John Davies's supporters call him the Indiana Jones of adoption. His critics call him a baby trader. Leonard Doyle reports
Tonight in dozens of nurseries across Europe and North America, parents will look lovingly down at their adopted children and thank their lucky stars for meeting John Davies. The parents are only too aware that, but for Davies' determination and his unorthodox adoption methods, their cots and playpens might still be empty while they waited for an "official" adoption that might never happen.

"A baby delivered to your door", the circular promised. And that is exactly what happened after the prospective parents paid $20,000 to Davies, who runs a company registered in the British Virgin Islands. By deftly bypassing official channels, Davies has ended the heartache and frustration of couples many of whom had been wanting to adopt for years.

Although he is on Interpol's list of suspected baby-traffickers and he has a criminal record for fraud in Britain, childless couples desperate to adopt continue to beat a trail to his door. They might have read about Davies's activities in an adoption newsletter or heard about him from couples who successfully adopted in the past.

Davies is one of several adoption entrepreneurs who have sprung up since the demolition of the Berlin Wall in 1989. They are operating on morally charged terrain.

Their supporters argue that they are merely responding to the moral outrage in the West over the treatment of orphans in former communist states. Pictures of children trapped in unkempt orphanages across Eastern Europe have produced a surge of concern, with well-meaning people keen to alleviate their suffering. Davies claims that children who badly need the basics of parental love, food and education are being put in touch with parents who badly want to give the just that.

His allies claim people like him are merely bypassing unnecessary bureaucracy in the name of humanity.

The rush of adoptions from Romania - between January 1990 and July 1991 it is estimated that nearly 600 Romanian children were brought (officially and unofficially) to Great Britain - led to the creation of an adoption agreement.

The UK now has an adoption agreement with Romania and all adoptions must be carried out within its specifications. The lengthy process, which involves prospective adopters providing extensive information about themselves, can take three years or more.

John Davies's critics tell a different story. They allege that he pays women in poverty to part with babies which he then trades to parents in the West who may find it difficult to adopt in their native country. To these critics he is trading in human life.

The British and Croatian authorities are coming to the latter view. The Croatian government launched a criminal investigation into Davies's activities in January. He was arrested by the Croatian police while trying to arrange the adoption of three children. Davies has been charged with "coercing" women to give up their children for adoption and with breaking other adoption laws. The laws governing adoption from Croatia are hazy. The British Department of Health said yesterday it believed the Croatian authorities had put a block on adoptions. However, the Croatian embassy in London provided a list of requirements that prospectivge adopters needed to fulfill.

Whatever the outcome of the court case, the Croatian authorities have made clear John Davies will never again carry out another inter-country adoption from that state.

It is not the first time that Davies has run foul of the law. His business operations have attracted the attention of police in a number of countries over the past four years. He was convicted of credit-card and mortgage fraud in the UK while he was running an aid programme for Romania in the early 1990s. He protests today that these were "acts of constructive fraud", and that he never intended to break the law.

Since then he has gone from one controversy to another. He was accused by the US State Department of running a "baby-smuggling/adoption scheme" in 1993 involving 30 children taken across the border from Romania to Hungary for "fattening up" before being sent for adoption to the US. The case became a cause clbre and a case study of the peculiar alliances that the adoption issue has created.

The US government refused to accept the children when its diplomats noticed expensive consumer goods in the ramshackle homes of the birth mothers. That discovery led to unproven allegations that Davies had paid the women to have the children. Meanwhile, Davies's friends in the religious far right went on the offensive.

Davies was supported by the Rev Wayne Coombs, a Californian pastor who runs an unlicensed adoption organisation, the Adams Children's Fund. His case was also taken up by Pamela Lacchei, who ran Aloha Adoption Services in Hawaii and Washington state until the authorities shut it down late last year. (At least 24 families in Belgium, Sweden and Britain lost $26,000 each on adoptions that Aloha had said it would arrange.)

Coombs orchestrated a campaign to get the Romanian children to the US. Eventually, the First Lady, Hillary Clinton, was reported to have interceded with the result that 28 children were adopted by families across the US.

"Lots of people don't like me," Davies says, "and for some reason the INS [the US Immigration and Naturalization Service] and the State Department are determined to put me out of business, but they don't have anything on me."

Davies, who is married with four children, operates from a house in rural Transylvania. He spends his time tracking down prospective "birth mothers" in a territory stretching from Kiev in the Ukraine to Odessa on the Black Sea and south to Tirana and Skopje in Albania and Macedonia.

There has been a crackdown on foreign adoptions in Eastern Europe following cases of child-selling such as that involving the British couple Adrian and Bernadette Mooney. Davies discovered that courts are often happy to allow a foreign child to be given up for adoption. Critics allege he has taken pregnant birth mothers to neighbouring countries to speed up adoption.

He employs a web of informal contacts, ranging from baby-finders who scour abortion clinics for prospective mothers, to unlicensed private adoption specialists. As a result, Davies has acquired a reputation for being able to provide a stream of very young infants, which is exactly what couples in the West want.

Until a few weeks ago, a childless couple who signed up for adoption with Davies could rest assured that in return for about $20,000 it would get a newborn child delivered to its door with a minimum of fuss. Davies's service was a stark contrast to the cumbersome official routes to adoption. Older parents often found that after a long and anxious wait as their applications were processed through layers of bureaucracy, they ended up not with a "perfect" newborn infant but instead a crippled or emotionally disturbed child. Adoption entrepreneurs such as Davies seem to offer a quick, easy and reliable route to foreign adoption. As an added bonus the family usually got to choose the sex and even the skin colour of the infant.

If there were reports about unhappy couples who felt they had been cheated by Davies, prospective parents tended to dismiss these tales as alarmist. They were part and parcel of the unpredictable world of DIY adoptions.

Dale and Vicki, Americans living in the German town of Tbingen, have seen both sides of John Davies. They met him through an adoption agency in Massachusetts, and in 1991 they successfully adopted a child from Romania. Now, however, they are starting to query what really happened and are wondering whether their child was illegally sold to them.

"Was the birth mother of our child coerced into giving up her child?" wondered Dale. "This is a question I don't think we can answer. We have a document saying that (her) house had burnt down . ... We did not go to Romania so we had no chance to see how our child's case was processed."

He and his wife learnt from Davies that Greta, their child, had previously been adopted by another American family, who backed out of the deal "because her skin was too dark".

In 1993, when Dale and Vicki decided to adopt again, Davies asked for a $9,000 down payment. The money was transferred to Romania, but when Vicki became pregnant and the couple decided not to go through with the adoption, they found it impossible to get their money back.

Two years later Davies has yet to refund their $9,000. Many prospective parents had misgivings about the fast-talking former preacher from Ashford, Kent, operating across eight East European countries. But in their desperation to adopt they have overlooked many of his shortcomings.

"People who have done business with John fall into two categories," said Dale, who is now reconsidering his opinion, "there are those who call him a crook and those who say, `Well, his heart is in the right place, but he doesn't always dot his i's and cross his t's'. Even though I lost $9,000 from him I'm still somewhat in the second category, I think he really does care about children."

For help and advice on adopting a child from another country, contact the Overseas Adoption Helpline on 0171-226 7666.

Additional reporting by Liz Searle.

Comments