Disposable assets

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 September, 2005, 12:00am

Four years ago, Irish accountant Joseph Dowse and his wife Lala went looking for an Indonesian child to call their own. Using an illegal broker in Jakarta, they adopted a two-month-old boy in September 2001, and named him Tristan. His mother had given him up for adoption soon after his birth, and the couple told friends that they were bonding well with their new child, who was registered as an Irish citizen.

In an undated studio photo, Mr Dowse smiles proudly as the curly-haired boy sits on his lap, looking somewhat hesitant. Mrs Dowse, an Azerbaijani national whom Mr Dowse met while working at KPMG in Jakarta, sits on his left embracing her young daughter from a previous marriage. It's a familiar image of a multi-cultural family in today's border-hopping world.

Two years later, this image was shattered when Mr Dowse drove to a private orphanage outside Jakarta and dropped off his adopted son with a box of clothes and toys. He never returned. Within months he had quit his job and moved his family to Azerbaijan.

Indonesian government officials allege that the couple abandoned the child when Mrs Dowse became pregnant, and Tristan, who is now called Erwin, was no longer wanted. Mrs Dowse had in the past sought fertility treatment in Singapore, according to media reports, but had apparently given up hope of conceiving until she became pregnant in 2003.

The case has shocked Indonesians, accustomed to stories of rich foreign couples lavishing love, money and attention on unwanted babies. One Indonesian official compares it to the fickle fancies of dog owners who decide that puppies are no longer cute enough to keep. 'This is the reason why we're so careful in issuing papers for [foreign] adoptions. How do they deal with the children?' asked Makmur Sunusi, director for child welfare at Indonesia's Ministry of Social Affairs.

It has also triggered a row about illegal adoption that has led to the smashing of a child-trafficking ring in Indonesia, a manhunt in Azerbaijan and a legal battle in Ireland's High Court. The resulting furore has focused attention on the murky ethics of adoption by foreigners in Asia, where tens of thousands of babies are given up for adoption every year.

Although prosecutors in Indonesia say they would like to question Mr Dowse to learn more details of the alleged baby-trafficking ring, he hasn't been charged with any wrongdoing, and there is no extradition treaty between Indonesia and Azerbaijan.

Because Erwin was registered as an Irish citizen, his case has sparked a legal row in Ireland. Irish authorities located Mr Dowse in Azerbaijan and sought to annul the adoption, only to run into difficulties over the legal route for deregistration in the absence of the parents.

Since Ireland has no representation in Azerbaijan, an independent former Soviet republic, the Irish embassy in Turkey reportedly took charge of the case. It is unclear to what extent Azerbaijani authorities co-operated in the manhunt, nor has Ireland disclosed the methods used to reach Mr Dowse.

Mr Dowse has declined to attend a High Court hearing due next month. The Irish Times quoted his lawyer as denying that Mr Dowse was involved in illegal adoption.

The debate over Erwin has stirred emotions in Indonesia. After the December 26 tsunami, when thousands of children lost parents, there was a stampede of interest in foreign adoptions that quickly ran into concerns over possible child trafficking.

Hackles were raised in the tsunami-hit province of Aceh by the arrival of US missionary groups and reports that Muslim children were to be taken away and converted. The US State Department quickly blocked adoptions of Asian tsunami victims, warning that families could be separated and child traffickers may exploit the situation.

Indonesia has stringent rules on foreign adoptions, including the requirement that the parents must have lived two years in Indonesia and share the religion of the child. As a result, the number of legal placements is less than 20 a year, a fraction of the number recorded in China, where fast-track adoptions are common.

