YEREVAN -- The Armenian government is considering changes in its rules and procedures for international adoptions in an effort to stamp out alleged corrupt practices.
Proposals drawn up by Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian’s staff aim to increase the transparency of the process and reduce the role of obscure local middlemen working for Western adoption agencies.
The proposed changes also aim to make it easier for Armenian families to adopt or act as foster parents.
Sarkisian's staff is proposing that an existing database of all Armenian children available for adoption be posted on the Internet so it is available to all prospective parents.
They also called for the creation of a separate database of prospective parents, which would facilitate direct online contact with the relevant Armenian authorities in the initial stages of the adoption process.
“The root cause of this problem is a lack of transparency, and we must do something about it,” a senior government official told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service.
The proposals are currently being discussed by an interagency commission, headed by Justice Minister Hrayr Tovmasian.
It will decide in the coming months whether it will be necessary to amend Armenia's Family Code, which would require parliamentary approval, or to simply change existing procedures, which could be enacted by the government without legislative action.
Under the existing rules, the Armenian Ministry of Labor and Social Issues draws up and keeps a national registry of children available for domestic and foreign adoption.
The list is supposed to be accessible to all prospective adoptive parents. But in practice, even government agencies say they have trouble accessing information about the children listed on the registry.
The registry's opacity has made it possible for shadowy middlemen operating between foreign adoption agencies and Armenian officials to collect thousands of dollars in fees -- or "gifts" -- to facilitate adoptions.
The proposed changes followed a report by RFE/RL's Armenian Service in April exposing such practices.
Specifically, the report cited a sample contract signed by one U.S. agency, Hopscotch Adoptions, based in High Point, North Carolina, which assists Americans wishing to adopt Armenian and Georgian children.
The contract, offered to a potential client in the United States in 2007, explained that almost $5,000 of more than $30,000 charged by Hopscotch for every adoption would be spent on “gifts to foreign service providers and government functionaries performing ministerial tasks as an offer of thanks for prompt service.”
It claimed that such gifts are common in Armenia and Georgia and do not violate U.S. law.
“It is customary [in Armenia and Georgia] to provide a nominal gift to a government functionary who, for instance, prepares a passport, notarizes a document or places a seal after the service is provided," the contract read. "The custom stems from the economic reality that a service provider or entry-level civil servant earns less than $75 a week -- hardly enough to feed a family.”
Boosting Numbers Of Local Foster Parents
In an interview with RFE/RL's Armenian Service, Hopscotch Adoptions' founder, Robin Sizemore, did not deny the authenticity of the sample contract.
But in an email to RFE/RL, she wrote that "in Armenia and in any other country that prohibits gifts or gratuities, no gifts or gratuities are distributed or permitted.”
She did not explain why such gifts and gratuities were included in the sample contract.
Officials at the Armenian Ministry of Justice as well as anticorruption campaigners in Yerevan say such payments amount to bribes and are therefore illegal in Armenia.
A sample agreement offered by another U.S. agency, Adopt Abroad, based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, listed “gifts and gratuities” among its fees at least until last April. Adopt Abroad did not respond to requests for comment.
Government sources say that, following the RFE/RL report, Prime Minister Sarkisian instructed his government to revise the country's adoption rules.
Moreover, none of the Yerevan-based adoption brokers is known to be officially licensed or registered with tax authorities.
The government is also seeking to curb foreign adoptions by reinvigorating a 2004 program which pays local families to act as foster parents.
The government hopes the new online database will help increase the number of Armenians seeking to become foster parents and also increase payments, which are currently about $250 a month per child.
Thus far, the program has had only limited success, with only 24 children currently placed with foster care providers.
According to the Ministry of Labor and Social affairs, 61 Armenian children were adopted by foreigners in 2010.