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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Adoptions: Saving lives or selling young souls?

Adoptions: Saving lives or selling young souls?

Inter-country adoptions, Cambodia-style: As controversy rages, where are the safeguards?

Jason Barber reports.

TO Daniel Susott, they are "prisoners of charity." Thousands of children,

trapped in orphanages around Cambodia, attracting foreign aid dollars but not necessarily

what they need most - families.

Why not, he argues, open the doors and send them all abroad, to families willing

and able to give them a future?

"The sum total of good that would result from emptying the orphanages would

far outweigh the bad.

"Is it better to keep these people in orphanages as prisoners of charity, as

magnets for foreign aid, in denial of giving them a charitable family who would give

them everything, including an inheritance?

"At least crucify me for the truth," says Susott, founder of the NGO World

Family Foundation. "All I want is for the real story to be told. We're battling

forces of darkness and ignorance."

Susott has been "crucified" before. His arrangement of the adoptions of

52 Khmer children to American families five years ago drew criticism from some NGOs,

and foreign press reports that he was "selling babies."

When he arrived in Cambodia in 1989 - part of a humanitarian team organized by Killing

Fields star Haing Ngor - he says half of the children in Phnom Penh's Nutrition Center

were dying within their first year there.

"My main motivation was to get the kids out. I had seen too many dead babies.

"It didn't occur to me...that people wouldn't see this as the right thing to

do. That they would see this as mercenaries selling children to be sex slaves, for

body human traffickers, prowling dingy back street orphanages and preying

on childless Western couples."

The fuss persuaded him to quit adoptions, he says, but he is "proud" that

others - including his friend, Lauryn Galindo - are continuing adoption work.

Others are less pleased, and just as adamant that mass adoptions are not the answer.

"It's absolutely not the solution," says Charles Fejto, whose French NGO,

ASPECA, funds the Nutrition Center.

"If the door were to be really opened for international adoptions, I think you

would have hundreds of thousands - nearly all Cambodian children - going abroad.

"Most people here think it's paradise outside of Cambodia. They are wrong, and

some people tell them wrong things about our developed countries."

Fejto's NGO advocates foreign sponsorship of individual children, orphanages or schools

to provide long-term training and welfare.

Adoptions, he fears, are becoming a business, with money - not the welfare of the

child - paramount.

Susott agrees that money reigns supreme, but in a different way. To him, such foreign

aid is self-perpetuating: siphoned through NGOs and Cambodian officials, it keeps

kids in orphanages while lining other people's pockets.

Recalling a dinner with Ministry of Social Affairs managers in 1990, he says: "I

had never seen such a collection of fat men."

NGOs such as ASPECA, he says, also make money - through their funding - by having

kids in orphanages.

"The tape that makes this so sticky is that everybody is profiting from this."

INTERNATIONAL adoption is a complex issue fraught with problems. Even if properly

controlled, there are inevitable questions about transplanting children from one

culture to another.

If screening is poor, and money a major factor, the problems and dangers multiply.

Humanitarianism for the plight of orphans can turn into commercialism, serving up

children for Westerners on a corrupt plate.

That there is a shady world adoption trade is accepted. The US State Department,

in a memorandum given to Americans wanting to adopt foreign children, notes "an

increasing incidence of illicit activities".

The "substantial black market" for adoptive children is a "lucrative

business", in part because of the huge US demand for foreign youngsters.

Save the Children Fund UK, meanwhile, refers to the "relative attractiveness"

of Asian and Latin American children, but not African ones, to the North American


A Save the Children discussion paper notes "considerable evidence of children

literally being bought and sold for the purposes of adoption," with mothers

encouraged to give up their children for money.

In Romania - a notable example in recent years - "large numbers" of children

were adopted not only from orphanages but "directly from their birth families."

Closer to home, NGOs look to Vietnam - where the adoption "business" has

seen some women get pregnant solely to sell the babies - as what Cambodia must avoid.

While no-one suggests Cambodia has yet gone far down that track, there is ample anecdotal

evidence that something is amiss within the adoption process.

In theory, the procedures are tight. Adoptions have to be approved by the Phnom Penh

Municipality, the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Council of Ministers and, ultimately,

the Prime Ministers.

The reality is different. The Prime Ministers, for instance, have directly given

approval for some adoptions, bypassing the entire process.

No-one says the Prime Ministers profit from this. Their motivation, according to

one NGO chief, is to "be kind to someone who has been generous to Cambodia -

they give away a child like other countries give a medal."

For other officials, money is very much an issue. Corruption is common, according

to NGOs. The number of government agencies involved leaves plenty of palms to be


Then there is growing concern at adoption agents, foreign and Cambodian, profiting

from adoptions, amid fears that baby-buying is emerging in Cambodia.

Even if children come from orphanages, it doesn't mean they are orphans. The reality,

NGOs say, is that many are not. Poverty, family conflicts or rebellion leads many

children to the streets, and to orphanages.

"In Cambodia, many have a family, extended families," says one NGO worker.

"Orphans are orphans - they're not poor children you put into a boarding school,

before you adopt them out."

For NGOs, the buzz word is "tracing": trying to locate children's relatives,

maintain their family links - even if the child remains in an orphanage - and ensure

that those adopted to foreign countries are really orphans.

Cambodian officials' attempts at tracing orphanage children are minimal, to say the

least, according to NGOs.

TO those in the know, none of this is new. Recent adoption history in Cambodia is

riddled with controversy and half-hearted attempts to tighten procedures.

