The Lie We Love: Foreign Adoption Seems Like a Win-Win Arrangement. Unfortunately, Those Bundles of Joy May Not Be Orphans at All.

article image
image by Pep Bonet / Noor / Aurora Photos

We all know the story of international adoption: Millions of infants and toddlers have been abandoned or orphaned–placed on the side of a road or on the doorstep of a church, or left parentless due to AIDS, destitution, or war. These little ones find themselves forgotten, living in crowded orphanages or on the streets, facing an uncertain future. But, if they are lucky, adoring new parents from faraway lands whisk them away for a chance at a better life.

Unfortunately, this story is largely fiction.

Westerners have been sold the myth of a world orphan crisis. We are told that millions of children are waiting for their “forever families” to rescue them from lives of abandonment and abuse. But many of the infants and toddlers being adopted by Western parents today are not orphans at all. Yes, hundreds of thousands of children around the world do need loving homes. More often than not, though, the neediest children are sick, disabled, traumatized, or older than 5. They are not the healthy babies that, quite understandably, most Westerners hope to adopt.

There are simply not enough healthy, adoptable infants to meet Western demand–and there’s too much Western money in search of babies. As a result, many international adoption agencies work not to find homes for needy children but to find children for Western homes.

Over the past two decades, as international adoptions have flourished, so has evidence that babies in many countries are being systematically bought, coerced, and stolen away from their birth families. Nearly half the 40 countries listed by the U.S. State Department as the top sources for international adoption over the past 15 years–places such as Belarus, Brazil, Ethiopia, Honduras, Peru, and Romania–have temporarily halted adoptions or been prevented from sending children to the United States because of serious concerns about corruption and kidnapping.

In reality, there are very few young, healthy orphans in need of adoption. “It’s not really true that there are large numbers of infants with no homes who either will be in institutions or who need intercountry adoption,” says Alexandra Yuster, a senior adviser on child protection with UNICEF.

Americans and other Westerners have been trained to believe otherwise, and UNICEF is partly to blame. In 2006 UNICEF reported an estimated 132 million orphans in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. But the majority lost just one parent, either to desertion or death. Of those who lost both, most live with extended family–and are older than 5. UNICEF’s “millions of orphans” are not healthy babies doomed to institutional misery. Most are older children whose extended families and communities need support to care for them.

The exception is China, where the country’s three-decades-old one-child policy, now being loosened, resulted in an unprecedented number of abandoned girls. But China has far more foreigners looking to adopt than orphans it is willing to send overseas. In 2007 China’s central adoption authority sharply reduced the number of children sent abroad. That has led many prospective parents to shop around for a country that puts fewer barriers between them and the children they hope to adopt.

One such country has been Guatemala, which in 2006 and 2007 was the number-two exporter of children to the United States. Incredibly, Americans adopted 1 of every 110 Guatemalan children born in 2006. “Guatemala is a perfect case study of how international adoption has become a demand-driven business,” says Kelley McCreery Bunkers, a former child welfare consultant with UNICEF Guatemala.

A survey conducted between October 2007 and March 2008 by the Guatemalan government, UNICEF, and Holt International Children’s Services found approximately 5,600 children in Guatemalan institutions. Fewer than 400 were under a year old; not all of those were available for adoption. And yet in 2006, more than 270 Guatemalan babies, all younger than 12 months, were being sent to the United States each month.

So, where had some of these adopted babies come from? Consider Ana Escobar, a Guatemalan woman who in March 2007 reported to police that armed men had locked her in a closet and stolen her infant. After a 14-month search, Escobar found her daughter in pre-adoption foster care, just weeks before the girl was to be adopted by a couple from Indiana. Hers is not an isolated case.

More commonly, according to NGO reports, young, unmarried, or otherwise vulnerable women were defrauded or coerced into relinquishing their children. Or poor families were given a Sophie’s choice: Sell us one child in exchange for enough “aid” to feed the rest. In January 2008 Guatemala closed its doors to international adoptions so the government could reform the broken process.

