Corruption in international adoptions

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Visa denied:
   The story of one family


In September 2008, U.S. adoptions from Vietnam ended. Within the contentious world of international adoption, that closure counted as a crisis. The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi was determined to block fraudulent or corrupt adoptions—but had little power to do so short of ending them entirely, as the Schuster Institute reports in “Anatomy of an Adoption Crisis” in Foreign Policy Online. That article analyzes internal U.S. State Department deliberations about Vietnam adoptions between 2007-2008, based on hundreds of pages of U.S. government documents we received after making Freedom of Information Act requests.

That article, and the documents themselves, reveal how the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi thought about what it was doing. But the State Department’s efforts held some American families hostage in Hanoi for months, unable to bring their babies home. Those families are still angry about their Kafkaesque ordeal, feeling that they—and their newly adopted infants—were “collateral damage” in a policy debate between the U.S. and Vietnam.

Between 2006 and 2009, Americans adopted 2,220 children from Vietnam.1 In order to bring those children to the United States, adopting parents first had to apply for and receive “orphan visas” from the Department of State and USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services). During that period, those two government agencies had profound concerns about children–especially infants–being taken for adoption without the birthfamilies’ permission. In 2007, because of those concerns, the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi began sending out a larger team of investigators to look into orphanages where “abandoned” babies had begun arriving with suspicious frequency–after those orphanages started working with American adoption agencies.2 Based on the evidence collected during those investigations, the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi and the USCIS office in Ho Chi Minh City concluded that a significant proportion of Vietnamese adoptions involved fraud—not just some apparent abandonments, but also some relinquishments—or instances in which, according to documents, the birthfamilies had signed (or fingerprinted) papers agreeing to give up their children for adoption. (USCIS regulations permit “orphan visas” for relinquishments only under limited circumstances.)

During 2007, according to State Department documents, the Department of State and USCIS received 20 orphan visa applications in which they believed they had found and could prove such fraud. USCIS issued twenty “Notices of Intent to Deny” (NOIDs)—official documents that informed those families that the U.S. government did not intend to issue a visa allowing them to bring home their newly adopted child. In thirteen cases, the families receiving the NOIDs were already in Hanoi and had already adopted their children under Vietnamese law. And so those NOIDs came as serious blows. The thirteen hired Vietnamese investigators and American immigration lawyers to fight those NOIDs; some of the families left someone behind in Hanoi to live with the newly adopted child. Very soon afterwards, USCIS began a program called “Orphans First,” through which prospective adopting parents submitted their I-600 orphan visa applications before flying to Hanoi or adopting their Vietnamese-born children; they didn’t go to Vietnam or meet their children until USCIS had investigated and cleared that child as eligible for orphan status, thereby reducing (though not eliminating) the trauma of waiting for the official word. 

Eventually, all thirteen families overcame the NOIDs and were able to bring home their children, according to Mary Quigley and the other NOID families that I spoke with. For some that took just a few weeks, but for some it took six months. In July 2010, I spoke to a few parents from among the families that had been stranded in Hanoi sometime during the fall and winter of 2007/2008. They still felt scarred by the fight to bring their children home. Only one family—the Quigleys—was willing to share their story publicly.

Mary and Martin Quigley

It took them $25,000 in unexpected expenses, four months living in two separate households on different continents, and a hair-raising amount of frustration and lack of information–but eventually, in February 2008, Mary and Martin Quigley were able to bring their Vietnamese-born baby Mickey home to North Carolina. They said the actual adoption had cost them about $20,000 (plus travel), and was supposed to require only two or three weeks in Vietnam. But the Quigleys say they had to spend an additional $25,000 (and another three months out of country) to respond to the U.S. government’s “orphan visa” denial. The Quigleys say they had to pay lawyers in Vietnam and the U.S., cover two household’s expenses, pay for unexpected international flights (with last-minute schedule changes), and even repeat medical exams as circumstances changed.

