Return to sender - Arts and Entertainment - The Independent

Return to sender

Adopting a child from eastern Europe appeals to many in the West. But when two US couples had problems with their orphans, they simply flew back to Hungary and dumped them.

It's a warm, early autumn day in the Hungarian village of Gyongoshalasz. The sun is shining down on the quiet, tree-lined street, the only sounds the barking of the Huszar family dog and the hum of distant traffic. Inside the spick and span family home, the table is set with bowls of fruit and piles of freshly made cakes and biscuits. A massive garden lies the house, filled with eminently climbable fruit trees. Ripe plums cover the soft earth. It seems a perfect place to grow up.

But Gabor Lakatos, officially known as Robert Gabriel Petrosino, former resident of Connecticut and the newest addition to the Huszar household, is suspicious of any official-sounding visitors. He beckons me outside his foster-parents' house.

"I know what you want here; I know what you are going to say," he says, looking hard at me with his intelligent brown eyes, just like any nine- year-old, but one especially distrustful of strangers. "You're going to say that I stole things, aren't you," he says accusingly. "That's what you want here."

Well, no. What I want at the Huszar household is to find out how Gabor - or Robert - a lively boy who climbs trees like Tarzan and high-fives like any all-American kid, could have been adopted by an American family called Petrosino, and taken to live with them in Connecticut.

That is, at least until March 1998 when they tired of him, and their legal responsibilities. Mr and Mrs Petrosino flew back to Hungary with Gabor, checked into the Hyatt for three weeks with their American lawyer, then finally dumped him at a Budapest orphanage, with a bag of clothes and a single toy.

After he was abandoned Gabor used to draw pictures of his adoptive father. In the pictures they were always close together. But Gabor will probably never see the Petrosinos again. Neither he, nor Hungarian child welfare officials, have heard a word from them since.

For the social workers and child psychologists who organised the adoption of Gabor Lakatos, a Hungarian Roma (Gypsy) child, the Petrosino family seemed a perfect choice. Both parents are teachers, with reasonable incomes, who could offer a child from a deprived family background the chance of a new life.

Like many other Western parents who want to adopt children, they had turned to eastern Europe in their search. They wanted a baby, or at least a small child; but after meeting Gabor, they eventually decided to accept him.

All the usual, rigorous adoption procedures were followed, and Gabor Lakatos became a full, legal member of the Petrosino family. The parents understood that Gabor was from a fractured family background, and had been raised in institutions and foster families, said Dr Magdolna Nagy, head of the county's child protection service.

"The parents were told that he was from a foster home. Adopting a child from an institution is not the same as taking one who has lived in a family. They didn't give enough time either to the child, or to themselves. Now they want to prove that they tried everything, but they didn't love him as their own. They were told that he was not a baby, and that adapting would take time. Despite all this, they agreed to take him."

Now the all-American dream has turned sour. The Petrosinos have applied to the Hungarian courts to have the adoption annulled, using a loop-hole in Hungarian law that allows, for cancellation in such cases.

They have been joined by a second family, the Harpers, also of Connecticut. The Harpers adopted Karolyi Baranyi, now legally known as Jeremy Harper, in September 1996. Two days after the Petrosinos abandoned Gabor, in what seems to have been a co-ordinated action the Harpers flew into Budapest and dumped Karolyi.

"The whole two-year experience must have been very damaging. The children say they were sent back to Hungary as a punishment, because they did something wrong. They were not physically assaulted, but they were definitely not loved, and a sense of guilt was created in them," says Dr Nagy.

"They were told that they were naughty, that they couldn't learn English; and were generally made to feel guilty. Their mental state is better now, but they are unwilling to discuss their experiences in America. One of the children hid himself in the toilet at McDonald's. The parents claimed this was a symptom of abnormal behaviour, but you don't have to be an expert, just a parent, to see that this was a cry for help."

The Petrosinos and Harpers were just two couples in a wave of prospective adoptive parents who poured into post-Communist eastern Europe after the collapse of Communism in 1989. Heart-rending pictures of abandoned orphans in state-run orphanages filled the world's media, attracting the interest of those parents who could not find children to adopt in the west.

Countries such as Hungary and Romania are still popular choices for adoptive parents. International adoption is a lucrative business. More than a dozen agencies advertise children for adoption on the Internet, including pictures and potted biographies of the youngsters. Pages on the World Wide Web are jammed with travel tips for visits to eastern Europe, and in-depth psychological briefings on the likely problems of taking on such children.

