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In defense of adoptions

The Editor,

Thank you for a fair representation of the complex and emotional issue of adoption

of Cambodian orphans. You are certainly correct in saying that there needs to be

a greater transparency and integrity in the child welfare system.

In your articles, you did not mention that the children I have been most eager to

place in adoptive homes over my years in Cambodia (and for several years before that,

working to get more children out of orphanages in Thailand and into families) are

children with "special needs," older kids in general, most of them "developmentally

delayed" because of their institutionalization and in some cases requiring surgery.

One of the boys who left Cambodia in 1990 has had open heart surgery and several

others have had cleft lips repaired and damaged limbs fixed. At the time, 1990 and

1991, there was not a United States embassy in Cambodia and travel here was uncertain

and challenging. Even then, I had brave people willing to come and help to transport

children to their adoptive families. About one quarter of adopters "traveled"

at that time.

It was not mentioned that for each of the nine children whom Lauryn Galindo 'shepherded'

into the 'relative heaven' of a loving family in April, 1996, in all cases one or

both parents traveled to Cambodia to collect their children. For some it was their

second trip. One mother was adopting her second "special needs" son: the

first, thriving in New York City, has had years of surgery to correct a particularly

vicious facial cleft, while son #2 has deformities of both arms and legs. This case

had been "in process" for several months while other cases averaged one

to 10 months from the time the parents had all their required documents assembled

and approved by authorizing ministries.

In my experience, it is preferable for children to be adopted using the services

of licensed adoption agencies. There are stricter controls and screening of the adoptive

parents, and "post-placement" studies and services for the adoptive families

are required by law and help to guarantee success of the placement. Children adopted

through private or individual "deals" are often "lost to follow-up,"

impossible to trace in the years ahead. The work of licensed adoption agents and

agencies helps to protect the children.

For the past decade, the Convention on International Adoption has been meeting in

the Hague at the International Courts of Law, formalizing wording and procedures

in documents governing the safe and legal "trafficking" in children from

"sending" to "receiving" nations. Cambodia could get all the

help it needed setting up systems which meet the international standards of protection

of children's rights - while avoiding the opposite pitfall, protecting children "right

out of a future," dooming them to a lifetime without a family, in an institution

or worse.

My differences in approach and philosophy to Mr Fejto come clearly into focus in

the case of little Bunroeun. For this boy, a deaf-mute, I had found an adoptive family

in Spokane where both parents were certified TEACHERS of deaf children. When I presented

his case to Mr Fejto to more fully explore his objections to international adoption

of certain children (for whom his agency was the conduit for "foster parent

payments") he said "MAYBE next year we will have a hearing specialist come

out from France, and MAYBE this person will assess the situation for this boy."

Well, six years later this kid is still around. Last time I saw him, at "Orphanage

Number 4", a repository for "unpresentables" near Pochentong Road,

Bunroeun looked like an animal, unable to communicate, brutal with the smaller children

around him. Very sad. He could have been a person, in a family, in a community. With

a future.

Decades ago, the government of South Korea saw that there were huge numbers of children

growing up unwanted, the result of warfare and the ongoing poverty and confusion

that accompanied rapid transformation of a nation from poverty up the first rungs

of the development ladder. They saw that the "orphans" were growing up

to be prostitutes and petty thieves, a continual drain on the social welfare system

and economy. An intelligent approach was taken, allowing children to be adopted efficiently

to families abroad, sparing the Korean government having to spend precious resources

raising children with few opportunities. Korea's enlightened and efficient adoption

system, a model for the world, was practically shut down following international

attention, during the Seoul Olympics, to this "trade" in children. Even

a transparent, well-run ("market-driven") system is subject to such unexpected

factors as national pride: every nation would like to appear to be able to provide

for all of its people, even the poorest. I will never forget Mr Long Visalo from

the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the early 90's telling me "It is better for

the orphans to die in Cambodia than to be adopted abroad." OK, it's your country,

but I don't agree.

I was surprised to read Fejto's remark about "all the children in Cambodia going

abroad." Does he honestly believe that there is any real danger of depleting

Cambodia's supply of children through legal (adoption) channels? Has he looked around

lately? The next generation is plentiful. He has further remarked, according to a

reliable source recently, that some of the children adopted in 1990 by foreigners

(through the program set up by myself and Lauryn Galindo) "never left Thailand",

implying that they were sold there. He has chosen NOT to better inform himself, rather

going to his Ministry contacts and attempting to have Lauryn banned as a "child

trafficker." Ridiculous, and libelous, prompting me to seek legal counsel about

pursuing this in court.

Lauryn Galindo and I feel that Mr Fejto's opposition to our work over the years has

been a "smoke screen" to obscure aspects of his own dealings with the levels

of bureaucracy involved in child welfare in Cambodia. It might be illuminating to

investigate why Fejto's work in Cambodia just since 1990 has been under the umbrella

of at least three different NGOs.

I continue to labor in Cambodia, now in support of basic education and development

programs in more rural communities - the kind of programs that prevent people from

becoming orphans and refugees. Unfortunately, the real keys to the health of a people

are political, and for that reason any kind of work can become discouraging in Cambodia.

But at least on some levels the crisis is over, and the daily work of rebuilding,

of educating, can proceed. An environment of peace, and enough food, is more than

people in Southeast Asia have been able to safely expect now for many generations,

and yet it is not too much to hope and work for.

I am thrilled that many of the people whose lives I have touched over the years -

17 years ago in the refugee camps and more recently in my work inside Cambodia -

are now in a much better position to contribute to the future of their people, and

are motivated to do so. When I get discouraged I pick up a Christmas card from little

"Abscess Head" who is now "Morgan Daniel," at the top of his

second-grade class, or Prom, the boy with hemophilia who almost didn't survive his

years in the Cambodian orphanage system with no treatment for his fatal condition

(he's the one who's now lead canoe paddler at Hawaii's best high school, and may

be coming back to paddle in the boat races this November).

I pray for the people of Cambodia. Cambodia is still one place on the planet where

things, in general, seem to be moving in the right direction, getting better instead

of worse. May Cambodia's leaders continue to have the wisdom and compassion to guide

us into the years ahead.

- Daniel Susott, MD, MPH, Founder and Chairman of the Board, World Family Foundation,

Honolulu, Hawaii

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