Adoption from Nepal is beginning to look like trafficking
A NEPALI TIMES INVESTIGATION
09 MARCH 2007
In the cramped Anamnagar office of an adoption broker and his dusty orphanage in Ratopul, Nepali Times this week made arrangements to buy a child for adoption.
We posed as a British couple wishing to adopt a Nepali child and were told that the process was complicated and involved eight government offices and agencies. The broker said he could take care of the entire process for a $1,500 fee. If we decided to adopt from his orphanage, a further donation of $5,000 was strongly suggested.
Although he initially insisted on up-front cash of a third of his fee, he agreed to take a cheque for just over half the total amount. Immediately after we agreed to pay, he said he had just met a family from his village who wanted to put up for adoption a child the age we wanted. Earlier, he had said it could take months to find a child as young as we were looking to adopt.
Then came the promises of guaranteed approval because he had his representative on the adoption recommendation committee and that while he could not jump the queue he could use his influence.
We met the parents. They hardly looked unable to support four children as is required by law. The father said he was a political worker-turned-teacher and earned 72 pounds. He spoke fluently in English about choosing a bright future for his youngest child because love is not enough, enumerated the child's many good qualities, and used phrases like transparency, unfair practices and legal relationship. There was one condition, he said, his wife wanted to periodically meet the child. They were evasive about where they would like the meetings to be.
We were not asked by the birth parents or by the lawyer and orphanage chairperson what our motivation was for seeking to adopt a Nepali child, or about our ability to take care of the baby.
An international conference on adoption that begins on Sunday in Kathmandu aims to promote Nepal as a destination for adoption and make the process easier. It is happening amidst reports of adoption rackets giving Nepal a bad reputation.
Our broker said the committee was pushing through 25 adoptions a day ahead of the conference, so parents could come, attend the conference, pick up their child, and fly away.
Whose baby is this ? This painting hangs in the reception of the orphanage in Ratopul we sopurced a child from.
Nepal's exports are down, tourism is still stagnant but the international adoption business is booming. Children are often put up for adoption without their parents' knowledge or consent. The racket thrives in part because there are no laws governing financial transactions in the process. In addition to hefty 'donations' to orphanages and financial support for the upkeep of their 'allotted' child while they wait for their file to be processed, parents also pay hefty sums to 'facilitators' or agencies in Nepal and back home. The whole shady business is lubricated with bribes to offices and individuals.
Posing as British parents wishing to adopt a Nepali child, we visited the Child NGO Federation, one of the organisers of an international conference on adoption in Kathmandu this weekend. We were directed to a member who is also a supreme court advocate and has an orphanage.
Nepali Times has corroborated reports from sources close to the adoption process and child welfare institutions of corruption at every stage of the process. But a senior child welfare official told us: We have to be careful about taking action because powerful people are involved. No one we talked to about adoption was willing to speak on the record, fearing retaliation from the orphanage and adoption lobbies.
The high stakes are driving a market in which an increasing number of children are being falsely declared orphans, or taken away from their parents on false pretexts to be handed over to adoptive parents for a hefty fee. Employees of top hotels say confrontations between new adoptive parents and birth parents in parking lots and lobbies are increasingly common.
The price of children is increasing. Confidential emails between a US agent and a facilitator from September 2006 put the 'going rate' for a child at $5,000. But adoptive parents, their interpreters, child rights, activists, and researchers say minimum 'donations' to orphanages put the average figure at up to $10,000.
This is looking set to be the biggest year yet for adoption. In the first six months of the 2006-7 fiscal year 338 Nepali children had been given up for adoption abroad. The total number for the whole of last year was 373. Most Nepali children are adopted by families in Spain, Italy, the US, France, and Germany. There was a surge in inter-country adoption from Nepal after 1999/2000, when the process was standardised and brought under the Ministry for Women, Children, and Social Welfare.
An international researcher on adoption says that the adoption market is moving to Nepal from India, where a few scandals, tightening of legislation and enforcement in recent years have made things too hot for many agents.
Senior government officials and at an international child welfare organisation warn that this week's conference on inter-country adoption will push to make the process easier but it may end up being even less transparent.
Some of the homes are run by our own board members, a government child welfare official told us, there's a problem of political pressure. If we publish their names in the newspaper, maybe we can't stay here.
The meet, organised by the Child NGO Federation, the Ministry for Women, Children and the Central Child Welfare Board, aims to improve the process of adoption from Nepal and get feedback from adoptive families on whether their desires and wishes ? have been well facilitated. On another website, the conference is described as designed to help eliminate existing rumours and negative attitudes regarding adoption of children by foreigners and its main focus will be appointing adopted Nepalis as Goodwill Ambassadors to the respective countries to where their new parents belong to, and will be assigned the duty of playing key roles in establishing a strong bond between the two countries. There is no mention of the best interests of the children, or how to make a notoriously murky process more transparent.
