COVER

UNDER SUSPICION

John Davies is a hero to some adoptive parents, a baby-selling profiteer to many governments

BRUCE WALLACE August 21 1995
COVER

UNDER SUSPICION

John Davies is a hero to some adoptive parents, a baby-selling profiteer to many governments

BRUCE WALLACE August 21 1995

UNDER SUSPICION

John Davies is a hero to some adoptive parents, a baby-selling profiteer to many governments

BRUCE WALLACE

At the very least, John Davies doesn’t look like the baby seller so many people make him out to be. People who traffic in children are supposed to be shadowy figures with suspicious eyes, living by furtive movements that make them difficult for police and journalists to track down. John Davies is a warm, welcoming bear of a man. He opens his home to visitors. He answers every question asked about his activities in an articulate, soft-spoken manner. He has an address on the Internet.

To those people who have adopted children out of eastern Europe with Davies’ help, the British-born Anabaptist minister is even a hero. “While governments conspire to make the eye of the needle even smaller for international adoptions, Davies thumbs his nose at bureaucrats and tries to break their cartel,” says one New York City businessman who adopted a Romanian child through Davies. “It has made him enemies in high places, but I think he is sort of like Indiana Jones, an entrepreneur.” Davies, who has lived in Romania since 1991, says that he is simply an advocate of children’s rights and a sworn opponent of government-controlled adoptions. That process, he maintains, is too slow and follows national political interests (such as China’s tendency to put mostly girls up for foreign adoptions) rather than the interests of children.

But there are government bureaucrats and police in Canada, Britain and the United States who suspect that Davies does, indeed, sell babies. They say that he offers cash or gifts to impoverished women in eastern Europe in return for allowing rich Western couples to adopt their unwanted babies. Davies—or his Solomon Foundation charity, which has no overseeing board of directors—claims to have a sliding pricing structure, subsidizing some adoptions, handling most for about $4,000 to $5,000. And he retains a healthy chunk of cash for his intermediary services. “Quite simply, he trafficks in children,” was the blunt assessment of a senior British government official in London, slapping the thick file resting on his knee and—like most of Davies’ critics—insisting on anonymity. Other charges that have appeared in Hungarian newspapers border on the outlandish: Davies the CIA agent,

a gunrunner for the Serbs, a businessman who kills babies in order to sell their body organs. For three years now, critics have whispered the allegations about Davies to European journalists so many times that Interpol and several national police forces have sniffed smoke and started looking for the fire.

Last month, the Romanian government withdrew his residency visa, citing excessive profits made on adoptions he brokered two years ago.

Davies is also under investigation in the Croatian capital of Zagreb, where, until recently, he ran a charitable operation ostensibly aimed at helping pregnant women who wanted to give up their babies. Many of the women were prostitutes who had been lured to Zagreb because of the thousands of UN soldiers there on the edge of the Bosnian conflict. Although he was acquitted of engaging in illegal adoptions by a Croatian court last May, the judges authorized prosecutors to continue to scour for evidence against him, and Davies is expected back in a Zagreb court this fall. Meanwhile, his notoriety has led the RCMP to put Davies on their watch list, requiring immigration officials to interview him about his intentions should he try to enter Canada. ‘We received a warning about him because of some British newspaper articles, so we contacted Interpol,” says Cpl. François Remy of the RCMP. We received some intelligence, but it was all allegations and innuendo.”

Davies not only denies the allegations against him, but has an explanation for the innuendo. “The system of international adoptions has been set up to work for the benefit of Western adoption agencies who want the product—babies—stored cheaply for them in state-run institutions until they can sell it,” he said during one of several conversations with Maclean’s over a three-day visit to one of his refuge centers in the southeastern Hungarian town of Balastya. “The international

conventions governing adoption are more about asserting state property rights over children than about children’s human

rights. I never break the law. But because

I won’t play by the bureaucrats’ rules, they leak these fantastic lies about me to the press in order to characterize me as a baby seller. It’s their way of discrediting me.”

