Linda Perilstein sits on the floor of her sun-filled family room, a telephone receiver balanced between her chin and shoulder. Although it's mid-afternoon on an unseasonably warm Saturday and Perilstein would prefer to be spending time with her family, she is busy at work.
"This is the worst part of my job," she explains as she coaxes one telephone operator after another, trying to call Romania. She obviously has done this before, so often she knows the shortcuts (if you call Hungary first and ask an operator to place the call it sometimes goes through) and she knows one particular operator by name.
By chance, this helpful woman answers on Perilstein's 12th attempt and succeeds in getting through. It's taken about 45 minutes; sometimes it takes all day.
"I love you like a mother," Perilstein tells her, jotting down a date. She's just learned the operator is getting married, and she'll send a gift, just as she has sent this unseen woman flowers in the past. It's her way of getting things done, the small touches that can make the difference between success and failure. In the complex, bureaucratic world of international adoptions, Linda Perilstein is learning that every little bit helps.
It is as dark and cold in the small apartment where the call is answered as it is sunny and bright back in Washington. Although there is only a seven-hour time difference, Bucharest is more like a world away, an era behind. Poverty abounds, basic necessities are in short supply, and a sense of hopelessness pervades the city a year after the execution of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
Tragically, what is not in short supply are abandoned children. More than 100,000 are estimated to live in Romania's 300-plus orphanages, the result of a Ceausescu policy that prohibited abortion and birth control, and encouraged couples to have five children. Already unable to provide for those at home, many Romanian women slip away from the maternity hospitals after delivery, leaving their newborns behind.
One such abandoned baby is being discussed now with a Bucharest attorney. A few months ago Perilstein was a D.C. lawyer with a general civil practice. If she had a specialty, it was real estate. But through her own efforts to adopt her 7-month-old daughter, Molly, Perilstein and the Romanian lawyer have become friends. When he asked her to assist him in his work, she didn't hesitate.
"I've gone from having to evict tenants to saying 'It's a girl,' " she says, smiling. It's a joyous transformation."
Since December 1989, when the world first glimpsed some of the horror of life under Ceausescu, many Westerners have traveled to Romania in the hopes of adopting these tiniest victims of his rule. According to the State Department, 141 Romanian children had been adopted and brought to the States by early September, the latest figures available, and another 170 were in the process of being adopted. Perilstein, as an adoptive parent, is using her knowledge of what can be a complicated, risky venture to help others wishing to adopt.Together with Linda Brownlee, a social worker with experience conducting adoptive home studies, she is founding Cradle of Hope Adoption Center, a private, nonprofit agency that will specialize, for now, in placing Romanian orphans.
Perilstein has much in common with her clients. She, too, knows the pain of infertility, having tried for two years to conceive while around her a seemingly endless array of friends and fellow workers became pregnant. She knows the anger, jealousy, and frustration that accompany the problem, which today afflicts one couple in six and fully one-quarter of women in their mid to late thirties. And she knows the expense of in vitro fertilization, having had the procedure, unsuccessfully, four times.Perilstein credits Resolve, a support group for infertile couples, with saving her sanity: "It made a big difference to share your pain with people who understood."
Early Resolve meetings dealt with the latest drug therapies for infertility but, as time passed and couples failed to conceive, the focus shifted to adoptions. Perilstein tackled adoption as she does everything -- like a tenacious attorney. She took courses offered by Families Adopting Children Everywhere and Families for Private Adoptions. She pored over census data, looking for counties with high teenage pregnancy rates and low per-capita savings. She advertised in the newspapers of these rural areas. For all her efforts, she had no realistic responses.
Perilstein and her husband, Joel Appelbaum, submitted an application with a local adoption agency, which eventually came through for them. They were chosen by lottery to become the adoptive parents of a healthy baby boy, Sam, now 2.
Shortly after Sam was home, Perilstein wanted to adopt again. She didn't want Sam to be an only child, but discovered that most agencies will not place a second baby with an adoptive couple.
Then Perilstein learned of the Romanian orphans. She remembers most vividly the ABC "20/20" segment telecast last April, a piece that resulted in more mail for the show -- 25,000 letters -- than any other in its history.
