BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) _ ''Hello, nice to meet you,'' says 5-year-old Carmen, brushing against her Canadian mother of six months as she greets visitors.

''Look here.'' As her alert green eyes dart among photographs in an album, the blonde child points out, in English, details of a squalid life in Romania already nearly forgotten.

Six months ago, Carmen spoke no Romanian, and was deemed mentally retarded by orphanage officials.

But Sonya and David Paterson of Vancouver adopted her.

''We decided to take a chance, figuring that in any case we could do so much more for her in the West,'' said 30-year-old Mrs. Paterson. ''No one ever spoke to her in the orphanage, so she never spoke back. It turns out she's no more retarded than I am blind.''

Since the adoption, Mrs. Paterson has started helping in other adoptions and aid programs to orphanages. This week, Carmen was with her mother meeting prospective adoptive parents in Bucharest.

Carmen Paterson was one of about 100,000 children languishing in ill- provisioned, understaffed orphanages throughout the country.

According to Western aid organizations, many of the children are handicapped because of various forms of mistreatment such as excessively frequent injections or exposure to the elements. Some suffer simply from being ignored.

Most of the so-called orphans are children who were abandoned by their parents. Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, overthrown and executed in December 1989, outlawed birth control and abortion in an effort to increase Romania's population.

Many children were born of parents who did not want them or could not afford to take care of them.

Ceausescu's policy and Romania's current economic woes - the average monthly salary is worth about $20 on the black market - have made it a country where many babies are put up for adoption.

Americans adopted 480 Romanian babies in 1990, and 19 so far in 1991.

Jenni Reiling of Woodburn, Ore., found a child in a village near the central town of Tirgoviste.

Mrs. Reiling decided to turn to adoption after suffering two miscarriages the past year and seeing TV reports on Romania.

''Levi's mother was unmarried and didn't want him,'' she said, cuddling her 5-week-old adopted son. ''I was here with friends from the states who are originally from Romania, and they knew the village.''

''The mother was relieved to have found a home for the baby, and I'm ecstatic to have a newborn,'' she said.

Mrs. Reiling said the mother told her she suspected a doctor in the hospital of wanting to ''market her baby for profit.''

''He asked her to leave the baby in the hospital, but she got scared and took him home instead,'' she said.

Mrs. Reiling was lucky to find the child after a search of only five days, and not to be asked to pay her escorts or the mother.

Many Westerners spend months traveling the country, trying to find the right child in orphanages or villages. Some fall prey to the many local ''fixers'' who have turned adoptions into easy money.

''Some of these sleazy types ask for hundreds of dollars for even a strand of information leading to adoptions,'' said Dina Kleibin, an Israeli who left in frustration after a six-week search.

Recent Romanian television reports showed poor women haggling with reporters over a price for their children.

In an effort to put an end to what government spokesman Bogdan Baltazar termed ''the mercantile aspect'' of adoptions, the government recently formed a committee to approve all adoptions.

Critics charge the committee will only add another layer of bureaucracy, and perhaps corruption, to a process that already has plenty of both.

The adoption committee's first decision Feb. 6 was to put a halt to all adoptions except ''those in progress'' until it compiles a list of all adoptable children.

It has promised to complete the list by Feb. 20, a goal one Western diplomat termed ''unrealistic.''

U.S. Consul-General Virginia Young said this week that it was not clear what ''in process'' meant. Some local courts continued to accept adoption files while others have stopped, she said.

It also was unclear whether the committee would update the original list, or what it would do if more than one family wanted the same child, she said.

''It might be a good idea to wait until things are a little more clear before proceeding,'' she advised prospective adoptive parents in a meeting this week.

Nevertheless, dozens of couples continue to arrive.

''You think adopting is complicated and expensive here,'' said John McKlean of Shreveport, La., who arrived with his wife, Lisa. ''You should see it in the states.''