The long ordeal was far from what the Quigleys expected when they first looked into international adoption in 2006. Mary Quigley and her husband Martin Quigley, had a biological daughter, Maggie, and wanted another child. When pregnancy didn’t come easily, they decided to skip fertility treatments and instead look for “a child who needed us as much as we needed a child,” as Mary Quigley put it. The couple chose Vietnam by process of elimination: children were coming out of Vietnam relatively reliably, as was no longer true from Latin America; the program was less expensive than adopting from Eastern Europe, which required two trips; and there was the possibility of a boy, which wasn’t true in China. The Quigleys assumed–without giving it much thought–that if the State Department had signed an adoption agreement with Vietnam, then the U.S. government was confident that its adoptions were reliable. And so in early 2007, the Quigleys signed on with Carolina Adoption Services (CAS), which had the twin virtues of being nearby and of working in their chosen country.

CAS was partnering with Tam Ky Orphanage in Vietnam’s Quang Nam province, a coastal province in south central Vietnam. But here’s what the Quigleys couldn’t know: during the previous months, according to the Department of State, Tam Ky had seen a suspicious spike in infant abandonments since it began partnering with American adoption agencies. The State Department believed at least some of its abandonment records were being fabricated, and that in some cases babies were being offered for international adoption without the birthfamilies’ knowledge or informed consent.

In September 2007, CAS sent the Quigleys a referral for a boy who, according to his paperwork, had been abandoned when he was just a few days old. Thrilled, the Quigleys, flew to Hanoi in October. With another CAS family, they traveled to Quang Nam, met their new son at the Tam Ky orphanage, and formally adopted him under Vietnamese law. A few days later, back in Hanoi, the families submitted their I-600 “orphan visa” applications to the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi. The Quigleys were mystified by what came up at the required I-600 interview. “The questions were odd,” Quigley told me. “We weren’t expecting questions like: Did you see a gatehouse, where the guard would sleep?”

They had expected to receive the visa relatively quickly and to head right back home, as happens in most such cases. Instead, they waited—and waited—to find out what was happening. “Things dragged on,” said Quigley. “No one would tell us anything. We started to get worried. We had a round-trip ticket that we had to keep changing.” On a Friday at the beginning of November, they had their second interview with a U.S. Embassy consular officer who gave them the official word: USCIS would deny their application, for reasons that had to do with that guard and gatehouse. The orphanage’s proper procedure for receiving an abandoned child, Quigley says she was told, was clear: the guard should bring the child to the orphanage’s caretakers, who were supposed to record its arrival and then file paperwork with the provincial police. But while the police and the orphanage caretakers had such paperwork, the Tam Ky guard’s logbook did not have a matching record. While neither USCIS nor the State Department would comment on specific cases, citing the Privacy Act of 1974, a Freedom of Information Act request for internal State Department communications revealed that the Hanoi embassy suspected a number of Vietnamese police departments of creating fraudulent paperwork to cover false statements of abandonment.

The Quigleys were devastated. But Maggie had to return to kindergarten and Mary had to go back to teaching medieval history. And so, on the same day they’d been denied the visa, Mary and Maggie flew back home to North Carolina. Martin stayed in Hanoi with their new son Mickey, locating and talking with some of the other families who were receiving NOIDs at the same time—and who were unwilling to leave their new children behind.

The Quigleys assumed that the State Department had found the birthfamily, who wanted Mickey back. But to their surprise, Mary Quigley told me, the consular official said that wasn’t the case; rather, he said, “we needed to find the birth family and get the relinquishment papers. But how we were supposed to accomplish something that the State Department couldn’t, we couldn’t figure out.” How could a medieval history professor and an IT project manager be expected to locate the parents of a reportedly abandoned infant in a poor rural area, in a foreign country where they didn’t know the language and had never before traveled?

