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Examining International Adoption

{This is an abridged version of a 2021 undergrad research paper on the controversy surrounding international adoption and its history}

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Examining International Adoption

Amber Moore Jimerson

When numbering the list of controversial topics today, it's unlikely many would think to include international adoption. For many, international adoption (IA) is a wholesome relief, a welcome example of the goodness of humanity in a world plagued with violence and tragedy. Not only are many unaware that IA has been in steep decline since 2008, with nearly nonexistent rates during the time of COVID, but for those who are aware of the declines it is common to view them as unjust and uncaring. Among the IA community, however, the causes for this decline are disputed, as are the controversial practices, history, and future of IA.

As the designations "pro-adoption" or "anti-adoption" are reductionistic, we will consider the general sentiments of IA "advocates" and "critics." Both seek to remedy a problem: advocates for IA see the plight of orphans and vulnerable children as the overriding issue to address, saying the benefits of adoption greatly outweigh the risks (Bartholet). Critics see the corruption, exploitation, kidnapping and fraud incentivized by the availability of IA and its unregulated profits as the primary issue, which the general public often does not realize are deeply intertwined with IA (Smolin). Critics wish to see greater emphasis on alleviating the root causes that would force families to relinquish their children, and some fear IA de-incentivizes funding for long-term solutions and community-building (King 464). As such long-term solutions are not overnight possibilities, advocates suggest IA provides a real option for those stuck between a rock and a hard place in the meantime. While advocates in various ways acknowledge the existence of corruption, critics worry they largely invalidate the pervasive nature of these dark realities, minimizing the need for reform under the guise of the "best interests of children." The United States' failure to give due diligence to these scandals and the system which empowers them has led to many shutdowns and moratoria in adoption programs among various countries (Smolin 83). This, the critics say, is what we can expect if we continue to use the "best interests" as a mask for practices which border on child trafficking. Only by fairly facing the wrongs and considering dramatic restructuring will we prevent the inevitable disfavoring and decline into nonexistence of intercountry adoption. David Smolin, professor of law and critic of IA, discovered his passion for reform when he and his wife adopted two adolescent sisters from India in 1998. The orphanage described the girls as having been long-awaiting adoption, but once back in the States and with the help of a translator, the Smolins' were shocked to hear the girls explain that they were kidnapped, that their mother had been told they would be attending a boarding school temporarily (Goldman). Over time, the information given to the adoptive parents by the orphanage was revealed to be false. The continual denial and lack of cooperation from India meant that it would be six years before they could track down the biological family. In 2017, Jessica Davis and her family made waves in the media when, after learning that her adopted Ugandan daughter's story had also been fabricated, she and her husband took the heart-wrenching steps to reunite the girl with her mother, much to the joy of the girl and her first mother (Davis). Stories like these expose the abuses which make IA controversial. Scandals have surfaced in such countries as Uganda, Russia, Ethiopia, China, Vietnam, Guatemala, Cambodia, India, Romania, Peru, Brazil, Honduras, and more. In Guatemala, for instance, 30,000 healthy infants and toddlers were sent to the US from 1998-2008, with agencies sending a total of $400,000,000 to Guatemalan attorneys in that time (Smolin 116). Smolin, in his article "The Corrupting Influence of the United States on a Vulnerable Intercountry Adoption System: A Guide for Stakeholders, Hague and Non-Hague Nations, Ngos, and Concerned Parties" reflects:

In a country with chronic corruption, poor governmental capacity, endemic violence against women, the scars of a 36-year civil war, and a significant percentage of the population living in extreme poverty, it should hardly be surprising that these unaccounted funds incentivized systematic child laundering. Yet, in the last two years before intercountry adoption was shut down, with increasing publicity around misconduct and the United States government issuing increasingly severe public warnings about abusive practices, nearly 9,000 children were rushed out of the country by the agencies, who often continued to insist on the integrity of their programs. By this point in time, other receiving nations had closed their Guatemalan programs, but the United States instead made it one of their most popular and significant adoption programs. (116)

Smolin goes on to describe the pattern of "slash-and-burn adoption practices" where a country of origin is said to have an orphan crisis, is then exploited by inordinate amounts of money, which in turn create more orphans as opportunistic middlemen seek to make a profit from the demand, and then as this is exposed, adoption programs sequentially close until a new country of origin crisis restarts the cycle (125). These complexities are the heart of the IA debate: vulnerable children are a real humanitarian need, but are we meeting this need in an appropriate, ethical, honest way? In order to have these conversations, we must release the term "adoption" from the unassailable, inherent goodness we ascribe to it. The goodness of adoption is dependent upon how it is carried out.

