by Emil Danielyan
What is an informal payment made to an Armenian government official or civil servant performing their duties? Armenia’s Criminal Code defines it as a bribe that could be punishable by a lengthy prison sentence.
Yet some private U.S. agencies arranging international adoptions of children call it a mere “gift of gratitude” that reflects a long-established local custom and is not illegal. They have for years charged clients in the United States thousands of dollars for such payments which they say are necessary for adopting Armenian orphans.
The practice appears to have continued unabated in recent years despite a major toughening of foreign adoption requirements and procedures set by the Armenian government.
The government embarked on a thorough revision of its opaque rules following a June 2003 report by RFE/RL’s Armenian service which suggested that the process may be tainted by corruption. The report was based on online correspondence between Ara Manoogian, an Armenian-American activist, blogger and human rights advocate, and a host of U.S. adoptive parents. Some of them claimed to have paid between $9,000 and $13,000 to adoption “facilitators” in Yerevan and said they believe a large part of that money was spent on financial “gifts” to Armenian officials dealing with foreign adoptions.
Then-Social Security Minister Aghvan Vartanian asked Armenian prosecutors to investigate the report. Although nobody is known to have been prosecuted as a result, Vartanian acknowledged “some worrisome practices” in this area in September 2003.
A set of administrative and legislative measures taken by the government in the following months was meant to make the process more rigorous. Armenia’s Family Code adopted in 2004 stipulates that foreign nationals can adopt Armenian orphans only if the state fails to find local adoptive parents for them.
Also, the Armenian parliament ratified in 2006 an international convention on inter-country adoption that was signed in The Hague in 1993. It aims to prevent the abduction, sale or trafficking of children through a better regulation of their cross-border adoption.
In line with the Hague convention, the Armenian government approved in March 2010 a new adoption procedure that sets concrete time frames for every stage of the process handled by several state institutions, including courts and the full cabinet of ministers. Officials in Yerevan say that a foreign couple now typically spends between one or two years adopting an Armenian child, compared with only several months needed in the past.
However, some aspects of the process, chief among them being the payment of “gifts,” have clearly not changed. At least two U.S. adoption agencies, both of them accredited by the U.S. government, have specified such cash handouts in their service contracts offered to American clients.
One of them, Hopscotch Adoptions, has placed several dozen Armenian children with American families since 2004. A sample contract sent by the North Carolina-based agency to a potential client in 2007 estimated the total cost of its facilitation services in Armenia and as well as neighboring Georgia at $30,540 per child.
It explained that almost $5,000 of that sum would be spent on “gifts to foreign service providers and government functionaries performing ministerial tasks as an offer of thanks for prompt service.”
“It is customary [in Armenia and Georgia] to provide a nominal gift to a government functionary who, for instance, prepares a passport, notarizes a document or places a seal after the service is provided,” reads the draft Hopscotch contract obtained by Manoogian recently. “The custom stems from the economic reality that a service provider or entry level civil servant earns less than $75 a week – hardly enough to feed a family.”
The document also notes that such payments are “never offered to any government official who renders a substantive decision regarding a Client’s adoption.”
In her written answers to questions from RFE/RL’s Armenian service, Robin Sizemore, Hopscotch’s founder and executive director, declined to comment on these provisions. “In Armenia and in any other country that prohibits gifts or gratuities, no gifts or gratuities are distributed or permitted,” she said.
The draft Hopscotch contract claimed the opposite, however.
“Gifts and gratuities” is also a separate spending category in a sample agreement which is currently offered by another, Pennsylvania-based agency, Adopt Abroad. The latter will charge clients $1,200 for that purpose. The agreement does not elaborate on such payments.
“That’s an absolutely illegal practice in Armenia, and it is punishable by articles of the Criminal Code dealing with bribery,” said Varuzhan Hoktanian, executive director of the Anti-Corruption Center, the Armenian affiliate of Transparency International. “One just needs to clarify whether the American agencies simply try to extort additional payments from their clients.”
Hmayak Navasardian, head of an Armenian Justice Ministry department coordinating foreign adoption procedures since 2010, agreed. “Naturally, if there is such a thing, it means not paying for [legal] services but paying bribes,” Navasardian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
“If there is such a thing, any individual, especially an official, must be concerned,” he said.
But Lala Ghazarian, head of a department on family, women’s and children’s issues at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, was more dismissive. “I am sure that there are no such processes,” she said, ruling out the possibility of corrupt practices within relevant state structures.
Ghazarian’s department draws up and maintains a national registry of orphans eligible for adoption and thus plays a major role in their referral to prospective adoptive parents. Under the Family Code, Armenian children can be made available for international adoption only three months after their inclusion on that registry — if they are not taken in by Armenian citizens.
This legal restriction 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.
The Hopscotch contract stressed that the U.S. Embassy in Armenia is aware of the fact that “the customary ‘gift’ is built into the international fee which our foreign attorney charges.” “The payment of these nominal gifts does not affect the legality of the adoption under U.S., or foreign law,” it said. According to Sizemore, the Embassy has received full copies of Hopscotch’s agreements signed in the U.S.
The embassy did not confirm or deny this. It said only that U.S. consular officials in Yerevan interviewing American adoptive parents investigate “any case where we suspect illegitimate fees have been tendered.” “Cases where we suspect these fees have been paid are referred to the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services for review,” an embassy spokesman told RFE/RL’s Armenian service in a written statement.
