Corruption in international adoptions

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Experts Respond to
  "The Baby Business"

The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism asked a number of experts, practitioners, and advocates in international adoption to respond to “The Baby Business,” Democracy Journal, Summer 2010.


Dr. Jane Aronson, CEO and founder
Worldwide Orphans Foundation

Everyone is opposed to baby/child snatching, selling, or trafficking. When it occurs, the cause can always be traced to extreme poverty (defined by the World Bank, June 2, 2010, as living on USD $1.25 or less per day) on the one hand and corruption and greed on the other hand. It should be eradicated, countries in which it is documented should take aggressive action to stop it, and the international community should support all such efforts.

However, if we agree that trafficking is a symptom of a much deeper and more complex malady, we then must focus on the real, underlying issues, to understand what they are, and to determine how best to end them. In this case, there is indeed a crisis in the world. It is a disaster much more devastating in its toll on humankind than an earthquake or volcano; one that is continuous and to which little attention is paid. It is the international orphan crisis.

There are many definitions for how many orphans there are in the world, and indeed, for what constitutes an orphan. UNICEF estimates that there are 163 million children under the age of 18 who have lost at least one parent and that there are 18.5 million children who have lost both parents (UNICEF, 2007). 

Some say that if there is one living biological parent the child is not an orphan; others declare that if there is extended family, the child is not an orphan. I have a different formulation, based on 13 years of international work through the foundation I created, Worldwide Orphans Foundation. I have been to orphanages in Bulgaria, China, Ecuador, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Romania, Russia, and Vietnam, and I have talked to the children, to caregivers, to orphanage directors, and in many cases, to family members of the child. I have sent more than 125 Orphan Rangers (volunteers with expertise) to work in orphanages and gather information. In every country I work, I hire professionals who are nationals of the country.

From all of these sources, and from my work and partnerships with many in international work, it is clear to me that there are biological orphans (children whose parents have died) and that there are social orphans (children who have no family, extended family, or community able to feed, clothe, and educate them).

There are millions–probably hundreds of millions–of children living in this world without parental or familial care.

As for how many, I am, frankly, impatient with this question. There are millions–probably hundreds of millions–of children living in this world without parental or familial care. Isn’t that enough to know?

Social orphans exist for many reasons. Some societies punish young women who bear a child out of accepted norms by shunning both mother and child. In many cases, the family will allow the mother to return (to live a marginalized life) only if she repudiates and abandons the child.

AIDS creates both biological and social orphans. If one parent has died from AIDS related causes, the other parent and the child, even if healthy, are cast out. In many such instances, the surviving parent, in despair of being able to provide even the most basic human needs, leaves the child at the doors of an orphanage or on the street, with the hope that someone will rescue the child.

And finally, we must return once again to the most basic cause of all–poverty. Parents love their children. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins love their families. They watch children die from malnutrition, tuberculosis, diarrhea, measles, HIV, and many other conditions and diseases. They want them to live. They want them to go to school. And so, in an act of great sacrifice and love, they give them up.  

The focus then, for the international community, the Hague Convention, and the American and industrialized nations of the world must be on how to address the international orphan crisis. There are two concurrent and equally important goals.

...ensure that every country has in place the infrastructure to support families and communities. This includes child-welfare systems, social services, medical, mental health, and psychosocial services, and universal, free education for all children.
The first is to ensure that every country has in place the infrastructure to support families and communities. This includes child-welfare systems, social services, medical, mental health, and psychosocial services, and universal, free education for all children. Commitment of funds to such efforts, rather than to the creation of more and more punitive and bureaucratic regulations and oversight of international adoption, addresses the reasons people give up their children for adoption and provides support for them to keep their children. Without such support services, we are effectually ensuring that families will be torn apart by poverty, illness, ignorance and fear, and that children will be abandoned to orphanages or a life on the streets or in brothels. This would be the case even if there were no child-trafficking and no international adoption.

The second goal is to provide services for children who are currently living in institutions. Too often children living in orphanages are isolated from their communities and cultures, uneducated, and unprepared for life outside the institutional gates. They are dumped on the streets at 16 or 18 years of age, and that’s where they stay, only to have their own children, creating a second and even third generation of orphans.

By contrast, my foundation, Worldwide Orphans Foundation (WWO) is committed to “transforming the lives of orphaned children.” While programs may differ according to a country’s needs* WWO is committed to long-term, integrated programming that includes physical and mental health, education (including our innovative Global Arts programs), camp, and early intervention, offered in community settings and available to local residents and children from orphanages (which too often are located on the far edges of towns).

These are the same services poor families struggling to keep their children need, and in including orphans and communities, we are de-stigmatizing the status of orphans and integrating them into their communities, which is where they belong.

In Ethiopia, for example, WWO has a Family Health Clinic (in partnership with AIDS Healthcare Foundation) at which families and children from 12 orphanages receive free services. Our WWO Academy is an elementary school, fully licensed by the Ethiopian Ministry of Education. Our curriculum includes an innovative Global Arts component, which empowers children to explore their creativity and their emotions. As of the 2009/2010 school year, we enrolled 225 students in pre-kindergarten through second grade (we add a grade per year). Half the students are from the local community, and half are from orphanages (and are HIV+). But in the classroom, no one knows who is who, and all are thriving. Many of these same students attend our summer camp, both residential (in partnership with Association of Hole in the Wall Camp) and day camp. They get to hone their life-skills, develop leadership capabilities, play sports, and simply have fun.

In Vietnam, WWO is an integral part of a multi-year PEPFAR/NPI initiative to restore social work services in order to re-create the infrastructure to support families and communities, and again, integrate children from orphanages.

In Serbia, where we created a small program for teenagers who lost their families during the wars of the 1990’s, we are incredibly proud to be underwriting four of those orphans in college. This is a true life-transformation, and it is what WWO is all about.

It is what I urge that we all be about. While international adoption should always be an option, it is clear that it can never be the solution to the crisis of millions of children in the world who are living without parents/family.     

The United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child does indeed prohibit child trafficking (Principle 9) and there is no dispute about that. But that same Declaration also asserts (Principle 2) that,

The child … shall be given opportunities and facilities, by law and by other means, to enable him/her to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity.

This is where our focus must be.

* Currently WWO has programs in Bulgaria, Ethiopia, Haiti, Serbia, and Vietnam.


~Dr. Jane Aronson is the CEO and founder of Worldwide Orphans Foundation.


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.

© 2008-2014 Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, 02454. All rights reserved.

Last page update: February 22, 2011