The acknowledgement of these abuses and the potential for adoption to become an evil rather than a good has led to the creation of various treaties such as The Hague Convention and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) which seek to outline the standards of ethical practices within international adoption. While the United States was heavily involved in the creation and language of the Hague in the 90s, it took fifteen years after the establishment of the treaty for the US to actually ratify it (Smolin 114). The US remains absent among the signatories of the CRC, mainly due to its ideological disagreement with the government's relationship to the "positive rights" of its citizens, a complex topic beyond the scope of this essay and not necessarily reflective of a fault on the side of the US. Critics like Smolin not only expose the rogue behavior of the US in those fifteen years, which have shaped how we perceive and practice international adoption today, but they also critique the occasionally vague language of Hague itself, and its poor implementation. Because such treaties exist, many not intimately familiar with the law and actual practices of IA understandably assume that some entity is monitoring international adoption, making sure it complies with the standards, and rectifying transgressions. Adoptive parents are made aware of which countries are "Hague" versus "non-Hague", with some choosing "Hague" countries because of the assumption that corruption would be more of a risk in a "non-Hague" country. Yet, it is not so simple.

In March, I conducted a phone interview with Brian Stuy of to learn more about the corruption in IA and the issues of the Hague. Though his expertise is in China, and though every country faces a unique set of risks and factors affecting their population of vulnerable children, the nature of the abuses which manifest in IA are nevertheless common across countries. Due to the nation's one-child policy, China adopted the underground practice of removing children and selling them for IA. Family planning officials, orphanage directors, authorities and local residents willing to transport children were complicit, a fact exposed by the 2019 documentary One Child Nation. Children were stolen, families were highly-fined, and locals were paid to drop off the infants and children at orphanages, fabricating their stories often under the guise of abandonment (Stuy).

For many years, through the scandals surrounding other countries of origin, China was heralded as hosting the model adoption program. Looking back, Stuy remarks that prior to the Hunan Baby Scandal which exposed China's flawed adoption program in 2005, we should have been asking why not China: instead of praising China's adoption program as flawless and predictable in a sea of corrupt programs, we should have questioned the veneer of perfection, the myth of China's narrative. Stuy reveals how China's ratification of the Hague contributed to the lack of investigation done into China's inconsistent and suspect statements on the severity of corruption revealed in the media reports of one orphanage in Hunan Province. In 2005, two sisters were arrested for what was referred to as a family trafficking ring. Members of the Duan family had been charged with trafficking at least 100 babies for an orphanage. The public story was that the sisters had been caught transporting a few children and the police had inadvertently uncovered a trafficking ring. The original report, published in the local news, was quickly picked up worldwide, bringing unexpected foreign attention to China (Stuy 370).

Though the original story did not mention these children as being internationally adopted, a second China-based report stated some of the children had been adopted abroad, and this statement drew intense interest and panic from prominent receiving countries. China moved quickly to sentence the Duan family and quell international suspicion by reporting that no children had been adopted internationally. They went on to release statements which were later found to contradict the court documents which suggested that many other orphanages had been complicit, and that potentially thousands of children were involved, not 100. In reality, local government officials had known of the Duan family and their agreement with the orphanage for many years. They and many locals were paid for years to recruit and provide infants and young children, until one orphanage tired of paying the middleman and attempted to cut the Duan family out of the profit. At this point a conflict ensued, the orphanage complained to the cooperating police who then set up a sting, charged each orphanage a fee to continue their business, and planted a news story to put pressure on the orphanages to pay. When international media snatched up the story, China made quick damage-control steps, suppressing any outside investigation (Stuy 375).

Ina Hut, director of the largest adoption agency in the Netherlands, recognized the inconsistencies and sought further clarity on whether any of the children adopted to the Netherlands had been the product of the baby-buying scandal (Stuy 405). She pressed the Dutch Ministry of Justice to investigate and traveled personally to China for answers, but was stonewalled by several organizational and government authorities, who all expressed confident assertions that none of the children had been adopted to the Netherlands, maintaining false numbers of the children involved, despite documents revealing otherwise. Tellingly, only the rural Duan family were punished. All complicit orphanage directors were simply relocated to other official positions, and even the children implicated in the actual Hunan scandal, were eventually released for adoption after the trial rather than identified and reunited. Hut, frustrated by the roadblocks between her and the truth in China, contacted the authorities behind the Hague itself, asking if they would conduct inquiries. The response from the Deputy Secretary General of the Hague Conference on Private International Law replied:

... Indeed, it would be highly unusual for us to be asked to investigate particular alleged abuses in a Contracting State—we are simply not equipped, nor do we have powers, to undertake investigations of this sort. (408)

Furthermore, the China Center of Children's Welfare and Adoption, a body one would assume has the responsibility of ensuring the ethical adoption of China's children, released a statement saying it was not their job to check the truthfulness of a child's file, meaning functionally that the files presented by the orphanage are taken according to the honor system (Stuy 409). Stuy goes on to comment that these experiences illustrate

the problems inherent in investigating corruption and fraud. In fact, the Hague Agreement has the effect of reducing the ability of a receiving country to investigate since it establishes a bureaucratic firewall that disallows a country...from doing independent verification. “Is it not crazy?,” lamented Green Left (GL) Parliamentary member Naima Azough during the Dutch hearings on China’s adoption program, “that in non-treaty countries, including Ethiopia, there are better opportunities to do a thorough, profound and comprehensive study tha[n] we have in treaty countries such as China? There we have to operate in very limited frameworks, taking account of ‘diplomatic sensitivities.’”

