Corruption in international adoptions

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Debunking the Orphan Myth:
    Responses to Criticisms 

The following criticisms are culled from readers' letters, some of which are excerpted here and link to full text below.

Criticism: Hundreds of thousands of abandoned children do live in institutions... Why do you want children to be warehoused rather than adopted? Response>

Criticism: Why shouldn’t we adopt directly from birthfamilies...? Response>  

Criticism: How can you say that there was no regulatory oversight of Guatemalan private adoptions? Response>

Criticism: Why shouldn’t families be able to relinquish their children because of poverty...? Response>

Criticism: UNICEF hates international adoption... You cannot rely on its information. Response>

Criticism: Why are you... stigmatizing my child? Response> 

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Criticisms with full responses:

Criticism: The world orphan crisis is not a myth. Hundreds of thousands of abandoned children do live in institutions, especially in the former Soviet bloc. Institutions are terrible for children. Why do you want children to be warehoused rather than adopted?

Response: “The Lie We Love” and its follow-up articles have been about a very specific myth: the rhetorical sleight-of-hand that equates the “world orphan crisis” with the false belief that millions of healthy infants and toddlers need Western homes. Yes, hundreds of thousands of children live in institutions. Many of them are abandoned and desperately in need of adoption. Most of these are older, disabled, or “special needs” in some other way.

The problem comes when good-hearted Westerners are not informed of the mismatch between their desire to raise healthy infants or toddlers and the actual children who need homes. Sometimes agencies manipulate their clients’ admirable humanitarian hopes, and misdirect them toward “orphaned” or “abandoned” infants who have been “relinquished” or “found” in dubious circumstances. 

Please note that none of our examples have yet been from former Soviet or Soviet bloc countries, where many children are indeed institutionalized and in need of permanent homes. Adopting these older institutionalized children is a humanitarian act.

Criticism: Why do you think children should first have to go to institutions? Why shouldn’t we adopt directly from birthfamilies, skipping the intermediate and developmentally damaging step of institutionalization? If we stop international adoptions, these children are probably dying invisibly.  

Response: It is a logical falsehood to suggest that just because a child is born to a poor family in an underdeveloped country, she will either be adopted or wind up dead, damaged, or in an institution. There is no way to know which infants’ families will suffer the devastating twists of fate—disease, alcoholism, desertion, death—that lead to a family’s disruption. When money is available to solicit children, the babies or toddlers being relinquished are not necessarily the ones who would otherwise grow up to be institutionalized.

When international adoptions end from states or countries where corruption has been widely documented—such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Andhra Pradesh in India—the numbers of “abandonments” plummet, and numbers of institutionalized children do not increase. Child death rates in those countries do not rise. Since the numbers of infants who were being adopted from these countries far outstrips the number institutionalized, this suggests that babies adopted internationally are not being saved from institutionalization or death.

What’s more important, however: international adoption of a small group of infants from poor countries is not a solution to underdevelopment and poverty. The children left behind in the underdeveloped country are no better off. In “relinquishment” adoptions, a few children are plucked out of a poor country at random for a wealthier life. The vast majority of that country’s children remain behind to suffer the national problems of inadequate food, dirty water, poor health care services, lack of education, and so on. Poor families’ needs are not being protected in such systems. Rather, others appear to be making large profits from poor families’ misfortunes.

Criticism: How can you say that there was no regulatory oversight of Guatemalan private adoptions? We had to undergo two DNA tests (to ensure that the birthmother relinquishing the child was in fact her biological mother), repeated birthmother signatures, and birthmother interviews.

Response: The problem in Guatemala was widely documented by many news organizations and NGOs (including the Guatemalan Catholic archdiocese): private attorneys were able to solicit children directly from individuals or families, with the prospect of very large profits for the attorneys. Critics say that the adoption attorneys appear to have had their own best interests in mind, not the best interests of the families. Many of these for-profit adoption brokers sent “child-finders” to families to solicit their children. They offered no other assistance to the birthfamilies, and no social services to help keep the families together. Money was available for healthy babies; therefore babies were solicited and relinquished for money. Guatemalan adoption improprieties were so widely documented that, by 2003, all countries—except the United States—refused to allow their citizens to adopt Guatemalan children.

