OUR REPORTING ON INTERNATIONAL ADOPTION

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.

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David M. Smolin, Professor of Law,
Cumberland Law School, Samford University.

E.J. Graff’s excellent article, “The Baby Business,” demonstrates once again the important role of the press in relationship to both intercountry adoption and broader child welfare/child rights issues. E.J. Graff and the Schuster Institute have done an excellent job of investigating, cataloguing, and analyzing many of the complex facts, events, and issues relevant to intercountry adoption, creating an accessible, online record for stakeholders and the general public.

The nations of origin with the largest numbers of intercountry placements have often been the ones most impacted by scandals…. Many currently accredited United States adoption agencies have in the past partnered with orphanages, facilitators, and channels seriously impacted by child laundering—generally without suffering any adverse legal or regulatory effect. Thus, child laundering abuses have a pervasive and significant reach across the intercountry adoption system.

Until relatively recently, adoption discourse within the United States has been dominated by adoption agencies, adoptive parents, prospective adoptive parents, and those ideologically committed to adoption as an unconditional good.

This discourse perpetuated a powerful set of adoption myths, including the following:

  1. There are limitless and huge numbers of orphans, including healthy infants and toddlers, in need of international adoption;
  2. Cases of children being obtained illegally for intercountry adoption are rare and over-sensationalized;
  3. Most forms of “corruption” in intercountry adoption are relatively harmless, as they simply facilitate and speed the adoption of true orphans into loving homes;
  4. Enemies of intercountry adoption, including organizations, nations, and persons ideologically opposed to intercountry adoption, are primarily to blame for the declining numbers, long wait lists for healthy children, moratoriums and shutdowns in particular countries of origin, and negative adoption stories;
  5. The only reason some adoptions disrupt or run into difficulty is because a small minority of adoptive parents lack commitment to their adoptive children;
  6. Adult adoptees who express doubts or discomfit with their adoptions represent only a tiny group of ungrateful malcontents;
  7. Excellent quality services at a reasonable cost are available to assist adoptive families and adoptees with the psychological, educational, and other special needs of internationally adopted children and adults.

Unfortunately, until relatively recently those who would challenge these adoption myths were marginalized as anti-adoption zealots unworthy of response or respect.

Thus, not only E.J. Graff’s essay, but also many of the responses, represents a maturing adoption discourse within the United States. Many stakeholders have moved beyond reflexive and defensive denial, to an interest in more honestly confronting the causes of the continuing adoption scandals and the significantly declining numbers of intercountry adoption. While some stakeholders, adoption agencies, advocates, and adoptive parents continue to aggressively promulgate the same old adoption myths, there is an overall shift in adoption discourse, which creates an opportunity for reform.

In specific response to E.J. Graff’s article, I would emphasize the following:

  1. E.J. Graff’s statement that “Most nations’ adoption programs are relatively clean” becomes, for the Joint Council on International Children’s Services, a statement that “We agree that the vast majority of intercountry adoptions are conducted ethically and in the best interests of each child.” However, the first statement is potentially misleading, and the second a false inference from the first.

    First, even if one concentrates only on child trafficking or child laundering (obtaining children illegally through purchase, fraud, or abduction, providing false paperwork that identifies the children as orphans, and then processing the “orphans” for adoption), a partial list of nations with significant issues would include Cambodia, Chad, China, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Liberia, Nepal, Samoa, and Vietnam. While this list does not include most nations, it does subsume a significant percentage of intercountry adoptions, as the nations of origin with the largest numbers of intercountry placements have often been the ones most impacted by scandals. The fact that “most nations” have a relatively clean program is meaningless in a context where most potential nations of origin choose not to participate significantly in the intercountry adoption system (or choose not to send significant numbers of children to the United States). In a context where the top three nations of origin typically comprise a clear majority of intercountry adoptions, and the top ten nations constitute at least 85% of intercountry adoptions, abusive practices within top three or top ten nations are extremely important.

    Second, if one examines with particularity the orphanages, facilitators, and specific channels that have been infected with child laundering over the last decade, one will find that most active receiving nations have accepted placements through such affected channels. Similarly, many currently accredited United States adoption agencies have in the past partnered with orphanages, facilitators, and channels seriously impacted by child laundering—generally without suffering any adverse legal or regulatory effect. Thus, child laundering abuses have a pervasive and significant reach across the intercountry adoption system. 

    The picture of abusive practices is even broader when one adds significant nations like Russia, where abusive adoption practices other than child laundering predominate. Some may argue that general corruption, bribery, and monetary incentives matter little in a nation like Russia, where there are so many institutionalized children in need of placement. Such a viewpoint ignores the critical roles that proper assessment and information-sharing play in the placement of older, traumatized, and special needs children. The high disruption rates; the Russian adoptees murdered by their adoptive parents; and the children returned to Russia, placed in the foster care system, or institutionalized within the United States are all signs of the high-risk nature of adopting older, post-institutionalized children.

