Forty-one years ago a frightened Greek child of 5, stolen from her mother, landed in America to begin a new life.
Reared in an orphanage and by foster parents and told her mother had died in childbirth, young Amalia Balch and dozens of other children that October were herded aboard an airplane in Greece.
When the plane landed in New York City, adults streamed on board to claim the children they knew only by photographs, the kids they had adopted by proxy.
“I remember being very sick, and a plane full of children . . . and being very scared,” she says.
Today, at age 45, Amalia Balch still doesn’t know if she was a black-market baby, if her adoptive parents paid money for her. She hasn’t pressed the point, but she suspects they did.
Over the last 10 years and five trips to the country of her birth, she has learned some truths about her roots. First, she learned that she was stolen from her unmarried mother at birth.
And recently she was reunited for the first time with dozens of her blood relatives in her mother’s home village.
Balch is one of thousands of people who suspect that as infants they were sold in the baby black market that allegedly flourished in Greece for more than a decade after the 1946-49 civil war.
Almost half a century later, there’s no reliable way to determine how many children were taken from poor parents and sold, both in Greece and abroad, in Canada, Australia, Sweden and South Africa, as well as the United States.
In 1959, a New York magistrate, Stephen S. Scopas, was indicted on charges of selling 30 Greek children to American couples. Charges were dropped in 1960 when a judge ruled that the adoptions were legal in Greece.
Maxine Deller of Long Island, N.Y., says her adoptive parents, George and Jean Deller, paid $1,000 to Scopas when she was adopted in 1955. She said she learned this in a letter from Scopas left in her possession after her adoptive parents died.
Deller, who has not located her birth mother, and two other adoptees are leaving for Greece on Sept. 8. The other two are going for a reunion with blood relatives found through an association of Greek Americans.
An angry Deller is going, she says, to “knock down some doors” in an effort to find her birth mother.
Greek authorities in Patras, where she was born, “are putting up a big resistance to opening the files.”
“I want this exposed,” she says. “I want this exposed big time.”
Balch suspects that the lawyer her parents used “had a direct connection to the Scopas case.”
Now people like Balch and Deller are banding together, forming organizations and even searching the Internet to find their roots.
“They say more than 2,000 children went to the United States,” says Eleni Liarakou, chairman of the Assn. for the Investigation and Uncovering of Evidence of Adopted Children.
But Liarakou acknowledges that figure may be hearsay, as is so much other information about the scandal.
Neither the U.S. Embassy in Athens nor the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Assn. (AHEPA), the preeminent Greek American organization involved in war relief at the time, have records from those years. The Greek Red Cross knows only how many have asked for help in tracing their Greek families--so far, about 500 adoptees who were sent to foreign countries.
Balch, who lives in Phoenix with her husband and 22-year-old son, is one of them.
She learned only recently that her mother had died a year after her birth, believing Amalia had been stillborn.
Someone had lied to her mother and her family and taken the baby to a foster home in the nearby port city of Patras. Five years later, the girl was sent to America. Amalia’s new parents in Los Angeles were told the mother had died giving birth.
Balch began piecing her story together in 1985. She’d stopped off in Greece for a day after helping lead an evangelical tour of the Middle East as secretary to a minister. She went to visit the Patras maternity clinic and orphanage where she’d started life.
There, however, an employee informed her that the register contained neither a death certificate for her mother nor an adoption release for her.
This year, on her fifth visit, Balch found her closest living relatives--first cousins--and learned her mother’s fate. She still does not know who her father was.
Her mother’s village of Neapolis, near Patras, held a big celebration for her at which she counted about 100 relatives.
“Finally you feel as if you’ve connected. You were disconnected and you came together,” she said in Athens.
In the last year, Greek news media have presented many stories of families uniting with children believed to have died at birth but who’d been brought up in other parts of Greece.
Each day, 20 or 30 people register with Liarakou’s association. More than 6,000 people have signed on since the group was formed in March.
They clutch tattered documents and the hope of finding children they had considered dead or the parents they thought had abandoned them.
Typically, the parents were told by doctors or nurses that their baby had died, but they were given no body or death certificate. Decades ago, such authority was not questioned.
The alleged racket and its global reach was revealed a year ago by a lawyer in the northern Greek city of Salonica. She discovered she’d been sold to a family in Greece while in the city’s state-run orphanage. Going through its records, she found the falsifications and managed to trace her biological family.
Since then, about 200 people have found their birth families. Of them, about 150 were adopted illegally, Liarakou’s association says. The revelations and joyful reunions have spurred others to start looking.
Success seems to depend on luck and the correlation of evidence from both sides--child and parents.
“First, we ask for the child’s birth certificate and death certificate,” says Liarakou, a travel agent by profession. “Then we go to the clinic and ask for the whole medical history that they have for each case. Then we wait and see who might turn up looking from the other side.”
Liarakou is looking for a sister who was said to have died three days after birth in 1960, although no death certificate was issued.
In the 1959 case in New York, Scopas, a prominent Greek American, was forced to resign as a magistrate over allegations that he was dealing in black-market babies.
“Back in 1956, word got around that Scopas was in the baby-selling business. One couple told another and there was a regular procession to his office,” then-Dist. Atty. Frank S. Hogan told the New York Times in 1959. “When they went there, they were shown photographs of Greek orphans and they selected the babies.”
Prospective parents paid up to $2,800 for a child, Hogan contended.
Scopas, now 85 and living in New York City, continues to maintain his innocence.
The U.S. Embassy in Athens says it has no records or numbers from that period, but for children to have been given U.S. visas the embassy must have had documentation that the adoptions were legal.
Early allegations about a black market in babies surfaced in Greece in the 1960s. The former director of the Agios Stylianos orphanage was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison in 1964 for involvement in illegal adoptions.
But it was only in the last year, when the methods and scale of the crime became known, that authorities finally lifted much of the secrecy that bedeviled earlier efforts by adopted children to discover their true heritage.
Balch says she has had a happy life with her adoptive family but wants to help other Greek adoptees who believe they were sold as babies and sent to unfit parents in America.
“I’m dealing with people whose lives are destroyed and fragmented,” she says. “They don’t want to come back and fight and punish people. All they want to know is the truth.”