The main framework for adoptions is seven paragraphs in the 1989 State of Cambodia

family law. They include that adoptive parents must be aged at least 20 years older

than the adoptive children. To be adopted, children must be aged under eight, and

their natural parents or guardians - the authorities, if they are abandoned - must


In March 1991 - after controversy over Susott's work - a government decree effectively

banned overseas adoptions except for special cases. It specifically said that foreigners

given exemptions had to come to Cambodia to collect the children.

In August 1991, international adoptions were officially "frozen" by Cambodia.

Within a year, one horror story - which broke all the rules - began unfolding.

Eleven children were adopted - through a Cambodian NGO woman and a Belgian man -

to Belgium. Supposedly all from Thai refugee camps, some in fact came from Phnom

Penh families, according to an NGO worker.

One, a real refugee, was an 11-year-old girl - well over the adoption age limit of

eight - who lived in a camp with her mother. The girl was adopted to a Belgian family

who believed she was an orphan. Six months later, they found out the girl had a mother

and decided she should be returned to her.

The girl was sent back to Cambodia. At the airport, she was met by the same Cambodian

woman and Belgian man who had arranged her adoption. After two months, they again

adopted her to another Belgian family - sent there alone, without a visa.

The second family accidentally met the first family and discovered the girl's story.

Put in a Belgium orphanage for three months, she was then returned to Cambodia. The

same people tried to pick her up, before a foreign child welfare worker intervened.

The girl now lives near Phnom Penh, with her mother - and the same Cambodian NGO

woman, who now manages adoptions from the Nutrition Center.

In 1993, during the UN peace mission, an American man arranging adoptions was ordered

to leave Cambodia. According to an NGO worker, he returned six months ago and, too,

has visited the Nutrition Center.

Adoptions significantly increased last year. Some children were released into the

custody of adoption agents, not the adoptive parents. In January this year, it was

time for another suspension and another ban on adoption agents directly receiving


Today, few people are willing to speak out publicly - least of all the NGOs which

work closely with adoption officials at the Ministry of Social Affairs. A Phnom Penh

staffer of Save the Children Fund UK - whose discussion paper on international adoptions

urges NGOs to "advocate for change" - urged at least one orphanage manager

not to speak to the Post.

Staff of other NGOs who were willing to speak mostly did so on condition of anonymity,

for fear of repercussions.

Meanwhile, Touch Samon of the Ministry of Social Affairs says action is being taken.

A new adoption law is planned, and a special adoption unit set up, so "only

competent officials can bring those application forms to the upper levels of the


A standard adoption fee is also mooted, to replace the current battery of unofficial

charges and bribes. But as one observer notes, rules are only as good as their enforcement,

and "all the people who take bribes have no interest in regulation."

WHAT about the foreign adopters? Most hear about the possibility of adoption by word

of mouth, according to one NGO chief, and "they know it's forbidden but exceptions

are possible."

It is accepted that most adopters - who have included diplomats and aid workers in

Cambodia - are well-intentioned and want to help children.

Some, however, are impatient. Several NGO workers mutter about foreign adopters who

act like they are "buying a dog"; Touch Samon complains of those who "come

today with an application and want to take away the child tomorrow."

Some don't come to Cambodia, though the ministry says it now insists on their presence.

The previous practice of foreign embassies granting visas to children in the custody

of adoption agents is criticized by some NGOs.

They say that screening of prospective adoptive parents by their home countries is


The US and French embassies, who handle the most adoption cases from Cambodia, reply

that their countries' screening is stringent.

Even with the best of screening, and the best of intentions, the question remains:

is international adoption bad for children?

The answer appears to be a qualified no. According to the Save the Children Fund

discussion paper, some research studies put the "success" rate of international

adoptions at 80-90 percent.

One study concluded around 80 percent of adoptees "do well enough", but

a substantial minority were likely to have problems of racial, cultural and personal


Even those generally satisfied with their adoption could have such problems "throughout

their lives." One study said that helping children to identify with their origins,

and acknowledging the "differentness" of them and their adopters, is the

key to success.

Despite the "reasonably encouraging" research, Save the Children says international

adoption "can never be more than an expensive solution to the needs of a very

small number of children..."

"It does nothing to address the root causes of homelessness among children,

or to...enable children to be brought up in a family environment wherever possible,

and within the context of their own community and culture."

To the contrary, it can divert resources from other programs striving to find "more

appropriate local solutions" to such problems.

Lauryn Galindo, a friend of Daniel Susott's who arranged nine adoptions from Cambodia

in April, urges cooperation between "those who have a plan to keep the children

within their country of birth and adoption advocates."

In time, she says, adoptions from Cambodia will be less necessary, but for now they

were "the most compassionate way to offer a future to abandoned children...Certainly

abandonment can be better faced within the context of a loving, supportive family

than from within the walls of an institution."

Susott, meanwhile, maintains that such families is what his 52 adoptions five years

ago produced. Among those children - he says he knows where every one is, and has

taken Cambodian officials to the US to see some of them - he counts many success


For instance, he says, there is the young girl adopted to a Steely Dan band member

who had grown into a "princess" and an expert surfer on Hawaii's beaches.

Another adoptee had become lead canoe paddler at his US prep school, and planned

to return to Cambodia for the next annual boat race.

The potential for abuses of the adoption process is small, Susott says, and could

be further minimized by Cambodia following internationally-recognized adoption standards.

"The problem is it requires an in-country system that has some integrity...that's

all I will say about that."

Maybe - as a critical step in protecting Cambodian children and their future, regardless

of which side of the adoption fence people sit on - it is something that a whole

lot more should be said about.



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