Madonna’s recent wrangles with Malawian authorities over the right to legally adopt 13-month-old David Banda may have brought the issue of international adoption to the attention of the world, but the subject has also become something of a political hot potato in Catalunya in recent months.
This August, seven Catalan families who had flown to the Democratic Republic of Congo to collect their adopted children had serious problems leaving the country, prompting the Generalitat to suspend all dealings with Congo adoption agency Adic. Although these families were later able to leave with the children, 16 more families (14 of them Catalan), who were in the process of adopting from Congo, were told their application would be suspended and that they would be found children from other countries or other parts of the Congo.
This caused furore among all the prospective parents; international adoption is a long, arduous and emotional process and many had already formed an attachment to their new son or daughter. Some felt the Generalitat had left them–and the orphans–high and dry. In response, the Generalitat’s Secretary of Families and Infants, Jaume Funes acknowledged that “there was so much pressure to adopt in Catalunya, the Generalitat had been obliged to contract with countries that may not have the right conditions for adoption.” He later went on to recommend the adoption process be tightened up so that the number of families adopting abroad is reduced by a third.
Of course, it is only the negative stories that hit the headlines. For every family affected by the Congo fiasco, there were around 90 more who successfully adopted children from abroad last year. In fact, the total number stands at 1,419, mainly from China (622), Russia (441) and Ethiopia (107). The previous year it was 1,562–up more than a third from 2003. According to Generalitat figures, Catalunya has the highest number of international adoptions in Spain (the number for Madrid was 841 in 2005, for example) and, in relation to population, has the highest umber of adopting families in Europe. By comparison, the total number of children from other countries adopted in France was 4,136 last year.
While no official study exists on the reasons for this, a spokesperson from the Entidad Colaboradora de Adopción International (ECAI) believes it is due to the small number of native children available for adoption (only 121 Catalan children were adopted last year) and the fact that the number of second families in Catalunya is on the increase. This is reinforced by the Generalitat. "Couples who are on their second marriage may be too old to have a child together so they want to adopt," says Maria Antonia Rafas, a spokesperson for the Generalitat. Infertility can also be an issue. Whatever the reason, the international adoption process takes years, rather than months, and it can be expensive, so the fact so many parents enter the process at all makes the figures compelling. As one prospective parent says, "the process is long, but it is not complicated."
Before approaching an adoption organisation, all prospective parents need to receive a certificate from the Generalitat, which proves their suitability to adopt. This can take anything from six months to a year to obtain, and parents must undergo a series of interviews to assess their psychological and social situation. Once this is obtained, they can apply to one of two agencies. The 'official' Entidad Colaboradora de Adopción Internacional takes care of the whole adoptive process and costs €12-18,000, depending on the country the child comes from.
Alternatively, they can opt to go directly to a Generalitat-accredited voluntary adoption agency that deals with a particular country, known as the 'libre' or 'free' route. The official papers are then organised by the consulate in the destination country, where the parents will normally receive some details of their child before they visit. Once there, they will be introduced to their child, and all papers verified by a judge before they are allowed to take the child out of country. They can expect to be in the country about two weeks, although again, it depends on the country.
Cristina Fernandez, 32, and her husband Jordi Vilanova live in St Julia de Ramis, near Girona, and are 13 months into the process of adopting a child from China, which they hope will come to fruition in July 2007. "We decided to adopt because we couldn't have children ourselves and we didn't want to try IVF," says Cristina. "It took us about a year to get the official certification from the Generalitat.
"We then contacted the Asociación de Famillias Adoptantes en China (AFAC) as we had been to some of their meetings and were impressed with the experience they had and the level of support they offered. Also, this route is far less expensive. So far, we have spent around €2,000: €900 to the Generalitat, €664 to Transmes, an agency that prepares all the legalities, and we have sent two cheques to China's Center of Adoption Affairs: a US$365 arrangement fee and US$200 for translation of the documents. We have been told we will receive a photo, medical records and the name of our child in April next year and will be able to bring him or her home in July. We chose China because it has a transparent process and it's relatively quick."
Mercé Vilaseca runs Barcelona-based Federació d'Associacions per a l'Adopció (FADA), a group that coordinates all the voluntary adoption agencies. She organises twice monthly information sessions for prospective adoptive parents. Although adoption laws are the province of the autonomous regions and not made centrally, Vilaseca strongly believes that the issues surrounding such a sensitive theme should not be politicised. She says: "I am hoping the negative press of late and Senyor Funes's proposals will not deter families from adopting children from abroad. Since 1998, we have helped around 5,000 orphans have the chance of a better life. It is every child's right to have a family, and if that is not possible in their own country, they have no alternative but to live in orphanages, deprived of love. What kind of a life is that? Culture and background are not the issue here: the basic needs of every child are to be protected, to have food, shelter and clothes, but the most important thing is love."
Mercé speaks from the heart. Six years ago, she and her husband adopted two children from Morocco. "After I started working at FADA, myself and six other people decided to set up the Amics dels Infants del Marroc (IMA), because there were no agencies at that time dealing with orphans in Morocco, and two couples wanted to adopt from there. Since we established IMA, we have organised adoptions for around 140 children from Morocco. The process is slightly different in Morocco. Unlike China or Russia, for example, they don't match parents to children. There, they believe in emotive perceptions, that is that you get a feeling about which child you will adopt."
She says that the orphanages she went to had two rooms, one full of girls, the other full of boys. "When I walked into girl's room, there were rows of cots. Some of the children were staring at the ceiling, others were asleep. However, one was looking straight at me and I felt an overwhelming connection." Mercé 'chose' her son in a similar way. Paula Soumiya was six months old and Pol Nabil 14 months old. After choosing the children, they were given the children's details (name and medical situation) and then had to wait for everything to be verified by a judge. They stayed in the country for 35 days. She says: "We knew absolutely nothing about their background. Because Paula Soumiya was younger, she adapted very well. Pol Nabil took a little bit longer. However, now they are both wonderful, happy, well-adjusted children.
"We have a wonderful extended family network and the children love having lots of aunts and uncles, cousins and two sets of grandparents. We have many family get-togethers and we can see they enjoy this concept of a typical Mediterranean family very much.
"Like all brothers and sisters, they are very different characters. Pol Nabil, for example, is quite introspective and very good at drawing, maybe because my husband David is a sculptor and painter. Paula Soumiya, on the other hand, is outgoing and very musical."
Adapting to life in Catalunya has not been difficult. Mercé says: "I tell them that they were born in Morocco but they are Catalan and that many children are born in different countries these days. As an adoptive parent, it is important to give your child the strength to be different. Sometimes, for example, Pol Nabil will ask why he is a different colour from his friends or from his sister, who is slightly lighter. I say that we are chocolate. Some of us are white, some are milk and some are dark. But the important point is that we are all different shades of the same thing."
FADA (Federació d'Associacions per a l'Adopció) Tel. 93 488 3445; www.federacioadopcio.org
IMA: Amics dels Infants del Marroc. Tel. 93 488 3445 or 699 288 598; www.amicsinfantsmarroc.org
AFAC: Asociación de Famillias Adoptantes en China. Tel. 93 459 1347 or 678 466 101; www.afac.info
Please note this article was first published in Barcelona Metropolitan's sister magazine, Costa Brava Resident