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 parts...as 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
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.