Tens of thousands took to the streets of Bucharest despite PM’s resignation over the nightclub fire that killed 32.
Mihaela Duduta is sitting in front of a computer in a room with vivid blue walls in her small Romanian home, trying to fix the microphone.
The 42-year-old is getting ready for her first video call, which will be one of the most important conversations of her life, and which I have been invited to witness.
She is about to see and hear her daughter for the first time since she gave her up for adoption in the summer of 1991 to an American family from the state of Maryland.
She was only 17 when she gave birth to Milica, who is now called Jocelyn. Her then boyfriend wanted nothing to do with the child, so Mihaela’s father decided his granddaughter should be given up for adoption.
Twenty-four summers later, Mihaela was picking strawberries in Spain, one of the two million Romanian migrants who work abroad to help families back home.
Her husband, Valentin, called from their village in the southeast, near the Bulgarian border. “I’ll ask you straight,” he said, “did you have a daughter given up for adoption in the US?”
Mihaela’s heart stopped for a moment. In all these years, she had heard nothing of Milica. Scared by TV shows about alleged trafficking of Romanian children, her worst fear had been that Milica was dead, sold for her organs. After the adoption, Mihaela had become depressed and barely able to eat or sleep.
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“Yes, I did,” she answered in a quivering voice. She had never told Valentin that she had given birth to a daughter long before they had met.
“Well,” he said, “there’s a lady from the town hall looking for you. I guess the girl is trying to find you.”
Mihaela, who also has sons aged eight and 10, dropped everything and was home the next week. “I never hoped I’d live this day,” she says. “I thought Milica was long gone.”
Mihai and Tomian were thrilled to learn that they had an American sister. They bragged about it, told their friends she was the most beautiful sister on earth, and started practising all the English they knew from school.
When Mihaela got home she had an internet connection installed, and a couple of days later the mother and daughter started messaging on Facebook.
“I hope you will forgive me for my mistake of giving you up,” was one of her first messages to Jocelyn, who used an online translation app to communicate in Romanian.
“I was a child. I am grateful to your parents for bringing you up. You are so beautiful.”
Not orphans at all
Stories like this – some with a happy ending, some not – are multiplying as a generation of Romanians adopted abroad in the chaos of the collapse of communism come of age and start wondering where they came from.
Trying to find that out can be a process fraught with obstacles, dead ends and frustrations, but for many of them, it is well worth it in the end.
In 1989, after the Soviet Union eased its grip, Eastern Europeans did away with their communist regimes. After mainly peaceful revolutions elsewhere, things turned sour in Romania, where dictator Nicolae Ceausescu met a bloody end and the poverty he had left behind was exposed.
A documentary for ABC’s 20/20 revealed to shocked Americans the squalor of Romanian orphanages where babies, neglected and sometimes left naked, were nearly starving to death. Offers to adopt them flooded in and many children were spirited away with scant control by a barely functioning state.
Many of these children were not orphans at all. Ceausescu, wanting a bigger population, had banned abortion and contraceptives. But many Romanians were too poor to raise the children he demanded, and abandoned them en masse to orphanages.
Some also ended up being adopted straight from poor parents who, often for payment, parted with children they could not afford to raise. Many came from the country’s largest and poorest minority, the Roma.
No figures exist for adoptions that took place during those chaotic years; records start in 1993. The Romanian National Authority for the Protection of Children’s Rights and Adoption says that from then until 2005, some 16,000 children were adopted overseas, mainly in the United States and the European Union.
Bucharest banned international adoptions in 2001 under pressure from the EU which criticised “rampant corruption” in the process which was often run by local doctors and lawyers without official oversight and with money changing hands.
Romania joined the EU in 2007 and since then, even though the economy has slightly improved, it remains the poorest state in the bloc.
Where did I come from?
Today many of those adoptees are adults yearning to know about their biological roots.
Adoption papers show their original Romanian names – most were renamed by their new parents – but often there are few other details to go on.
Usually they start with a quick online search on their own, but this rarely brings instant success.
Adoptees have set up groups and Facebook pages to share their stories online. Some find help this way, while others contact the authorities or, when this proves too laborious or bureaucratic, pay detectives to trace their relatives.
Romanian authorities are obliged to grant adoptees access to information about their biological families and their personal history and let them contact those families.
Gabriela Coman, the head of the National Authority for Adoption, says the number of adoptees asking for help has grown considerably over the past four years.
In just the past two, the authority has received 214 requests to find birth families, two-thirds of these from abroad. Just over half succeeded. In many others, the relatives didn’t want to be contacted, or applicants didn’t know the names of their birth parents.
However, this number is small compared with the number of online searches by adoptees, who often say the official route is too slow.
The authority has just two employees to help with searches. It acknowledges criticism from adoptees but says on average it takes them under six months to give a response, successful or not.
The amazing journey
Jocelyn Sarvaideo, who grew up all over the US as her father was in the military, is now studying social work and wants to become a therapist. She emailed the authority in March but says it didn’t reply.