Over the next months, the NOID families came to distrust the State Department, although to varying degrees. (Asked for comment about the NOID families’ complaints, a State Department spokesperson from the Office of Children’s Affairs submitted this written response, which notes its concerns about Vietnamese adoptions in that period, explains the orphan visa process, and explains that Vietnam has not yet implemented the Hague Adoption Convention.) Mary Quigley said, the Embassy official “told us some things that were not entirely true,” but those were minor. For the most part, however, the Quigleys felt that he “seemed perfectly reasonable.” Because Martin Quigley was an Irish citizen, Mary says, the consular officer advised them that they could take Mickey to wait out the appeals process in Ireland rather than in Hanoi, and “he actually helped us get in touch with the Irish consulate in Hanoi.”

Until that could be arranged, Martin Quigley and another CAS parent took a Hanoi apartment together, got cribs, and settled in for the very indefinite future. They found and hired a Vietnamese law firm, VILAF (Vietnamese International Law Firm), to investigate their children’s status. Mary says that she and her husband told VILAF to look for a birthfamily; if someone wanted her new son back, as agonizing as it might be, the Quigleys would return him. But the Quigleys were not willing to simply abandon their child to the same orphanage that was accused of not caring about him in the first place.

As the weeks went on, Mary Quigley said that the NOID families spent their days “trying to figure out where our paperwork was.” Who was reviewing it: the State Department? USCIS? Offices in Hanoi? Ho Chi Minh City? Bangkok? Washington, D.C.? Who could make a decision? Who might have some idea about how long they had to wait for answers? Who had the authority or willingness to keep them informed? Mary Quigley is quietly angry about how the families were treated, saying, “They went beyond not talking to us. They were downright rude, and lied to us about where our paperwork was.” She says that “at one point our family was told our case had been dismissed; we went for three days in total panic. We got our lawyer involved, which of course costs.” In fact, it turned out, USCIS was still considering their appeal (called a “rebuttal to the NOID”).

When asked for comment about these allegations, Chris Rhatigan, a spokesperson for USCIS, said, “We regret it if these families perceive that they were intentionally misled by USCIS or that we lied to them in any way. We would never intentionally mislead or withhold information from a prospective adoptive parent or to slow down an appeal.”

Frustrated by their treatment, at another point the NOID families decided to raise their campaign’s profile. They got their senators and members of Congress involved and talked to CNN, AP, the New York Times, and other outlets.

In December Mary flew to Hanoi, where she was able to spend almost two days with her husband before he flew back to North Carolina. At last she had a chance to “get acquainted with Mickey.” Within a couple of weeks, she took him to Ireland, where they stayed with Martin’s relatives—still away from home, but at least with family and friends.

On January 9, 2008, the Quigleys were told that their rebuttal had been approved, and that USCIS would recommend that the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi issue the orphan visa that would enable them to bring Mickey home. But on approximately February 5, Mary Quigley reports, the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi sent a Request for Revocation to USCIS, including new evidence that it believed would persuade USCIS not to issue the visas. (A U.S. Embassy official comments on his reasons for taking this action in the email “RE: Draft Qs and As for Friday's Congressional Briefing” of the Schuster Institute’s archive of State Department documents released after a Freedom of Information Act request.) Once again, the families had no idea when they might get to bring their children back to home.

However, by February, the NOID families had discovered that their paperwork was in Washington, D.C., which was more responsive to the NOID families’ requests—in no small part, they believed, because of the publicity campaign. Michele Bond, the deputy assistant Secretary of State in consular affairs, and Michael Valverde, who was then acting Deputy Chief, USCIS Office of International Operations, and responsible for the visas, “at least returned our phone calls, which made a big difference,” Mary Quigley told me. For awhile, there were questions about whether they could in fact bring Mickey home from Ireland to North Carolina. But on approximately February 20, 2008, Michelle Bond called to tell the Quigleys that they could bring Mickey home.

