Armenians accused of selling babies still work in hospitals and government

This investigation was conducted by and irpiMedia

Revealed: Members of alleged illegal adoption gang that sold babies to Italy keep high-profile jobs despite charges

By Tatev Hovhannisyan and Carlotta Indiano

The alleged ringleader of an illegal network that is accused of selling Armenian children to Italian couples is still working in adoption while on trial, a year-long investigation has discovered.

A joint probe by openDemocracy and Italian investigative website IrpiMedia has found that Anush Garsantsyan is seemingly still involved in arranging adoptions.

And many of her 10 co-defendants – including Armenia’s top obstetrician, a key government official responsible for international adoptions and child welfare workers – also continue to hold senior positions in maternal healthcare and the government.

The news comes four years after a criminal investigation opened into the adoptions of 20 Armenian children between 2015 and 2018, all of whom are said to be alive and living in Italy.

Eleven people have been charged with crimes including the buying and selling of children, abuse of official powers and large-scale money laundering over the adoptions – leading Italy to freeze adoptions from Armenia in June 2021.

But our investigation has uncovered that at least three adoptions took place from Armenia to Italy last year.

These findings have sparked fears from rights campaigners that women in the country remain vulnerable to potential abuses, particularly since international adoptions from Armenia to other countries have not been frozen – and the Prosecutor General’s Office announced in March that the criminal investigation is being widened to examine adoptions that took place in more countries.

A highly influential group

Garsantsyan is accused of receiving money from Italian adoption agencies since 2005 and heading a crime ring that preys on vulnerable mothers and Italian families desperate for children. The indictment claims that she and her network sold a total of 61 children, the prosecutor’s office said.

Armenia’s Investigative Committee claims the group procured babies by manipulating patients in a maternity hospital into putting their children into orphanages, from where they were sold to overseas couples wanting to adopt.

Investigators say the group caused some Armenian children to be born with health conditions that would make their parents more likely to give them up for adoption, and used false medical records and doctored administrative paperwork to fake such conditions in other cases. They also allege that the group brokered adoptions on behalf of Italian adoption agencies – which is illegal in Armenia.

Garsantsyan is said to have controlled the lucrative profits that arose from this trade, with prosecutors alleging that she earned more than one million euros for her role in the adoptions. Her lawyer has previously said she is innocent of any wrongdoing and that this money was a “reimbursement of costs” for seven years’ work facilitating adoptions.

Responding to our emails, Garsantsyan’s lawyer said the allegation against her client is “exclusively gossip… based on insulting and irresponsible statements of some people”. They continued: “During these four years, the body conducting the [criminal investigations] did not find any purchase and sale by my client.”

The lawyer added: “Garsantsyan acted exclusively as a representative of organisations, respecting the law of the Republic of Armenia, the Republic of Italy and the Hague Convention.”

The indictment names other alleged members of the network as including a former director of a children’s home in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, the former head of the government body that registers births and authorises personal documents, the director and deputy director of a Yerevan maternity hospital, as well as a doctor, and senior officials in the Ministry of Justice and the Labour and Social Affairs Ministry.

Despite the charges against them, the director of a maternity hospital – considered Armenia’s top obstetrician – and his deputy both remain in their positions, according to the publicly available information confirmed to openDemocracy and irpiMedia by the hospital. The director was previously found guilty of bribing a government official over funding to his hospital. In 2021 a court gave him two years’ probation.

We also identified that the bureaucrat at the Ministry of Justice, who is responsible for international adoptions and abduction of children, remains in his position and as of October 2021 was still representing Armenia at international forums. The ministry responded to requests for comment by saying that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

And a child welfare worker, who has been charged with official negligence after allegedly breaching the confidentiality of the database of kids waiting for adoption, still holds her position as the chief specialist at the Family, Women and Children’s Affairs department in the Labour and Social Affairs Ministry.

Ongoing adoptions

The Italian Commission for International Adoptions (CAI), which licences Italian adoption agencies and oversees their work, told openDemocracy and irpiMedia that it suspended the opening of new adoption cases in Armenia in June 2021 “as a precautionary measure”.

