Corruption in international adoptions

Expand All / Collapse All


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.

See also CAP's comments to responses, below.


Diane B. Kunz and Ann N. Reese
Center for Adoption Policy

We believe that international adoption must remain a viable and available method of family formation for unparented children. Because we believe so much in its importance as a way of creating families, we feel equally strongly that adoption must be ethical, transparent, and accountable, or it is not adoption. Since our founding in 2001 we have been steadily working to make safe, transparent, and ethical adoption a reality. Our ideas can be summarized into two categories: transparency and support. These proposals dovetail closely to those E.J. Graff has listed. Some of our policy provisions will be challenging to implement because of the unique U.S. doubly bifurcated system: split between federal and state authorities on the one hand, and public and private entities on the other. But when the issue is children, no price should be too high.

Some of our policy provisions will be challenging to implement because of the unique U.S. doubly bifurcated system: split between federal and state authorities on the one hand, and public and private entities on the other. But when the issue is children, no price should be too high.

As Graff has written, the first step must be universal federal accreditation for all international adoption (“IA”) service providers (“ASPs”). True, adoption agencies are regulated by state, not federal, authorities. However, international adoption now is constructed on the basis on the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, which became effective in the United States in 2008 (the “Hague Convention”). Under the Hague Convention, the Department of State (“DOS”) is designated as the central authority for Hague Convention adoption. And whether or not the adoption is from a Hague Convention country (such as China) or a non-Hague Convention country (such as Russia or Ethiopia), the Department of State and USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) are heavily involved. Conceptually and logically, ASPs which work in international adoption must accept that obtaining federal accreditation will now be a prerequisite for participating in international adoption.

We recognize that universal accreditation for IA, as with the other policy provisions we suggest and the ones that Graff lists, was not part of the compromise reached in 1998-2000 when the Intercountry Adoption Act, the enabling legislation for the Hague Convention in this country, was negotiated and enacted. But, as Graff states, it is a different world today. IA has plummeted—from a high of 22,700 in 2005 to 12,700 four years later. While bad practices are not the only reason for the decline, certainly, troubling behavior by ASPs has played a role in the plunging numbers. Creating a better supervisory structure will have a positive effect on the future role of IA. Moreover, as a community privileged to work with children, we must provide the best programs possible and live by the highest standards. Universal federal accreditation is a key first step.

DOS and the Council on Accreditation (“COA”), the accrediting body for most ASPs, must themselves be more proactive and transparent. We understand the privacy issues involved in making public complaints and disciplinary proceedings against ASPs. However, just as the Better Business Bureau makes public disclosure a condition of membership, ASPs as part of their application for accreditation should be asked to agree that complaints against them and proceedings taken against them be made public as a condition of accreditation. We first raised this point with DOS and COA two years ago and have kept it at the top of our agenda.

ASP fees must be transparent and available for prospective adoptive parents to consider and compare. As Graff points out, large transfers of cash should not be part of international adoption. The itemized fees should include both U.S. and foreign expenditures. ASPs should be required to create escrow funds for prepaid expenses and should be open to disclosure of all relevant information.

We strongly advocate that in all cases [agencies] be liable for the acts or failures to act of their foreign agents and contractors…. If an [agency] is not willing to financially stand by the people it is working for, it should not work with them at all.

Accountability is our byword—for that reason we strongly advocate that in all cases ASPs be liable for the acts or failures to act of their foreign agents and contractors. The first draft of the IAA regulations contained this provision but it did not make it into the final draft. With so many of the problems in IA occurring because of actions or inactions by foreign actors, we urge that this regulation be enacted. Frankly, if an ASP is not willing to financially stand by the people it is working for, it should not work with them at all.

We would also like to make open international adoption a reality, to the extent permitted by the laws of the sending countries. Both the language and spirit of the orphan regulations and the Hague Convention standards discourage open international adoption. But openness is crucial for two reasons. Prohibiting all contact between potential adoptive parents (“PAPs”) and children drives honest family building underground and creates incentives for dishonesty. Further, we know that open adoption can be very beneficial to adopted children. There is widespread agreement that children not only should know their original culture and heritage but that the ability to form ties with birth family members should be embraced, not excluded. We understand the risks in openness but just as U.S .domestic adoption has successfully surmounted them, IA can as well.

