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.


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.

Ethica advocated for many of E.J. Graff’s suggestions for reform in our comments to the Hague regulations. Had those suggestions been incorporated at the regulation drafting stage, perhaps the article’s conclusion, “The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption is merely a legal regime to enable countries to transfer the relatively small percentage of children who need international homes” would be different. Indeed, upon release of the final regulations, Ethica expressed its concern that the regulations failed to address the vast majority of the most problematic features of intercountry adoption practice and could actually worsen current conditions.

The question “Exactly where does all that money go?” remains largely unanswered. The Hague regulations... do nothing to eliminate the profit motive that drives adoption abuses.

E.J. Graff asks: "Exactly where does all that money go?" The way the Hague Convention has been implemented in the United Sates doesn't answer the question.

The Hague regulations do not require any caps on the often exorbitant fees required to adopt internationally. The Convention itself requires that state parties ensure that no one derives improper financial gain from adoption-related activity and that employees of adoption service providers not receive remuneration that is “unreasonably high in relation to the services rendered.” However, the Hague regulations obliterate the intent of the Hague Convention by providing that adoption service providers need only ensure that fees, wages and salaries paid are not unreasonably high in relation to services actually rendered, taking into account the norms for compensation within the intercountry adoption community in that country. Even ignoring the fact that this regulation apparently excludes “unsupervised providers” (most foreign facilitators) from any oversight of the reasonableness of the fees they receive, the regulations mean that agencies can pay whatever they want as long as this is the norm for those operating in that country. The Hague regulations, therefore, do nothing to eliminate the profit motive that drives adoption abuses.

Astonishingly, the Hague regulations also permit payments for expenses incurred in locating a child for adoption. At the time the regulations were released, Ethica expressed its view that it is unconscionable and inexplicable that the regulations essentially legalized payments to child finders. International adoption offers child locators lucrative opportunities to earn what amount to commissions–certain amounts of money per child slated for adoption – that are often far in excess of their country’s per capita income. The ability to earn large amounts of money from international adoption increases the risk that in-country players will actively solicit, coerce, or dupe families into giving up their children. By legalizing child finder fees, Ethica believes that the number of “manufactured” or “paper” orphans may increase post-Hague, particularly when U.S. adoption service providers still have a legally-sanctioned mechanism to turn a blind eye to these activities.

Even after Hague Convention implementation, fees tied to international adoption continue to incentivize countries of origin to favor international adoption at the expense of local solutions. International human rights and child welfare organizations often decry the payments of huge amounts (by sending country standards) of international adoption fees because these fees create incentives to place children for international adoption when those children might otherwise have been able to remain with their families or in their communities of origin if aid had not been conditioned on placement of the child.

Ethica believes that as long as the market for international adoption is significantly more lucrative for in-country providers, there is little reason to encourage the development of social services, child welfare and domestic adoption infrastructures.
As we stated in our comments to the Hague regulations, Ethica believes that as long as the market for international adoption is significantly more lucrative for in-country providers, there is little reason to encourage the development of social services, child welfare and domestic adoption infrastructures, all of which are granted higher priority in child placement under the Intercountry Adoption Act than international adoption. But for the money that accompanies international adoption, it is doubtful that services for which payment is permitted under the regulations would be available to the same degree when parents choose not to relinquish, or to relinquish to local guardians or adopters. Moreover, the implementation of the Hague Convention does nothing to address the disparity between international adoption fees sent to a country and the fees charged by that country to adopt domestically, not to mention the lack of assistance available to families to keep those families intact. As a result, when unethical agencies and facilitators and desperate parents are faced with the choice between money that international adoption brings and family preservation or other local alternatives, it is the money that causes international adoption to be favored. Hague or not, the economic realities of international adoption practice create an unlevel playing field within sending countries and turns the subsidiarity principles of the Hague Convention upside down.

Ethica recently conducted a survey of U.S. adoption service providers with Ethiopia programs. Of the 24 agencies surveyed, eight agencies self-reported that they send roughly $1.23 million annually to Ethiopia in the form of humanitarian aid. Extrapolating that number to 24 U.S. agencies with currently licensed Ethiopian programs, approximately $3.7 million is sent to Ethiopia annually for humanitarian aid. From the U.S. side, whether Ethiopia ratifies the Hague Convention will have no impact on the flow of dollars to Ethiopia.

Even assuming all adoption services providers have the best of intentions in providing such aid and even assuming that every dollar is well spent, one can see how the flow of children internationally in exchange for aid can create a dependency by the country’s government. Proposed legislation in the form of the Families for Orphans Act would exacerbate that dependency by augmenting private agency aid with additional federal aid in the form of technical assistance, grants and debt relief to eligible countries. Countries are eligible only if they agree to allow international adoption. The Act contains no provisions on the accountability and transparency of any financial assistance that would be sent under the Act.

Bottom line, whether or not a sending country has ratified the Hague Convention, the question “Exactly where does all that money go?” remains largely unanswered. Until the question can be answered, that is, until fees that are sent to a sending country are appropriate, transparent and accountable, the Hague Convention will make very little difference in achieving adoption reform.

Even after implementation of the Hague Convention, there are no means (and little political will) to police in-country facilitators/attorneys who do most of the work in identifying children and making them available for international adoption. There are no means in place to require clear-cut itemization of how adoption fees, typically tens of thousands of dollars, are actually spent or any way to ensure that amounts earmarked as humanitarian aid actually benefit a country’s children. The Intercountry Adoption Act was designed to remedy these systematic problems inherent in international adoption practice, but the final Hague regulations undermined the regulatory protections envisioned by the Act.


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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.

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Last page update: February 22, 2011