Guatemala’s example is extreme; it is widely considered to have the world’s most notorious record of corruption in foreign adoption. Yet the same troubling trends emerged on a smaller scale in more than a dozen other countries, including Albania, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Liberia, Peru, and Vietnam.

Even with all the appropriate legal papers in hand, prospective parents cannot necessarily feel secure; inadvertently, they might have paid someone to “find” an orphan who otherwise would have been raised by her birth family. In many countries, it can be astonishingly easy to fabricate a history for a young child and, in the process, manufacture an orphan.

Western adoption agencies often contract with in-country facilitators–sometimes orphanage directors, sometimes freelancers–and pay per-child fees for each healthy baby adopted. These facilitators, in turn, subcontract with child finders, often for sums in vast excess of local wages. In Vietnam, for instance, a finder’s fee for a single child can easily dwarf a nurse’s $50-a-month salary. Sometimes child finders simply pay poor families for their infants–promising that the children will return later.

In other cases, unscrupulous orphanage directors, local officials, or medical professionals persuade illiterate birth families to sign documents–papers that the families may believe enable their children to get temporary food, shelter, education, or medical care. But those signatures legally relinquish the children to be sent abroad for adoption.

For instance, in August 2008 the U.S. State Department released a warning that birth certificates issued by Tu Du Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City–which in 2007 had reported 200 births a day, and an average of 3 abandoned babies per 100 births–were “unreliable.” Most of the hospital’s “abandoned” babies were sent to the city’s Tam Binh orphanage, from which many Westerners have adopted.

Many adoption agencies and adoptive parents passionately insist that crooked practices are not systemic, but tragic, isolated cases. Arrest the bad guys, they say, and let the “good” adoptions continue. Remove cash from the adoption chain, however, and outside of China the number of healthy babies needing Western homes all but disappears.

Nigel Cantwell, a Geneva-based consultant on child protection policy, has helped reform corrupt adoption systems in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Asked how many healthy babies in those regions would be available for international adoption if money never exchanged hands, he replied: “I would hazard a guess at zero.”

Buying a child abroad is something most prospective parents want no part of–so how can it be prevented? The best hope may be the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, which has 78 signatories. In countries that refer children for overseas adoption, reforms have included a government authority overseeing child welfare, efforts to place children with extended families and local communities, and limits on the number of foreign adoption agencies authorized to work in the country.

In adopting countries, the convention requires a central authority to oversee international adoption. The United States formally entered the agreement on April 1, 2008. Already several U.S. adoption agencies dogged by rumors of bad practices have been denied accreditation; some have closed. Many of the countries sending their children to the West, however, have yet to join the agreement–and the United States permits unaccredited agencies to work from these nonsignatory countires.

Perhaps most important, more effective regulations would strictly limit the money that changes hands. “Unless you control the money, you won’t control the corruption,” says Thomas DiFilipo, president of the Joint Council on International Children’s Services. “If we have the greatest laws and the greatest regulations but are still sending $20,000 anywhere–well, you can bypass any system with enough cash.”

Improving regulations will protect not only the children who are being adopted and their birth families, but also the consumers: hopeful parents. Adopting a child can be made wrenching by the abhorrent realization that a child believed to be an orphan simply isn’t.

One American who adopted a little girl from Cambodia in 2002 wept as she spoke at an adoption ethics conference in October 2007. “I was told she was an orphan,” she said. “One year after she came home, and she could speak English well enough, she told me about her mommy and daddy and her brothers and her sisters.”

Unless we recognize that behind the altruistic veneer, international adoption has become an industry–often highly lucrative and sometimes corrupt–many more adoption stories will have unhappy endings.

“Credulous Westerners eager to believe that they are saving children are easily fooled into accepting laundered children,” writes David Smolin, a law professor and advocate for international adoption reform, in the Wayne Law Review (Vol. 52, #113). “For there is no fool like the one who wants to be fooled.”

E.J. Graff is associate director at the Brandeis Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. For documentation and more information about corruption in international adoption, go to Excerpted from Foreign Policy(Nov.-Dec. 2008); © 2009 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive LLC.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.