BUCHAREST — In early December, Lucian Schepers dusted off his adoption file one more time. He thumbed through the stack of yellowed papers and translated what he could with the help of Google, trying once more to piece together the puzzle of his early life in communist Romania.
It seemed to him that every time he reexamined the documents, a new detail would emerge.
This time, Schepers found a discrepancy in a request by the municipal court in the Black Sea port city of Constanta for a medical document certifying that a minor is physically fit for adoption. It notes that Schepers was born in 1985, not 1986 as stated in his personal identification number (CNP).
It might have been a mundane mistake on a minor detail, but for Schepers it fueled doubts about what he truly knows about his own past. “I’m probably between 35 and 40,” he jokes to friends. “I don’t know which paper I should believe.”
There are thousands like him, known collectively as “Ceausescu’s children” after the Stalinist leader who ruled one of Eastern Europe’s most repressive regimes until it came crashing down dramatically in 1989 along with those of other Soviet-bloc countries in the region.
During his nearly two decades of rule, Nicolae Ceausescu had instituted one of the world’s most radical and repressive policies to stimulate birthrates, including outlawing abortion for women under 40 with fewer than four children. It did trigger a baby boom; but many of the children, born to impoverished parents, were unwanted and ended up in state-run orphanages. After the fall of communism, the West got a peek inside these institutions and was shocked and appalled by the images of skeletal children living in squalid conditions.
Scarred And Stymied
Schepers was adopted by a Belgian family in 1993, when he believes he was 7. At that time, he was living in an institution for preschool-age children in Constanta. Like many of the kids who grew up in Romania’s notorious children’s homes, he dreamed of being adopted by a family in the United States.
And like many of those eventually sent abroad, as an adult he is searching for clues and demanding answers about his early life in Romania. In many cases, adoptees have turned to social media to find long-lost siblings and parents as officials in Bucharest have proved ineffective at helping them.
For Schepers, the desire to uncover his past took him last year to Bucharest, where he lived for a year, working in the IT sector to pay the bills and spending his free time on the document trail. His search led him back to Constanta, where he scoured the district’s maternity hospitals, hoping to find his original birth certificate. That ended unsuccessfully, even though the records at the children’s home where Schepers spent his early childhood indicated he had been abandoned at birth at the Constanta County Hospital.
He turned to the National Authority for Child Protection and Adoptions (ANPDCA), the state-run institution that, among other things, works to reconnect adoptees with their biological families.
After months of silence, the ANPDCA finally sent Schepers a terse note stating that his biological mother denied he was her son and refused to be contacted.
Not knowing Romanian made navigating the country’s often byzantine bureaucracy all the more difficult, resulting in hours of long conversations between Schepers and Romanian officials as he sought his personal file that should have contained details of his time spent at the Leaganul Cernavoda, or Cernavoda Cradle.
He was told finally that no such file existed, leaving him exasperated.
Schepers now says he plans to sue the Romanian state for the trauma he suffered as a result of the adoption. He also wants to take legal action against Belgium for turning a blind eye to what he calls the trade in children.
Schepers says he was unhappy and felt like a stranger with his adoptive family. He now wants nothing to do with them and wants the Belgian courts to restore his former Romanian surname.
“I was definitely trafficked. I’m not a product and I refuse to bear their name!” Schepers recently told RFE/RL’s Romanian Service, which tracked him down through a Facebook group for Romanians who were adopted by foreign families and are now eager to learn about their forgotten past.
Wave Of Interest
Some 30,000 children from Romania were adopted between 1990 and 2004, according to data from ANPDCA, which acknowledges lacking any such information from before 1994, when Romania didn’t systematically track court-approved adoptions.
The number of adoptions to families abroad skyrocketed in 1990 and 1991, the first two years after the end of the Ceausescu regime, with more than 10,000 adoptions to foreigners registered by Romanian NGOs.
In those early days, Bucharest had little control, let alone oversight, of the adoption process, much of which was conducted underground on what would become a thriving black market. Stories were common of shady middlemen demanding that foreigners pony up thousands of dollars after merely showing them photos of children whose backgrounds were often simply forged.
Today, the ANPDCA says it routinely receives requests for information about adoptions from that freewheeling era. It says that in the past two years, 755 people who were adopted, mostly by foreigners, have turned to it for assistance to reconnect with their biological families. It also says 149 family members of adoptees have turned to it for help as well.
The ANPDCA does offer information on its website — albeit only in Romanian — about how to navigate the system to find adoption information, with forms available for download.
But given what critics feel are bureaucratic hurdles and the snail-like pace of its work, many have instead turned to social media for help and answers.
The Never Forgotten Romanian Children Facebook page is flooded with posts daily from long-lost parents or siblings caught up in the huge wave of adoptions between 1994 and 2004, when Romania had over 100,000 institutionalized children and used international adoptions to ease the financial burden on its own social-welfare system, buckling at the time under the stress of the country’s capitalist transformation.
Beyond the damning portrait of Romania’s child-welfare system during the Ceausescu era, social-media groups also offer glimpses into the lives not only of those put up for adoption, but also their families. Many mothers, in particularly, were deceived and either told their children had died at birth or convinced by unscrupulous middlemen to give up their children for adoption. There are also accounts of brothers and sisters who learned much later in life that their parents had sold younger siblings in a time of financial hardship.
