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Corruption in international adoptions

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Adoption: Cambodia


 Click to follow link Capsule history of adoption
issues  in Cambodia
 Click to follow link News Reports of Adoption Irregularities in Cambodia
 Click to follow link Resources & Related Documents 







NOTE: This page from the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism website offers documentation of and background about serious irregularities in international adoption. For the systemic analysis of corruption in international adoption, please read “The Lie We Love,” Foreign Policy magazine, Nov./Dec. 2008, and visit our webpages dedicated to international adoption. For ideas about fairer policy solutions, please read “The Baby Business,” Democracy Journal, Summer 2010.


Capsule history of adoption issues in Cambodia


As far back as 1991 and 1992, there were accusations of corruption in Cambodia’s international adoptions. A humanitarian volunteer arranged the adoption of 52 children to the United States—and was accused of selling or exporting babies at the expense of Cambodian families and Cambodian society. Soon after, in a different scandal, a girl adopted by a Belgian family was discovered to have a family back in Cambodia; was returned to her mother; was sold into adoption in Belgium a second time; and was once again returned.1 Cambodia’s international adoptions then effectively disappeared for several years.
 When a country's abandoned and institutionalized children are predominantly older, HIV-positive, or otherwise sick or disabled, and yet the international adoptions are predominantly of infants and toddlers, it can be a signal that entrepreneurs are illegally or unethically attempting to find the children that Westerners want to adopt.

But in the second half of the 1990s, another humanitarian volunteer, U.S. citizen Lauryn Galindo, and others began to arrange international adoptions once again, primarily to the United States.2 The numbers of children adopted internationally began to climb dramatically. When a country's abandoned and institutionalized children are predominantly older, HIV-positive, or otherwise sick or disabled, and yet the international adoptions are predominantly of infants and toddlers, it can be a signal that entrepreneurs are illegally or unethically attempting to find the children that Westerners want to adopt. That demographic profile was true in Cambodia. In 2001, according to data collected by demographer Peter Selman,3Westerners adopted more than 700 Cambodian children; of the 400 adopted by Americans, 232 were less than a year old. “People wanted ‘em warm from the womb, and in Cambodia, they’d get ‘em,” said Judith Mosley, who later learned her Cambodian-born daughter (the adoption agency claimed she was six; she was eleven when adopted) had been stolen from her family.4

Number of US Orphan Immigrant Visas Issued to Cambodia, FY 1990-2008
By the year 2000, Cambodian newspapers and human rights organizations were doing in-depth investigations into suspicious aspects of international adoption. For instance, the Phnom Penh Post offered extensive evidence that Lauryn Galindo’s operation was knowingly paying orphanages to buy babies for sale in international adoption, and was bribing government officials to create false identity documents for those children, and to approve their adoptions abroad. The Post interviewed “child finders” who said they were paid per baby “found,” and explained that they paid birthfamilies for children. The Post found more than a dozen women who tried to find their children after they had been paid to leave them at orphanages, in some cases after being told the orphanage stay would be temporary, and in some cases after being pressured to offer their children for foreign adoption.

The Post also named and quoted a number of villagers as saying they had witnessed baby-buying exchanges. It reported that Lauryn Galindo’s operation charged clients “government fees” that didn’t exist and that appeared to be used as bribes, as well as hefty “orphanage donations” of $5500 per child that did not result in improved conditions in the neglected orphanages. It gave evidence that the orphanages created to serve international adoptions had ties to baby buying and bribes. And it reported that the Cambodian Red Cross—then headed by the Cambodian prime minister’s wife—was involved in brokering babies for adoption, complete with bribes to Red Cross officials for identity documents.5

The human rights organization LICADHO (an acronym, in Khmer, for the Cambodian League for Promotion and Defense of Human Rights), meanwhile, began helping families to find and, in some cases, reclaim their children (although in other cases the children had already been adopted).

   Babies had been reported “abandoned” in places where, when consular officers investigated, villagers said no abandoned baby had been found in memory.
The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh later reported that during this period it saw scores of suspicious orphan visa applications that looked remarkably alike, with details that either could not be corroborated or were refuted on investigation. For instance, babies had been reported “abandoned” in places where, when consular officers investigated, villagers said no abandoned baby had been found in memory. The Embassy began denying some orphan visa applications.6

In 2001, LICADHO led local police to raid two orphanages run by the Asian Orphans’ Association, which LICADHO had discovered was buying babies through brothels and in the countryside, and was paying officials to launder their documents so that they would appear abandoned. One alleged AOA baby buyer told Phnom Penh Post reporters “that it was the center's policy not to reveal the whereabouts of the orphanage to parents to prevent them from trying to get their child back.” After the LICADHO raid, several birth families came forward to claim the children.7

At roughly the same time, 31-year-old Chanthea Chea, a newly divorced Cambodian woman, let her neighbor take her newborn for a medical exam, according to The New York Times Magazine. The neighbor later told Chea that she had left the child at an orphanage. When Chea went to plead for her son’s return, she was given $30 to go away, a photo to prove he was okay, and was told she could see him any time. In the morning, when she changed her mind and went to plead for him again, she was told she would have to pay $130 (equivalent to roughly a year’s income for the rural Cambodian poor) to get him back. She went to LICADHO, which used the passport photo to discover that Chea’s son was being processed for U.S. adoption under a fraudulent identity.Coming as it did after LICADHO’s raids, Cambodian newspapers’ reporting on corrupt adoption processes, and the suspiciously similar children’s documents, the incident prompted INS to shut down adoptions from Cambodia within the week—launching a moratorium on U.S. adoptions from Cambodia that continues to this day.

