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International Adoption, Fraud and 'Orphans'

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Kate Tuttle:Western parents who adopt from the developing world often believe they're in the midst of a double blessing: expanding their families by bringing home deeply wanted children, while at the same time offering those children -- orphans! -- a happier, better life than they ever could have led in their own impoverished countries. There's nothing wrong with this belief -- these parents' hearts are in the right place -- but a recent article suggests that in many cases, the facts of international adoption aren't what they seem.


Writing in the journal Democracy, E.J. Graff opens with the story of Katie and Calvin Bradshaw, a couple who brought home three Ethiopian girls they believed to be orphans. Upon learning English, however, the girls told their new American parents that they still had a father back home, as well as an extended family -- to whom they had always believed they would be returned. This is not, apparently, an uncommon story: Graff goes on to chronicle similar tales, including that of a Vietnamese mother whose children were taken from her after she had placed them in what she believed to be temporary care.

So how do such tragedies happen? The problem, according to Graff, is one of misperception and lack of regulation. The myth that the world is full of healthy orphans in developing countries just waiting to be taken home by Western families is widespread, fueled in part by confusing statistics put forth by groups like UNICEF, which estimates that there are 163 million orphans worldwide. The problem is that most of these "orphans" have at least one living parent and/or grandparent willing to care for them.

By far the largest number of truly orphaned children are those most Western parents wouldn't consider adopting: older, abused, ill. But because the supply of healthy infant orphans isn't enough to meet the demand of American (and other Western) prospective parents, a lot of shady characters have gotten into the business -- "unscrupulous middlemen" who have no problem "buying, defrauding, coercing or even kidnapping children away from their families to be sold," writes Graff.

Can the situation be improved? Who's supposed to be in charge here? There's an international treaty in place -- the 1993 Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption -- but fewer than half of the countries in the world have signed it, and Americans are adopting in great numbers from non-Hague countries. (More than two-thirds of internationally adopted U.S. kids these days come from such countries, which include Russia, Korea and Ethiopia.) And even when a child is adopted from a country covered by the Hague Convention, there are still agencies that operate outside the rules, with unethical cash transfers that reward those who simply provide babies, no questions asked. In some cases, horrifyingly, those babies had loving parents back home who were either duped or coerced into giving them up.

Given the recent bad publicity surrounding children adopted from Russia -- including the boy who was returned by his American mother after she found his behavioral problems to be worse than advertised and too much for her to handle -- it seems time for parents and policy-makers alike to try to improve the system.

As for what, exactly, should be done, Graff lists eight specific recommendations and ends with the reasonable plea that in poor countries, just as in rich countries, the emphasis should remain on keeping families together. Barring that, children who need to find a home elsewhere should be protected from those who would profit from the desires of Western parents.

International adoption will never be the solution for all, or even most, of the world's vulnerable children. Tens of millions of children and their families, in desperate straits in their home countries, need and deserve assistance so that they can thrive in place. Defrauded birth families from Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia, Guatemala and Ethiopia may never see their children again. But surely the United States can work harder to see that such losses don't strike other families. When done right, international adoption is a last-ditch effort, one not induced at the intersection of hope, greed and poverty, but undertaken in the best interests of children.

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32 comments so far | Post a comment now
Tripp Baltz July 20, 2010, 1:49 PM

I must strenuously object to your characterization of international adoption as a “last-ditch” resort. The last resorts are homelessness, child slavery, and being locked away in substandard institutions, a fate facing too many of the world’s orphaned children. Five decades of social science have established that when children grow up in orphanages they face higher risks of death, disease, malnutrition, and psychological and developmental damage. There is no greater basic human right than a child’s right to grow up in a family. While every effort must be made to reunite children with birth and extended families, many institutionalized children are already confirmed double orphans in need of families yesterday. And while it would be great if they could be adopted in their nation or origin, unrealistic hoping and waiting for that to happen — especially in countries that have no system for domestic adoption or where conditions of poverty, famine, disease and war are so great they do not present a favorable environment for children — condemns more and more children to life without a family. Although adoption is not the solution for all orphans, for many of the world’s parent-less children, it is the only shot they will have at growing up in a loving family — even UNICEF acknowledges that. Shutting down countries to adoption means many more millions of children will waste away their childhood in prison-like facilities, or, worse, on the street, and is akin to shutting down a country’s roads because one driver ran a red light. Confront abuse and corruption head-on, don’t make the children suffer for it. It’s not their fault. Surely we adults can design a system that gets children into loving families ASAP — if not their blood family, a loving adoptive family. You insult tens of thousands of loving families around the world when you refer to them as a “last-ditch resort.” Want proof? Ask an adoptee if they are happy (the tiny number of exceptions aside), then go live for 24 hours in an orphanage in Haiti.