In June, she heard of a Facebook page called The never forgotten Romanian children that has soared in popularity since it was set up in January 2015.
“The page helps and supports reunite families and follows their amazing journey,” its founder Ileana Cunniffe Baiescu, a 37-year-old Romanian living in Ireland, wrote on the homepage.
In the first nine months she was overwhelmed with around 400 requests from adoptees, mostly in North America. Of these, 56 have been solved, 148 are being researched, and 200 more are in the queue.
“These children always wanted to know and see and meet the people who gave them life,” she said. “They want to know why: why was I abandoned, why was I adopted, why couldn’t they keep me, why on everything.”
When she was 18, Baiescu left her small village in the poor southeast region of Romania and moved to Ireland to be close to some of her brothers who had been adopted years earlier. She set up the page because she wanted to trace another brother, adopted by an American family. Her search continues.
“I noticed lots of Facebook groups and pages made by Romanian adoptees from all over the world,” Baiescu says. “Unfortunately, the one thing that I wanted to see wasn’t there, and that is the help and support in how to trace families.”
She tries to lead adoptees to people who could help them. If adoptees have their biological family’s address, she calls the nearest town hall or the police station in some remote village and explains. “Sometimes, they are very helpful,” she says. “They go to the family’s house and we make contact.”
If there’s no address, Baiescu tries online, messaging people with the same family name and often, eventually, reaching the right people.
“The third way, which is the most recent one and proves to be quite helpful, is going to the newspapers,” she says. Local journalists give her better contacts.
However, it is not enough, in her view.
“Everybody should be able to get information freely, easily, so they just don’t have to spend years on Facebook with strangers, hire private detectives or be sent from an institution to another.”
Baiescu says some people had been advised by the National Authority for Adoption to hire private detectives, who are often paid yet fail to come up with results. A proper national database would help, she suggests.
“All these children, when they are ready and willing to come home, to find their families, should go to just one place and one place only that would help them.”
Last known address – a hostel
Baiescu contacted me on Facebook, after being given my name by other journalists she had talked to, and asked me to help her trace some families.
Of all the cases she handed me, Jocelyn’s was the easiest. This is the message she had sent Baiescu:
“I was born in Scanteia, Iasi County, on September 21, 1990. Biological mother’s name is Mihaela Valentina Duduta. Adopted on July 18, 1991. I was adopted from my grandfather’s residence which is not provided on any of the paperwork. The last known address of my birth mother was at a hostel in Bucharest and was living there with a man known as Ion. That’s all I know.”
“You go through your whole life knowing that the people you call mum and dad aren’t the ones who gave you your eyes, your nose, your lips and even the underlying personality characteristics that people have,” Jocelyn says in a Facebook conversation.
She didn’t tell her adoptive parents when she began her search in early 2015. She didn’t feel ready, anyway, to make real contact and establish a relationship. All she wanted was a picture of her biological mother. However, that changed pretty quickly.
I first called the village hall of a farming village near Iasi, a city by the northeastern border with Moldova. A social worker there told me she knew Jocelyn’s mother but that she had moved away to another village a couple of years ago after a family bust-up, and no one knew where she was.
She said she would inquire and, a week later, gave me the name of the village. I called that village hall and was quickly put in touch with Mihaela’s husband Valentin. Within another week, mother and daughter were messaging on Facebook.
For many of these children, the mother is the obvious focus of their search, but they look for any blood relative they can find.
Reunions can have downsides. In some cases, poor families start to hassle their children abroad for money, said some adoptees, who did not want to be named.
Not all adoptees are as lucky as Jocelyn in their search. Some have to turn to expensive detectives.
The middle men use similar methods to the national authority but are quicker. They will typically get in a car, go straight to the address on the adoption papers, and if no one is there, start asking neighbours until they eventually reach the family.
One middle man, who asked me not to use his or his wife’s real names, was accused in the past by a Romanian newspaper of making money from intermediating international adoptions.
These adoptees have a feeling of emptiness. They want to fill it with information about their siblings.
Sixty-year-old Ilie denies this.
“My only job in the 1990s, when American families were coming to Romania to adopt, was to drive and translate for them,” he says, sitting in a forest of climbing plants on the terrace of the guesthouse he owns in a small southern village. He wears blue jeans and a green and black polo shirt, and has a moustache and central parting.
His wife Elena sits next to him. She has short, blonde hair and wears a black, thick waist-coast. They have worked together since the 1990s, when they earned $50 a day, huge money for those times.
“With $50, you could afford a vacation at the seaside,” Elena says.
They say they worked with 20 couples from 1993 until the foreign adoption ban in 2001 and then changed tack, helping more than 100 young people from abroad to find their biological families since 2003.
Ilie says he charges up to $600 a case but insists most of that goes to cover the cost of petrol, lodging and food. A former chemical engineer, he says his main income is from the guesthouse where returnees usually stay.
“These adoptees have a feeling of emptiness,” he says. “They want to fill it with information about their siblings – some of them know from their file that they had brothers or sisters. Another reason they come is to find out the medical history.”