Hundreds of American prospective parents were left in an uncertain position, with referrals for children—and sometimes with legal Cambodian adoption papers for that child—in hand, but unable to bring the child home. Most of those were processed and released for adoption in the months to come. According to the former ambassador and other experts, standards of evidence were so high as to making denying an orphan visa application all but impossible.9

  Richard Cross reported that he found “baby stash houses” that shocked him. He said, “This was bad. This was worse than some of the stuff that I had seen in the United States [when investigating alien smuggling].
The INS assigned Richard Cross, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) senior special agent, to investigate. His investigation confirmed much of the Phnom Penh Post’s reporting and LICADHO’s allegations. In a presentation he later gave at Cumberland Law School, Cross reported that he found “baby stash houses” that shocked him. He said, “This was bad. This was worse than some of the stuff that I had seen in the United States [when investigating alien smuggling]. There were 16 babies in this place, many of ‘em were naked. It was filthy. They were covered in filth, covered in feces. It was, it was a terrible place to be. If it had been dogs in the United States in a place like this, the humane society would have been called and people would have been charged with cruelty to animals, but since it was Cambodia it wasn’t, and these children were just products.”10

As a result of the ICE investigation, the U.S. government charged adoption facilitator Lauryn Galindo with leading a criminal conspiracy that paid for each healthy infant “found,” grossing more than $9 million in adoption fees. Between 1997 and 2001, Americans adopted 1232 children from Cambodia; Galindo said, according to Cross, that she had been involved in 800 adoptions. Galindo was prosecuted for visa fraud and financial structuring involving some of the same adoptions for which the U.S.I.N.S had allowed visas, because the "preponderance of the evidence" standard made them impossible to deny. "It's really shocking that we have enough evidence to convict someone of a federal crime, but not to deny the child a visa," commented Trish Maskew, founder and past president of Ethica, Inc., an American non-profit organization dedicated to ethical adoption reform.11Hundreds of children went to other countries, including France, according to demographer Peter Selman. Other facilitators had been involved. Facilitators named by LICADHO, the Cambodian and Australian news media, and parental lawsuits as having been involved in irregular practices included Harriet Brener-Sam; Galindo’s former drivers and assistants Man Soeung, Serey Puth, Sea Visoth; and former Cambodian government officials. But if they were not U.S. citizens and were not conducting their activities on U.S. soil, they were not subject to U.S. prosecution.  

Critics charged that the U.S. moratorium would doom needy children to life in institutions. But in August 2002, the Phnom Penh Post reported that orphanages had stopped receiving “abandoned” babies “since adoptions to the US were suspended late last year.” This abrupt halt to the flow of abandoned babies was confirmed when USAID commissioned a study from Holt International Children’s Services, which in 2005 reported that 8,270 children were living in Cambodian institutions. Fully three-quarters were older than nine, ineligible for foreign adoption under Cambodian law. Only 132 were under a year old—fewer babies than Westerners had been adopting every two months. In 2006, according to UNICEF’s “Cambodia Inter-Country Adoption (ICA) Assessment and Action Plan,” 7246 children were in institutional care, although not all were legally available for adoption; of those 7246 children, only 190 were under age two. When demand for healthy adoptable infants dried up, so did supply.

In 2006, the Cambodian legislature voted to approve Cambodia’s joining the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. As part of that effort, the government and UNICEF have worked on community placement options for children in need, including foster programs, in addition to the traditional option of placing needy children with relatives or with monks.

Correction: This article originally stated that Italy was the only country allowing adoptions from Cambodia. In fact, several countries are processing adoption cases from Cambodia. Italy is the only country allowing significant numbers of adoptions from Cambodia.

 

[1] “Adoptions: Saving lives or selling young souls?” Written by the Phnom Penh Post, June 28, 1996, Phnom Penh Post.

[2]  “Adoptions: Saving lives or selling young souls?” Written by the Phnom Penh Post, June 28, 1996, Phnom Penh Post.

[3] “Trends in Intercountry Adoption,” Peter Selman, Journal of Population Research, 2006.

[4] "Whose kids are they?," Thomas Fields-Meyer, January 19, 2004, People Magazine. Mosley’s daughter gave a statement in Lauryn Galindo’s sentencing. 

[5]  “Red Cross offers babies for adoption,” Stephen O’Connell and Lon Nara, September 29, 2000, Phnom Penh Post.

[6] “Adoptions to US put on hold,” Bill Bainbridge, October 26, 2001, Phnom Penh Post; and “Adoptions still on – embassy,”Bill Bainbridge and Lon Nara, November 23, 2001, Phnom Penh Post.

[7] “Suspected covert adoption center uncovered,” written by Bill Bainbridge and Vong Sokheng, Friday, 14 September 2001, The Phnom Penh Post. 

[8] "Where Do Babies Come From?," Sara Corbett, July 16, 2002, The New York Times.

[9] "Child Trafficking and Intercountry Adoption: The Cambodian Experience," Trish Maskew, Cumberland Law Review, Volume 35, Number 3, (2005).

[10] Transcript of a video of US ICE agent Richard Cross giving a lecture and slide preseTranscript of a video of US ICE agent Richard Cross giving a lecture and slide presentation on April 15, 2005 at Samford University, Cumberland School of Law.ntation on April 15, 2005 at Samford University, Cumberland School of Law. (Scroll to bottom of page.)

[11]Quote from E.J. Graff telephone interview with Trish Maskew, Feb.19, 2008.

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Last page update: February 22, 2011