Corruption in international adoptions

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Adoption: Vietnam

 Click to follow link Capsule overview of adoption issues in Vietnam
 Click to follow link News reports of adoption irregularities in Vietnam
 Click to follow link Resources & related documents 
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"Anatomy of an Adoption Crisis," ForeignPolicy.com, September 11, 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.

Capsule overview of adoption
  issues in Vietnam

Over the past decades, Vietnam has repeatedly had reports and evidence of corruption among its international adoptions—troubles that can be attributed to poverty, (governmental) corruption, and the immense fees (disproportionately enormous, compared to the local economy) that adoption agencies were offering to those who could produce healthy infants and toddlers. The Schuster Institute published "Anatomy of an Adoption Crisis," (ForeignPolicy.com, September 10, 2010), examining the U.S. State Department’s observations and actions related to adoption between 2007 and 2008, as the numbers of “abandoned” babies offered for adoption rose improbably.

The money. In Vietnam in 2006, average per capita income was $726; more than one-fifth of the country lived in poverty, on less than $200/year. And yet U.S. agencies were paying upwards of $10,000/child to the in-country “facilitator”—roughly the equivalent of paying $630,000 to an American for each child produced for adoption. With fees like that available, according to the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi and other independent observers, a number of people—including police officers, village and Party officials, orphanage directors, hospital staff, doctors, and nurses—got involved in buying, defrauding, coercing, blackmailing, or kidnapping children away from their families in order to offer them in international adoption.

Number of US Orphan Immigrant Visas Issued to Vietnam, FY 1990-2008 

The numbers. In 1995, Vietnam was one of the top four destinations (after China, South Korea, and Russia) for Westerners who wanted to adopt.1In that year, more than 1500 of Vietnam’s children were adopted by Westerners, 310 by Americans. In 1998, the number was 2375, with 603 of them coming to the United States. Those numbers had increased rapidly. In 1991, according to demographer Peter Selman, France adopted 65 children from Vietnam; by 1996, that number was 1,393.

By the late 1990s, many reports were circulating that at least some of those babies were being bought, defrauded, coerced, or kidnapped away from their birthfamilies. In 1996, for instance, the Phnom Penh Post was reporting that some Vietnamese women were being paid to get pregnant and have children for international adoption.2 As a result, in 1999, France suspended adoptions from Vietnam. In 2000, Vietnamese authorities tried 21 people for being involved in buying and selling newborns for foreign adoption, selling them primarily to Belgium and France;3 France then resumed adoptions from Vietnam.

Consider what American prospective parent Chad Kennedy observed when, in 2002, facilitator Mai Ly LaTrace, a Vietnamese-born American, drove him through the Vietnamese countryside and offered cash on the spot to a nursing mother for her baby.

Some of the buying and selling of babies involved the U.S., Canada, and Ireland as well. Consider what American prospective parent Chad Kennedy observed when, in 2002, facilitator Mai Ly LaTrace, a Vietnamese-born American, drove him through the Vietnamese countryside and offered cash on the spot to a nursing mother for her baby. As Kennedy testified in a libel lawsuit that LaTrace later brought and lost, “Clearly the child was being breast fed, and the mother was not happy about the whole situation, crying.”4Other prospective parents told of similarly uneasy experiences—in some cases with Mai-Ly Latrace,5 in other cases with other adoption agencies and facilitators.

Meanwhile, the Vietnamese government was taking some actions to stem the baby trade. In April 2001, a Vietnamese newspaper alleged that Vietnamese babies were being sold to foreigners, then placed for adoption internationally,6according to The Toronto Star, which said that American Mary Payne Nguyen was named as a participant. According to an official letter issued by the Embassy of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the Vietnamese government deported Mai-Ly Latrace on October 18, 2002 because she was “a child trafficker for money.” After LaTrace denied this in her lawsuit, the Vietnamese Embassy confirmed the letter’s authenticity to the U.S. News and World Report. Other Americans reportedly had their licenses to perform “humanitarian work” revoked; both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments investigated the circumstances behind their adoptions.

In 2003 and 2004, Vietnam sharply reduced its international adoptions as it worked to reform its adoption system. As part of that reform, the country required that any country whose citizens wished to adopt orphans from Vietnam must sign a formal agreement with the Vietnamese government authorizing those adoptions. By 2005, seven Western countries—including Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, Ireland, the US, and Sweden7—had such agreements in place and had resumed Vietnamese adoptions.

