From the moment I first set foot in Italy over thirty years ago, I was instantly smitten: the culture and customs, mouthwatering cuisine, buildings which echoed centuries-worth of history, the stunning coastline and, of course, the music – my lifelong passion. As a child I was fascinated by Italian composers such as Verdi, Puccini and Vivaldi. But what struck me most of all as a young visitor to this country was the warmth and generosity of that very special welcome reserved for kids.
In time music became my profession and, through a strange twist of fate, my chosen career brought me back to Italy. The country whose music had enchanted me as a child now introduced me to the second love of my life, my husband. Yet I could never have imagined things would have turned out as they have, that this country would have been capable of destroying my dreams as well as my career.
For years my husband and I longed for children. In 2010 we presented our adoption application and were delighted when, a year later, we were given the official stamp of approval. But international adoptions are costly, involving a considerable investment of funds which we didn’t possess. After much thought and many sleepless nights we finally came to a decision. We couldn’t possibly let the cost of an adoption be an obstacle to us sharing our family with a child in need.
In the meantime, we continued with our enquiries. We had managed to find an adoption agency which, due to an arrangement with another two agencies in Italy, was able to offer us a wide selection of countries where we could potentially send our application. The services specified in their ‘Charter of Services’ convinced us they would be able to maximise our possibility of concluding an adoption. In addition, we were aware that agencies in Italy are subject to constant checks and reviews by the Central Authority for Intercountry Adoptions. Confident we were making the right choice, we decided to hire them.
Nevertheless, money was still a serious issue. The thought of being able to provide a family for a child in need, combined with a strong maternal instinct, was greater than any desire to continue my career and so I made a choice. I decided to sell my most prized possession: my bassoon. The agency identified the country they considered to be our best option and we sent them the documentation required for an application in Ethiopia. Total costs for ‘services’ to date amounted to €12,000.
Approximately a year later, the agency informed us that Ethiopian adoptions were experiencing some issues and we should expect some months’ delay compared to their original estimate. Despite this setback, their constant assurances convinced us they would be capable of managing our application in a professional manner.
Having said that, a few months later, less optimistic news arrived from our contacts abroad and so we began to make further enquiries. What would be our options if we needed to re-direct our application to a different country, bearing in mind the opportunities offered by the partnership with other agencies? To our great surprise, and despite a consistent referral to this agreement in the Charter of Services, we were informed the arrangement no longer existed!
Refusing to be discouraged, we felt certain the agency would be able to offer alternative solutions because when we had signed the contract, they had provided us with an extensive list of countries in which they were authorised. They finally admitted the likelihood of adopting would be greater in another country, rather than in Ethiopia which was experiencing a significant slowdown, and suggested three countries which could offer greater opportunities.
At this point, for the first time, the agency explained that a ‘re-routing’ of our application would involve the payment of the ‘foreign fees’ from scratch. In other words, we could kiss goodbye to the €4,500 initially invested in the Ethiopian application. We quoted the Charter of Services: “If as a matter of personal choice the couple requests a change of country, they will be obliged to pay the adoption programme fee for costs incurred in the initial country, as well as the adoption programme fee for the new country. No costs will be due to the agency should a change of country be proposed by the association due to operational reasons or circumstances manifested in the country initially selected”. Our protests were a complete waste of time. The agency insisted a change of country would incur further payments.
Being aware, nonetheless, that payments involved in international adoptions should be reasonable in relation to services provided, we asked the agency to clarify exactly which costs had been incurred in Ethiopia with regards to our application. Fortunately the agency didn’t disappoint and was gracious enough to provide us with two receipts for the total sum of €408. They even confirmed our case file had never been presented to the Ethiopian authorities. We’d just been sat in the agency’s waiting list which, ironically, seemed to be getting longer by the day, both in terms of numbers of couples and duration.
In May 2016, four years after we initially hired the agency, we were finally sent an email proposing three different options. The first: stay in the waiting list for Ethiopia. What guarantees could this offer us, bearing in mind that the agency had had no referrals from Ethiopia this year, and a grand total of two for the whole of 2015? The second option: a change of country, resulting in the loss of the €4,500 euros invested in the Ethiopian application which had never materialised. The final option: a termination of our contract, enabling us to hire a different agency but resulting in the loss of all the money invested so far – in other words a total of €12,000, including the fees charged for the elusive ‘services’ rendered in Italy.
During all these years, we have attempted on numerous occasions to contact the government’s official watchdog, a.k.a. the Central Authority for Intercountry Adoptions (Commissione per le Adozioni Internazionali), whose function is to enforce the Hague Convention. Despite numerous registered letters, emails and phone calls, we have never been able to discuss these matters with anybody in charge. We have even sent three formal requests to access our files as permitted by Italian legislation, (Freedom of Information for Administrative Acts) but have never had a reply. We have struggled for years to understand exactly which services the agency has carried out on our behalf, they themselves having provided few, vague explanations to date. It’s as if all of our correspondence to the government watchdog has disappeared into thin air. Is this really the case or, rather, is this further confirmation that these practices are condoned by the Italian government?
Why does the Central Authority refuse to take into consideration complaints submitted by families? Let’s not forget there are numerous couples who continue to experience a multitude of problems with agencies in Italy. Are the claims made by adoption agencies somehow more convincing than those made by aspiring adopters? Or, even worse, could some adoption agencies be benefiting from preferential treatment?
I often ask myself if the only way to complete an adoption procedure is to pay everything, no questions asked. Should we pretend the terms specified in the agency’s Charter of Services – which, apart from anything else, is authorised by the Central Authority – don’t exist? But if we were to start paying over the odds whilst still in Italy, what ‘hidden costs’ could be waiting for us once abroad?
Many families, totally exasperated and worn down by years of waiting, agree to pay whatever it takes. I willingly gave up my career in order to adopt a child and I sold my precious instrument hoping, simply, to be a mother to a child in need. Yet despite considerable investment of time and resources, we are apparently no closer to adopting now than we were six years ago. So, dear Italy, I am forced to ask – whatever happened to that very special welcome reserved for kids? Is this really a question of children’s best interests, or rather the best interests of the adoption industry?