Whatever his critics’ motives, the strategy has worked. Davies’ chubby cheeks with their wisp of a beard have become the public face of eastern Europe’s murky baby trade. And the publicity has effectively shut down his adoption operations. The man who assisted in arranging more than 100 international adoptions between 1991 and 1994 has brokered just three this year. His affiliation with any prospective adoption is a sure ticket to bureaucratic logjams and police questioning. “Not that he’s a big criminal,” says Cpl. Remy. “But if you operate through him you can expect trouble.”

That is what happened to Julie Purvis, a Peterborough, Ont.-area woman who tried to adopt a child from eastern Europe with Davies’ help. In May, she got as far as visiting the baby boy in Balastya, where she met the Moldavian birth mother and spent a week bonding with the child. But Ontario government officials were suspicious

about the circumstances: the Moldavian mother gave birth under Davies’ care in Zagreb, then moved the child to Hungary where the transfer to Purvis took place. Ontario officials say they will not authorize the adoption until they are satisfied that all aspects of it were legal. That has left the baby boy stranded in a Hungarian orphanage and Purvis back in Canada, pending the outcome of the Moldavian government’s investigation.

“Bit by bit, these adoption entrepreneurs have been squeezed,” says Rich Partridge, co-ordinator of private and international adoptions for the Ontario government. “That is not to say that there is no room for private adoptions. There is a role for ethical agencies. But some of

them have been rotten apples. We see what they are charging and we have shut some of them down. What we have to ask in every case is: is this all on the up and up?” It is a question that many people would like to have answered, once and for all, about John Davies.

Adopted himself, Davies grew up in south London. But since the late 1980s, the hefty, six-foot, four-inch Briton has been a prominent fixture in Romania’s Transylvanian region. He first travelled to Romania to do missionary work in 1985 and, he says, soon fell in with members of the country’s dissident crowd, particularly those who sprang from Transylvania’s large ethnic Hungarian community. He says he smuggled printing equipment and Bibles into Romania (“I heard that Davies is a Bible smuggler,” one of his American critics asserted knowingly—and anonymously), and ran up a minor conviction for credit card fraud in the process. In those days, he occasionally acted as a driver for László Tökés, a prominent dissident priest. Tökés later helped light the spark in the 1989 revolution that violently toppled Nicolae Ceausescu’s Communist dictatorship. After the revolution, Davies said he decided to make Romania his home. He and his wife, Cathy, have lived there ever since, raising their four children in the Transylvanian town of Miercurea Ciuc.

But Davies is spending more of his time these days just across the Hungarian border in Balastya, trying to convert a dilapidated pigsty and farmhouse into a shelter for women fleeing prostitution rackets. The renovations are, to put it kindly, a work in progress. But the location is fascinating. The driveway of Davies’ clinic exits onto Hungary’s two-lane Highway 75, offering a curbside view as the plumage of the new eastern Europe rushes past.

The road groans with truck traffic. Since the Yugoslav war closed routes through that part of the Balkans, Highway 75 has become the principal north-south commercial road from Germany to Turkey. Illegal sanctions-busters mix with truckers moving legitimate freight and, at strategic parts of the highway such as the stretch of road outside Balastya, dozens of heavily rouged prostitutes from all over eastern Europe appear at roadside to do business with the long-distance truckers. In Hungary, prostitution is legal, so there is no need for

motels. Most deals are completed in the cab on the soft shoulder.

All the activity underscores the fact that eastern Europe is, once more, a place in motion. Its cocktail of ethnic groups moved freely through the region for centuries until the Communist era froze most of them in place for 45 years. But the end of the Cold War has them on the move again, re-opening old east-west trading routes for a host of commodities, not all of them legal. Small-scale nuclear material smuggling gets the headlines. But the big money-earners for criminals have been drugs and stolen cars—although in the past few years national police forces have begun to co-ordinate their fight against those activities.

The burgeoning trade now is in people. Organized gangs have brought thousands of young girls from the rural east to work as prostitutes or strippers in central Europe, including Germany. And there is an expanding traffic in aliens: people who will pay organized smuggling rings to ship them through the lax controls of such countries as Romania and on into the West. Thomas Tass, a Canadian immigration official in Warsaw who is regarded as a leading authority on alien smuggling, describes the east-west routes as “the new underground railroad.”