The official did not specify whether the stated “gifts” are deemed illegitimate by the U.S. mission, saying only that any form of “child buying” is illegal in the U.S. “Fees paid to expedite processing an application do not constitute ‘child buying,’” he added.
The informal payments are channeled through Yerevan-based facilitators working for U.S. and other adoption agencies and essentially brokering adoptions in Armenia. The agencies reward them quite handsomely. Hopscotch paid its Armenian “attorneys” $10,500 per child at least until 2007, while Adopt Abroad currently charges a “facilitators fee” of as much as $19,000. None of these adoption brokers is known to be officially licensed or registered with tax authorities.
Their fees, which do not include thousands of dollars spent on the translation and certification of adoption documents required by Armenia, are suspiciously high given the fact that Armenian authorities levy a state duty of just 30,000 drams ($80) for a single adoption. Whether a part of the hefty attorney fees is also spent on “gifts” is anybody’s guess.
Posing as a childless man from Texas, Manoogian privately (and separately) spoke to three Adopt Abroad clients in the U.S who paid the agency up to $40,000 each to adopt babies from three different Armenian orphanages in 2007 and 2008.
They said they would have been charged $5,000 less had the orphans been aged over 18 months at the time. All three women dealt with the same Armenian facilitators identified by them as David Tevosian and Marine Manukian.
“It’s not like doing a domestic [U.S.] adoption where you have attorneys and everything is by the book, cut and dry,” one of them confided to Manoogian. “When we were over there [in Armenia,] we were told that ‘You know, we had to give the orphanage so much money to hold your child so no one else could adopt him at the time.’”
She said she replied to the two facilitators that “I paid $20,000 for you to do what you did and I don’t want to know what it cost you and what you had to do under the table, behind the books.”
“I’m under the impression that my child was put in a state-run orphanage to be hidden until she was old enough to be put up for international adoption,” said another Adopt Abroad client.
“It’s almost a business for them [Armenians,]” explained the third American woman. “Who gets that $5,000? I don’t know … That part we didn’t care. It didn’t matter to us.”
Just how legal the activities of the adoption agencies and their middlemen in Armenia are is another question. Article 115 of the Armenian Family Code prohibits any “intermediary activity in adoption.” At the same time, it allows Armenian and foreign nationals to manage the adoption process “through their legal representatives.”
Armenian officials claim that the adoption agencies do not actually operate inside Armenia and that their activities are confined to the collection and dispatch of necessary documents to relevant Armenian state bodies.
“We are not working with [foreign agencies,]” insisted the Justice Ministry’s Navasardian. “We are only in touch with the central [adoption] authorities of foreign states.”
However, U.S. adoption brokers are known to regularly fly to Yerevan and meet government officials there. Carolina Adoption Services (CAS), another U.S. agency, announced on its website last November that its assistant director, Julie Glandt, has just traveled to Armenia and can report that “Armenian officials would like to continue to work with CAS.”
One Armenian official dealing with adoptions acknowledged that Sizemore, the Hopscotch director, visits Armenia once a year. According to the Hopscotch contract, the agency has a whole “in-country team of translators, attorneys and administrative support” in Yerevan. Adopt Abroad likewise refers to Armenian “office expenses” in its service agreements with clients.
This might explain why the number of foreign adoptions has barely decreased in the last several years despite the more stringent rules set by the Armenian authorities. Data from the Justice Ministry show that 142 Armenian children were adopted last year and 69 of them were taken abroad. According to the U.S. State Department, less than one-third of them found adoptive families in the U.S.
The total number of foreign adoptions in 2010 was down from the peak level of 76 reported in 2003. There were 68 and 63 such cases officially registered in 2005 and 2009 respectively.
“I don’t think that the toughening of procedures was supposed to affect adoption statistics,” said Navasardian. The government’s main goal was to increase the integrity and transparency of the process, added.
“I’m glad to say that we really have results in terms of ruling out legal loopholes, making the process as transparent as possible and bringing it into conformity with international standards,” Ghazarian, the Labor Ministry official, said.
Both officials insisted that most of the Armenian orphans placed abroad had some mental or physical health problems. Armenians are less willing to adopt such children than foreigners, they said. According to Ghazarian’s department, about 90 children are currently available for international adoption and less than a fifth of them are completely healthy.
Ghazarian believes that for many of these orphans foreign adoption is the only realistic chance of regaining their “lost family, lost childhood and lost happiness.” Sizemore made a similar point, saying that media should highlight not only the integrity of foreign adoptions but also “the gift of a permanent family for these children.”
“Hopscotch is honored to have the opportunity to serve these children in particular, and the families we have had the pleasure to work within their placement are exceptional, even remarkable,” she said.
But Manoogian, who has lived and worked in Nagorno-Karabakh since 1998 as a representative of the Shahan Natalie Family Foundation, an Armenian-American charity, dismissed these arguments. He said agencies like Hopscotch and Adopt Abroad must be banned from doing business in Armenia, comparing their activities with human trafficking.
“I find nothing wrong with international adoption when the system works to the letter of the law,” Manoogian told RFE/RL. “But for me, there is nothing more outrageous than cashing in on these voiceless children, who are being deprived of their birthright as Armenians as a result of the circumvention of the system in place.”
“The adoption process in Armenia today on the surface appears to be more transparent than it did in 2003, yet the sophistication of the way the system is manipulated has surpassed that of how adoptions were carried out in 2003,”