Issue #17, Summer 2010

The Baby Business

U.S. couples adopting from abroad often think they’re helping vulnerable children. The reality is more complex—and poorly regulated.

When Katie and Calvin Bradshaw adopted three young sisters from Ethiopia in 2006, they believed they were saving AIDS orphans from a life of poverty or near-certain prostitution. But after learning English, the girls told their new parents that they believed the adoption agency, Christian World Adoption, had paid their birthfather for them. The girls said they had expected to return to their extended Ethiopian family, who were middle-class by local standards, as both CBS News and Australia’s ABC News reported. The Bradshaws were rightly horrified. (Today, the two younger girls are still with them, while the oldest daughter lives with Katie Bradshaw’s mother; in a lengthy response to the CBS News report, Christian World Adoption said it had no contact with the girls’ birth family).

I’ve heard a string of similar tales from families in Italy, Canada, Austria, and other Western countries adopting from Ethiopia, the current hot adoption source. In the past five years, Ethiopia’s adoptions to the United States alone have expanded exponentially: Americans adopted 442 Ethiopian children in 2005, and 2,277 in 2009, ranking Ethiopia right behind China as a source for our international adoptions. The combination of skyrocketing numbers and troubling stories suggests that Ethiopia has become the latest country beset by an all-too-common problem: a poor country in which unscrupulous middlemen are sometimes buying, defrauding, coercing, or even kidnapping children away from their families to be sold into international adoption.

Most nations’ adoption programs are relatively clean. But during some periods, in some countries–Cambodia between 1997 and 2002, for instance, or Vietnam between 2005 and 2009–evidence from government, newspaper, and NGO investigations strongly suggests that many international adoptions involved fraud. Serious problems have also been documented in such countries as Liberia, Nepal, the Marshall Islands, Peru, Samoa, and most notably, Guatemala, whose processes were so riddled with corruption that it was finally closed to adoption in 2009, after 10 years during which Americans adopted more than 30,000 of its children, in some years bringing home an astonishing one of every 100 babies born there.

Large-hearted Westerners–eager to fill out their families while helping a child in need–have adopted tens of thousands of children from these and other poor countries. Very few are aware of this heartbreaking underside of international adoption–and many have trouble believing it when they do hear such stories. But the fact is that for decades, international adoption has been a Wild West, all but free of meaningful law, regulation, or oversight. In the past ten years, upward of 20,000 Western families each year have adopted internationally. Tens of thousands more are on waiting lists for years. Western adoption agencies, seeking to satisfy demand, have poured millions of dollars of adoption fees into underdeveloped countries. Those dollars and Euros have, too often, induced the unscrupulous to take children away from families that loved and would have raised them to adulthood. Corruption skips from one unprepared country to another–until that country gets wise, changes its laws, and corrupt adoptions shift to the next unprepared nation.

Such corruption can happen in part because American perception and policy about orphans have been distorted by a fundamental myth. Many people believe that millions of healthy babies need Western homes, lest they wither in institutions or die on the streets. This myth is perpetuated, to some extent, by UNICEF’s misleading estimate that the world includes 163 million orphans. It’s not so. Most of UNICEF’s "orphans" are "single" orphans, having lost just one parent; others live with extended family. Most children in need of international adoption are older than five, sick, disabled, or otherwise traumatized. Many Westerners find it counterintuitive, even impossible, that the world isn’t filled with healthy babies needing Western families. It’s certainly true that millions of children are in desperate straits in benighted parts of the world: stacked up in brutal institutions in former Soviet bloc countries; roaming the streets in African cities; scavenging from Latin American trash heaps; enslaved in gravel pits in South Asia. Some of these children do need new homes abroad–because their families have failed, their health needs are extreme, their communities have cast them out, or because of unusual conditions like China’s one-child policy or the Communist legacy of institutionalization (in which workers were encouraged to let their children be raised by the state, in what proved to be horrific institutions). Quite understandably, fewer Westerners are prepared to take in the older, ill, or more challenging children. And so they put their names down for the healthy babies they believe are available.

