Treasured or Traded?
Do Adoption Facilitators Save Babies or Sell Them? A Profile of the Field's Biggest Player
By Richard Sine
The Cambodia Daily
Once upon a time, international adoption facilitators were angels who braved the harsh climate of impoverished foreign lands to give poor abandoned orphans the chance at a better life with wealthy, loving new parents.
But the angels have fallen in recent years, with credible allegations of baby-buying and even baby-stealing emerging though human-rights groups, embassies and the media. Today, accused of being the middleman in a distinctly nasty business, facilitators might be expected to wear horns and breathe fire, like the most famous fallen angel himself.
Then you meet Lauryn Galindo, and you have returned to the ethereal realm again. Soothing guitar music seeps from Galindo’s stereo as she welcomes you into a fan-cooled riverfront apartment tastefully decorated with Khmer-style furniture. Silk pastel pillows tumble off a traditional “kdaa ngoeu,” or wooden bed. A wooden apsara dances on a chest, a ceramic dragon undulates on the tile floor and a little fountain murmurs in the background all day.
Galindo has light blue eyes and a gentle manner. Raised in the US state of Hawaii, she is a semi-professional hula dancer, which helps to explain her waist-length hair. She sits on pillows with a visitor as she leafs through one certificate after another: awards and thank-you letters for her many donations for orphans and young children.
Late last month the government awarded her a special medal for national reconstruction at a ceremony attended by top politicians and dozens of children supported by her through fees paid by adoptive parents.
“When people ask me what I do, I don’t say adoptions,” she says. “I say humanitarian work.” Whatever her label, Galindo is a pioneer in the field of international Cambodian adoptions, and is now likely the game’s biggest player. Since arriving in Cambodia in 1990, she has facilitated hundreds of adoptions, mostly to US parents. She was the facilitator this year for “Tomb Raider” star Angelina Jolie and her husband, Billy Bob Thornton. Two of her former drivers have founded their own orphanages. [Sea Visoth and Soeng Mon]
But there could be another side to Galindo. She has been directly accused of baby-buying, and so has one of the orphanages which she uses and supports. Hounded by the media in the past, Galindo agreed to talk with a visitor to present herself as a benefactor, a scrupulous operator and reformer of the system.
“I didn’t come here to steal children of the nation,” she says. “I came here to do what I could to help.”
Galindo had already been an international adoption facilitator for several years when she accompanied Haing Ngor, the actor who played Dith Pran in the movie “The Killing Fields,” and a family friend, to Cambodia in 1990. The two accompanied top CPP official Chea Sim by helicopter to a site where the government had asked Haing Ngor to build a school.
The Cambodian leaders made a good impression on Galindo, and she has had friends in high places ever since. She describes Chea Sim as “like a father to me” and counts Sar Kheng and Bun Rany as friends. She notes that Chea Sim, Hun Sen and several ministers are all adoptive parents.
“I really felt like the leaders cared about their people and make themselves very available,” she said. “They wanted to know how they could help orphans.”
Galindo was moved by the predicament of Cambodia, which didn’t have significant numbers of orphans until after the Pol Pot regime. She took an apartment in Phnom Penh and began to compose the country’s first adoptions forms, including registration forms, release letters and certifications of orphan status.
As her adoption work grew, so did the number of services she supported through donations. She pays most of the expenses of five orphanages in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Sihanoukville and Kompong Speu. She recently built two schools by donating the construction money to a top politician.
For six years, dentists have traveled through the country examining children at her expense, 500 of them in the last year alone. She has funded literacy programs, justice programs, bought clothing and medicine. Last year, she says, she gave $600,000 to children’s causes, including $38,000 to Tibetan orphans—all of it donated by adoptive parents.
Many of the children she supports are not orphans, or are orphans who may never be adopted, she says. “My happiest day will be when there are no orphans, and children are reabsorbed into society,” she says. The typical adoptive parent comes to Galindo through her sister’s US adoption agency, Seattle International Adoptions. Her sister, a social worker, screens the parents for suitability, and Galindo chooses a child depending on availability and the parents’ desires.
The parents pay on a sliding scale depending on their income, she says; but her typical fee is $9,000. Of that, $3,500 goes for donations, including $400 directly to the orphanage for each child. Adoptive parents pay for their new child’s care, while donations pay salaries and expenses.
The other $5,500 goes for processing—this in a country with no formal adoption fee. Galindo is frank about the need to pay bribes, though she prefers to use a different term. “It’s okay to give tips. It’s fine because these guys can’t live on their salaries...I’m really happy to share the wealth.”
This job she delegates to her Cambodian staff, who do the processing for her. She claims the payments never get her special treatment. “I’ve never felt like, ‘it’s pay or else.’”
For whatever reason, however, Galindo gets results fast. US parents have flocked to Cambodia because, compared to other countries, fees are relatively low and adoptions can be processed quickly. To those who believe facilitators corrupt the system with their high fees, she points to the French, who are forbidden from using facilitators but must sometimes spend months in Cambodia finding a child and completing the process.