About the same time, someone leaked a recent State Department backgrounder called “Ten Disturbing Adoption Cases in Vietnam.”  The white paper was being circulated to interested senators and members of Congress to help explain, first, why the U.S. would not renew its adoption agreement with Vietnam; and second, why time-consuming investigations were holding up their constituents’ adoptions. The NOID families were taken aback by the document, which didn’t strike them as accurate. For instance, one description of a Quang Nam adoption looked as if it could have been the Quigleys’ or the other CAS family’s, but, says Mary, “there were details we knew weren’t true and others we hadn’t heard.” According to the white paper, a Quang Nam orphanage guard had been disciplined for speaking with U.S. Embassy officials; in response, he had burned his logbook and created a new one “with an entry showing that a child had been deserted on the date in question. Further, the nurse’s logbook was altered to add references that a child was deserted on the day in question.” If these suspicious activities had actually happened, the Quigleys and others wondered, why hadn’t this information been included in someone’s NOID file, so that their attorney could respond to it on appeal?

What bothers Mary Quigley most are three things. First, “nobody would tell us what was going on.” They were in a Kafka novel, being tried for no wrongdoing, without knowing by whom, what, when, where, or how their case was being decided. Second, the real wrongdoers, if any, were left untouched by the NOID process. If children had been wrongfully taken for adoption, the prospective American parents had nothing to do with it. Both the American adoption agencies and the allegedly unethical Vietnamese orphanages or facilitators with whom they partnered were left untouched by the NOID process. NOIDs, Quigley told me, “don’t punish the guilty.” Asked for comment, USCIS spokesperson Chris Rhatigan said, “When we issue a Notice of Intent to Deny or a Request for Evidence, we are asking the prospective adoptive parents to provide the evidence that we don’t have. We then work as carefully and quickly as possible to make sure we are able to either complete the adoption or determine that the child is not an orphan available for adoption.”

More important, in Mary Quigley’s mind, was that “no one seemed to care what was going to happen to the kids.” As she wrote in a letter to the Schuster Institute, “My husband and I agonized over what to do when we were issued the NOID. DOS (Department of State) personnel were absolute in their opinion: the ‘ethical’ (their word) choice for us would be to repudiate the adoption and send our son back to the orphanage. We questioned them very closely: If we, as his legal parents, relinquished our son, under Vietnamese law would that make him eligible for adoption to another family? The answer was unequivocal: "No; this child will not be eligible for U.S. citizenship." No other countries were working with his orphanage, so there were no other options for him.

“Think about it: If DOS was wrong, and our son was abandoned as his paperwork said, then he should come home with us. If DOS was right, and we continue to face that possibility, their only solution was to send him back to the very people they claim trafficked him in the first place. For life.”

Here’s how Mary Quigley put it when we talked: “Someone had to look out for Mickey, and in the absence of a birthfamily, that was us. We wrestle with the fact that there are a lot of things we don’t have answers to,” including the possibility that his adoption may not have been above board. But they could not abandon him to an unknown fate.

While Martin Quigley is unhappy with how the family was treated by the State Department, he added, “If I were to go after anybody, it would be the adoption agency. We engaged with them because of their reputation of having a genuine commitment to the families and the children. What we saw was, instead, that when complications arose, it ran as fast as it could.” The Quigleys noted that one other adoption agency actually paid the legal costs of appealing the NOIDs for the families for whom they were working. Asked for comment, Carolina Adoption Services’ executive director Rosemary Martin wrote, “Our agency staff and board of directors were sensitive to the difficult and painful adoption situation of the Quigleys. We  advocated for the family and utilized the full range of supportive services available, within the limits of our resources, to help this family bring home their son.”

When the time comes, the Quigleys say they are willing to tell their son whatever age-appropriate information he wants—although they wish they knew more to tell. On June 17, 2010, the Quigleys filed Freedom of Information Act requests (to the State Department and USCIS) for their son’s “orphan visa” case files. Mary Quigley says that USCIS wrote back requesting her three-year-old son’s signature; she says that she returned documents that prove she is his legal guardian. As of August 18, 2010, when we were last in contact, no further response had arrived.

1 Adoptions from Vietnam to the United States, accessed 6/8/2010

2 "Anatomy of an Adoption Crisis," ForeignPolicy.com, September 10, 2010.

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 23, 2011