ADRIANA COUTO'S life might take a turn for the better on this cool foggy Monday morning, the day Juvenile Court Judge Antonio Augusto Guimaraes de Souza has come to visit her at the Mother of God Orphanage. ``Would you go to live with a family without your sister?'' asks the judge. ``No,'' replies the 12-year-old brown-skinned girl, jiggling her legs on the sofa, fiddling with her colorful cloth bracelets, pink on one arm and green on the other. ``Would you go if your sister could go, too?''
She nods yes, stealing a shy look and a smile at the judge.
As things stand now, Adriana's future leaves little room for doubt. ``If she's lucky, she'll be a good maid,'' Judge Guimaraes says later. ``... and she'll be making babies for us to take care of in three years.''
After Adriana serves him coffee in the nuns' sitting room, the judge leaves in the court's Volkswagen bus to see her 13-year-old sister Claudia at the public school around the corner. The two girls have a mother, but have lived in orphanages for years, though no one knows the exact story.
The school's director buzzes in her unexpected visitors through a heavy metal door, from an office with barred windows. ``The children from the orphanage give us the most problems,'' she tells the judge while an assistant scours the 2,000-student school for Claudia. Most are in special-needs classes, have a variety of physical ailments - and they ``behave badly,'' she adds. Many local families, she says, ``adopt'' these orphanage girls, putting them to work as unpaid household domestics.
After seeing Claudia, Guimaraes is not optimistic. He may have to try to convince Adriana to leave her sister behind.
Riding back to the courthouse in downtown Sao Paulo, Guimaraes tells about children he has helped to save from poverty and sadness. He shows off letters they have written him, snapshots of them in new homes in Italy, Switzerland, and West Germany.
Foreign adoptions create controversy among Brazilians. They worry that the children will be mistreated abroad. There are recurring stories of children being ``exported'' for organ transplants and adoption experts say there is, in fact, a big illegal, for-profit adoption circuit. Brazilians also tend to believe the country should solve its social problems, rather than hand them off to richer nations.
But Guimaraes wants to clear up the damage already done, and fast. ``There were two sisters in [the orphanage] who had gone eight months without a visit from their father. I took away the father's rights. This is abandonment and I have the right to declare it.''
Once a judge does this, the child can be adopted. But unlike Guimaraes, most juvenile court judges hesitate to cut the ties between parent and child, however flimsy they may be. Guimaraes is also one of the few judges who believe in foreign adoptions. Because of his radical approach, the judge carries a folder, listing about 300 adoptable children in his Sao Paulo jurisdiction. He has placed another 200. ``These are not abandoned children,'' he points out. ``What we have are lots of poor families that can't bring up their children.''
BACK in his chambers, a secretary shows in a German couple, in Brazil for one week to ask the judge for an adoption. They have heard about a pregnant woman due to give birth later this month who is willing to give up her child.
``It's very different in Europe,'' says the husband, a well-dressed civil engineer. ``If a woman cannot bring up a child she has an abortion. We would like to give a chance to a child who otherwise would not have a chance for an education.'' Married six years, the couple has been waiting four years to adopt, and wants two children. Guimaraes looks through their documents and asks about the husband's job.
He would permit the newborn adoption, but asks if the couple would not take an older child, maybe nine months old? Yes, they reply, but at least one child must be a newborn, because they want to experience parenthood from the start, once. A mother left her nine-month-old with the judge last Friday, and he has already contacted one possible family. ``If they don't want the baby, he could be yours tomorrow,'' he says. The only catch is that if they take the older baby, they can't have the newborn.
The decision is hard. But finally, the couple decides to take their chances with the newborn.
Next comes an Italian junior high school teacher, along with Joao Paulo, a nine-year-old he met through the court only yesterday. Head shaved and a big scar on his forehead, the child carries a new white sweater aloft on one palm, a trophy. Father-to-be Luigi points to a snapshot of his house near Turin, and tells about his wife, also a teacher, and the doting aunt, uncle, and ``nonna'' who await the boy. He chuckles nervously, as the judge points out the long nose he and Joao Paulo share. So far, they've not much else in common, not even language. ``Which team will you root for during the World Cup [to be played next month in Italy,] Brazil or Italy?'' the judge asks Joao.
In a more serious tone, the judge wants to know if the boy is happy, and if he thinks he ought to stay in Brazil or go to Italy. He chooses Italy. A social worker takes him aside to ask him again, to make sure. ``It's your life,'' she tells him.
A later conversation reveals that Joao Paulo liked the orphanage ``because I played, I studied, and went on trips to the countryside.'' His three brothers are there, and will be left behind. He says little about his birth parents and what he expects from the Italian couple. He doesn't seem to know what having a mother and father means.