We also believe in severe penalties for ASPs which have transgressed these rules. Our research has shown that both the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and RICO provide the federal government with jurisdiction to prosecute ASPs. We would also suggest that the new legislation which will be necessary to accomplish the policy changes we and Graff have made should also include anti-fraud provisions specific to adoption.

We are strongly in favor of expanding the education requirements for PAPs. All international adoption is special needs adoption. By definition, institutionalized children or children abruptly removed from their first surrounding are children who will need extra help and understanding to succeed. This is truer for older children and children with identified medical needs who now encompass a percentage of the children adopted internationally. Too often eager parents are told that love is enough. Love is necessary but not sufficient—education and training, both in person and on line must be expanded and made a prerequisite for all international adoption.

Post-adoption support is equally important. Post-placement reports, prepared by specifically trained social workers required to make home visits, should be mandatory for all international adoptions. ASPs should be required to provide resources, buddy families and social worker support for the new families that are created. Again, we have a precedent in the domestic adoption from foster care approach. The same network could be utilized for IA parents. It is true that foster care support comes from a different federal agency, in that case the Department of Health and Human Services, but the recent extremely positive experience in Haiti has shown us that governmental agencies can tag-team to produce excellent results. We need to keep the ties made by HHS, CIS and DOS which were forged in Haiti, strong and expand them on a permanent basis.

Hundreds of thousands of children in the United States live in families formed through IA. While IA cannot be the answer for most children, it must always remain an answer. The path to permanence runs through thoughtful and constructive legislation and regulation. We are delighted to work with E.J. Graff and others to make a good system that much better.


NEW! More on "The Baby Business"
Comments on Responses

Diane Kunz and Ann Reese

We are happily surprised by the apparent consensus among the respondents to E.J. Graff’s article to the basic principles of ethics, transparency and accountability in the adoption process. It is all the more puzzling then that we, the members of the adoption community, often find ourselves at odds with one another when it comes to advocating for and implementing reforms.

In “The Baby Business,” E.J. Graff concludes that “when done right, international adoption is a last ditch effort.” The Center for Adoption Policy is committed to de-linking the characterization of “done right,” and “last ditch,” or the more commonly used “last resort.” We believe that the subsidiarity principle in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which expresses a preference for a child to be raised in his country of birth, if it is in the individual child’s best interests, makes the best interests of a child paramount. No serious child welfare practitioner can condone a one-track-fits-all template to finding a permanent, loving family for a child as soon in life as possible. In our view, international adoption is one of a series of options that must be considered concurrently for every child living without parental care.

Tom DiFilipo of JCICS says that any discussion of permanency should begin with a discussion of preserving families. In a world where women in many societies have no control over their reproductive life, this will often be a short discussion. The ability to choose adoption rather than raising an unwanted child can be empowering for a woman and a lifeline for a child. And if local norms preclude a realistic chance for domestic adoption, international adoption can be equally empowering.

At times, unfortunately, a misplaced sense of national pride leads governments to reject international adoption. Cultural ideologues deliberately misinterpret the subsidiarity principle. They insist that this tenet requires exploring every domestic option, often sequentially, and having them all fail, before making a child available for international adoption. Never mind that no child living on the street or in an institution has any realistic opportunity to appreciate his culture or heritage. A child’s right to know his birth heritage and culture does not give a biological family, or state or country of origin, to imprison a child in circumstances depriving him of his potential to grow and thrive.

Dr. Aronson, who cares for individual children, not the abstract concept of “the child,” reminds us that it is irrelevant to a child without the loving care of a family whether he is a biological or social orphan. She also reminds us that the scale of the problem is measured in “probably hundreds of millions” and that there is no one solution that will address the needs of all.

Ethica is concerned that the provision of humanitarian aid to countries of origin by adoption agencies and adoptive families makes sending governments dependent upon international adoption. This was one of the arguments used to justify the international adoption moratorium in Romania, which has been in effect for the past decade. Domestic adoptions are almost nonexistent and child abandonment continues unabated. Foster care and “nursing care” for disabled orphans has become the new gravy train for displaced orphanage workers and the otherwise unemployed. Indeed, the Romanian government became dependent upon EU subsidies to fund these practices. Now that EU aid has been cut back, foster parents are forced to take more children than they can reasonably care for, and often go unpaid for long periods of time. This is not meant to disparage foster parents, who are often well-meaning but untrained. It merely illustrates that dependencies come in many forms; relying on government-run paid parenting programs is not a successful approach. As Kathleen Strottman rightly points out, “Governments and non-governmental organizations do a lot of things well, but raising children is not one of them.”

