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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A departure lounge for disabled children

The 35 children at the centre who have been identified as eligible for international adoption are kept occupied with activities. scott ROTZOLL
The 35 children at the centre who have been identified as eligible for international adoption are kept occupied with activities. SCOTT ROTZOLL

A departure lounge for disabled children

Despite having no workable legislation on domestic adoption, and no international adoption agencies registered in the country, 35 children are living in a government facility waiting for potential placement overseas

A history of adoption hiatuses

Adoptions from Cambodia have been stop-and-start ever since a system was formally established in 1989: placements were first halted less than two years later, and suspensions have been announced half a dozen times in the decades since with varying degrees of follow-though.
The number of children who have left the country is not clear. According to figures reported by the Ministry of Social Affairs, 3,800 children left Cambodia between 1997 and 2009, but informal adoptions and poor record-keeping mean the real figure is likely higher.
Cambodia acceded to The Hague Adoption Convention in 2007, and passed the inter-country adoption law necessary to bring it into place in 2009. When it quickly became clear that the new law was not enough to stem the flow of “stolen” babies leaving the country, adoptions were suspended. Many countries had already withdrawn their cooperation by this point.
It is hard to establish a clear timeline for the subsequent hiatus, because of the frequency of announcements being made but not followed through.
The Ministry of Social Affairs has made almost annual announcements about potential dates for the resumption of adoption: initially March 2011, then January 2013, then an unspecified date in 2014.
The stalling is in large part
the result of an absence at
each stage of potential partner countries, who continue to doubt that sufficient progress has been made.

The past few years have been relatively quiet at Cambodia’s Inter-Country Adoption Administration. Since the country called a halt to international adoptions in 2009, there have been meetings to attend, paperwork to file and the occasional press call about Angelina Jolie Pitt to field. But until recently, there have been no new children to process.

Now there are 36, all but one residents of a state care facility near the Phnom Penh airport that houses children who are physically and mentally disabled, or HIV positive.  

It was August last year when the children’s 36 files were carried from the Ministry of Social Affairs’ Child Welfare Department to the Inter-Country Adoption Administration in the neighbouring building. Now the administration’s small team is engaged in the complex task of completing the paperwork necessary to allow the children to be the first officially adopted out of the country in more than five years.

It’s a tricky business, and one they’re new to: previously, adoption agencies themselves bore much of the burden of selecting and readying children for sending overseas. “We need to follow all the procedures,” the office’s young director, Roeun Rithyroath, often repeats. “We don’t want to make mistakes with this.”

The need for caution is clear. For the past two decades, international adoptions have been one of the country’s most controversial talking points.

Founded on the shifting sands of a system where “orphans” for the most part still had living parents or close family, and with significant sums of money changing hands every time a child left Cambodia, the process of sending children overseas was often indistinguishable from human trafficking and nicknamed “baby selling” by the international press.

A prolonged hiatus

Under international pressure, and amid a string of scandals, Cambodia suspended international adoptions in 2009. The last children, whose cases were already in motion, left the country the following year.

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Some children have lived at the centre since birth. scott rOtzoll

“We were not upset, absolutely,” Paloma Martin – country director of one Italian NGO that arranges adoptions – said this week. Her organisation, the Centro Italiano Aiuti all’Infanzia (CIAI), was the first Italian NGO to carry out adoptions in Cambodia, and Martin remembers the process as being “beautiful” and flawed in equal measure.  

Like many other adoption facilitators, CIAI’s offices have stayed in Cambodia throughout the hiatus and the multiple attempts, and failures, to restart the process to date. “I think that they didn’t think it would take so long,” she said with a smile.

The current spate of activity in the Inter-Country Adoption office may yet prove to be another false start. Within the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Child Welfare Department and the Inter-Country Adoption Administration (the two offices responsible for clearing children for sending overseas) appear to be at odds over who is responsible for certain missing documents in the children’s dossiers, and seem in no hurry to resolve the impasse.

But this is the first time that files have got to the stage of being transferred between the two offices at all.  Oum Sophannara, director of Child Welfare, is clear about what that means: options for domestic adoption have been exhausted.

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Almost all of the children who live at the National Borei are disabled or HIV positive. scott rOtzoll

“Now my process is finished,” he said this week. For many, including the UN’s children’s rights body UNICEF, the process by which these children have been cleared for adoption remains murky.  To accord with the Hague Convention, which Cambodia signed in 2007, international adoption should only be considered when all domestic options have been exhausted.

How this could be the case is unclear: Cambodia has a domestic adoption law, but its implementation is so confusing as to be unworkable, as even Sophannara admits. “It’s very complicated, and we don’t know the process, just the principle,” he said. “I cannot implement [domestic adoption] without the operational guide.”

An explanatory note that should help clarify procedure has been in the works at the Ministry of Justice for over a year now, but has yet to be issued.

With no explicit mechanisms available to match the 36 children with local adoptive parents, the Ministry of Social Affairs has improvised: obtaining legal guardianship for the group, and running a series of newspaper advertisements in 2015 asking for Cambodian families to “adopt” a child, but only in a short term capacity due to the legal complexity.