Yet the two countries concluded three adoptions last year, according to official data, which was confirmed to our reporters by the relevant government departments in both Armenia and Italy.

All three adoptions were organised by Italian agencies – two by Famiglia Insieme Onlus and the other by Associazione Arcobaleno Onlus – and began before the indictments were issued, according to the CAI. It said they were completed only after it received guidance from the Armenian government that its work is not part of the criminal investigation. This was confirmed to openDemocracy and irpiMedia by Armenia’s justice ministry.

Garsantsyan is the Armenian ‘representative’ for both Famiglia Insieme and Associazione Arcobaleno, according to the Armenian Ministry of Justice, which acts on behalf of the country’s Central Adoption Authority. Her role is legally ambiguous, as Armenia prohibits international adoptions via a third party.

In 2020, six months after Garsantsyan’s arrest, Associazione Arcobaleno Onlus credited her with helping organise 200 adoptions. Five months later, Famiglia Insieme Onlus also acknowledged her role as its correspondent in the country.

A third Italian adoption agency, Anpas Informa, also described her as its “contact person” in Armenia in 2011, saying her “job is to accompany the Italian families in the adoption process”. Anpas has not completed any adoptions with Armenia since Garsantsyan’s arrest.

In April, Associazione Arcobaleno Onlus told openDemocracy and irpiMedia that Garsantsyan is still on its payroll but is not actively working.

“Anush Garsantsyan still works for us, but she took some personal time off,” said Bruna Rizzato, Associazione Arcobaleno’s president.

Arcobaleno did not reply to further questions posed by openDemocracy and irpiMedia. Famiglia Insieme also did not respond. But the CAI, which licences all Italian adoption agencies, told us that while Famiglia Insieme Onlus has previously used Garsantsyan’s services, it currently has a separate contact person in Armenia. The CAI added: “Garsantyan is the contact person and not the ‘legal representative’ of Arcobaleno and Anpas.”

These claims were called into question following a letter sent to openDemocracy and irpiMedia by the Armenian Ministry of Justice on 25 May, which suggested Garsantsyan is a ‘representative’ for the Italian agencies and that she is still involved in facilitating adoptions.

It said: “As of today, the Armenian Central Authority continues to cooperate with Anush Garsantsyan, the Armenian representative of the Italian accredited organisations, in the scope of activities within the limits of her competence.”

We shared the letter with the CAI, which told us it subsequently requested an update on Garsantsyan’s situation from the Armenian Ministry of Justice.

The CAI also stressed that it “has given instructions to the agencies operating in Armenia to temporarily suspend their activities related to the adoption pending processes until further investigation is carried out on the nature of the charges brought against the contact person”.

In Italy, couples wishing to adopt a foreign child must apply to organisations appointed by the CAI. There is no suggestion that the Italian families who adopted the children, the CAI or any of the Italian agencies facilitating the adoptions were aware of the alleged crime ring.

Manipulating mothers

Adoption in Armenia is regulated by a 2010 decree that prioritises placing children with relatives or other Armenian nationals, with foreign adoption treated as a last resort. Cultural bias means it is usually children with disabilities that are adopted internationally.

Children with disabilities are among the most marginalised groups in Armenia, according to a 2014 report by Unicef. The report found that some parents are forced to leave them in orphanages due to “a lack of family support and community-based support networks, as well as the attitudes of society”.

The report added: “A few thousand children with disabilities are still isolated from their families, peers, and communities. They live in institutions, they do not attend preschool or school, do not have access to rehabilitation services, and do not participate in social events.”

Doctors acting within the illegal network allegedly preyed on these biases, convincing women seeking abortions to go through with their pregnancies and then using birth-stimulating drugs to induce early labour. The babies were often born with complicated health problems as a result, and investigators say doctors would then coerce the mothers into giving them up for adoption.

In other cases, medical workers allegedly lied to mothers, falsely telling them their children faced illnesses and life-threatening disabilities to get them to give up the child as well as to discourage adoption by local families.

