A Political Adoption

Trent Ernst, Editor

 

During the second round in the most recent Romanian elections, Klaus Iohannis beat out fore-runner and current Prime Minister Victor Ponta.

Ponta will remain as Prime Minister, meaning that the new president will be facing a hostile parliamentary majority.

How hostile? Well, during the run-up to the vote, Iohannis was accused of not being a “real Romanian”, as he is ethnically German. (His family has been in Romania for centuries.) He was accused of not being fit to run the country because he and his wife didn’t have children. And he was accused of being involved in “baby brokering” after the fall of then-dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu in 1989.

Surprisingly, this last accusation has a Tumbler Ridge connection.

Meetings

Klaus Iohannis has been mayor of Sibiu, a city of about 150,000 located in the Transylvania region of Romania (yes, Virginia, there really is a Transylvania) since 2000. He is taking over as president of Romania from Traian Băsescu on December 21.

But, when Arlene Lalande met him, he was just a physics teacher from Romania’s ethnic German minority, newly married to his wife Carmen.

Arlene Lalande was one of thousands of people from Canada and the US to go to Romania after the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu, the communist dictator of that country who was killed by a firing squad on Christmas Day, 1989 after a series of often violent protests overthrew his regime.

Lalande’s journey to Romania began seven years earlier. “I was about 36, and I couldn’t have more kids,” says the former Tumbler Ridge resident who now lives on the Sunshine Coast. “We had two already. I had been taking care of foster kids, but I couldn’t do it anymore. We were looking after these two little munchkins, helping integrate them back into the family. But the parents were alcoholics. They would come to pick up the two kids, but they would be drunk. And I realized that I couldn’t give them back anymore. I was a foster kid myself, so I understood.”

So her and her husband Allan tried to adopt a child, but after seven years of trying, they became frustrated. “We tried to adopt special needs kids, but got run around,” she says. “I was 42 years old and I needed to come up with something.”

It was then that she saw TV reports coming out of Romania. “I saw it on TV. I knew Ceausescu had been killed, but then they started opening up the orphanages to the news. We looked at each other and said ‘I think we’re going to Romania’.”

So the couple got on a plane and flew to Romania, not knowing what they were doing or how they were going to find a child to adopt. “It wasn’t a plan at all,” says Lalande. “We didn’t know what child, what city, who to talk to…. We just prayed we’d be there at the right time.”

They landed in the capital city of Bucharest, and went looking for anyone who spoke English who could help them. They found an interpreter, but he said he wasn’t from Bucharest, but from Sibiu. He asked the Lalandes if he could take them back there, where he knew more people. “Sibiu is gorgeous,” says Lalande. “I love it. It’s a city of about 180,000 people. This was about five months after Ceausescu was killed, and you could still hear gunshots in the streets. Nobody trusted anybody. It felt like I had been thrown back a hundred years.”

The interpreter introduced the Lalandes to the Iohannis family, Klaus and Carmen. “They were shocked that we wanted to adopt,” says Lalande. “They said ‘why do you want to stay at a hotel? Come stay with us.’”

The couple spent three weeks at the Iohannis home as they searched for a child to adopt. “They had been maybe married a year,” says Lalande. “He was a physics teacher. She was an English teacher, I think in the university. They were very intelligent, but very poor. They were so intrigued at why we’d want to do this. At night when they’d get off work, we’d talk. They were just curious.”

Children

The couple spent a couple days looking for a child, but hadn’t been having much luck at the orphanages. “I don’t remember how we heard about this, but somebody told us there was a nurse at the hospital who might have information for me. We went down to the hospital. We were kept in a room for a few hours. They would come in and check on us occasionally, but they were shocked that people would want to do this.” The three Canadians sat there for a few hours There was a woman from Terrace and a man from Kitimat in the room with us. After a few hours, this nurse came in with three little newborn kids, literally stacked one on the other. She handed me one, she handed Bruce one, but the woman decided she didn’t want the girl.

“It turns out the mother was unmarried, didn’t want the child. The nurse had been keeping the babies in the basement, because 80 percent of the kids who went to the orphanage didn’t survive.”

