Adoption row roils Jakarta

A four-year-old boy is at the center of a trafficking case that has heightened scrutiny on Asian adoption.

Curled on his bed in the corner of the dorm, Erwin dozes in the sticky afternoon heat. Other boys toss in their sleep; a few cough or cry out. Erwin's eyes flicker open briefly, then close.

In his yellow striped pajama shirt and red shorts, Erwin looks no different from the other preschoolers in this state orphanage on the outskirts of the Indonesian capital Jakarta. But this four-year-old boy is at the center of an illegal adoption row that has led to the arrest of alleged child traffickers in Indonesia, a manhunt in Azerbaijan and a legal battle in Ireland's High Court.

The case has focused attention on the ethics of foreign adoptions in Asia, where thousands of children were orphaned by last December's Indian Ocean tsunami. In the aftermath, the US State Department blocked adoptions of tsunami victims, partly due to the risk of child trafficking.

Indonesia's tough rules on foreign adoptions, including religious compatibility, restrict the number of legal placements to less than 20 a year, a fraction of the number recorded in countries like China and Russia that offer fast-track adoptions. The lack of legal avenues may drive would-be parents to illegal brokers.

"Foreign adoption is the last resort. As long as we've got an Indonesian couple who want to adopt, that's preferred," says Afrinaldi, the deputy director of child welfare at the Social Affairs Ministry.

Erwin's story begins in July 2001, after his Indonesian mother gave him up for adoption. Using a broker, Irish accountant Joseph Dowse, who lived in Jakarta together with his Azerbaijani wife Lala and her daughter, adopted him. They told friends that they were bonding well with the curly-haired boy. In an undated studio photo, Dowse smiles as Erwin sits on his lap, flanked by Lala and her young daughter.

Two years later, say officials, Dowse drove to a private orphanage outside Jakarta and abandoned his adopted son. He never returned, and the family later moved to Azerbaijan. The decision to abandon Erwin came after Lala, who had earlier sought fertility treatment, discovered she was pregnant, according to officials and local media reports.

Because Erwin was registered as an Irish citizen, his case has triggered a legal row in Ireland. Irish authorities have located Dowse in Azerbaijan and sought to annul the adoption. Dowse has reportedly refused to attend a High Court hearing due in October.

Tipped off about Erwin, Afrinaldi located the broker, a middle-aged woman called Rosdiana living in a Jakarta suburb, and posed as a buyer on behalf of a New Zealand couple. According to Afrinaldi, Rosdiana said she would find him a baby and boasted of 80 foreign adoptions since 2000. Prices depended on the customer, but would start from $7,000.

In July, Rosdiana was arrested along with her daughter on suspicion of child trafficking, document fraud and illegal adoption. Police are also hunting for an Indonesian-born American woman suspected of finding foreigners to adopt the babies allegedly supplied by Rosdiana.

"There are definitely more (child trafficking) syndicates out there. It's easy to find unwanted babies without a father or families with economic problems. There's a big potential here," says Ahmad Dofiri, police chief for women and children in Jakarta.

In the crowded backstreets of the Jakarta suburb where Rosdiana lived, such families were easy to find. They say that far from selling their babies for profit, they were tricked into giving them up and browbeaten into submission.

Sitting on the concrete floor in 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 Mulyani's medical costs - about $25. The baby boy was taken away shortly after delivery, and Mulyani was later assured that he was "fat and healthy". The following year, 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 realize I was selling my babies. It's just because we are poor," says Mulyani, nodding at her husband. Neither of them suspected that the babies were being sent overseas, nor did they think it odd that no photos were ever shown.

Earlier this year, Mulyani, a soft-spoken woman with dark rings around her eyes, handed over a third baby to Rosdiana, a boy named Andre who was allegedly to be sold to Afrinaldi's fictitious foreigners. He has since been placed in the same orphanage as Erwin.

"People thought Rosdiana was an angel who just wanted to help poor families. She was well regarded in the neighborhood," says Afrinaldi, who helped bust a similar baby trafficking ring in 2004.

Back at the orphanage, staff say they are hopeful that Erwin can be returned to his real mother, who has been located in central Java.

The mother has visited several times and wants him back, says the orphanage chief, Marwianti.

"Erwin will accept her, I'm sure," she says.

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