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Meet Moe

Susan Notes: Note that in Belgium a boy who "hasn't done well academically" finds a place. He gets to participate in the sports he loves and he's in trade school studying carpentry.

Note the other skill that is emphasized: forgiveness.

by John W. Miller

One of my Belgian-American parents' six kids is a stocky 16-year-old who loves heavy metal, baseball and hanging out with his buddies. His personality and American accent fit his name: Moe Miller.

What requires explanation is how this kid with bright eyes and a quick wit, my brother, was once a castoff of 1989 Romania named Daniel Balasz. The transformation can only be explained by luck, and the freedom given to a loving family to take in a kid who needed it.

Unfortunately, the miraculous path Moe has taken to normalcy is now against the rules. Last year Romania banned international adoptions as a condition for joining the European Union in 2007. EU officials "felt the country was way too permissive," says Doris Theodora Mircea, a Romanian diplomat in Brussels. There were concerns that kids were being sold illegally to American and Western European parents.

Romania has for years been overflowing with unwanted kids because of a strict ban on birth control during the reign of Nicolae Ceausescu between 1967 and 1989. Westerners who wanted children once knew that Romania was a good place to adopt. It still should be. According to official documents provided by the Romanian government, 32,821 Romanian kids still live in orphanages and 50,238 live in foster families.

No one wants a world in which babies are bought and sold, but I think that my brother's story shows that "permissive" can sometimes be better than an outright ban, and that bureaucrats and politicians might do well to err on the side of giving capable families the chance to take care of kids who need it. My brother's story also illustrates that a kid adopted by incompetent parents in a wealthier country can sometimes do better than he would where he was born. Living in a functional society opens doors that don't exist in places where life isn't so good.

The tale begins in the late 1980s with René and Anne-Marie Poelmans, a Belgian couple with poor mental and physical health, and a notion inside their heads that having children around might solve their problems. Unable to conceive, they trooped off to Romania. In a small village called Sinnicoara they found Natalia Marinela Balasz, a woman in her early 20s with an absent husband and several kids.

Ms. Balasz was willing to give up her boy named Daniel, who had been born in August 1989, just before the Ceausescu regime was toppled. There might have been money involved in the transaction; we don't know. The Poelmanses renamed their kid Florimond. They also found a girl in an orphanage, named her Sorcha and brought their new family back to Belgium. My mom, a friend of theirs who tried to bring some sense and stability to their lives, was asked to be the boy's godmother.

The Poelmanses' new life hadn't lasted long before the demons returned. Anne-Marie flirted several times with suicide, and the four packs of cigarettes a day and booze didn't cure René's diabetes.

When both entered a hospital, Florimond came to live with us. When I first saw him, in 1991, he was a little boy with big, dirty, curly hair that smelled like cigarettes, a swollen tummy and weary-looking eyes. You can still see those eyes in his first passport, stamped Republica Socialista Romania. That sturdy blue booklet, by the way, lists his place of birth as Belgium, so it took at least one lie to get him to Brussels.

Daniel "Florimond" Poelmans stayed with us for three months before returning to his adoptive parents. Then he came back. He shuttled back and forth, living with his parents, then with my family, on and off for three years. Once, his dad couldn't afford to pay any bills. "They were camping out by a heater," my mom recalls.

During that time I started referring to him as my brother. In 1993, on a family vacation in France, American relatives pronounced his name "Florimoe" and that soon became Moe. In 1994, he moved in for good. (Sorcha lives with her godmother, also in Brussels.)

He seemed to enter his moody teenage years early. At 10 he stole money, and folded his arms together and sulked for hours. At our dinner table, where conversations would run forever, he never said a word. Back then I reckoned this poor kid would be a mess when he reached the age he is now. Instead, I've learned a lesson: There aren't very many issues that can't be solved by a caring family.

For the most part I credit my parents. As the Poelmanses' health deteriorated in the late 1990s, my siblings and I pleaded with my mom to shut these people out of our lives. Instead she always welcomed Anne-Marie into our house, even when she was drugged up and drunk and called Moe "stupid." My mom would then explain to him that Anne-Marie wasn't well, and that some people are just sick. Instead of rejection, Moe learned forgiveness.

Sports also helped. Moe is a terrific athlete and excels in baseball. Five times he's made the Belgian national team, including the team that won the under-14 world championships in Detroit. He hasn't done well academically, but he enjoys the trade school in Brussels where he studies carpentry. At the dinner table he tells people about his day and cracks sophomoric jokes.

In short, he's a normal 16-year-old.

René died in 1999, and Anne-Marie in 2000. But that didn't mean my parents could legally adopt Moe. Romanian law requires governments to try to find the natural parents if the adoptive parents die. So for most of the past four years, he was in bureaucratic limbo as Bucharest tried to find the parents.

Last month, however, the deadline for finding the birth parents expired, and my parents finally adopted the boy they had called a son for more than a decade. We celebrated with cake and champagne. My brother says he is looking forward to seeing his "real" name -- his new name -- on his passport.

That change will mark the final step in a decade-long process to confirm what was readily apparent to anyone who visited my parents' house: that Moe is a Miller. The role of governments should not be to build a fortress of paperwork and bureaucracy around kids who need loving families. Romania and the EU, it seems, have failed that test.

Mr. Miller is a Brussels-based reporter for Dow Jones Newswires.

— John W. Miller
Wall Street Journal


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