lil5 July 20, 2010, 3:46 PM

@ Tripp Baltz


O Solo Mama July 20, 2010, 5:53 PM

Actually, E. J. Graff is not recommending shutting down any program totally but eliminating the corruption that exists. The problem with international adoption is that it is so prone to corruption because it involves vulnerable parents and children on one side and powerful parents with $$ on the other, and no current legal framework prevents corruption entirely.

Honestly, I think Graff is a good advocate. There are plenty of others who would go much farther and basically see no place for adoption. Graff herself has acknowledged that allowing children to languish in institutions while countries duke this out is of no service to them.

I think our biggest challenge as bystanders (am also an a-parent) is figuring out how to help people in other parts of the world keep their families together. What that looks like in China is markedly different from what it looks like in Africa for a host of political and cultural reasons. There is no one-size-fits all. There is no grand solution.

Tripp Baltz July 21, 2010, 9:20 AM

Good points. Indeed we must do everything we can to accomplish reunification between orphaned children and birth families, or, if feasible, extended families. However, it’s a hard fact that many nations, including China, cannot provide families for all of its children now living in institutions. While it is important for us to build up these countries, shore up their family systems, honor and support their birth families, and develop their domestic adoption programs, we must remember that kids grow up faster than countries do, and it is no solution to tell a 1-year-old to wait until his country is ready — a decade in the future, or perhaps longer — to provide him or her with a family. These kids need families NOW — meanwhile, there are thousands of families who would love them and nurture them and help them to grow into responsible young adults, but the system discriminates against them, abuses them, and blocks them from adopting. Reform is needed now! There is an organization dedicated to rooting out the abuses and confronting the delays in the system: Check it out!

Sharon July 21, 2010, 11:15 AM

E.J. Graff is well-intentioned, but as far as I can tell, she has developed her opinion on these issues primarily from analyzing press reports on international adoption, which are frequently distorted. The orphan crisis is no myth — many countries, including those without international adoption programs, actively conceal the extent of their orphan problem to avoid accountability on the world stage. We do need to work to end fraud and abuse in international adoptions, but to say that such programs are not necessary as part of comprehensive child welfare program is naive. Not even Graff does that far. For another informed perspective, I’d encourage you to check out the blog written by Suffolk Law Professor Sara Dillon.

Gaye Tannenbaum August 21, 2010, 3:03 PM

As currently practiced, adoption is a LIFO system - last in, first out - meaning that younger children have the greatest chance of being adopted.

Will streamlining or fast tracking the adoption system help older less “marketable” children or will it (and has it) manufactured more young “abandoned orphans”?

And what about those children who are the victims of kidnapping, fraud or coercion? When their families of origin try to get justice, the adoption system tells us there is no proof of any wrongdoing and, even when there is, the children were legally adopted and they have no recourse.

If YOUR child was kidnapped, would YOU just accept that he or she legally belonged to someone else now?

Laurel August 22, 2010, 4:07 AM

If anyone wonders “how this can happen,” here’s how how it happens: people are given information about corruption—orphans who are not orphans, children who have been stolen and never should have been adopted—and they react by talking just a little bit more loudly about…orphans, and how homes in America are obviously better for them. Or they never read articles like this one at all, just the ones about read threads and happy adoptees.

People don’t want to know. They just want that kid.

deb August 23, 2010, 6:40 PM

I am the mother of two children adopted from “third world” countries. They were adopted through a legitmate adoption agency who vetted the orphanage and foster home prior to releasing the children for adoption in America. There are millions of children who have been orphaned or given up by birth parents in desparate circumstances. Will Americans adopting a few hundred or few thousand change the lives of millions. Absolutely not, will the children who now have families and the families that are now complete benefit, absolutely. And, as for adoptees being happy…why should they be any more happy than biological children?

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