biological parents were outside the local area; Costica’s mother had passed away shortly before this and his father was imprisoned in another city. The director of the institution was totally opposed to adoption, and actively prevented any progress from taking place. Conversations with others who had met him seemed to confirm Anne’s opinion that he was mentally unstable. We even feared he would harm the children to discourage us, so we were unable to pursue the search further.
During the next year we seemed to fall several steps backward for each step forward. New laws were finally put in place, but they required adoptions to be made only through approved agencies and none were approved; the maniacal director of the institution was fired, only to be replaced by a stickler for the rules who wouldn’t lift a finger for a child; parental consent was still required for adoptions, but local authorities were unwilling to search and it was illegal for anyone else to search; Costica’s father was released from prison, then allegedly forged a passport, making himself a fugitive from national and international police.
Unfortunately, almost to the day that I arrived there, a national scandal erupted as the Romanian press reported that over twenty children had been kidnapped from the very institution where Alex and Costica lived. The children had actually been taken to America much earlier, by a man who believed he was acting in the children’s best interests by placing them in American homes. When he encountered the same Romanian resistance which had hindered us, he responded by obtaining documents through questionable methods and sneaking the children out through Hungary. The negative publicity resulting from this action completely doused any hope of bringing the children home and I returned alone.
Over the next six months, we struggled with trying to get approvals to bring the children to the U.S. on medical visas, all to no avail. During this time, adoptions had very slowly begun to pick up in Romania. In July 1993, an abandonment law established a standardized method for courts to terminate parental rights for children who had been abandoned by their birth parents. In late summer, we again initiated the adoption process by signing up for our third home study. Through several fits and starts, it was completed and our INS approval issued in November. In the meantime we had been frantically working to get Alex and Costica’s abandonment hearings under way, but met resistance every step along the way. When nothing had happened by January 1994, we began applying political pressure through several U.S. congressmen. One congressman raised our case as a major issue in a visit to Bucharest in January.
With this impetus, the abandonment action was finally initiated in the courts. After several hearings, Costica was declared abandoned in March. But Alex’s case languished through delays and postponements for nearly a year. As our INS approval neared expiration, we again resorted to congressional pressure. With the help of six or seven congressmen, a stack of personal letters from people around the country, and nearly a thousand signatures on petitions, we raised enough commotion to push the abandonment through in late October.
Now, after nearly four years of effort, all that was left was the adoption hearing. (This, of course, is where we had thought we were starting in 1991.) The court hearing was scheduled for November, and we expected the boys to be home for Christmas. But in a last second jab at us, the director of the institution, who was now the boys’ legal guardian, steadfastly refused to attend the hearing. This forced another delay until mid-December and eliminated any possibility of having the boys home in 1994. It also meant that our INS approval would expire before the adoptions were completed.
After the abandonment was finalized, INS had very kindly extended our I-600 approval by one month to December 9, but we didn’t know if they would extend it again. The adoptions were now expected to be completed on the new court date of December 15. A congressmen’s office had suggested that we not submit a new I-600, but rather wait until the adoptions were finally complete and request another extension saying, “Even the INS could not be so cold as to deny a short extension after all you’ve been through.”
When the adoptions were finally completed on December 15, we visited the INS only to find that, indeed, they were that cold. Not only did we have to submit a new form and pay the fee, but we had to have a new home study, fingerprint cards, medical reports, and financial reports. We rushed through this between Christmas and New Years, getting everything to them in early January. The one concession they made to us was to rush the fingerprints through the FBI. With everything ready to go, the INS officer ignored our file for the next three weeks, despite regular assurances that she was working on it “right now.” I was scheduled to leave for Romania to finally bring home Alex and Costica on Monday, February 6. Because of other commitments by our agency’s representative in Romania, any delay would mean that we would have to delay the trip another six weeks. At this point, we were not about to accept any problems because of the INS. So, on the Friday before I was to leave Anne took the other kids to the INS office in Newark and informed them that she was not leaving until the approval had been issued. Meanwhile, I arranged telephone calls to the Newark office from a growing list of U.S. Congressmen and Senators. The effort paid off, and the file was approved late Friday afternoon.
I left for Romania on Monday afternoon, arriving in Bucharest early Tuesday morning. Except for a brief visit to the embassy to verify that the INS cable had arrived, most of Tuesday was spent waiting for the all-night train to Sighet. On a cold February day in Bucharest, where the temperature was barely above freezing, the warmest place I could find was the ticket sales area. Here, several elderly women stood hunched over the three or four radiators which emitted a feeble warmth into the huge room, and many others gathered to seek shelter from the wind. On occasion I left to walk in the surrounding streets, squeezing through groups of taxi drivers and money changers who recognized me as a foreigner. I encountered groups of children, none more than eight years old, walking with plastic bags pressed to their faces. They were so addicted to glue fumes that even when running they didn’t take more than two or three steps between “hits.”
As evening fell on Bucharest, I settled into my seat in the train amidst an argument between the conductor and the other passengers in the compartment. I had purchased two tickets because I had so much baggage, but the conductor did not want luggage riding on the seat beside me. Unfortunately he spoke only Romanian and all I could do was show him the two tickets and point to the two seats I was occupying. Although they also spoke no English, my fellow passengers recognized the problem and quickly came to my defense. While they argued I sat quietly and observed, thinking mostly about Alex and Costica in Sighet.