Ending corruption in international adoption may seem like an obscure and narrow issue, but its implications reach throughout child welfare and development efforts worldwide. What’s the right way to help children after the Haitian earthquake or the Liberian civil war? How can the United States help African AIDS orphans become productive citizens instead of pirates or insurgents? What is international adoption’s correct role in child welfare? The answers are linked. What the United States needs now are improved policies, practices, and regulations that simultaneously help prevent the criminal underside of the adoption trade and support child welfare and protection systems, so that impoverished families and disrupted communities can keep most of their children home. Already in place are a treaty, a law, sets of regulations, and a host of aid efforts on behalf of children. But significant gaps remain. Plugging some important holes–and heightening our investments in, and coordination of, services that help children stay with their families–would go a long way toward saving children from being wrongfully taken from their birth families, and Americans from later discovering that they unwittingly paid someone to buy them a child.

The Hague Convention On Intercountry Adoption

The international community woke up to unethical adoptions in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1989, the United Nations enacted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which included principles about preventing wrongful international adoptions. But the need for still more protections became clear after Nicolae Ceausescu fell in 1989, exposing Romania’s brutal warehouses of orphaned or abandoned children. Thousands of well-meaning Westerners flocked to Romania to bring home orphans. Predictably, some entrepreneurial locals saw ways to make money from Westerners’ good intentions. By 1991, most American adoptions from Romania were coming not from institutions but from "facilitators" who solicited children directly from birth families in hospitals, on the streets, even in individual homes, in some cases while dumbstruck Westerners stood by.

In 1993, 66 countries, including the United States, gathered at the Hague Conference on Private International Law to create the Convention on Protection of Children and Co-Operation In Respect of Intercountry Adoption. To join the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, as it is known, a nation must commit itself to cooperate "to prevent the abduction, the sale of, or traffic in children" for international adoption. The United States signed the treaty in 1994, ratified it in 2000, and implemented its requirements on April 1, 2008.

The 1993 Hague Convention’s biggest gap is easy to identify: it allows signatories to continue adoptions outside the Hague system. Western signatories (including the United States, Italy, France, and Spain) can, and do, still permit adoption from the "non-Hague" countries that lack the treaty’s protective systems. Of the world’s 195 or so countries, only 81 have entered the Hague Convention. More than two-thirds of U.S. citizens’ international adoptions come from "non-Hague" countries, including Russia, Korea, Kazakhstan, and Ethiopia. A number of countries outside the system have experienced significant adoption scandals. But according to Susan Soon-Keum Cox of Holt International Children’s Services, a highly respected Oregon-based international adoption and child welfare group, who attended the conference that crafted it, the convention’s "minimal standards" were as far as participants would go; pushing for more restrictions would have scuttled the treaty entirely.

The Hague Convention’s overarching instruction commands signatories to take "all appropriate measures to prevent improper financial or other gain…and to deter all practices contrary" to the goal of ending trafficking for adoption. Toward that end, each Hague Convention country must have a "central authority"–a government body–that oversees international adoptions. The central authority’s tasks differ, depending on whether that country is on the supply or demand side (let’s oversimplify and call them "poor" or "wealthy" countries) of international adoption.

The convention’s "subsidiarity" principle declares that keeping children with their original families should be the top child-welfare priority. This implies that each nation should have child-welfare and protection systems, social services, and other supports to help families stay together despite financial, medical, or other kinds of distress. That’s a big investment for poor countries, and it holds some back from joining the treaty. Other nations remain outside Hague because of national political concerns about sovereignty; still others, such as Nepal, are not committed to ending corruption, according to a report from the Hague Permanent Bureau. When original families are unfit, the convention urges nations to try to place the child with kin, neighbors, or others within the country, saving the child from the trauma of total relocation. Only as a last resort–to keep a child out of institutions, for instance–should the nation refer a child for international adoption, and then only to foreign adoption agencies that it has screened and licensed.

The adopting countries are also charged with creating "central authorities," whose tasks involve certifying that the prospective adopting families are prepared to be good parents, and assessing that whoever will be working on adoption is ethical, competently trained, has nonprofit goals, and maintains sound business practices. Central authorities on both sides are supposed to communicate directly, in part to keep Western adoption agencies from contracting directly with poor nations’ orphanages or "facilitators."

