Corruption in international adoptions

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E. J. Graff responds to
  Joint Council comments

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.


Response to JCICS comments:

I greatly appreciate JCICS’s comments and support for the recommendations made in “The Baby Business.” The comments appear to include some misunderstandings, which I would like to clear up.

Joint Council writes:

"Although mentioned in the article, one issue that was not included in Ms. Graff’s list of eight recommendations is Universal Accreditation, which would require the U.S. government to accredit all primary adoption service providers."

E.J. Graff responds:

Universal accreditation is the article’s primary recommendation; the other eight recommendations are intended to make sure universal accreditation is effective, as written here: “If Congress is going to act, it should require Hague accreditation for all agencies arranging intercountry adoptions…. But requiring Hague accreditation for all international adoptions will be effective only if some holes are plugged first.”

Joint Council writes:

"The title of the article, "The Baby Business, "and throughout the article itself state or imply that families seek to adopt only ‘healthy infants’. The reality points in the opposite direction.”

E.J. Graff responds:

My regrets if this impression was given. I am aware of, and greatly respect, the many people who do in fact adopt special needs and older children. These families deserve support and applause.

However, “The Baby Business” doesn’t intend to characterize all international adoption. Rather, it reports on some needed policy responses to the less-than-savory portion of international adoption, which can rightly be characterized as a “baby business.” Some Western families have been taken advantage of because they believe, incorrectly, that the world is overflowing with healthy baby orphans who need new homes. Relying on some Americans’ naiveté and eagerness to build their families, some agencies promise healthy infants quickly—a promise that strongly suggests corruption in the agency’s “supply chain.” The Schuster Institute regularly receives comments from readers who thank us for clearing up this misperception.

The dwindling of these healthy infant adoptions—both in raw numbers and as a proportion of total international adoptions—suggests that the international community has had some success in reducing “the baby business.” But more can be done. Where there has been corruption—in such countries as Vietnam, Cambodia, and Guatemala—it has been especially (although not only) associated with the adoptions of children three and under. That’s why these reforms are so important. (My forthcoming article in Foreign Policy Online, which examines what the State Department was doing in Vietnam to stem the purchase and sale of babies for adoption, will shed some light on this.) The article is based on hundreds of pages of documents received as the result of Freedom of Information Act requests; those documents will be posted on the Schuster Institute’s website soon.

Joint Council writes:

"[W]hen abuses are identified in adoptions rather than targeting individual abusers, the institution of intercountry adoption is labeled as the perpetrator.”

E.J. Graff responds:

"The Baby Business" offers suggestions about what U.S. policies, statutes, regulations, and practices could be changed to screen out wrongful adoptions, to discredit the agencies that (knowingly or otherwise) employ malefactors overseas, and to make it easier to adopt those children who truly do desperately need new homes.

Joint Council writes:

Ms. Graff notes that the prevalence of corruption within Guatemalan adoptions left the authorities with no option other than to close the intercountry adoption program altogether. Instead of shutting down, why was the system not reformed?”

E.J. Graff responds:

As the Joint Council knows, Guatemalan prosecutors have indeed brought criminal charges against many of those involved in intercountry adoption, including Susanna Luarca, a prominent and vocal Guatemalan adoption lawyer who partnered with a number of American adoption agencies. Investigations and prosecutions are currently underway.

However, those prosecutions are complicated for the same reason that international adoption from Guatemala was: that country’s criminal justice system has a reputation as being riddled with corruption. The most recent example: the New York Times reported on June 8, 2010 that a UN investigator accused Guatemala’s attorney general of having ties to criminal adoption activity and drug traffickers.  The attorney general was soon after ousted by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court.

Reforming international adoption takes time in countries where officials are themselves implicated in or tied to related criminal activity. The United States cannot force a sovereign country to reform its official practices, as may be illuminated in the Schuster Institute’s forthcoming FP Online article, which details the State Department’s several-year-long effort to get Vietnam to reform its adoption system and prosecute the criminals, so that the United States could continue the adoptions that were truly needed.

In such cases, officials may feel that their least bad option is to save thousands of families from adoption abuses by temporarily closing that country to international adoption altogether until official systems are fully reformed.

Joint Council writes:

"Ms. Graff, in a previous article and again in "The Baby Business," presents a false perception that intercountry adoptions are ‘dramatically increasing.’ The numbers of Ethiopia adoptions quoted leave the reader with the impression that 2,277 adoptions is not only too high but also increasing. Yet at the 2010 Joint Council Conference, the Department of State presented statistics showing that adoptions from Ethiopia will actually fall below 2,000 this year. And Joint Council’s projections show that from a high of 23,000 in 2005, intercountry adoption will serve less than 8,000 children by 2012."

E.J. Graff responds:

I cannot find a sentence in “The Baby Business” that implies that intercountry adoptions are “dramatically increasing.” It is widely known that total intercountry adoption numbers have been dropping since China, the world’s largest source of children for intercountry adoption, began reducing the number of children it allowed to go abroad; numbers dropped further after both Guatemala and Vietnam closed after being implicated in large-scale abuses.

I had not previously seen or heard the Department of State’s suggestion that Ethiopia numbers were dropping. Thank you for that information. We have asked the Department of State to pass that information along to us as well, so that it can be posted here.

One can only hope that, as countries around the world work to improve their family preservation and child welfare systems, and as more countries implement and extend their Hague protections, fewer children are unnecessarily forced to leave their homes and families—either because their families cannot care for them, or because of purchase, coercion, fraud, abduction, or any other form of corruption. International adoption must remain open for those children—and only those children—who truly do need new families.


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.

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Last page update: February 22, 2011