He was first asked to help trace relatives because he often posted in online news groups on adoptions.
He starts with a phone call to the address on the adoption papers. If he can’t reach anyone, he goes and talks to employees of local town halls. “They usually help us because they look at the situation from a human point of view.” He says all his work is legal.
Ilie takes Elena with him because she knows how to be delicate and to ask the right questions. Sometimes, reunions can shock a family.
“A lot of the parents burst into tears when we give them the news. Many start blaming themselves, tell us that they regret what they did. We let them know that the child is okay, that he wasn’t sold for organs,” he says, referring to what appears to be a widespread fear concerning adoptees.
“We can tell they had been living with this burden for years.”
It takes flair, patience and perseverance, he says. “Of course state authorities give up quickly. Why would they have the interest to persist in such a complicated search?”
He recalls proudly how he managed to track down a mother despite only being told that she had moved a few villages away to a house near a high-voltage pole and a forest.
He offers another example of when he found a family and sent the adoptee a full report with pictures and all the information – only for the National Authority, who had been contacted earlier, to say months later that the family could not be found.
While some spoke highly of this middleman’s services, one woman – who declined to be named – said she paid him 500 euros ($546) but got nowhere because her mother was working in Italy and he couldn’t contact her. Eventually, a Facebook search turned out to be more helpful.
Ilie strongly supports re-legalising international adoptions.
“How can you not do it when you see so many happy stories and when you see the misery the natural families still live in? I sometimes show pictures of their children in the US and the natural families were crying to see what a good life their abandoned child has had on the other side of the world.”
Some child protection charities and legislators also support ending the ban, saying that Romania has too many children in care – 60,000 by some estimates. But they have failed to muster enough support in a country where past corruption allegations still leave a bad taste.
Ilie says he will never forget what he saw in the orphanages back in the 1990s.
“Forget the horrible smell or the unbearable images. In one place I visited there was complete silence. The children had learned to be quiet. They knew screaming would not help, so they simply stopped expressing themselves.”
A middleman helped Jodi Brandes Slein, from Maryland, in the US, find her son Michael’s biological parents after he showed signs of depression when he was 16, blaming it on having been adopted as a baby, although he had been told this at a young age.
“Every child has a right to know their past and who they look like. They should have the right to know their story, whatever it is, good or bad,” Slein says. She thinks contacting the biological family was a good idea, although her son is still coming to terms with it.
Out of the blue
Some families have used the internet successfully on their own.
Beta Katkus, a nursing assistant from Salt Lake City in the US state of Utah, was eight when she was adopted in 2001, and remembers her life in Romania well. A poor family with 10 children, a father who died in jail when she was four, and a mother who could not cope and sent her four youngest to a children’s home and then foster care.
An American family came on what she thought was a visit. But when she and her three siblings ended up on a plane, she realised her life was changing.
As an adult, she searched online for years for her roots in Suceava, northern Romania, but drew a blank. Her papers had no address on them. Then, out of the blue, a cousin sent her a message on Facebook when she was 18.
“I was angry,” Beta says. “It kind of seemed unfair after me spending so much time and effort on it that they would be the ones to contact me. I always thought it would be the other way around, when I would be ready.”
Beta learned that her mother had become very religious and was supported by an international missionary organisation. Her older sister was the first to visit Romania, then she went for two weeks.
“It was awkward at the beginning because I don’t speak the language,” Beta remembers. “They stared a lot and offered me food every five minutes. I can’t tell you how many cousins and uncles and aunts I met. They all shared stories about me growing up and I felt really bad because I didn’t know any of them.”
She has since been back for two more months and is in constant contact with her birth mother. She is taking Romanian classes and planning a third visit. Eventually, she says, she will move there, perhaps to try and help other children in the orphanages.
A beautiful baby
As more adoptees grow older and wonder where they come from, the demand for contact will only increase. The National Authority is underfunded and in times of austerity this is unlikely to change, so most adoptees will have to find their own way.
When Jocelyn’s adoptive father, Robert Sarvaideo, came to Romania in 1991 to fetch her, he was shocked.
“There were horse-drawn wagons on the main street of Bucharest, and gypsies begging in the streets with unbathed, unclothed children next to them. If you wanted bread you had to get up early before it sold out,” he said in an email.
Jocelyn was a beautiful baby, with “beautiful long eyelashes”. Sarvaideo says she already looked like one of the family.
He and his wife knew that one day, she would start looking for her biological parents and they encouraged her.
The first video call goes well. Jocelyn is on vacation with her boyfriend at the seaside. “When are you going to visit us?” Mihaela asks in Romanian. Jocelyn tells her she needs to earn the money for the trip.
Mihai and Tomian stare at the screen for a couple of minutes at their sister, then start jumping around happily. They wave at her, send her kisses, make heart shapes with their hands.
“I am very happy about the reunion,” Jocelyn tells me later. “I am thankful I pursued my search and was able to find such amazing people. It’s such a liberating feeling to have accomplished a life goal of mine. I no longer have to wonder or question my essence.”
This article was produced as part of the Alumni Initiative of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.