Because the idea of adopting kids was so new in Romania, there were no laws on the books. “They didn’t know what to do with that. They’d never heard of anyone wanting to adopt. They literally had no law on the books, because no Romanian parents would adopt a kid. This is still happening today. People have a kid and they can’t afford it, so it gets sent to orphanage.”

When the Lalande’s arrived, all you needed was a letter, signed by the parents or guardian, saying they were giving up custody of the child. But that was going to change very quickly, because the Lalandes weren’t alone. Many North American couples had come to Romania, looking to adopt children. Some, wanting to help the parents and orphanages, would offer money for the kids, and soon, what started as a mission of mercy became a business. Parents were offering up their kids for sale for five hundred dollars. A thousand dollars.

Newborns were worth more, with some being sold for $7000. This started happening in Bucharest, but soon started to move out to other areas of Romania. But when the Lalandes first got to Sibiu, this wasn’t the case. Their interpreter found the baby’s mother and got her to sign the form.

Having found a baby girl, the couple went back out to the orphanage they had been working with to tell them they had found a baby. But as they were leaving, the director of the orphanage came running out and spoke to their translator. After a moment, Lalande got the story. A trio of children had just been dropped off at the orphanage.

The three children were siblings: a seven year old girl, a five year old boy and a three year old girl. The trouble, explained their translator, was the orphanage only took children under three years old. They could keep the youngest, but the two older kids would have to be sent to a different orphanage, perhaps never to see their younger sister ever again.

Lalande’s heart broke. “I called my husband, who was actually walking out of the orphanage at the time, and told him. We called the priest who had phoned the orphanage. He was shocked when we said we’d take them. He said ‘But you haven’t even seen them.’ I said ‘We didn’t come here to have the kids dance for us to prove their worth, we came here because the Lord sent us.’”

In Romania, says Lalande, all the power went to the dad’s side of the family. So the children’s paternal grandmother had authority over the kids. “Within a few days, we met up with the family on both sides. We met in a hall in a little village outside of Sibiu, and they signed the papers.”

With the papers signed, making it legal for the Lalandes to take the children, the couple began to prepare to head home for Canada. This was late June of 1990, and the country was in the process of coming up with a law to regulate the adoption of children and to halt what was becoming a far-too-common practice of parents selling their kids.

Then they got word that the government was going to be bringing in the new legislation in three days. “They told us ‘if you have your papers in order, you can go through.’ We had everything done, except the medical form for the Canadian Government. We needed a doctor’s report stamped by the Canadian Consulate. Once they were signed, the papers were supposed to go to Belgrade, Yugoslavia, but they said we were getting switched to Switzerland. We had to go there and then back in three days. So a bunch of us Canadians all gathered together and decided this guy from Kitimat would be the one to fly to Switzerland. On June 30 he flew to Bucharest, and the next day he was going to go to the Consulate. Well, wouldn’t you know, the next day was July 1. Canada Day, and the Consulate was closed. He couldn’t get to Switzerland and back in time, and we missed it by one day.”

With the paperwork for the kids now complete, Allan decided to fly back to Canada, while Arlene would spend the extra few days, maybe a couple weeks, waiting for the law to pass.

She waited an extra two and a half months.

Waiting

Because she couldn’t keep the kids with her at the Iohannis household, the youngest, Anda, remained at the orphanage, where Lalande walked to twice a day, while the paternal grandmother of the three older kids looked after those kids in their small village outside of Sibiu, where Lalande would usually take a taxi to two or three times a week

And this, says Lalande, is when the trouble started. Lalande would go to visit the kids as often as she could. Because the grandmother of the kids was poor, she would sometimes donating money to buy food to feed what were now her kids. Lalande also promised that she would provide money for the grandma to buy a new stove. It wasn’t, Lalande is quick to point out, a way of buying the kids, as the papers had already been signed, but of providing support.

At the time, the Romanian system was run by small bribes. “I smoked at the time, and I could go get cigarettes at the hotel, but the Romanians couldn’t.” A pack of cigarettes, she says, would often ensure that an official wouldn’t accidentally lose the paperwork.

Nor, she says, did Klaus or Carmen have anything to do with arranging for the couple to “purchase” their kids. “She [Carmen] had won a car somehow, which most people in Romania didn’t have. It wasn’t new or anything, but any time we needed a ride, they would offer to drive us. And Carmen would occasionally translate for us. We made sure that we paid for their gas and food. Sometimes, we would buy a chicken, or a bunch of fruit and vegetables. It was helpful for them, but never once did they ask us for money. They had zero to do with adopting the kids. Never did were they involved in the adoption process.