International adoptions of Armenian children have outnumbered domestic adoptions in recent years. In 2015, 55 children were adopted abroad and 41 in Armenia, in 2016 there were 40 overseas adoptions and 35 domestic, and the same is true of 2017 (29 and 27) and 2018 (25 and 23).

The criminal investigation is focused on the alleged sale of 20 children – but hundreds more Armenian women believe they were victims of the illegal adoption network. They have not had their cases taken up by state prosecutors, often because they signed consent forms to give up parental rights, which the women say they were tricked into doing.

One support group, Armenian Mothers, was founded in 2019 to provide help to mothers who believe they have faced injustices in the medical system, from illegal adoptions to bribery demands from doctors.

The group, which today has more than 17,000 followers on social media, was at the forefront of rallies outside the Armenian prosecutor general’s office that demanded the arrest of all 11 people said to be involved in the illegal adoption case.

openDemocracy could not reach the maternity hospital for comment, but in 2019 the director told Aravot, an Armenian newspaper, that the allegations surrounding its practices and adoption were not true.

He said: “Adoptions have nothing to do with maternity care institutions, they are carried out by the ministries of labor and social affairs and justice through the orphanage. If you have any questions, you should contact them, and if you have any other questions, contact the press service.”

Turning a blind eye to a broken system

The 11 suspects remain free and the trial has started. The Supreme Judicial Council of Armenia refused to provide openDemocracy and irpiMedia with the timeline of the court hearings, but publicly available information suggests the most recent hearing took place behind closed doors on 31 March.

While the prosecutions are ongoing, the 20 Armenian families whose babies are said to have been adopted through the alleged criminal network are stuck in emotional limbo – not knowing where their children are or if they will see them again.

And the completion of three adoptions to Italy last year shows that Armenian authorities are yet to address a legal grey area highlighted by the investigation. The Italian organisations working on adoptions from Armenia are accredited in Italy and specialise in intercountry adoptions. But Armenian law prohibits the use of intermediaries or brokers in international adoptions.

The Family Code of Armenia stipulates that people wishing to adopt can only do so individually or through their ‘lawful representatives’, which can be a parent, adopter or guardian but not agencies and organisations.

The number of adoptions last year, although small, worries human rights and child advocates in Armenia. They say that regardless of the trial’s outcome, the law surrounding adoptions needs tightening to protect women.

“The absence of any legal amendments means the mechanisms that allowed illegal adoptions to occur continue to operate,” warned Mushegh Hovsepyan, the president of Disability Rights Agenda NGO and a former official in the Armenian Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. “This leaves the door open for further similar abuses.”

The lack of action is particularly worrying since the Prosecutor General’s Office announced in March that it believes at least 437 other Armenian children have been sold for at least €25,000 each to both foreigners and ethnic Armenians living in foreign countries including Italy, the United States, France, Russia and Switzerland.

The state legislation regulating adoption has also not undergone any fundamental changes since 2016 – despite Armenia’s Ombudsman’s Office calling for the establishment of a centralised adoption service and “clear criteria for the selection of adoptive parents, based not only on their [wealth]”.

These recommendations reflect concerns raised in 2016 by the then special rapporteur of the United Nations, Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, who is now the president of international not-for-profit Child Identity Protection.

Responding to our findings, de Boer-Buquicchio urged Armenia and Italy to follow their international commitments and “encompass robust mechanisms” to respond to allegations of any illicit adoption practices.

These include, she said, “full access to justice” and ensuring “that the best interests of children are the primary consideration in any future decisions”. She added: “In practice, this can result in the children’s return to the state of origin and that their identity be speedily re-established.”

Children’s advocates also say the state has not heeded previous warnings and has instead turned a blind eye to problems in a broken system. Hovsepyan described the regulation of adoptions of Armenian children as “generally inadequate”.

Anahit Khachatryan, the head of the Children’s Rights Protection Department in the Armenian Ombudsman’s Office, added: “The state must guarantee that children adopted abroad enjoy protection and standards that are equivalent to those in the case of domestic adoption.”