Irish citizens who had adopted through Soland told reporters that, once they were in Vietnam to pick up the children that had been referred to them, Soland switched babies as if they were inter-changeable goods, and added surprise fees...

But according to observers, soon after the country was reopened for adoptions, its program was once again under suspicion. Several of the people whose involvement in Vietnamese adoptions had been considered suspect, such as the Vietnamese-born American citizen My Linh Soland, were once again involved, as were some of the adoption agencies that had been bringing in children through traffickers. Soland served as chief Vietnam facilitator for the Irish adoption board from 20048 until 2006, when she resigned while under investigation. Irish citizens who had adopted through Soland told reporters that, once they were in Vietnam to pick up the children that had been referred to them, Soland switched babies as if they were interchangeable goods, and added surprise fees—much as the Kennedys and others have testified happened with Mai-Ly Latrace.9 In an in-depth investigation, the Irish Independent taped Soland 10 sayingthat she used “humanitarian” donations to pay Vietnamese officials for forging abandonment documents for children “pulled from families.” The Independent quoted Soland as saying that those officials “make up the birth certificate. They declare the child abandoned even though they know the mother.”

Beginning in 2007, the U.S. Department of State and its embassy in Hanoi began issuing a series of escalating warnings and statements about what it termed “irregularities” in the visa applications it was receiving for Americans who wished to adopt Vietnamese children, including “fraudulently documenting the abandonment of children, offering monetary inducements to families for relinquishing children, and offering children for international adoption without the consent of the birth parents.” The Embassy warned, “the glowing report of an adoptive parent who successfully ‘brought home’ a child cannot be taken as evidence that the adoption was ethical or fully legal.”

By April 25, 2008, the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi had issued a detailed statement about its investigation into hundreds of these irregularities, including:

  • evidence that hospital and social workers were being paid for children who could be offered for international adoption;
  • evidence of repeated fraudulent documentation of abandonment;
  • evidence of a sharp increase in suspiciously "abandoned" children at orphanages that served international adoption but not at other child-caring institutions;
  • evidence that adoption agencies were pressuring orphanage directors to find children who could be adopted in exchange for humanitarian “donations”;
  • evidence that police and other local officials who were related to orphanage officials were repeatedly “finding” abandoned babies;
  • six cases in which the Embassy had located birthfamilies that had not intended to send their children to be adopted;
  • testimony that birthfamilies were being paid eleven months’ wages per child—enough to treat childbearing as a year’s job;
  • evidence of maternity homes that cared for pregnant women in exchange for their babies for adoption.

The detailed document included this:

“Throughout Vietnam, officials at orphanages connected with intercountry adoptions report a sharp increase in the number of deserted children has since 2005, the year that the adoption agreement with the United States was signed. Orphanages in 7 provinces report a 17 fold or greater increase in desertions. Officials at orphanages not connected with intercountry adoption, however, have not seen an increase in desertions. A statistical review of child desertions reveals a series of facilities that have an unexplained high rate of child desertions.

Provincial records also document an unusual pattern of "desertion pockets." For example, in one province in 2007 there were 77 cases of child desertion. Of these, 76 occurred at one particular orphanage. The director of this orphanage told the Embassy that before he signed an agreement with an ASP, the orphanage was home to 10 children, most of whom had been relinquished. By January 2007, the orphanage was home to 23 children, of whom fifty percent had been deserted. By January 2008, the orphanage was home to 70 infants, with over 90% of them having been deserted. The orphanage director attributed the growth in the number of children and the number of desertions to the fact that the orphanage was receiving funds from the American ASP. He also stated that the orphanage had hired contract employees to find children between zero and six years of age whose families were in a particularly difficult situation and encourage the families to put their children in the orphanage. The orphanage guards also confirmed that desertions were extremely rare before 2006, but now they “find” five infants per month on average…

In over 10 cases, Embassy investigations have discovered the identity of the birth mother in cases where a child was purportedly deserted. In all of these cases, the birth mother was known to orphanage or hospital officials, but these institutions fraudulently document the case as a desertion. In some cases, this was to conceal payments to the birth family. In others, children were declared to be deserted with unknown parents after the birth parents failed to pay outstanding hospital bills.”

