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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Adoption process defended and "rumors" decried

Adoption process defended and "rumors" decried

AN American woman who helped with the adoptions of Khmer children to foreigners has

defended the adoption process and urged NGO workers not to interfere with Cambodian

government affairs.

"As far as I'm concerned, they're interfering in the business of the Cambodian

government," Elsie Webber said last week. "Don't tell the Khmer what to

do - give advice, sure - but leave them to make the decisions about their country."

Webber, named in an article on international adoptions in the Post's last edition,

said she was not an adoption agent but had helped a small number of foreigners to

adopt Cambodian children.

She said she had not profited from the work, and at one point turned down payment

from an international adoption agency for helping several of its clients.

Webber, involved with Cambodia for 16 years, is a director of an NGO she founded

on the Thai border in the 1980s to reunite Cambodian families divided by war.

She became involved with adoptions last year when she helped four American families

who had been waiting for more than a year for a decision on their applications to

adopt Khmer children.

Webber said she met the Americans at Phnom Penh's Nutrition Center, a state-run orphanage,

in October when she went there to see friends.

The four families had paid $8,000 each to an international adoption agency and, after

more than a year, had come to Cambodia to check on their applications themselves.

She said she helped them out of concern for them and the children they wanted to

adopt - three of the four were sick or handicapped: one had a cleft palate, another

had lost an eye, and the third had heart problems.

The families had been contributing to the cost of looking after the children in the

orphanage while they were awaiting a decision on their applications.

Webber said she helped the families file the necessary papers with Cambodian government

officials until they received final approval to adopt. She had also consulted United

States authorities about their laws.

"The Cambodian government screened them. The US government screened them, and

I went through the process with them. I don't know what more you could do to make

sure they are good parents."

She had not been paid by the parents. At one stage, the adoption agency they had

employed gave her $600 for processing fees.

"I realized that if I accepted the $600 to help the parents get the babies,

then in reality I would be working for the agency. So I sent the money back with

a receipt.

"I checked with the State Department in the United States and I was informed

that the Khmer government acts as the agency for adoption, not any third party."

Webber said she had since helped another American to adopt a child, and was currently

working on another case.

She said she had been screened by the State Department, at the request of US Immigration

and Naturalization Service, to check she was not acting improperly.

She had letters of reference from Cambodian Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh and from

several US senators, congressmen and officials.

Webber complained that the linking of her name to concerns by some NGOs about corruption

and irregularities in the adoption process was unjust.

"All there have been are rumors, allegations, overheards and downright lies.

I don't listen to that. If any of the NGOs, who would not be named, want to actually

talk to me, they are free to talk to me at any time in front of any Khmer official

they wish.

"I tried so hard to keep this straight in Cambodia and I'm the one who gets

the blame."

She said she had never paid money to Cambodian officials for work to be done, but

had given $10 or a bottle of whisky as a thank-you afterward.

She had never been asked for a bribe and "there are absolutely no circumstances

that anyone would even think I paid money to officials" to approve adoptions.

She said she had bought clean water, medicine and milk for orphans at the Nutrition

Center, and encouraged adoptive parents to pay for the care of the children they

wanted.

"Everything I've done is 100 percent above board. I'm not ashamed about it.

I don't care if any NGO likes it or doesn't like it. I care about what the Khmer

think.

"Adoption is not my work. I'm just trying to help kids to have good homes."

Webber said the Cambodian adoption process was thorough, with at least 33 steps to

be fulfilled. In her cases, nothing could be done without the prior screening of

the adoptive parents by US authorities.

Until recently, she said, "nobody had any problems. Everybody was following

the rules but I know some French [adopters] were paying a lot of money, $100 for

every step."

If any families paid money to get their papers processed, it was because "they

asked the Khmer do this service for them. They weren't asked for money; they offered

it."

She questioned why - when the gates to the Nutrition Center were recently closed

to keep out foreigners - she was initially refused entry while prospective adopters

from other countries were permitted inside.

"If the Khmer don't want people - or Americans - to adopt their children, all

they've got to do is say something. If NGOs, if they want to say something, they

should at least put their names to it."

She questioned why some NGOs appeared to be opposed to international adoption.

"When the Cambodians feel that they can take these orphans into their own homes,

as was the case in the past, then I think adoption should be re-looked at.

"But until then, why would anyone want to live in the horrors of orphanages?

These NGOs think that it's important to keep children in their cultural environment

- orphanages are not their culture."

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