‘How on earth could I think that a doctor would deceive me?’
Exclusive: One woman tells of fears that her baby may have been a victim of an alleged illegal adoption network in Armenia
Armine*, a woman from the north of Armenia, lost a baby seven years ago. She gave birth to twin girls, but her doctor told her one had been born with a life-threatening illness and would die if she took her home. She signed a consent form to give the baby up to the state.
Now, however, Armine believes she was lied to and targeted by an alleged network of 11 well-connected officials and doctors who have been charged with illegally selling 20 Armenian children to Italian adoptive parents between 2015 and 2018.
Her fears come after a year-long investigation by openDemocracy and irpiMedia found that many of those awaiting trial for their involvement in the illegal adoptions – including the network’s alleged leader – are still working in the government, maternal care, and child welfare.
We also uncovered that three adoptions from Armenia to Italy took place last year, despite the Italian Commission for International Adoptions, which licences Italian adoption agencies and oversees their work, suspending adoptions from Armenia in 2019.
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The revelations have led to concerns 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.
Armine had no idea that doctors could have lied to her until 2019, three years after she gave birth, when the Armenian Investigative Committee – an official body for conducting preliminary criminal investigations – asked her to give evidence as part of information-gathering on possible illegal adoption cases.
The investigators claimed Armine’s child had survived and might have been adopted by foreigners, although a lack of evidence means hers is not one of the 20 cases included in the current criminal investigation. In March, the Prosecutor General’s Office announced that more adoptions would be examined, including those to other countries.
In 2022, Armine discovered a possible paper trail when she applied for state welfare benefits. She discovered that a girl with an Italian name had been registered at her home address. The child’s birth date matched that of her daughter, who would have been six years old at the time.
According to the documents, the child had been registered to her address in 2017, a year after her twins’ birth, without Armine’s or her husband’s knowledge.
“At that very moment, I understood what had happened,” she said. “They [the alleged illegal network] had planned everything beforehand.”
‘I think about her every day’
After seven years of fertility treatments, Armine gave birth to twin girls at a maternity hospital in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, in 2016.
“We were so happy when the twins were born,” she recalled. “The caesarean section was successful and I was feeling very well.”
But the babies had health problems. They had low birth weights and low oxygen levels so they were kept in incubators. Doctors discharged Armine a few days after giving birth, and she visited the twins at the hospital every day for two months.
During all that time, she said, the doctors did not allow her to hold, breastfeed or even take pictures of her babies. She said doctors told her that “radiation [from cameras] would be harmful to them”, even as she watched other parents photographing their babies.
Armine lives more than three hours north of Yerevan, but while her daughters were in hospital she rented an apartment in the capital to be near them. Money became tight, and her family had to take out a bank loan to buy formula, nappies and clothing.
Soon, the doctors had worrying news for Armine. She recalled them telling her that one of the twins “was not gaining weight and might not survive”. Finally, the hospital told her and her family that the baby had “diseases incompatible with life”.
After they received the news, Armine was in a vulnerable position, and her partner and mother-in-law handled conversations with the doctors. They asked about files or documents confirming the diagnosis, but the doctors explained that “in the era of current technology, the documents are no longer on paper, but on the phone”. The doctors eventually showed Armine’s mother-in-law a scan of the baby’s brain on a phone, but she later said she hadn’t understood the image.
Armine said that at the time she completely trusted the medical advice and didn’t question what she was told. “I was not an uncaring mother, but they [doctors] are capable of completely hypnotising a person,” she explained. “How on earth could I think that a doctor who took the Hippocratic oath would deceive me?”
Armine said medical staff told her that her daughter would not survive if she took her home, and she felt pressured to sign a consent form giving up her parental rights.
After two months, Armine’s other daughter was well enough to be discharged from hospital. She took her home, and repeatedly phoned the hospital to ask after her other baby – but was told she had no right to as she’d given her up. The hospital then stopped answering her calls.
She still doesn’t know her daughter’s whereabouts and told openDemocracy she is desperate to find her but doesn’t know how to start the search.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about her. I have no rest, neither day nor night. My only hope is that at least my daughter will find her sister one day.”
But this may be difficult. Though Armenia has a procedure to allow biological parents and their children to find each other, it requires both parties to apply to the state authorities, explained Mushegh Hovsepyan, the president of Disability Rights Agenda, an Armenian NGO.
Hovsepyan, a former official in the Armenian Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, who helped collect evidence for the ongoing criminal case, added: “The fact is, it is common for one party to be unaware of the adoption, making it difficult to initiate the process. Consequently, this mechanism often fails to resolve the issue that many people face.”
openDemocracy has not been able to reach the hospital Armine gave birth in for comment, though it has previously denied any involvement in the alleged illegal adoption network.
Armine is not alone in worrying about what could have happened to her baby. Dozens more Armenian mothers fear they could have been victims of the alleged crime ring and in March the prosecutor general’s office announced that it believes at least 437 Armenian children have been sold for €25,000 each to both foreigners and ethnic Armenians living overseas.
The trial against the 11 suspects accused of running the alleged illegal adoption network has started, with publicly available information suggesting the most recent hearing took place behind closed doors on 31 March. Those charged deny any wrongdoing.
Armine is hopeful that the investigators might finally give her some answers to the mystery that has haunted her for years.
*Armine’s name has been changed to protect her identity
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