“There’s about 57 steps and it’s not a picnic,” she says. “It’s better to have someone in your corner who knows the ropes.”
Galindo says baby-trafficking did not become a problem here until about 1999, as political violence ended and the pace of international adoptions increased.
She suggests that several facilitators do it, including one man, Sea Visoth, who used to be a driver for her. Sea Visoth’s Khmer American Orphanage Association has been associated with traffickers who are still awaiting trial. Sea Visoth denies the charges, contending many mothers bring children to his orphanage through a “neighbor.”
Despite spending over a decade in the country, Galindo can neither read nor speak Khmer and claims all her evidence of trafficking is circumstantial. But she says she has taken indirect efforts to prevent trafficking based on an understanding of Cambodian culture.
Cambodian dowry dictates that the groom move in with the bride’s family, making girls more valuable to parents in the long run. So the majority of abandoned children here are boys.
But most US parents prefer girls. (Nobody knows exactly why; perhaps they’re seen as cute or docile, or perhaps it’s what Galindo calls “The China Syndrome”—a reflection of the fact that most US residents believe that it’s Asian girls who need rescuing, because the Chinese are more likely to abandon girls.)
So it’s bad news when a Cambodian orphanage has a majority of girls, as some do. Galindo claims that she does not “place orders” for children, but chooses from children who are already available. And she does not let childless adoptive parents choose the gender of their child: “My policy is, no children, no choice.”
Indeed, a visit to the Women and Orphans Vocational Association, where she pays the salary and expenses, shows that most of the orphans are boys. There is also a child with Downs Syndrome and two with HIV—children who are unlikely to be adopted. (WOV, however, has not escaped trafficking accusations in past years, as described later.) Galindo claims to be a reformer. She asserts that abandoned children are very rarely left by the side of the road, or at the doorway of an orphanage; usually it is easy to establish whether a child is truly abandoned. As allegations of trafficking increased last fall, Galindo sent out her own investigators to check on her own cases.
They have discovered that some parents or relinquishing relatives have lied about the circumstances of abandonment, but not that babies have been bought or stolen, she said.
Galindo’s sister, social worker Lynn Devin, has formulated detailed adoption reforms proposing a central registry for children. Adoption fees would be standardized. Facilitators would not be allowed to run their own orphanages, reducing the opportunities to acquire children “for order.”
And perhaps most importantly, most orphans would be randomly assigned to homes, drastically reducing the profit potential. Galindo said she has discussed her suggested “Safe Children‘s Act” with Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Ith Sam Heng and other high officials.
While applauding the intent behind the US effort to investigate baby-trafficking, Galindo says the visa suspension left 114 of her families in the lurch. She contends that families with representatives in the US Congress who are more aggressive have been more likely to have their visas cleared earlier. None of her children slated for adoption have been denied visas so far, she said.
US officials say they are working with the Cambodian government to put in reforms that would allow adoptions to recommence. Galindo says it couldn’t be too soon. “When I give donations now, I say I don’t know whether this will be the last time.”
Galindo talks again about her friendships with top leaders like Chea Sim. Few expatriates are as complimentary to the top leaders as she is. “I’m a pollyanna,” she said. “That’s how I got by here for these 12 years.”
One day in 1997, Meas Bopha says, she returned from errands to discover that the three infants she had recently adopted had disappeared. A nanny told her that a white woman had taken them away. A few panicked minutes later, the woman reappeared with the infants, who she had just taken for HIV tests, a precursor to adoption.
It was Lauryn Galindo, Meas Bopha said. “She told me that maybe she didn’t think I could support them,” said Meas Bopha, who now runs a Phnom Penh guesthouse. “She said she could help me find a home for the children. She showed me pictures of Cambodian children who were living in Hawaii.” When Meas Bopha demurred, the woman made her offer. “[Galindo] said,‘If I find a good home for the children, you can keep $700.’”Meas Bopha denied the offer, but an impoverished next-door neighborgave up a child that day for $100, she said. The woman, said to be living in Pailin, could not be reached by press time.
It was a turbulent time in Cambodia, with factional fighting intensifying and foreigners fleeing the city. Days after then co-Prime Minister Hun Sen unseated his partner, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, a story in the US newspaper the Seattle Times appeared about Galindo’s “dramatic and moving” escape from the country on charter flight with 19 orphans in tow. The adoptive families waited in a Bangkok hotel.
The Meas Bopha incident is the only publicly-known case to implicate Galindo directly, but it is not the first time Galindo has been associated with trafficking.
In cases uncovered by Licadho in 2000, mothers claimed that they had sold children to recruiters from the Women and Orphans Vocational Association, or WOV, in Phnom Penh. Galindo takes WOV children and pays virtually all the orphanage’s expenses, including salaries.