In Guatemala, research reveal that the child-finders were, too often, using suspect methods to acquire children for international adoption. In some cases, families were approached and offered money for their children. In other cases, women appear to have been getting pregnant and giving birth serially to earn money. In still others, women were coerced out of their children: for instance, women were offered free places to stay while pregnant, but later were told that they owed back rent—and could either give up the newborn or owe impossible amounts of money. Women in these coercive situations may have allowed DNA to be taken and may have signed the relinquishment forms.

In still other verified cases, children were kidnapped for adoption. The U.S. government instituted DNA tests and birthmother exit interviews because “relinquishment” adoptions were tainted by fraud, coercion, and criminality. However, recent evidence suggests that the chain of custody of these DNA tests may also include fraud.  In some unknown percentage of these cases, DNA tests appear to have been falsely verified; some of the doctors who were allegedly taking and certifying DNA samples may have lied about who was tested, and about when and where these tests were done. For instance, Ana Escobar’s child Esther Sulemita had passed both DNA tests somehow and was going to go to Indiana; only because Escobar kept daily watch on the relevant ministry offices did she see her child in line and insist on fresh DNA testing, which showed that the Escobar was in fact the real birthmother. Similarly, an American prospective adoptive parent named Jennifer Hemsley discovered that the DNA test filed for her prospective daughter included falsified dates; she refused to accept the test as valid. Other Guatemalan women whose children were kidnapped believe they have found their children’s pictures in the Guatemalan government’s immigration visa files. If their beliefs are correct, those tests (of children who have already been adopted to the U.S.) were also fraudulent. Dr. Aida Gutierrez, who signed off on Esther Sulemita’s and the Hemsley’s prospective daughter’s DNA tests, also certified hundreds of other tests. Such results cast doubt on the entire DNA testing process.

Criticism: Why shouldn’t families be able to relinquish their children because of poverty, rampant local disease (HIV, malaria, and the like), and lack of opportunities? What’s the matter with wanting to give their children a better life? 

Response: International adoption is not a solution to underdevelopment and poverty. Families should be free to relinquish their children for a “better life” if they do so freely, fully informed of the circumstances of those relinquishments, with their rights protected and other options available to preserve the family if they want more support.

However, in international adoption, a few children are plucked out for a wealthier life; millions remain in the same dire circumstances. That is an upside-down approach to helping families and communities. Ideally, communities are offered the services they need so that families can raise their children. If there is abuse, neglect, or alcoholism, social services are available to either help the family or remove children from the home. If children lose a parent, appropriate people help support the remaining parent or find another member of the family to take that child. If a family is temporarily overwhelmed by illness, poverty, or death, some other local fostering option is available so that children do not have the devastating experience of losing not just their parents but also the communities where they feel they belong. This may be an ideal, but until the ideal is in place, protective oversight for poor and powerless families is needed to prevent them from losing their children to fraud, coercion, or kidnapping, as is too often happening now.

Criticism: UNICEF hates international adoption because it deprives a child of its birth culture. You cannot rely on its information.

Response: We could not find a UNICEF statement equating adoption with “cultural genocide” or any of the other motivations attributed to it by its critics. Rather, we heard about UNICEF and other NGOs engaged in large-scale efforts to provide community social services that would keep children out of institutions and would support families in need. UNICEF appears to be working toward the ideal that families should be able to give their children an education, healthcare, and other basics without having to send their children away forever.

Further, some of the UNICEF (and other governmental and NGO) officials interviewed struck us as deeply moved by the grieving parents who unwillingly lost their children to international adoption and who will never see those children again. For more on the faces behind these stories, please see “The Orphan Trade.”

UNICEF does appear to have been at fault in promoting its attempts to preserve communities by stating that there are “millions” of orphans. This misleads the public, since UNICEF uses the term “orphans” to include children who have lost one parent and children living with their extended families (sisters, aunts, cousins, grandparents, and the like). UNICEF’s misleading figures may have unintentionally helped create the myth of a “world orphan crisis.”

Criticism: Why are you accusing my family of wrongdoing and stigmatizing my child?

Response: The American families and their adopted children are blameless. The goal of loving a child who needs a home is entirely honorable. No child should be stigmatized because of his or her origins. But to protect other poor nations’ families from wrongly losing their children, the facts need to be known.

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