“They took it [the baby] from me. I was sent photos twice and then done.” “I don’t want anything from her. I just want to see her and know she’s OK.” “If she wants to know her origins, we are available and she is welcome in our beautiful family.” These are just some of the comments recently posted on The Never Forgotten Romanian Children.
‘Swept Under The Rug’
The stories of children separated from their families in Romania have largely remained untold, say advocates including Racines and Dignite (Roots and Dignity), which represents French adoptees from Romania.
Founded by Marion le Roy Dagen, the group is involved in efforts to launch judicial probes and other investigative actions to track down those who may have profited improperly from the adoption trade or even extract apologies from the states involved. It has also advocated for easier access to information and legal and psychological counseling for those affected.
Dagen was adopted by a French family in 1982, after six years in a Romanian orphanage. Until the age of 20, she believed that her biological parents had died long ago, because that’s what she had been told. After the fall of communism, Dagen increasingly questioned her identity and eventually returned to Romania, where she discovered that her mother was not only alive but had been convinced that her daughter had died shortly after birth.
At that time, Dagen knew nothing about the scale of the international adoption trade in Romania, which by some estimates comprised about one-third of all the world’s documented cases of adoptions in the 1990s.
Shortly after publishing her memoirs in 2018, Dagen was bombarded with messages from hundreds of adopted Romanians asking for her help in seeking information about their past. That prompted her to dig deeper into Romania’s dark past. Her research gave her a clearer picture of the corruption in Romania’s adoption system and even human trafficking. She was consumed above all else, however, by a sense of injustice.
“The roots of the system were hard to figure out,” Dagen, who said her eyes were really opened after reading Roelie Post’s Romania For Export Only, told RFE/RL.
Post had been appointed by the European Commission to oversee reform of the child-welfare system in Romania. Post, who served between 1999 and 2005, kept a diary and became an outspoken critic of what she saw as corruption that fueled the international pressure for adoptions.
“I realized how complex the subject is and that adoptees do not receive the legal and psychological counseling they need because their stories have been swept under the rug,” Dagen said of discovering Post’s observations.
Post said that she had uncovered that much of the EU aid earmarked for reform in Romania went to NGOs that were involved not only in restructuring institutions and retraining but also in the business of adoptions, either as partners with international adoption agencies or providing the service themselves.
‘Narrative Of Abandonment’
In June 2001, Bucharest ordered a ban on international adoptions of Romanian babies after Emma Nicholson, at the time the European Parliament’s rapporteur for Romania, criticized the country’s treatment of institutionalized children and indicated that some officials might be involved in child trafficking.
Elena, who was adopted by a French doctor, discovered through contacts made through Racines and Dignite that several adoptees had similar stories to hers. She and her brother had been placed in a state-run orphanage by their biological mother, who had hoped it would only be temporary. Elena said that like other Romanian mothers who did the same thing, her mom hoped to reclaim her children once her financial situation turned around.
Instead, when Elena’s mom came to visit them at the orphanage, staff barred her from seeing them. Elena believes they were motivated by a law at the time stating that parents with children in state-run orphanages who failed to visit them for six months could have their parental rights revoked by a court. Such a ruling would open the way for adoption. And that’s what happened to Elena and her brother.
“My mother lost her children and never knew what happened,” Elena recounted. “There were people around her who were interested in taking her children. It was a relief to learn this and to find this confirmed by others. It’s much easier for me to understand her and feel connected to her. This detail basically rewrites the narrative of abandonment, of the mother who didn’t want you and left you. It’s a completely different story that no one is talking about.”
It’s also why Dagen now advocates for greater rights for adoptees to learn about their past and for state bureaucracy and institutions to be more accommodating and caring.
“Professionals in the system do not really understand the emotional burden of adoption or the sense of abandonment experienced in childhood…. You are treated as if you have a problem, that you are stirring up the past, that you are questioning it,” she said.
Just recently, Dagen met up with Schepers in Bucharest to discuss, among other things, a legal case they want to file against Romania and other states they contend were involved in illegal intercountry adoptions.
They feel their case has been bolstered by a statement by UN experts published in September that such adoptions “may violate the prohibition of abduction, sale of, or trafficking in children and the prohibition of enforced disappearances.”
The group of experts from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urged states “to take action to prevent and eradicate such illicit practices.”
The joint statement was issued amid questions in several countries over the issue of illegal intercountry adoptions, with an increasing number of adoptees discovering inconsistencies or errors in their adoption process, or that what they had been told about their origins and the reasons for their adoptions were fake.
There has been some success in compensating victims of child trafficking. Gudio Fluri organized a grassroots effort in his native Switzerland to establish a fund to compensate victims who were unjustly separated from their biological parents. So far, some 11,000 people — most of them adopted from Romania by Swiss families — have received official apologies and compensation of 25,000 Swiss francs ($26,875) each.
For Schepers, the hurdles and indifference he says he confronted over the past year as he dug for details of his Romanian past left him dejected.
Nearly everywhere he turned for information or help, Schepers says he was told that the adoption happened a long time ago, that this was how Romania was then, and that the upheaval of the past would not bring him any good.
“I will never know the truth. Nothing will ever make sense,” he sighed, although he added that he still held out hope. “There must be someone out there I will feel is a relative. Everybody needs that, right?”