Some countries reputed to have the best "Hague systems" excelled before signing, or without formally entering, the Hague adoption convention. Before signing the convention, for instance, Thailand and Colombia had centralized oversight of child-welfare programs, trained social workers, begun aiding families in distress, and installed oversight so that only children who have no other good options are offered to foreign families. And in other countries that have signed–India is the prime example–ongoing scandals suggest that the central authority may be either inept at screening out bad actors or perhaps corrupt.

How Does the U.S. Regulate International Adoption?

But what of non-Hague adoptions, which as we recall make up two-thirds of all international adoptions to the United States? Let’s take a look at what can happen when they go bad–this time, in Vietnam, a non-Hague nation. Between 2005 and 2009, Americans adopted 2,220 Vietnamese-born children–and the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi became concerned that a great many involved fraud. One example concerned the Ruc, an ethnic minority living in remote mountain villages. When Swiss anthropologist Peter Bille Larsen was there on a field visit in 2007, Ruc families told him that officials in Quang Binh province pressured them to place 13 children temporarily in a government social welfare center. In 2009, Irish Daily Mail reporter Simon Parry visited the Ruc to follow up, and interviewed Cao Thi Thu, a 35-year-old mother of five who says she tried to bring home the two daughters she’d placed in the center, was refused, and later learned they had been adopted internationally. "Those men lied to me," Thu told Parry. "They said the children would return to the village when they finished school…But they sold them as if they were livestock." Some Ruc children have been traced to Italy, and one to the United States. The "nourishing center," to use its Vietnamese name, received about $10,000 per adoption, Parry reported.

The Hague Convention offers only a general outline of what signatories must do. Each nation defines its own "Hague regime" and writes its own "Hague regulations," so long as those conform to the treaty’s basic sketch. The United States’ "Hague implementation" is a tremendous improvement over what we had before: For the first time, the federal government has some legal oversight of most international adoption agencies. Before it had none. But our Hague regime could still improve. The federal government could require Hague review for all international adoption agencies; it could close some regulatory and statutory loopholes through which children can be adopted unethically; and it could more firmly link our Hague system to international child welfare efforts.

Six years after the Senate passed the Intercountry Adoption Act (IAA) of 2000–by which the United States ratified its Hague participation–the State Department, which was designated the United States’ "central authority," published its final regulations and selected its accreditation partners. The State Department instructed its partners to write regulations, accept applications, train reviewers, and issue or deny adoption agencies their accreditation by April 1, 2008. The Council on Accreditation (CoA), the main accrediting body, has received 346 applications for Hague accreditation from adoption agencies, far more than expected. Of those, 223 have been accredited so far and just 13 denied.

Too many agencies were accredited. For instance, one accredited agency had an arrangement with a Vietnamese orphanage that was buying children for adoption, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) appeals decisions. Another brought in children from the Quang Binh orphanage accused by Ruc families of corruption. Others brought children to the United States from similarly corrupt sources (according to local courts, NGO research, or news coverage) in India, Guatemala, Cambodia, Nepal, or other countries. These U.S. adoption agencies may not have known what was happening at the other end; or they may have been unable, uninterested, or unwilling to investigate how their foreign partners were "finding" adoptable orphans. But unless the adoption agency has undertaken a serious investigation into, and correction of, whatever lapses resulted in those unethical adoptions, such inattention should disqualify them for accreditation.

Issue #17, Summer 2010
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Plamen Georgiev Kouiumdjiev:

Maybe my ethiopian daughter Kristina Plamenova Kouiumdjieva from Dire Dawa is a victum of this procedure....,but I will continuie to seek for her until end of my life!!Her mother was Meseret Melese Gezaw-Ethiopia,Dire Dawa Kebele 04 house 206.
Addis Ababa Kebele 05 house 011 they reported me that the baby is died on July 04th at 2009 in Addis Ababa in Pediatric clinic in the square of "Sedast Kilo" bu nobody gave me sertificate of dead of my daughter when I ask them.because I don't beleave of that fatal end of my daughter!

Plamen Kouiumdjiev

Jan 23, 2011, 10:54 PM

The "unnamed agency" in this article is International Adoption Guides. I know, because I one of 11 adoptive families involved.

Mar 27, 2012, 11:43 AM

correction, I was referring to the "unnamed agency" in the Atlantic article

Mar 27, 2012, 12:03 PM

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