“They were the first to get in trouble,” said Licadho deputy director Naly Pilorge of WOV.
In one case, a mother was promised that the adoptive family would send back money, but they never did; in another a mother claimed she never gave permission to send her child to the US; in a third the orphanage initially refused to return a baby after a mother changed her mind.
WOV director Chhim Naly denies offering anything to abandoning relatives more than a token donation of rice and travel expenses.
Earlier this month she proudly toured a visitor through a free daycare at the orphanage where neighborhood families could keep their children while they go to work. Such programs make it easier for children to keep their children rather than having to abandon them, Galindo says.
Galindo denies all the accusations. The cases at the orphanage she attributed to misunderstandings or attempts at extortion by the birth mother. The Meas Bopha case, however, elicited a more vehement reaction—perhaps because it implicates her directly, or perhaps because Meas Bopha has already spoken to CNN and The New York Times.
It was a hot day, and Galindo invited a reporter to talk in her black, air-conditioned Mercedes. There were little squares of Oriental rug in the backseat footwells. A white Toyota Camry, full of what appeared to be bodyguards, waited across the street.
Galindo was obviously upset at the prospect of having her reputation injured, though she was not at all angry or threatening. She said Meas Bopha’s estranged husband, a US resident, had approached her at the US Embassy, telling her that he was worried that Meas Bopha could not take care of three infants.
Galindo’s staff had examined the infants, who had health problems, and even gave Meas Bopha a $400 donation. Galindo acknowledged an infant had been given to the orphanage at about the same time from the same neighborhood, but denied a purchase. She suggested that Meas Bopha was associated with another adoption facilitator who was trying to smear her and discredit her lauded job of removing the orphans under duress in 1997.
“To go to hell and back again, and to get kicked in the teeth by someone I helped—it’s very upsetting,” she said. “I must really be a pollyanna if I didn't see this.”
It is easy to see how someone like Lauryn Galindo can gain the trust of hundreds of adoptive US parents, including Angelina Jolie. She moves with a dancer’s grace, and she seems to radiate the compassion that draws so many parents to adopt in Cambodia in the first place. You can almost hear the US parents breathe a sigh of relief: She’s one of us.
It’s worthy to note that neither Galindo or WOV has faced any trafficking charges, nor has she been associated with the two orphanages where charges have been leveled. The US investigation results have not been publicized. And the remaining accusations devolve into a cloudy haze of finger-pointing. The Meas Bopha story, for one, seems almost equally credible on both sides.
It is difficult to tell if Galindo, or her orphanages, are buying babies. But baby-buying and baby trafficking is a fact in Cambodia, powered by foreign—and especially US—money. So perhaps the question isn’t what Galindo knows, or what she does. Perhaps the question is, what are others willing to accept? Are adoptive parents aware of what $10,000 can buy in a country where the average income is less than a dollar a day? Do they want to know? The moral questions don’t get discussed much on the adoptive parents’ Internet chat rooms, or in the media. It has been discussed a bit in Cambodian courtrooms, where a judge last year nodded at a $100 payment for a child, calling it a donation. “They don’t like that term, baby-selling,” said Yung Phanit, a Cambodian Defenders Project lawyer who has worked on trafficking cases. “They prefer giving out or adopting.”
Much of Cambodian trafficking can seem to occur in a vast moral gray area. On one end are poor or desperate parents, some uneducated in birth control and overburdened by children. On the other end are US parents who are sometimes infertile and therefore desperate in their own fashion.
Galindo, who says she deplores baby-buying, nonetheless likes to tell the story of a Cambodian neighbor of hers who bought a child from an impoverished woman to raise it herself. The neighbor figured that any woman who was willing to give up her child for a small sum probably wasn’t qualified to raise it. It got Galindo to wonder whether the taboo on paying for a child was more a product of a Western bias than a universal moral dictum.
After all, look at the benefits that result. The birth parents make a little money and are unburdened from parental duties. The adoptive parents get someone new to love. The child gets what is likely to be healthier, wealthier life with more opportunities. Perhaps they will return and use their potentially superior educations to contribute to their country. And the country gets large donations for social services.
So what is the difference if one sprinkles a few hundred dollars here or there?
Look at it this way, and it is easy to forget that Cambodia is a country where the Khmer Rouge and all the war and poverty that followed have served to seriously fray family and community bonds. In Cambodia, it can sometimes seem like everything can be bought for a price.
Foreign powers have come in with billions of dollars designed to rebuild a society, a long, slow process of building trust, peace and stability. Then other foreigners come in with a quick cash incentive to break up a family—a one-way ticket to Disneyland.
Indeed, to accept baby-buying—to simply continue throwing money into the Cambodian adoption system, without thought to how it is being used—would be to ensure more Cambodian children would enjoy easier lives in the US.
It would also be to abandon any hope of recovering this country’s dignity. It would be to give up on Cambodia.