Experts Respond to
"Anatomy of an
Ethica is a nonprofit corporation that seeks to be an impartial voice for ethical adoption practices worldwide, and provides education, assistance, and advocacy to the adoption and foster care communities.
E.J. Graff's article “Anatomy of an Adoption Crisis” provides rare and invaluable insight into intercountry adoption. It confirms what Ethica had observed throughout its involvement in adoptions from Vietnam in 2006-2007 after a three-year moratorium: that while there were many red flags and alarming observations of adoption practices in-country, the U.S. government had very few tools at its disposal to address observers’ concerns. Ethica fielded thousands of inquiries during that time period. Most were from perplexed adoptive parents going on very little and sometimes unverified or conflicting information from their adoption agencies, as well as from Vietnamese and American government officials. Some inquiries were from Vietnamese social workers and American adoption agency workers concerned about what they were observing overseas. Adoption agencies were actively competing for orphanage relationships in order to secure "referrals," an industry euphemism for children available for adoption.
|It was at this [JCICS] meeting that it became painfully clear that it is unrealistic to rely on adoption agencies to self-regulate.|
It was at this meeting that it became painfully clear that it is unrealistic to rely on adoption agencies to self-regulate. There were 22 JCICS members conducting Vietnamese adoptions, but few knew if they were working with the same orphanages and few were familiar with the terms of the Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) with those orphanages. Only three representatives at the JCICS summit spoke Vietnamese, including Ethica's Executive Director. The remaining agencies relied almost exclusively on in-country facilitators to translate and conduct adoptions. One program director had never been to Vietnam.
Ultimately, it became clear that there could be no way to keep the program afloat. At the time that the MOU was about to expire, Ethica published the following statement:
"Unfortunately, history has shown us that when a country halts international adoption, some children suffer and the abuses do not stop. Instead, they shift and proliferate in other countries. Whether in Vietnam or other countries, we cannot support a continuation of a system which perpetuates abuses. Instead, in accordance with Ethica's mission, we are advocating for reform—not for a continuation of the current system or for a sudden closure that will simply cause the situation to shift to other countries."Indeed, Vietnam is only a case study in a long line of countries plagued with ethical problems in their adoption programs, and as the above statement predicts, the ultimate closure of the Vietnam program was followed by serious ethical concerns in Ethiopia, and, more recently, Nepal. Prior to the troubles in Vietnam, there were significant ethical problems in the adoption programs from Romania, Cambodia, and Guatemala—indeed, Ethica was founded in the wake of the closure of American adoptions from Cambodia. In each of these countries, adoption was characterized by the rush of an unsupportable number of ASPs [adoption service providers] with dollars in fist seeking a limited supply of healthy infants, marred by money, selfishness, and an inability to recognize when the industry tipped from humanitarian ideals to market-driven greed.
In each of these situations, everyone is a victim. The adoptee is a victim of a situation in which she is a sought-after commodity, not a human child. Biological parents are victims when they are subverted, coerced, or duped into relinquishing a child they planned to raise. Adoptive parents are victims when they lose the chance to become parents after expending time, energy, and money in the pursuit of expanding their families. Absolutely no one wins, except, perhaps, those who stand to gain financially.
...all parties often assume that an overarching authority monitors the scene on the ground. As Graff's article so clearly illustrates, there is no such authority.
Unfortunately, in these situations, all parties often assume that an overarching authority monitors the scene on the ground. As Graff's article so clearly illustrates, there is no such authority. U.S. government entities are hamstrung in their tools to investigate and prosecute fraud and coercion; for the most part, they must rely on the sending country's diligence and commitment to transparency and ethics.
Clearly, however, this wasn't—and isn't—sufficient. It wasn't sufficient in Vietnam, as these documents so clearly demonstrate, and it continues to be insufficient in countries like Nepal, where American families wait now for visa investigations to determine whether the children they seek to adopt are truly eligible for adoption. Moreover, it won't be sufficient in the next country whose infrastructure is similarly too nascent, its political will too lax, to support an ethical adoption program, but seeks to open its borders to adoption service providers wiling to find homes for its children.
And while the value of incisive, retrospective (and prospective) analysis is not to be diminished, it must be noted that only stringent legislative reform can actually seek to remedy the glaring ethical problems in intercountry adoption. Such a legislative solution must include the following:
1) Fee reforms. The “normal” fees charged are often grossly disproportionate to the actual per capita income of the country in which the services are rendered. For example, in the 2007 JCICS summit, discussions danced around what was really occurring in-country, including the wildly differing salaries Vietnamese staff were being paid depending on the adoption agency. While a few paid salaries based on Vietnamese standards of living at around $150/month, others paid up to $2,500/month. No one would admit that salaries were tied to how many referrals could be procured. In comparison, a qualified Vietnamese social worker with child welfare experience was receiving $300/month for her services. The per capita income in Vietnam at that time was roughly $1,000 annually.
The U.S. Hague regulations do not require any caps on the often-exorbitant fees required to adopt internationally. The regulations do nothing to eliminate the potential for entrepreneurs in sending countries to earn windfall profits by brokering adoptions. This factor alone creates powerful incentives for bad actors to solicit large numbers of children and create paper orphans.
In addition, regulations that purport to create fee transparency require agencies to disclose to adoptive parents only “totals” for categories, such as foreign fees. Therefore, there is still no transparency with respect to what happens to fees—often substantial fees—once the money leaves the U.S. Ethical adoptions cannot happen unless fees are limited, transparent, and trackable.
2) Overall coordination with the country of origin and other receiving countries as to the number of ASPs that may justifiably operate an international adoption program in that country. Additionally, evaluation of the number of referrals that may realistically be made while ensuring that subsidiarity principles are actively promoted and upheld. The principle of subsidiarity holds, in essence, that children in need of an alternative home placement should first be considered for placement in the extended family, then for domestic out-of-family placement, and finally, as a last resort, placement in a family internationally. These well-established child welfare norms fly in the face of the observations in Vietnam in which, for instance, abandonments skyrocketed as more adoption service providers flooded into a province; referral numbers should be based on the number of children needing homes, not the number of families seeking to adopt.
|Hold ASPs, not adoptive parents, culpable for the wrongdoing of their foreign partners.|
3) Hold ASPs, not adoptive parents, culpable for the wrongdoing of their foreign partners. Adoptive parents bear the brunt of selecting an adoption service provider with a proven track record of ethics and transparency, but adoption service providers are the ultimate arbiters of decisions in the current intercountry adoption structure. At present, adoption service providers can hire in-country facilitators who falsify paperwork, coerce biological families, and erase an individual's entire history simply by claiming that s/he was abandoned—with few, if any, legal repercussions.
At its best, international adoption can provide a viable option for a family seeking options for their child, a home for a child who might not otherwise have one, and a child for a couple who seeks to add to their family. At its worst, international adoption tromps on the vulnerable and benefits the greedy, disregarding a most basic human right to family.
In 2007, we wrote, "Ethica believes that the collective adoption community has the knowledge and ability to perform ethical and legal adoptions, and that significant progress can be made in these areas—both in Vietnam and around the world." The time to act, collaborate, and raise up in collective indignity has come. Let us no longer take "later" for an answer in the pursuit of justice.
~Ethica is a nonprofit corporation that seeks to be an impartial voice for ethical adoption practices worldwide, and provides education, assistance, and advocacy to the adoption and foster care communities.
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