Alerted to his plight, investigators in Indonesia discovered Erwin's adoption was anything but legal. Earlier this year, using the paper trail provided by Irish authorities, Afrinaldi, a child welfare official at the Ministry of Social Affairs, located Mr Dowse's broker, a middle-aged woman called Rosdiana who lived in a Jakarta suburb. Posing as a buyer on behalf of a New Zealand couple, Mr Afrinaldi (who goes by one name) asked if she could supply a baby. Rosdiana said she could and boasted of having arranged 80 foreign adoptions since 2000. The price depended on the customer, but would start from US$7,000, she told him. Fake documents would be issued that could be used to register with foreign embassies.

In July, Rosdiana was arrested along with her daughter on suspicion of child trafficking, document fraud and illegal adoption. But police warn that this isn't the end of Indonesia's battle with the traffickers.

Last year, another illegal adoption ring was busted in Jakarta and its boss, a 65-year-old woman, was convicted of fraud. Police failed to track any of the hundreds of babies thought to have been trafficked, and the woman was given a seven-month jail sentence, angering prosecutors.

'There's definitely more [child trafficking] syndicates out there,' said Ahmad Dofiri, chief of the women and children section in Jakarta's city police force. 'It's easy to find unwanted babies without a father or families with economic problems. There's a big potential here.'

Some such families, however, say that far from selling their babies for profit, they were tricked into giving them up.

Sitting on the floor of the two-room house that she shares with her husband and four children, Mulyani recalls that she met Rosdiana in 2000, during her fifth pregnancy. The woman convinced her to give up her baby, saying it was a chance for a better life. Her sister would adopt the child and bring him up as her own, she told her.

In return, Rosdiana paid for Ms Mulyani's medical costs - about US$25. The baby boy was taken away shortly after delivery, and Ms Mulyani was later assured he was 'fat and healthy'. The following year, Ms Mulyani fell pregnant again, and Rosdiana repeated her plea: wasn't it better for the baby to live in a comfortable house and be fed and educated? 'I feel so sad. I didn't realise I was selling my babies. It's just because we are poor,' said Ms Mulyani, nodding at her unemployed husband, Mayson. Neither of them suspected the babies were being sent overseas.

Mr Mayson said he felt cheated by the deception, although he admitted his family's financial hardship would make it hard to raise more kids. The family shares a mattress on the floor of their tiny front room. The back room is used for cooking and eating. Their eldest son is 12 and has dropped out of school to work for US$1 a day as a porter in a nearby market.

'I'm angry, but as long as the [adopted] children are taken care of, it's good. I'd just like them to be raised as Muslims, that's all,' said Mr Mayson.

Earlier this year, Ms Mulyani handed over a third baby to Rosdiana, a boy named Andre who was allegedly to be sold to Mr Afrinaldi's fictitious foreigners. He has since been placed in a state orphanage where Erwin is also living. Ms Mulyani says she wants him back but isn't sure if the authorities will comply.

'People thought Rosdiana was an angel who just wanted to help poor families. She was well regarded in the neighbourhood,' said Mr Afrinaldi.

Among those whom she helped was Meti Mulyasari, an unmarried mother who fell pregnant aged 20 and whose boyfriend didn't want responsibility. Through Ms Mulyani, her neighbour, Ms Meti turned to Rosdiana who paid her hospital fees and gave her rice, sugar and cooking oil. She was told that a foundation would take care of her child.

Her newborn daughter went straight from the hospital to Rosdiana's house, awaiting its new parents. Two days later, after checking out of the hospital, Ms Meti went to the house and asked to see her child. She recalls holding the baby for less than a minute before Rosdiana snatched her back and escorted Ms Meti from the house.

'Rosdiana told me don't cry, don't be sad. You can visit your daughter anytime you want and someday she will come back,' said Ms Meti. She never saw the child again and requests to see photos were angrily rebuffed. She has since married and had another child.

At the state orphanage, staff say they are hopeful Erwin can be returned to his real mother, who has been located in central Java. She has visited several times and wants him back, says orphanage chief Marwianti. The clock is ticking: under Indonesian law, no child can be adopted past the age of five. 'Erwin will accept her, I'm sure,' she said.