“Now, the kids didn’t speak English, I didn’t speak Romanian, but we got along so well, like we knew each other all our lives. And when Carmen wasn’t working, she would come and interpret. It was curious to her. They were as interested in us and what we were doing as we were in them. I learned that Klaus loved his country, loved his city. He was so excited for his country after the fall of communism. They were good people.”

But as days stretched into weeks, rumours began reaching Sibiu of rich Americans paying thousands of dollars for kids. One Canadian couple, says Lalande, was rumoured to have spent $20,000 for one kid.

These rumours finally reached the grandmother of the three kids. One day, when Lalande went to visit the kids, the grandmother went “nuts.”

“She wanted me to sign the kids back to her so she could get her $20,000. The sad thing is, it was never about the children. That was the saddest part. It was never about the kids, it was about: ‘what can I get from you?’”

Lalande says this would happen every time she went to visit. And with Allan back in Canada, Klaus and Carmen became her source of stability. “I don’t think mentally I could have handled three months there without them. The things that I saw there…I literally wept every day. Our little one…if I didn’t give something to the gals who were looking after her at the orphanage, she would be harmed. It was horrible. When I brought her home she had a sore on her upper arm that just wouldn’t heal. I went to put a dress on her one day, and it kind of snagged. I looked closer, and I pulled a half inch needle out of her arm. In the hospital, they would walk by the kid, grab it by one arm, carry it over and drop it on a table. Never a kind or nice thing. A single needle was used on every kid that was in this place. It was horrible.”

But finally, the new adoption law passed, and Arlene was able to bring the kids home. “I did end up giving her [the children’s grandmother] money for a stove at the end, but that was a gift, I was so mad. She had turned out to be such a horrible women. I just threw it at her before I left.”

Back home

Arlene and the kids arrived back in Canada to a welcoming, nurturing community here in Tumbler Ridge.

“The people of Tumbler Ridge were amazing,” she says. “Bill and Pauline Hendley at the Baptist church…I came home with the kids, and they said I couldn’t cook for a week. Every woman in that church cooked me a meal. I didn’t have to do anything but look after the kids for a week. They were amazing how they came on board and helped us out.”

However, all good things come to an end, and in 1992, Allan was injured and couldn’t work. “I love Tumbler Ridge, but we couldn’t stay in our house. So we moved to Powell River where my parents lived. My parents moved in with me, and I had to work.”

She and Allan are still in Powell River, and the children are all grown. “The kids were such lovely children,” She says. “They’re really driven. They’re beautiful, they’re intelligent. They would make Romania proud, these kids. Every one of them tried their hardest to be the best.”

For the last 25 years, the Lalande children have lived a typical life here in Canada. They’ve grown up and moved onto their own lives, and memories of Romania have faded for both the kids and the parents.

That is, until Canada Day this year, when Arlene found herself with an extra hour to kill. She remembered the events that unfolded 24 years ago that very day. “I decided to look and see if Klaus was still mayor of Sibiu, and found out he was.”

She met with a friend later that day and, for the first time in years, related the story of what happened back then. Talking about it made her curious about what was happening back in Romania, so she started to do some more research online.

That’s when she discovered the rumours swirling in Romania about Iohannis. “All of sudden, I saw my picture, my husband’s picture along with this story that said we had trafficked in kids for their organs. I cried for two days.”

The rumours had started back in 2000, when Iohannis first decided to run for mayor of Sibiu. “Did you see where they were saying Klaus was trafficking in kids for organs? That comes from the grandmother on the dad’s side who was so upset that she didn’t get the $20,000. When he was running for mayor, she started charging him with selling kids, so he had to go to court to fight that. Then the next time, it came up again.”

This time, it wasn’t just that Iohannis was selling kids, but selling children so their organs could be harvested. Then the rumour was they were being used for satanic rituals. “We didn’t hear about this at the time,” says Lalande. “I haven’t thought about this for years.”

