Babies Betrayed: A Kauai woman faces trial in a Cambodian baby trafficking case

Date: 2004-03-07

Robin McDowell
Associated Press

LAING KOUT, Cambodia >> The chief baby trader in this dirt-road village 90 miles from the capital waits at a pagoda to hear whether a neighbor will sell her 2-month-old twins to a family overseas.

"No?" Chea Kim says when told the desperate woman has changed her mind about giving up her children for as little as $20 each. "Why not?"

Although illegal baby sales may have slowed since the United States, France, the Netherlands and several other countries started suspending international adoptions from Cambodia two years ago, the practice persists in poverty-stricken villages like Laing Kout, according to an investigation by the Associated Press.

The director of one U.S. agency that appears to have benefited from Laing Kout's thriving baby trade is scheduled to be sentenced Friday in a case that made international headlines because the agency also handled the adoption of actress Angelina Jolie's son, Maddox. The agency director's sister, who lives on Kauai, is to be tried later this year.

There is no evidence that the actress did anything wrong or that the boy was not an orphan -- one of several hundred Cambodian children adopted by Americans each year until the ban, peaking at more than 400 in 2000.

In Chea Kim's case, an orphanage catering to international adoptions approached her five years ago and told her it was willing to pay up to $100 for newborns so she gave them her own 3-day-old daughter.

Later she regretted the decision, and when asked if she wanted to give another child said no. But that didn't stop her from persuading other mothers to sell their babies -- 18 in total -- claiming they had been abandoned and the birth parents were unknown.

Others in this poor village, most of whom earn less than $1 a day as contract laborers in rice and bean fields, recognized a good business opportunity when they saw one and also started bringing babies to the WOVA Cham Chao orphanage just outside Phnom Penh, the capital.

It was one of several used by Seattle International Adoptions, which placed at least 700 children in American homes before the U.S. ban in December 2001.

Following a U.S. investigation, the agency's doors were shut last year and its director, Lynn Devin, 50, and her sister, Lauryn Galindo of Hanalei, Kauai, 52, indicted on charges of conspiring to commit visa fraud.

Among the charges they faced were falsifying documents to make it look as if babies with parents were orphans, swapping at least one sick child with a healthy one in the middle of adoption procedures, and using the names of dead infants for the living.

Devin, who pleaded guilty to visa fraud and conspiracy to launder money, is to be sentenced Friday. Galindo, who pleaded innocent to the visa fraud allegations, is scheduled to go to trial in June.

Many of the women who gave up their newborns in Laing Kout were too poor to raise them, receiving as little as $20 for each child from intermediaries like Chea Kim. Some did so after being left by their husbands, out of spite or desperation, or in hope that adoptive parents, or the children, would send back money in years to come.

Complaints about baby sales and thefts have come to a near standstill since the United States and France, the two largest markets for Cambodian children, put a hold on adoptions, said Women's Affairs Minister Mu Sochua.

But some villagers are still trying to cash in.

WOVA Cham Chao stopped accepting babies a few years ago, but another orphanage opened in nearby Kandal province's Kein Svay district, allegedly run by a former employee, villagers from Laing Kout said.

Nop Phat, a farmer who has delivered five babies to the orphanage, rattles off the names of pregnant women in and around Laing Kout. He knows who is willing to sell a baby, and who is not. He had high hopes for Soum Savy, who had twins two months ago, but she changed her mind.

"At first I was going to give them away, because I was sick and had no milk," said Soum Savy, 40, emerging from a wooden house on stilts with the babies, one weighing just 4 pounds, his skeletal legs badly deformed.

"Now that I'm feeling better, I want to keep them," said Soum Savy, who has seven other children and no idea what she and her husband will do to feed them.

Chea Kim, waiting at a pagoda nearby, was disappointed by the news.

Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in the world, has no long tradition of civil society, and stories about selling children are not uncommon, whether for adoption, prostitution, or domestic service.

Decades of war have destroyed the social fabric, said Dr. Sotheara Chhim, deputy director of Transcultural Psycho-social Organization.

Little has been done in the years that followed to rebuild institutions that traditionally foster a sense of community or build values and trust.