Financial and volunteer aid from adoptive families and members of their circle of influence has an important ancillary benefit. It subjects the child welfare system to ongoing scrutiny. Again, Romania is instructive on this point. Since the shutdown of international adoptions, the government has had an easier time directing media attention to the “showcases,” with support from the government representatives invested in preserving the new myths of success.

While we agree with David Smolin that the discourse within our own community is maturing, we find his comment that “there is a well-deserved fear that humanitarian projects to assist children and local communities could become corrupted by the current ethos of intercountry adoption” laughable. The scale of foreign aid dwarfs international adoption; it is more likely that the corrupt practices that are rampant in its distribution, whether through governments or NGOs, migrated to international adoption than the other way around.

Take Haiti. Prior to the January 2010 earthquake, more than 10,000 NGOs created an environment for 380,000 children to live in congregate care (let’s not argue what kind of “orphans” these are), and an additional 200,000 are condemned to the “culturally authentic type of foster care” known as restavek, which is simply child slavery by another name.

We wish that the rage and frustration directed at incidents of corruption in the world of intercountry adoption could also be channeled to the other forms of care to which unparented children are subjected. Where are the calls from our community for transparency of distribution and accountability for results of the billions of dollars of foreign aid funneled into Haiti, before and after the earthquake? Where are the calls for the oversight of family reunification and domestic care efforts, so that children are not trafficked by family members and managers of congregate care? What kind of scrutiny are these managers subjected to before being given responsibility for the lives of children? In some cases, a Hollywood career seems to be the qualification; by itself that is not even sufficient to receive a favorable home-study for an adoption in the U.S.

Attitudes about adoption, and particularly intercountry adoption, must be seen in a broader context. In a misguided attempt to appear culturally sensitive we are now often asked to accept the view that local norms should be privileged above hard-fought rights. Lisa Shannon, founder of Run for the Congo, decries the dismissal of rape in the Congo as “cultural.” (“No, Sexual Violence is Not Cultural,” International Herald Tribune, June 25, 2010). We agree with her, and add, “No, Child Abuse is Not Cultural.”

The mere fact that adoption has achieved widespread acceptance in “the West” makes it suspect. There seems to be a naïve assumption that efforts to prevent family disruption, promote family reunification, and find domestic families to offer permanent care to children would be successful, if only we would do away with these pesky international adoptions and child welfare ideas promoted by their “colonialist” advocates.

Congregate “family-like” care is promoted by evoking the dual images of exclusive “boarding schools” and authentic tribal practice. There is also an unspoken bias that children will not be abused by one of “their own.” Never mind the lessons we have on these points from the U.S. Even Oprah could not avoid abuse of her students in the school she set up in South Africa. What chance does a child in a tent city in Haiti have?

The science is indisputable. Nothing, not biology, nationality, race or culture, matters more to a child, or is more important to his development, than a parent who is willing and able to take care of him.

Living in the real world means recognizing that nothing is perfect, and that action requires setting priorities and sometimes making choices among less than ideal solutions. Daphne, who has fallen through the cracks of the registration process and was removed by a “relative who is not really a relative — the 23-year-old common-law wife of her half brother’s father” from an orphanage in Haiti, pleads with the visitors from the orphanage, “Please take me with you. Please.” (“Haitian Orphans have Little But One Another.”)

In our zeal to be beyond reproach, let us not ignore her. When a child cared for by an adoptive parent confronts the anguish of the loss of her birth family, she will do so in the loving arms of a family, and will most likely have the opportunity to reclaim her cultural heritage. Who will be there for Daphne?


~Diane B. Kunz is Executive Director of the Center for Adoption Policy. Ann N. Reese is Executive Director of the Center for Adoption Policy. The Center for Adoption Policy (CAP) is a New York based 501(c)3 organization. Its mission is to provide research, analysis, advice and education to practitioners and the public about current legislation and practices governing ethical domestic and international adoption in the United States, Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa. CAP is an independent entity. It is not affiliated with any agency or entity involved in the placement of children.

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