It wouldn't be surprising if the following news raised a few eyebrows: Children, usually over 4 years old but sometimes less than six months, are available on the Internet.
But what sounds fishy actually is a publicly sponsored program designed to help child-seeking families around the world link with Brazilian children, some of them street kids, who need an adoptive home.
The idea of posting children's pictures and basic personal information on the Internet, along with information on how they can be adopted, occurred last year to Siro Darlan de Oliveira, a Rio de Janeiro child-and-juvenile judge. With years of adoption experience behind him, Mr. Darlan thought the Internet option could help reduce the initial adoption steps, perhaps cut out the expensive middlemen families often resort to in locating a child, and reduce the time families spend - and children wait - to see their dream realized.
"The idea is simply to facilitate the bringing together of people who feel a deep need," says Mr. Darlan. But the program has been more successful at raising critics who say the idea puts a wrong-headed emphasis on children as the "offer" in the process, than at placing them in adoptive homes.
The Internet program was implemented last fall, amid what adoption officials in Brazil say is high interest since the early 90s among foreigners, especially Europeans, in adopting Brazilian children. So Paulo state recorded 214 foreign adoptions alone, down from a high of 468 in 1994.
An on-line adoption newsletter called Rainbowkids also features a photolisting of children, usually from Russia, needing homes. It is not affiliated with any governments or adoption agencies.
"None of ours was an 'Internet adoption' strictly speaking," says Darlan, although several children who appeared on Rio's child and juvenile justice home page have been adopted. "In those cases [the family and child] didn't meet that way," he adds, "but you never know who is encouraged to pursue an adoption because of what they saw on the Internet."
It is the suggestion the program raises of electronic child shopping that has earned the idea some criticism. Some critics fear posting children's photos on the same medium where everything from animals to plane tickets are bought and sold only encourages a tendency to treat children as tradable and expendable objects.
"We cannot agree in any way with placing on the Internet pictures and personal information of children available for adoption," says Samuel Alves de Melo Jr., director of So Paulo's State Judicial Commission for International Adoption. Children "are not merchandise that should be exposed, as if they were for sale, in a global showcase such as this network." He calls the program a "dangerous interpretation of the adoption procedure." And since the home page includes abandoned children, he says it foments "an image of a country that doesn't care to address its own problems but prefers to transfer them to others."
But Darlan, who is outspoken in his defense of children, bristles at such attacks. "Our idea is the opposite of such commercialism, these [Internet postings] are not a commercial, and there certainly is no sale," he says. "In fact, if we can remove some of the economic element often present in adoptions, where a middleman charges huge amounts of money - and usually for very little [result] - then so much the better."
The Internet adoptions face the same strict scrutiny as any other adoptions in Brazil. In the case of foreign adoptions, families must file an extensive dossier with child services officials where they live. That information is reviewed and transferred to Brazilian authorities.
Brazil, like some other countries, has witnessed bouts of opposition to foreign adoptions. Any news of a child-sex scandal or of a rash of child killings in a foreign country raises protests, as do rumors (less prevalent over the past year) of international trafficking in child body organs.
But foreign families increasingly fill a need that Brazilians are reluctant to consider: adopting older children. "We have no trouble finding Brazilian families for children under two. In fact, many families waiting for an infant go wanting," says Darlan. "But we have very few Brazilians who want children over 2, while the foreign families are less age specific."
The Rio Web site's current list of adoptable kids includes one 5-month-old baby, but Darlan says such listings are the "exception" - and usually have to do with race. That's because in addition to preferring newborns, Brazilians tend to want light-skinned babies. Whereas he says that foreigners seeking a Brazilian child are generally color blind.
Adoption officials in other parts of Brazil agree that foreigners are less limited in their expectations for an adoptable child. "Our experience ... is that foreign families don't consider age, skin color, or even physical deficiencies as determining factors" when adopting a child, says Myrian Gomes da Silva, coordinator of Child and Adolescent Programs for So Paulo state.
So Paulo's Melo emphasizes that foreign adoptions are to be treated as an "exception" according to Brazilian law, but he also acknowledges that "unhappily" Brazilians generally continue to discount the possibility of adopting older or dark-skinned children.
In that context, Rio's adoption home page does look like a way to expose the world to one country's less-wanted children. The fact he cannot yet claim an "Internet adoption" doesn't discourage Darlan. With 46 children from Rio appearing on the Internet at any given moment, he believes that is 46 children with a better chance of finding the family that will see them as the answer to their need (Rio de Janeiro's adoption home page: http://www.tj.rj.gov.br/grafica/jij/ criancas/adocao).