Though it is impossible to say how widespread the problem is, even Cambodia's king has expressed concern, describing the adoption issue as "a complex but very sad one for me."

"Extreme poverty among a large number of our people ... has pushed a non-negligible number of parents to sell their children to rich foreigners," King Norodom Sihanouk, 81, wrote on his Web site in February.

Though some go to loving homes in America and Europe, and are given education, he said, "we are losing our dignity if we sell children."

Cambodian law limits adoptions to abandonment or the death of a child's parents. To get around this, adoption agencies and facilitators have claimed children were abandoned with birth mothers unknown.

There are many other loopholes in the system, and UNICEF is working with the government to draft a new adoption law.

Associated Press Writer Gene Johnson contributed to this report from Seattle.

Caption
Chea Kim, a chief baby trader, feeds a baby Feb. 1 in Laing Kout village, Kampong Cham province, Cambodia, 90 miles north of the capital Phnom Penh. Chea Kim has brought 18 babies to an orphanage near Cambodia's capital that caters to international adoptions. For each infant, Chea Kim was given $100, about half of which she gave to the birth mothers.



more from a different version of this AP article from Albany Times Union 

POOR CAMBODIANS SELLING BABIES

http://timesunion.com/

Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in the world, has no long tradition of civil society and stories about selling children are not uncommon -- whether for adoption, prostitution, or domestic service.

Decades of war -- bombing by the United States in the early 1970s, the Khmer Rouge genocide in 1975-79, military occupation by Vietnam in the 1980s -- have destroyed the social fabric, said Dr. Sotheara Chhim, deputy director of Transcultural Psycho-social Organization.

Little has been done in the years that followed to rebuild institutions that traditionally foster a sense of community or build values and trust.

The most severe damage was done during the Khmer Rouge's bloody four year reign, when Maoist-inspired revolutionaries purposefully obliterated all aspects of traditional Cambodia, emptying the cities and herding people to the countryside to work as slaves in the rice fields. As many as 2 million Cambodians, or one in five, died of starvation, overwork, execution or illness.

People were taught to think only of the revolution, with the result that they learned to think only of themselves in order to survive, said Sotheara Chhim. ``We were not even allowed to cry if someone in our family died,'' he said. ``Without the tragedy all of us have experienced, people would have a broader way of thinking. They might still be poor, but I don't think mothers would resort so quickly to selling their children.''

Cambodian law limits adoptions to abandonment or the death of a child's parents. To get around this, adoption agencies and facilitators have claimed children were abandoned with birth mothers unknown.

There are plenty of other loopholes in the system, and UNICEF is working with the government to draft a new adoption law.

Main Dim, 40, was divorced with five children when she became pregnant again by a man from Laing Kout who later abandoned her. Angry and worried that she would not be able to care for another child, Main Dim agreed to give Chea Kim her month-old boy for $50. But she thought that he was being taken to a center, and that she would get him back when she was on her feet again.

``He was crying when I let him go. So was I,'' she said. ``I think about him everyday.''

Still, she is seen as ``the lucky one'' in Laing Kout and serves as inspiration to the rest.

Unlike others, she gets about $100 a year from the American family and has received dozens of pictures: The boy bundled in ski clothes, in a bath with his blond-haired sister and another Cambodian brother, eating breakfast in front of the TV.

And the American family promised her that when the boy was 18, he would come to Cambodia for a visit.

``I still miss him, but when I see the pictures I'm happy, because he does have a better life than any I could give him,'' she said, showing off a radio given to her by the boy's new family. ``If they offered to give him back, of course, I want that. But at least I know he's being taken care of.''

Many Cambodian parents think they were doing the right thing, and in some cases maybe they were.

Run Chenda, sold by her mother into prostitution when she was 9 for $80, says children who were sold to rich foreigners are the lucky ones. ``If I could trade places with any of them, I would,'' she said.

Now 16, Run Chenda spent five years in a brothel in Phnom Penh, then managed to escape. When she didn't do as she was told, she was beaten with a belt. Other times, her genitals were squeezed with pliers, she says, tears dripping down her cheek.

The families who adopted the children paid up to $11,500, at least half of which went to SIA. The rest of the money went to the Cambodian government as bribes, or to orphanages as ``donations,'' human rights groups say.

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