Death threats and attack journalists

But that was just the start. Because Romania was heading into an election and Iohannis was nominated as the candidate for president on August 11. Suddenly, says Lalande, bizarre things started happening. “I started having hundreds of Facebook friend requests from people that I didn’t know, but who lived in Romania. People have been phoning us, tracking us down, threatening our lives. It’s very shocking.”

Then, in October, two filmmakers from Romania arrived in Tumbler Ridge. It was 25 years since the Romanian Revolution, they told the Tumbler Ridge News they were looking for information on the adopted children when they called, and they were doing a story on the children who were adopted after the revolution.

While in the area, they talked to a couple people, including Bill Hendley. Hendley was pastor of the Tumbler Ridge Fellowship Baptist Church at the time. “The church had a deal that whenever anyone had a need, we’d supply meals,” says Hendley. “It was a neat thing to be a part of. The churches would work together in so many respects to help out.

“They came to my place and interviewed me and asked me questions relevant to the early 1990s when Children were adopted from Romania. There were five that I knew of in Tumbler. Arlene had four, and there was another family that had one.”

Hendley says the journalists kept asking about the money. “I wasn’t aware of any money paid,” says Hendley. “I knew that the relatives had hinted about various things and Arlene had helped them out. I asked them why they were here and they said they wanted to do the right things as a country. I asked them if it was to go after the parents, and they said no.

“They offered no hint of political bias,” says Hendley, “but they had an agenda, and they were willing to use whatever they could, whether it was true or not, to give a bad report. I said this to the guys. It was the church organizations and the Christians in town trying to help out. I said this is what we were about, and that’s when I zeroed in and asked if they were trying to hurt anyone with this and they said ‘oh, no.’”

But of course, it was. Or rather, it was to go after Iohannis. The first Tumbler Ridge resident to learn about this was Willy Dorus, who is currently living in Romania. “No, they did not come [to Tumbler Ridge] for the 25 anniversary of the fall of communism,” says Dorus in an email. “They actually alleged that the three Romanian children adopted by Lalande family were killed and used for human organs trafficking.”

Dorus, who knew the children, was livid. “This Antena 3 was supporting the other candidate and brought up again this human trafficking story. At one point in this story I found out that the children they were talking about are the three children which I saw and talked with them in 1990 in Tumbler Ridge. So I could not stand by to see that one of the candidates for the Romanian President is accused of such crime when in fact is a big lie.”

According to Dorus, who has seen the program, the interview with Hendley was edited in such a way as to support the accusations that the Lalandes had paid Iohannis. So Dorus went down to another TV Station. “I told the Romanian Electorate the truth on November 11. On November 16 Klaus Iohannis overcame the deficit from 30 to 40 percent the other got on [the first vote on] November 2 and won with 54 percent. On November 16, I offered Antena 3 to help them explain about these children, but they refused. When I found out that Antena 3 went to TR I went public and asked them to tell the truth. After a few days [they started to say] that nobody knows where these children are, even though, people told them where to find them.”

Dorus says that part of the issue was when a Romanian priest in Vancouver said he had found the name “Lalande” on a list of people who were involved in human trafficking. “For all this time there were people who believed that the three adopted people were killed for organs. Others used the argument that ‘the Lalandes adopted four children, surely for this reasons, because nobody could afford to adopt four children, even a rich Canadian family’ Of course we know how wrong they were until I told them the truth that those children, now adults are doing very well.”

Back in Powell River, the Lalande parents watched what was happening with horror. They debated not telling the kids, but finally decided that it would be better if they know. “This was good because within days people started tracking them down, too,” says Lalande.

Lalande says that, despite the slanderous campaign, Iohannis won, which she is happy about. “What a lovely, kind, good man he is. I’m so excited for Romania. They were so shocked that Klaus wasn’t getting money. They couldn’t believe that. But it’s clear that we paid nothing to Carmen and Klaus. No. I shouldn’t lie. I cut their hair.” And of course, she says, she would pay for gas and food when Carmen drove her around, though most of the time, says Lalande, she took a taxi or walked. “I wore my shoes down to the nails twice while I was there,” she says.

But out of a bad situation, she says, some good has come from it. “With all the bad that’s happened just in the last few months, it’s brought forward the mom’s side of the family, and they’re in touch now. I never knew anything about the mother’s side of the family.

“The kids tell me I should write a book,” laughs Lalande.