"It was heartbreaking to watch hundreds of children lying in cribs that seemed more like cages, with no one to hold them, no toys to play with," she recalls.
Perilstein got a list of Romanian lawyers from the State Department and wrote to every one of them. She put a notice in the Resolve newsletter asking other couples interested in adopting Romanian children to meet at her home. In the meantime, she received only one response to her letters, but it was a fateful one. The attorney had done international adoptions and was coming West on business. Perilstein pleaded with him to come to Washington for her meeting. He finally agreed and, after listening to him explain the procedures, Perilstein and Appelbaum and about half of the couples at the May 31 gathering decided to adopt.Adopting Molly went relatively smoothly, although she was caught in the hiatus this summer when the Romanian government suspended adoptions to rewrite regulations. Previously, Ceausescu himself approved each adoption; now it is done by the courts and procedures can vary by city. Born June 17, Molly "came home" to the Shepherd Park neighborhood in Northwest Washington over Labor Day weekend.
Between Perilstein and her law school friend Stacy Canan, who helped in the initial stages of forming the agency, three trips have been made to Romania to visit orphanages and maternity hospitals, some of which they describe as "nearly medieval."
They have met Americans and Canadians who arrive with nothing but the flimsiest of contacts or none at all, who comb the countryside only to be denied admittance to many of the orphanages. They have met couples promised babies in two weeks, who spend their savings following false leads and remain childless five weeks later.
"I cried with these people," Canan said. "You bond very quickly with these children, and if it doesn't work out, you truly have to grieve."
Abortion has been legal in Romania since January and as a result births have started to decline. But there still are thousands of older babies, from 6 to 15 months, and toddlers in need of homes, the women said.
During one visit to an orphanage in Arad, near the Hungary border, Canan said "a sea of arms" reached out to her from the cribs. Babies who could stand hugged her and would not let go. Others unable to sit or stand, lay writhing on their backs, their arms flailing, trying to touch her.
As sad as this sounds, Canan said it is actually a good sign since it indicates that with proper attention, these children can probably catch up to their peers developmentally. "I don't believe the staff in this facility meant any harm," she said. "It's just that the babies are rarely held. The crib is their universe."
Ironically, Canan believed she was prepared for what she saw because of her work here in Washington. A court-appointed attorney who represents children in abuse and neglect proceedings, she often visits hospital wards for boarder babies, children abandoned by drug-addict mothers or because they have AIDS.
"People are shocked by the images from Romania," she said, "but we must remember that there are abandoned children growing up in institutional settings right here."
Since babies can experience developmental delays because of time spent in institutions, a child-development specialist will be on the Cradle of Hope advisory board and the agency is putting together a resource base for prospective parents on developmental issues.
At age 3, children in Romania's orphanages are sorted into two categories. Those deemed healthy remain in orphanages as wards of the state until they come of age. Those considered disabled are warehoused in institutions likened to concentration camps. Here the children wear rags in rooms with cement floors and are given barely enough to eat, let alone adequate medical care, education or love.
Barbara Bascom, former chief of child development at Walter Reed Army Medical Center who now is working in Romania for World Vision, a relief organization, believes many of these children are misdiagnosed.
Although many do have severe disabilities, she said recently, a remarkable number appear to have only minor problems that would be routinely treated in the United States. Still others appear perfectly normal but, because Romania lacks basic diagnostic equipment or staff cannot distinguish between developmental problems and physical ones, these children have landed in the institutions.
Christina Lorenz, a pediatric nurse at Children's Hospital, recently left for Romania to help World Vision. Cradle of Hope paid part of her air fare, one of many relief efforts in which the women have become involved.
It already has sent diapers, toys, baby clothes and equipment, and medical supplies, journals and textbooks to Romania. Perilstein hopes to have agency volunteers coordinate other donations as soon as Cradle of Hope becomes fully operational as an adoption agency.Perilstein stressed that international adoption isn't for everyone. Costs run roughly $10,000, plus other expenses, and there can be glitches. Often couples will not get as complete a medical history on a child as they might in the U.S. (though all babies placed will be thoroughly examined by a pediatrician and tested for HIV, syphilis and hepatitis). And there is the issue of developmental delays.
"I don't gloss over the risks," Perilstein said, "but I can say personally that the rewards are great."