    The proper ways to mitigate such risks are: a system with accurate and thorough assessment of children and prospective adoptive parents; training programs for prospective adoptive parents that realistically portray the challenges in adopting children with certain defined backgrounds and difficulties; excellent and affordable post-adoptive services; and U.S. adoption agency accountability in cases where misleading or seriously incomplete information was provided to prospective adoptive parents. Monetary incentives and corruption distort the assessment and information-sharing processes by encouraging serious omissions and falsification in relationship to child study forms and other information conveyed about children and prospective adoptive parents. Such distortions can be dangerous, or even lethal
    Monetary incentives and corruption distort the assessment and information-sharing processes by encouraging serious omissions and falsification in relationship to child study forms and other information conveyed about children and prospective adoptive parents. Such distortions can be dangerous, or even lethal.
    , leading to the placement of children in homes ill-suited to handle the special and intense needs of those children; such is hardly a venial, victimless crime.
  2. I support universal accreditation, as well as the eight specific reforms recommended by E.J. Graff. I would note that much that E.J. Graff proposes is not new, but re-opens past proposals or issues that were evident during the period from 1993 to 2008, as the United States debated the manner in which it would ratify and implement the Hague Convention. If not for the active resistance of United States adoption agencies, and those who view themselves as intercountry adoption advocates, what E.J. Graff advocates as future reforms would have been built into the initial United States ratification and implementation of the Hague Convention. While I welcome the new spirit of reform, it would be particularly helpful if those who have positioned themselves as intercountry adoption advocates would forthrightly admit that they made a costly mistake in resisting past regulatory efforts that might have prevented large-scale adoption scandals.

    These proposed reforms should be placed in the context of the special responsibility of the United States in relationship to the intercountry adoption system.

    First, as a statistical matter, the United States typically has received half or more of all children placed for intercountry adoption. Thus, the way we practice intercountry adoption has a large and disproportionate impact on the intercountry adoption system as a whole.

    Second, the United States is unusual in its reliance on hundreds of private adoption agencies, each of whom is seeking to establish contacts with orphanages, facilitators, and governments in countries of origin in order to secure access to adoptable children. This market-based approach to adoption services poses an obvious danger of generating a market-based approach to adoptable children. Despite this danger, the United
    The United States finds itself in the embarrassing position of having ratified the Hague Convention while at the same time continuing to fuel, by monetary incentives and agency competition, the precise conditions most likely to produce the “abduction, sale of, or traffic in children” forbidden by the Convention…. The United States, having unleashed the competitive forces of hundreds of agencies bearing hundreds of millions of dollars upon developing nations, somehow expects those developing nations to preserve the integrity of intercountry adoption from this onslaught.
    States to this point in time has refused to limit the amounts of money sent to countries of origin or spent in countries of origin in order to obtain adoptable children. Some indeed argue that there is no statutory authority within the Intercountry Adoption Act of 2000, or otherwise, to establish any monetary limits. Similarly, the United States as a Hague nation has left its pre-Hague approach to adoptions from non-Hague nations unchanged. Thus, the United States finds itself in the embarrassing position of having ratified the Hague Convention while at the same time continuing to fuel, by monetary incentives and agency competition, the precise conditions most likely to produce the “abduction, sale of, or traffic in children” forbidden by the Convention. In this context, the limited moves by the U.S. government toward some monetary transparency, cannot undo the damage caused by a refusal to define and enforce specific monetary limitations: limits which are needed just as much in non-Hague adoptions, as in Hague adoptions. 

    The United States, having unleashed the competitive forces of hundreds of agencies bearing hundreds of millions of dollars upon developing nations, somehow expects those developing nations to preserve the integrity of intercountry adoption from this onslaught. Ironically, the United States looks to nations like Ethiopia, Nepal, and India, with known corruption issues and limited governmental capacities, to enforce limitations upon the numbers of agencies or the amounts and use of money, which the United States, as a rich and developed nation, refuses to enforce upon its own agencies.   Under these circumstances, the United States constitutes the single greatest threat to the integrity and future of the entire intercountry adoption system.
  3. A final word in regard to the expressed concerns with the millions of children, families and adults living in desperate circumstances, including families living in extreme poverty, children living in brutal, dehumanizing institutions, and street children. Such concerns are laudable and I will presume sincere. However, in a larger, international context, the vast majority of persons, organizations, and governments that address these concerns do so without reference to intercountry adoption. There are several reasons for this: taking children away from their families is a cruel response to poverty; similarly, most who assist the poor are working to strengthen communities and families, not remove children from them. Many street children would have trouble functioning within a family within their own society, let alone adapting to a new family with a new language and culture. For a variety of reasons, intercountry adoption is simply not a logical nor humanitarian intervention for many of the serious ills besetting children and families around the world.  

    Taking children away from their families is a cruel response to poverty; similarly, most who assist the poor are working to strengthen communities and families, not remove children from them…. Intercountry adoption is simply not a logical nor humanitarian intervention for many of the serious ills besetting children and families around the world.
    Unfortunately, even where intercountry adoption could be helpful and appropriate, its well-earned reputation for corruption and poor practice standards makes it an unattractive suitor. There is a well-deserved fear that humanitarian projects seeking to assist children and local communities could become corrupted by the current ethos of intercountry adoption, were they to open themselves fully to that option.

There are situations around the world, including some of the institutionalized children of Eastern Europe, that comprise nearly invisible humanitarian disasters crying out for immediate solution. Of course the best responses would be societal reforms that help families properly care for their own children, and that replace poor-quality institutional care with humane, family-based care. In the meantime, if intercountry adoptions were done well, without the distortions caused by monetary incentives, with full assessment of children and prospective adoptive parents, full disclosure to prospective adoptive parents, and excellent, affordable post-adoption services, then intercountry adoption could sometimes play a significant and honorable role.

Until the intercountry adoption system, however, takes responsibility for its mistakes, and learns that doing adoptions right is more important than just getting more adoptions done—until intercountry adoption gives up its Faustian bargain with sketchy middlemen, bribery, corruption, and irresponsibility—intercountry adoption will increasingly become unavailable even when it could have been ethical and helpful.

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~David M. Smolin is a professor of law at Cumberland Law School at Samford University.

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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