Many officials believe that there is a substantial trade in babies being put up for illegal adoption, as well. That is another reason why Davies’ activities arouse so much suspicion: he moves constantly, from Romania into Hungary, through Croatia and down into Bosnia and even Albania. “Why would he bother to get the mothers to go from Romania to Hungary to give birth?” asks Nigel Cantwell, a longtime children’s activist now working with UNICEF in Geneva.

“The only reason is to circumvent o Romanian government controls £ which are, regrettably, much need1 ed because people kept sweeping | in to snatch up babies.” £

Davies insists that he is only § ensuring that children born into § ethnic Hungarian families have the chance to be adopted into their own community in Hungary, rather than ending up in Romanian orphanages. He says Romanian nationalists attack him because he defends the country’s poorly treated minorities—the Hungarians, for one, as well as the widely reviled Roma, or gypsies. ‘We were doing nothing more than reflecting a common practice among Transylvanian Hungarians, who have often preferred to go to Hungary for serious medical care,” he says.

Alternatively, many of the women he helps have left home in order to keep their pregnancy a secret from unsympathetic families. But either way, asks an angry Davies, “who has the bloody right to tell women that they have to have their baby in Romania just because the Romanian government believes it has property rights over children? International adoption should be a last resort, but it should be an option. And where the child goes should be decided by the birth parents, not some faceless bureaucrat.”

Davies says he is driven by a wish to keep as many children as possible out of orphanages. Even his critics acknowledge that the slowmoving Romanian bureaucracy condemns many children to years of waiting to be matched to adoptive parents. But he knows that he will never be above suspicion until the day when he brokers adoptions for free. In the Purvis case, Canadian sources said he received $10,000, but Davies claims half of it went to prenatal care and legal costs. Certainly the Davies family shows no sign of great wealth, driving a battered old Aerostar van with a cracked windshield. “One thing for sure: the boy’s got no money,” says Rev. Jim Wilson of

Burlington, Ont, who runs Careforce, the charity which put Julie Purvis in contact with Davies. Careforce has now severed its ties with Davies because of the controversy.

“The real question may be: can any agency properly charge a fee for an adoption,” says Burt Galaway, a social work professor at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg who has met Davies and is considering lending his name to the Solomon Foundation as a consultant. “If making a profit is the definition, then very few agencies are not engaged in baby trafficking.”

Davies argues that “there is not as much baby selling going on as people would like to believe,” although he does say he himself has been visited by would-be baby buyers. They sometimes come to his door, attracted by his reputation. “They are usually taxi drivers or other lowlife of the gold-chained pimp variety, who show up driving the old Mercedes with the fuzzy dice just as you would expect them to,” he says. “They’ve got some poor lass in the backseat who is pregnant and scared, and they offer to sell you her unborn baby for $2,000.” But he adds that so-called legitimate adoption agencies do

engage in buying babies. “Some genuine agencies presume the only way to get children out of eastern Europe is to pay someone off,” says Davies. “So they hire some local front man and give him a ‘budget’ to get some kids. I have seen directors of these Western agencies making these arrangements.”

International childrens’ rights activists are aware of the practice, but they say the most egregious instances involve private adoptions—and some say that is why they want to close off the private adoption avenue altogether. The most notorious case occurred last year when a British couple, Adrian and Bernadette Mooney, were arrested trying to smuggle a baby out of Romania under a blanket in the back of their car. The pair had paid $8,500 for the child. “Private adoptions are a breeding ground for trafficking and the sale of children,” says UNICEF’s Cantwell. “Nonsense,” counters Davies. “Bureaucrats think they are the high priests of adoption and only they can bring this sacrament to the people.”

But the bureaucrats are not about to trust Davies either. The Purvises—who declined to be interviewed for this story—clearly ran into obstacles when Ontario officials became aware of Davies’ involvement. “This woman and child are victims,” says Davies. “On the basis of suspicions about me, all the usual macabre rumors, people’s lives are being screwed up.” Even Wilson is unsure about how to read his former associate. ‘We can all be fooled, but I think I know a con man,” says a saddened Wilson. “And I sense that John’s heart and his spirit for helping children are real. I think he is one of God’s entrepreneurs. He just does things in his own, unique, frustrating way.” □