To double check that the children really were orphans, posters were put up in front of their care facility advertising for living family members to come forward.

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The physiotherapy room at National Borei. scott rotzoll

“Nobody came,” Sophannara said, citing local unwillingness to care for disabled children as being to blame for the lack of any response. “It’s already been announced many times.”

According to UNICEF’s Cambodia representative, Debora Comini, the dearth of trained social workers and psychologists at the Ministry of Social Affairs calls into question whether these children can be considered eligible for foreign adoption.

“With necessary human resources not yet in place even for those basic elements, it does not appear that all the requirements to resume inter-country adoption have been met,” she said.

And despite progress being made in improving procedures used to identify children eligible for moving abroad, some issues appear to have persisted.

According to statements made by ministry officials, the initial 36 children have all been selected because they have disabilities or health requirements.

But according to Thor Peou, director of the National Borei for Infants and Children, there is at least one child with no known difficulties included on the list for international adoption.

“He is also an abandoned child who lived in the centre since he was young,” she explained.

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Thor Peou is the director of the National Borei for Infants and Children. scott rOtzoll

When asked to clarify, Sophannara from the Child Welfare Department initially repeated that there were no “normal” children on the list. Having checked with Thor Peou, he said that there was no problem with any child being on the list, as long as domestic options had been exhausted.

Another boy, the only one of the 36 not living at the facility, has been fostered by a German couple in Phnom Penh for several years now. Under the new law, there should be no option for the couple to convert this fostering relationship to adoption – a rule that is intended to minimise the back-door mechanisms frequently used in the past to make taking a child out of Cambodia easier and cheaper.

But Sophannara said that, in this particular case, he is looking into ways to bend the rules, for compassionate reasons.

“They always bring him to the department to show about how he grows up,” he said. “I am very proud. We have to find a way to allow them to adopt the children rather than separate the child from that family.”

Partnership politics

While the Ministry of Social Affairs continues readying the files of the 36 children, it remains unclear whether they will have anywhere to go.  

Although there is high demand for adoptive children in developed countries, of the several countries who have inspected the local system, only Italy has re-signed the bilateral agreement necessary for Cambodian children to leave for overseas.

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Some Cambodian foster parents caring for disabled children want to adopt, but the red tape is impossible to navigate. Kimberley McCosker

When contacted by Post Weekend, the US Embassy cited the need for additional clarity surrounding domestic adoption and the monitoring of adoption providers as key factors motivating their current position. And even Italy has yet to take the next step of registering adoption agencies to work in the country.

“We have applied two times,” said Paloma Martin of CIAI, adding that she and other staff members remain at odds on whether the resumption will happen in a matter of years or “tomorrow”.

Tommasso Del Re, country representative for Italian organisation Amici Dei Bambini (AiBi), echoed Martin’s confusion. “We are in the middle of nothing. We are completely blind,” he said.

“There’s not, like, one meeting a month to talk about international adoption – nothing.”

A long wait

On the sidelines of this bureaucratic uncertainty are the children, the majority of whom have spent their lives at the National Borei for Infants and Children.

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At the National Borei, care instructions are attached to the children’s wheelchairs. scott rotzoll

The Borei has in the past been a site of controversy – an institution flagged as having a particular problem with the “selling” of children by desperate families under its old name, “The Nutrition Centre Orphanage”.  

Now under the purview of the Ministry of Social Affairs, it appears to be a pleasant facility where children are well cared for. On a visit earlier this week, the residents – around half are in wheelchairs – were all in physiotherapy, a music circle or being entertained by a dozen-plus foreign volunteers.

Many of the children cannot speak, and instructions for their care are communicated via notices on the walls and attached to their wheelchairs.

According to the director, Thor Peou, the children who are capable of communicating have known for a long time that they may move abroad.

They are excited by the prospect, she said, having received frequent visits from former residents who have grown up overseas and returned to the centre to visit. “They dream to change to the place with new people,” she said.

Their limbo has been a long-standing one. Many of these children are old enough to have been considered, and passed over, for adoption under the old system – teenagers whose disabilities make them eligible for adoption up until the age of 18.

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The advertisement offering children for “short term” local adoption. Photo supplied

“We inform them not to hope or have expectations because we are not sure when they come to take them,” Peou explained. “It doesn’t matter because they like staying in the centre.”

CIAI’s Paloma Martin remains confident that it will be possible to find homes in Italy even for the older, seriously disabled children.

“It will be much more difficult for sure, but still, it is very surprising, there are parents who just want to adopt children with special needs. They think these are the children who need more,” she said.

But there are many variables that remain. Italy has already let one bilateral agreement expire without registering any agencies, and the current agreement may follow suit. Several of the Borei’s eligible children will be too old for adoption if it does.

Martin said there were advantages to the governmental delays, as they allowed for more time to improve the system in place.

A verdict on whether the new system will see Cambodia shake off its “baby selling” reputation will have to wait. “We don’t know if we are all ready until we start,” she said.



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