British woman 'fixes babies-for-cash deals': Adoption agencies fear desperate couples embroiled in illegal trade in children. Steve Boggan reports

ADOPTION agencies believe that a woman in the Home Counties may be arranging babies-for-cash deals for desperate couples prepared to smuggle children out of Romania.

The British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering have been gathering accounts of the woman who, adoption workers say, is involved in inter-country acquisitions of babies for couples who want to bypass legal channels.

Concern over the trade in babies has increased with the arrest of a British husband and wife who tried to leave Romania with a five- month-old girl hidden in a basket. Adrian and Bernadette Mooney, of Wokingham, Berkshire, are being held on 30-day arrest warrants at police headquarters in Bucharest.

British embassy officials in the Romanian capital took the couple toiletries and other comforts yesterday, but the Foreign Office said early hopes that they would be granted bail had not borne fruit.

More than 400 babies were brought into Britain from Romania after the fall of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989. Unofficial figures suggest that up to 200,000 children had been abandoned in hospitals and crumbling orphanages because of desperate economic hardship.

But the new government, embarrassed by the exodus of the children, imposed strict rules in 1991 making the adoption of children a rigorous, bureaucratic process that can take up to three years.

It was in such a climate that Mr and Mrs Mooney, who had legally adopted a daughter before the restrictions, decided to try to smuggle out the second child. Babies are easily obtained for about pounds 10,000 from families that are too poor to support them.

It may also be such a climate that has allowed a 'dealer' to start up business in England. Emil Dinu, the judge hearing the Mooneys' case, said they told him that a deal had been set up in London. Chris Hammond, director of the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF), said she has been receiving reports of a fixer preying on desperate couples.

'We were surprised that someone would be involved in Romania because there is a large network of self-help groups who give advice and contacts to people for free, but I have heard from several sources who say that a woman is actively engaged in charging for her services in this area,' she said.

So far, BAAF has failed to identify the woman but adoption workers have been alerted to her activities. 'If we find her, it will not be a matter for the police, but for her local authority under adoption law,' Ms Hammond said.

Paula Marriott, 45, a campaigner with the Adoptive Romanian Children Society and the legal mother of two adopted Romanian children, was also surprised that a fixer would be required in England. 'There are plenty of us over here prepared to offer help, contacts and information for free,' she said. 'We encourage people to operate within the law, but you can understand why people try to bypass it. Those children are living in terrible conditions. When I found my daughter Katie (now aged four) she was four weeks old but had not been fed properly.

'She was dehydrated, malnourished and had bed sores on her heels big enough to put a pen through to her bones. When you see that kind of suffering, the intricacies of paperwork tend to go out of the window.'

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