But not all would-be parents care about potential problems. Some see the post-Communist countries as a giant baby bazaar where they can pick their dream child, perhaps even trying to bribe welfare officials to hand over a baby, which they will then attempt to smuggle abroad.

At the same time, eastern European child welfare officials with an idealised view of life in a modern capitalist society often feel that their charges will have a better chance of life in western Europe or the US.

Hungary is now, in most respects, a developed, Western-style country, but many here still view America as the golden land of opportunity. Laszlo Petrovics-Ofner, a psychologist, says: "They often idealise America... as a wonderland of big cars and endless chocolate bars. They think the material richness there can give the children a better life than they would have in Hungary."

Both sets of parents, the Petrosinos and the Harpers, did everything they could for Gabor and Karolyi, says Istvan Fekete, their Budapest lawyer, but ultimately the culture clash was too great.

"The families gave them everything they could, emotionally and financially. But they didn't understand what it means to grow up as these children did, and they took on something they couldn't handle. Nobody explained to them how difficult it would be to integrate the children."

The children stole, were aggressive at school and attacked their teachers and classmates, claims Fekete, and when they were invited to classmates' birthday parties the hosts asked their parents not to bring them again.

Visits to school psychologists, outside professional help, even the families' Catholic priests did not help. The final straw was when the children claimed at school that they had been beaten by their adoptive parents, drawing the attention of American child welfare authorities.

"Both families tried everything to make it work, and they thought it would get better eventually. By that stage the Petrosinos were frightened that they could lose all their children, and they got on the first plane to Budapest."

Whatever the truth of the adoptive families' allegations, it is clear that both Gabor and Karolyi have been severely traumatised. It will take years before these two boys, who have zig-zagged between foster and adoptive parents, Hungary and the United States, will ever feel safe and secure anywhere.

"All children from state-run homes have problems, but these two are not particularly difficult," says Dr Nagy. "I don't understand why these parents felt they had to give up. How could they decide that the children are abnormal and impossible? I find this shameful.

About 1,500 Hungarian children have been adopted by foreign couples in the last ten years. Several, such as the two boys, are from Roma (Gypsy) families. But as bad as anti-Roma prejudice is in Hungary, the children would have been better off staying in their own country. The cruellest cut of all for a child is to provide him with a home and then expel him from it, says Dr Laszlo Petrovics-Ofner.

"This is the act of someone who sees the child as a commodity, as a little toy, rather than as a person. It is terribly damaging for a child to become a commodity to be traded back and forth, especially at this age, which is a milestone in a child's development. Love is the basis for a healthy childhood, material conditions are an aside."

Gabor doesn't talk much about his time in Connecticut now. He is settling down in Gyongoshalasz, and seems to be enjoying life with his foster parents. Aranka, his 14-year-old half-sister, is there as well, and the two siblings spend much of their time together.

Gabor craves love and affection, says his foster-mother, Ida Huszar. He certainly enjoys posing for the camera: climbing and jumping off trees like a natural model.

"He is so grateful when someone shows him affection. He very tense and nervous when he got here, always running around and couldn't sit still. Now he is gradually getting back to normal, playing football like any healthy child."

Half an hour's drive away from the Huszar household, not far from the city of Eger, Karolyi Baranyi is now living with his foster-family, the Varadys. Karolyi, two years older than Gabor, is a quiet child. He admits that he misses his adopted family, especially his grandmother and his brother Jonathan.

"I feel fine here, but America was good as well. I used to go to Grandma's house and help her with the cooking; she always gave me sweets and bananas. I liked my parents - they took me on trips. I had a brother, Jonathan, and we used to go out cycling. I miss them sometimes."

Like Gabor, Karolyi was extremely unsettled when he arrived at his foster home. Now he has settled down, but is still very insecure, says Aranka Varady, fearing that he could be taken away again.

"He is worried about security. He keeps asking me where he lives, and he frets about the future. He is constantly afraid that if someone new comes here they are coming for him. I try to tell him there is nothing to worry about, show him love, and let him know that this is his place."

As for the children themselves, Karolyi at least is planning his future. "When I grow up I will go first to Budapest and then to America. I liked America."

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