In May 2008, Peter Bille Larsen, a social anthropologist and consultant based in Switzerland, reports that he was on a repeat visit to conduct fieldwork with a small Vietnamese minority group, the Ruc. According to Larsen several Ruc women asked him to help find their children. At Vietnamese officials’ urgings, they told him, they had taken their children to a child-caring institution for temporary care during a period of poverty. Now they feared that their children had been adopted abroad. Since he was a visiting Westerner whom they knew, they wanted him to investigate for them. According to Linh Song of Ethica, Inc., a nonprofit focused on ethical adoption reforms, Larsen’s paper prompted discussion and action among the embassies of nations adopting from Vietnam. Larsen and confidential sources have told the Schuster Institute that some of the Ruc children appear to have been adopted in Italy. Another child has reportedly been adopted in the United States, although this cannot be confirmed because of the U.S. Privacy Act’s protections for the adoptive family.

In August 2008, the U.S. Department of State further warned prospective and adoptive parents about abandonments at Tu Du Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. “U.S. officials conducting verification reviews see a pattern of false information in documentation pertaining to the birth mothers of children born at Tu Du Hospital.” The strong suggestion was that children declared abandoned at Tu Du Hospital, many of whom were then sent to Tam Binh orphanage for international adoption, may not have been abandoned at all, and may even have been coerced from their birthfamilies.

In the summer of 2008, the Vietnamese government responded to the U.S.’s escalating reports of irregularities by announcing that, when the U.S.-Vietnam Memorandum of Understanding enabling American adoptions from Vietnam expired in September, Vietnam would not renew it. Soon after, the Vietnamese press began issuing reports that the government was arresting orphanage officials and others for fraudulently documenting abandonments.11

Today, the U.S. does not allow adoptions from Vietnam. In 2010, the Vietnamese National Assembly debated a new, Hague-compliant adoption law, but as of this writing there was no sign of imminent passage. In the nearly two years since the closure, Vietnam has begun prosecuting and jailing some of the baby sellers. For instance, in Nam Dinh, one of the suspect provinces, “sixteen Vietnamese doctors, nurses and officials sold 266 babies for overseas adoptions, a court heard on Tuesday,” the UK Telegraph reported in 2009.

For more insight into the U.S. State Department’s deliberations and actions in response to Vietnam adoptions 2005-2008, please read “Anatomy of an Adoption Crisis,” ForeignPolicy.com, September 10, 2010.

[1] “Adoptions: Saving lives of selling young souls?”  Phnom Penh Post, June 28, 1996.

[2] Statistics in this paragraph are from Peter Selman, including “Intercountry Adoption in the Twenty-First Century,” Proceedings of the First International Korean Adoption Studies Research Symposium, 2007; and “Intercountry adoption in the new millennium: the ‘quiet migration’ revisited, Population Research and Policy Review 21: 205-222, 2002. The American statistics come from the U.S. Department of State’s website, "Immigrant Visas Issued to Orphans Coming to U.S.: TOP COUNTRIES OF ORIGIN."

[4]P. 15, Deposition of Chad Kennedy, December 19 2005, in the case of Mai-Ly LaTrace v. Judith Mosley, et al., Case No. 04-4547-CI-13, Pinellas County FL circuit court, civil division. 

[5] For more information on controversies about Mai-Ly Latrace’s activities in Vietnam, see also news articles including "Vietnam Adoption Nightmares,” Julie Hauserman, St. Petersburg Times, September 17, 2002; and “Pitfalls for Parents: International adoption has become big business, but regulation still lags,” Kit R. Roane, US News & World Report, May 29, 2005.

[6]Jim Rankin, Tanya Talaga & Leslie Papp, “Adoption agency acts on baby-buying claims,” Toronto Star, August 26, 2001.

[7] Canada signs adoption agreement with Vietnam, Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada.  Accessed 10/21/2008.

[8] "Guidelines for adopting in Vietnam." This is a booklet from the Irish Adoption Board. See also articles noted below.

[10] “’Evil’ adoption scandal,”Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer, The Irish Independent,  July 8, 2006. For more on the Irish-Vietnamese adoption scandal, search The Irish Independent archives

[11] “Adoption agencies under investigation,” Tuoi Tre, July 13, 2008, Thanh Nien News; “Charity centres investigated for falsifying birth records,” July 14, 2008,VietNamNet; and “300 infants illegally put up for adoption,” No Author, July 15, 2008, Viet Nam News.

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Last page update: February 24, 2011