Fred Teeven, representing the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) in the Dutch Parliament, agreed: “If you have signed that treaty, like China and the Netherlands have done, you have to deal with the principle of trust. And then he knows as well as I that the possibilities to investigate things for yourself in those countries are extremely small, if not nil" (Stuy 410).

Ina Hut eventually stepped down from her position after being discouraged from the Dutch Ministry of Justice who said Hut's independent research would "threaten the treaty relationship that the Netherlands had with China" (411). This lengthy example illustrates a number of problems. First, what Stuy refers to as the "veneer" of honesty the Hague provides and the irony that corruption is more easily investigated in countries which do not support the Hague code of ethics. Second, it reveals that there is no governing body associated with the Hague that has the administrative capability of investigating corruption. In fact, the media historically seems to play the role of the de facto enforcers: because China had the power to stamp out the free press, and because China's political relationship with other countries has such great influence, stories can be silenced and justice can be obscured. For this reason, Stuy has little hope in China's adoption program today, as they continually act beyond the law and suppress journalistic inquiry. For those who place their trust in reform of the Hague as the solution to regulating IA properly, this example also highlights the reality that enforcing the Hague is a logistical impossibility. If enforcement is unlikely, can we really put hope in creating the right laws and treaties when the authorities, governments, agencies, and orphanages are complicit and the funding of an international body that could oversee every case of adoption globally is quite simply out of reach? With such bleak realities, what exactly can we do? Thus, some critics may conclude that if we cannot do it properly, perhaps we should not do it at all. In my opinion, there is hope to be found in unexpected areas, and the first is concerning the way in which adoptive parents are kept from communication with birth families.

While such deception and abduction cannot be said to represent all or even most adoptions, the falsification of information and dependence on the honor system between agencies and orphanages is pervasive. Adoptive parents are not in a position to see the inner workings of IA practices, and under Article 29 of the Hague Convention, adoptive parents are kept from interacting with birth families prior to matching and the confirmation of the adoptability of the child. While this prohibition intends to prevent coercion, functionally it has fertilized the soil of corruption by intermediaries protected by the lack of transparency and communication.

The falsification of records after a child is in care is not an uncommon practice and adoptive parents must simply trust that protocol has been followed and that their child's story, perhaps of loss or abandonment, is true. Mark Montgomery and Irene Powell argue in their book Saving International Adoption that such examples of exploitation, abduction, coercion, deception, and fraud are further encouraged because of the impenetrable "firewall" of intermediaries existing between adoptive parents and birthparents. Drawing on what we've learned from the increasingly open domestic adoptions within the US, they point out: "In the 2013 Donaldson report, adoptive parents said that the benefits of pre-adoption contact included "confirm[ing] the intent to relinquish," "feel[ing] that no abuses had transpired," and making sure that "birth parents...fully understand that adoption is meant to be permanent." Openness and transparency are necessary conditions for eliminating fraud and deception" (Montgomery and Powell 166). This proposed reform, to allow direct access and communication between adoptive parents and biological families before the adoption process is underway, is a small, feasible amendment that would dramatically shift the dynamics and potential for abuse, given what we have learned from adoption in American history. By allowing adoptive parents to bypass the middleman, and speak to a child's caregivers or parents directly, they can assess the true nature of the family's situation and avoid the need to rely on orphanage reports which have consistently been found to be falsified in many ways. This also establishes contact between living family members so often absent within international adoption, not because they do not exist, but because of falsified reports of abandonment or death.

But what does this mean for the average person with no ability to make such legislative changes? As with all efforts, awareness is the first step. The absence of the birth parents is a common factor in adoptive parents considering international versus domestic adoption. Many consider the lack of dealings with birth family abroad, presumably because the children are orphans and without living parents, to be an added bonus. While open adoption arrangements are becoming more common domestically, stereotypes about birth families and their right, or lack thereof, to continued contact and interaction with their child and the adoptive family persist. Greater education concerning the research which shows that adoptive parents, adoptees, and birthparents have more positive outcomes where there is openness in communication and contact is needed (Siegel).

How does one pursue openness and contact when by definition an orphan is one whose parents have died? Adoption advocates...claim somewhere between 130 to 165 million orphans globally...The first difficulty is that according to UNICEF nearly 90 percent of such “orphans” have only lost one parent... it is unclear how many of the estimated 15 to 18 million double or