With the support of the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe and Open Society Institute – Sofia
There was a report in The Sunday Times a few years ago that described how easy it was to purchase a child from some Gypsy quarter in Bulgaria. A healthy child was priced at ₤16,000. The story unleashed a wave of controversy in Bulgaria, including its state institutions. Bulgaria had signed the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption in 2002 but adoptions had been so difficult that some people were tempted to overstep a few rules.
Even Bulgarians who live abroad and want to adopt a child must spend years waiting, without any guarantee that their efforts and hopes will meet with success. "The reason lies in the spirit of the convention," says Fani Davidova, a lawyer and an adoptive parent. The convention states that adopted children must live in a cultural and language environment that is as close as possible to the one that is natural for them.
Because of this, the intercountry adoption procedure that a couple must go through is quite complex. There is a list at the Justice Ministry of the children who are eligible for adoption abroad. They can be put on the list if they have been up for adoption in Bulgaria for at least six months and have been rejected by three prospective adopters.
Those who live outside Bulgaria and want to adopt a Bulgarian child are listed in another Ministry of Justice register. Each application is examined by the Council on Intercountry Adoption, or SMO, a body of representatives of the ministries of justice, health, education, foreign affairs and the State Agency for Child Protection. The council assesses the applicants and determines which child meets the criteria they have presented.
Adoptive applicants who are foreign nationals must qualify as adopters in their own country. They must prove to the SMO that they are in good physical and mental health, that they have not been convicted of any crime and that their parental rights have never been terminated. If they are using the services of an adoption agency, which manages the technicalities of the adoption, they must also present the contract they have with it.
An intermediary is not a must; however, those who choose to use one should check that it is accredited with the Justice Ministry (www.justice.government.bg).
The minister of justice approves each intercountry adoption, which then goes to the Sofia City Court for final endorsement.
Since its establishment in 2003 the SMO has registered 3,565 adoptive applicants, to whom 1,488 offers for the adoption of 1,641 children have been presented. The justice minister has approved 1,040 adoptions for as many as 1,135 children. Between three to six months may pass from the moment when a court determines an applicant as fit to adopt a Bulgarian child to the presentation of their files in court, Milena Parvanova from the Justice Ministry told Vagabond. It may take a considerable amount of time from being registered as a suitable adoptive parent to actually getting a child, as selecting the correct child for each applicant can be a lengthy procedure, and the ministry was unable to give a definite timescale for the whole process.
This is why some of the more impatient couples choose to circumvent the law. Fani Davidova, who is the author of How To Adopt a Child in Bulgaria, says that the easiest way is to have the father's acknowledgement of paternity. A couple who want to adopt contact an intermediary, who helps them find a pregnant woman who is willing to abandon her infant. After the birth the man signs a declaration that he is the child's biological father.
Davidova does not recommend this practice. For one thing, it is illegal and, for another, it is extremely easy to adopt a child in Bulgaria, provided you reside in the country. In this respect, the Bulgarian Family Code treats Bulgarian and foreign citizens equally. To reside in Bulgaria means that you are registered at a certain address in the country and have lived there for more than 180 days, during which time you have been paying social security contributions. You must also have an employment contract.
The Social Assistance Agency, or ASP, the main institution which handles adoption procedures in Bulgaria, said that "in the case in which the foreign citizens reside in Bulgaria, they must present documents from their own country that their parental rights have not been terminated, as well as an enhanced disclosure certificate." The remaining requirements are the same as those for Bulgarians: the applicants must be in good health, have an employment contract and a secure income and own their own home.
There is no marital status requirement. The difference between married and cohabiting couples is that in a married couple both persons are given the legal status of adopter, whereas in a cohabiting couple only one of the partners is given the adoptive rights. Of course, when the social workers check the situation of a cohabiting couple, they take into account the fact that the child will be living with two people. Single-person households can also adopt. "I know many lone adoptive parents," Fani Davidova says.
The first step of the procedure is to enquire with the ASP (www.asp.government.bg) which regional directorate you must apply to. Your place of residence determines this. You apply to the director of the Regional Social Assistance Agency, or RASP, and attach the documents that certify that you are fit to adopt.
Over the next three months your application will be examined by social workers, who assess your motives, your mental fitness and your property situation. Then they draw up a report which the RASP director reviews before deciding whether to sign you up as an adoption applicant. This decision is valid for two years. If during this period a child turns up who meets your preferences (some potential adopters have preferences as to their future child's sex, health, age and ethnicity), the social workers set up an interview between you and the child. Then you have one month to decide if you want to adopt the child. If you choose to adopt, you confirm this in a statement. Then a court decides your eligibility, which completes the procedure.
According to Fani Davidova, most decisions are positive. "My impression is that you just need to apply to be approved," she says. "A cliché has established itself that adoptions are a hard thing to pull off, that you must wait years and pay bribes. In fact, in Bulgaria adoptions take place quickly, do not cost much and there is no excessive red tape. In comparison to most other European countries, Bulgaria offers the best-case scenario. For example, in Spain and Germany the pre-adoption reviews can take two years."
The flip side to this is that in Bulgaria it is "much easier to abandon your child," Davidova says. That explains the significant number of children who are officially parentless – annually an average of 1,000 babies are abandoned.