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
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
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,