YEREVAN—Armenia’s top intelligence agency—the National Security Service (NSS)—has launched a criminal investigation into reports of illegal international adoptions which allegedly took place between 2016 and 2018.
An NSS press release dated November 14 reveals that “two Armenian citizens used their connections at several government maternity hospitals and orphanages to organize the adoption of at least 30 infants” by families in Italy as well as the United States in what constitutes “a gross violation of Armenian law.”
This revelation, though shocking, was short on details, leading to the spread of macabre rumors concerning organ harvesting. Taking questions from journalists, Security Council Secretary Armen Grigoryan commented on these concerns. “No word at the moment on any organ trafficking, but we will keep you updated,” he replied.
According to the NSS, between 2016 and 2018, medical staff convinced “at least a dozen women” seeking pregnancy terminations “for social or health reasons” to carry to term in exchange for bribes. These women were then allegedly instructed to exaggerate their newborns’ intellectual or physical disabilities and provide written consent to transfer them to orphanages with the appropriate documentation. The alleged ringleaders would then financially benefit from putting these children up for international adoption. The NSS did not provide any details on the families who later adopted these children, nor the status of the children themselves. It remains unclear whether the foster applicants were aware of, or willingly participated in, the alleged scheme. Radio Free Europe reports that 54 children were officially adopted by foreign foster parents during that time frame.
Armenia, along with other former Soviet states, has seen an increase in international adoptions following the breakup of the Soviet Union. Russia was once the second largest source of international adoptions until the practice was banned in 2012, though Ukraine still ranks in the top five. Most of these children have been adopted by families in the West with the United States, Spain, France, Italy, Canada, Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Australia being the most common destinations. Evangelical Christians, in particular, have been known to adopt children with disabilities or girls from countries where these traits would otherwise cause social exclusion. Unsurprisingly this demand has unwittingly propelled a sort of black market for orphans in their countries of origin.
Armenia’s orphanages—both State and privately run—have been surrounded by controversy for decades. A Soviet legacy, these often under-funded, under-staffed and under-regulated facilities have been criticized for providing inadequate nurture and care necessary for children’s intellectual, emotional and physical development. Many such institutions have been recipients of generous endowments from well-meaning donors in the Diaspora, hoping to alleviate the conditions for care. According to a sobering Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, however, this financial assistance had the opposite effect.
The practice of pegging the level of state funding to the number of children in these institutions combined with assistance from the Diaspora creates a financial incentive to take in more children than these facilities can handle. Funding which would otherwise be better utilized to help provide care for vulnerable children at home has instead encouraged families to institutionalize them. UNICEF estimates that 90 percent of the 3,500 children registered to various care facilities in Armenia have at least one living parent, while 670 of them live with some form of disability. Twenty schools across the country provide special needs education, though only 18 percent of those enrolled actually live with special needs.
Several of these care facilities have also been at the center of abuse and corruption scandals in recent years, at least one of which involved a former deputy labor and social affairs minister. In response, previous governments have pledged to reform the country’s discriminatory educational and care practices towards vulnerable children with or without disabilities. Despite some genuine efforts, key legislation, including much-needed amendments to the Child Code, remain in bureaucratic limbo.
The Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called for the closure of these child-care facilities. “The government and donors instead should help families to care for their children by moving services out of institutions and into communities where families can access them,” says Jane Buchanan, HRW’s Deputy Director for Disability Rights. “It’s economically more efficient. But more importantly, it protects children from the harms of institutionalization.”
These recent developments have led to considerable debate among charitable organizations both in the Diaspora and Armenia on the merits of orphanages as an effective method to care for vulnerable children. Other alternatives such as foster care, international adoptions and financial assistance for families have been suggested. However, these options have been criticized in turn for having flaws of their own.
This latest investigation into the alleged international adoption racket follows in the wake of a directive from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs to temporarily halt all international adoptions back in September. Labor Minister Zaruhi Batoyan, herself a long-time disabilities and human rights activist (and Armenia’s first cabinet minister with a disability), raised the alarm after uncovering discrepancies in the official figures reported by adoption agencies.
Health Minister Arsen Torosyan also weighed in on the scandal. “Any medical facility or healthcare provider which has, or continues to be involved in this racket will be prosecuted with the full force of the law,” he wrote on his social media profile.
Earlier this month, the Armenian government, at Minister Batoyan’s insistence, moved to close four boarding schools and one orphanage in Gyumri, Byureghavan, Vanadzor and Dilijan. (The Byureghavan boarding school gained notoriety in 2015 when its director was charged for embezzlement as well as child abuse). Batoyan rationalized the decision as necessary to “ensure the rights of children to family life” but noted that the move won’t absolve the government from its responsibility to provide financial and institutional support to vulnerable children. “We are aware that this is a complicated process, but the fact remains that there is no alternative,” she added.
This month, the government is also considering a bill to the tune of 1.9 billion AMD (4 million USD), which would provide housing assistance, vocational training, as well as access to continued psychological support to help orphanage alumni integrate into society, a task which has hitherto fallen on the shoulders of non-profit groups.