Vinod Adhikary, joint secretary at the ministry and coordinator of the Adoption Recommendation Committee composed of government and NGO representatives emphatically denied there could not be even one in 10,000 cases of dubious adoptions because we are very strict about it. He also denied that adoptions were being pushed through faster ahead of the conference.
However, in a telephone conversation he had in our presence, he referred to the international market and later suggested to us that perhaps competitors such as Vietnam were trying to take advantage by starting rumours about financial misdealing in Nepali adoptions.
Prospective adoptive parents in Kathmandu are often desperate for a child, in culture shock, and unable to speak English. They are being extorted and lied to. First, many pay an agency back home as much as ?5,000 since many countries do not allow direct adoptions. When they come here they are hit by demands for more money every step of the way: for child support for the duration of the process, a donation to the orphanage (one parent said she paid ?9,000). The demands for bribe money continue up to the last stages of the paperwork. Those who pay can get a child in up to two months. The few who don't, wait for a year or longer with members of the extended family forced to take turns to camp out in Kathmandu when visas expire.
Some new parents have realised soon after their return home that their child is twice as old as they were told. When birth mothers find out that their child is being taken away for good, not just to be educated as promised by brokers, ugly scenes ensue.
Since February France and Germany have banned all new adoptions from Nepal because of lack of transparency, a spike in applications and serious uncertainty about whether the children were meant to be adopted in the first place. Spain and France are sending missions to investigate the conditions of adoption here.
On n-child, a popular internet discussion forum for parents looking to adopt from Nepal, a recent poster wrote: As we lived in KTM for our adoption process we got to know people who had been around and watched adoption over the years in Nepal. It was their feeling that ? Nepal would become the next Guatemala or Cambodia, which are now closed to Canadians wishing to adopt there. Too many irregularities and too much money moving in inordinate directions.
Lack of laws
The fees charged by brokers and facilitators, and 'donations' solicited by orphanages are in a grey area: nothing in Nepali adoption law specifically prohibits financial transactions. Lawyers and child rights activists say the laws are little more than a detailing of procedure and do not protect children from being exploited. According to the Hague Convention on adoption?to which Nepal is not a signatory?and the Child Rights Convention which Nepal has signed and is therefore bound by, adoption should be the last resort for a child.
Experts on adoption law, such as Rup Narayan Shrestha of the Forum for Women Law, and Development, says transactions of the kind that are taking place in Nepal all the time violate article 21 of the Child Rights Convention, which says that that states must take all appropriate measures to ensure that, in inter country adoptions, the placement does not result in improper financial gain for those involved in it. But he and other child rights experts we spoke with stopped short of suggesting that this could be grounds for prosecution.
David Smolin, a law professor at Samford University in the United States and author of three papers in 2004/05 on inter-country adoption, writes that while the adoption business might technically be seen to fall short of actually being trafficking, because there is usually no further exploitation involved, the inter-country adoption system legitimises and incentivises the practices of buying, trafficking, kidnapping, and stealing children.
A child rights activist from an international organisation that we spoke to expressed fears that there could be a ring operating from the villages to Kathmandu and beyond, and that more than just adoption, it might involve the flesh trade, organ trade, or paedophilia.
Parents and child welfare workers speak of paying out bribes totalling as much as ?6,000. Nepali Times has seen breakdowns of figures reported by adoptive parents, ranging from ?250-2,500 paid out to the ministry, 'file fees' from ?500-4,500, grants to orphanages from ?2,000-4,500, and child support from a ?1,500 lump sum to ?80 a month for an unknown duration. But, as an official involved in the process explained, parents are extremely reluctant to provide figures and usually under-report how much they really paid. There are no receipts, so there is no evidence of what was paid to whom.
The system is completely rotten, says an outraged child welfare official, and it goes all the way to the top. The bribery starts from small local police stations and district administration offices, which are encouraged to certify children as orphans or produce perfectly legal, and perfectly false, documents claiming parents' consent to giving up their child for adoption.
The Adoption Recommendation Committee, composed of government and NGO representatives, makes the final decision on files, which are then formally approved by the Secretary of the Ministry of Women, Children, and Social Welfare.
Adopting parents are charged $300 each by Nepal Children's Organisation, Bal Mandir, for 'monitoring', usually visits by board members to countries where Nepali children are adopted. These are perks, foreign trips, a government child welfare official told us. There are numerous reports of parents being asked to foot the bill for sightseeing visits, expensive hotels, meals, and souvenirs. A poster on n-child says: It is not easy to understand why should we pay such journeys... But we love Nepal and, of course, Nepali children ? so everytime we have paid, everytime we have gone to meet them personally.
I want my son back
Padam Bahadur Shahi, a 32-year-old forest guard from Jaira VDC in Humla has spent every day of the last six weeks at Kathmandu's District Administration Office's Child Welfare Council, asking when his child will come back to him. Two years ago, when he was struggling to take care of his three children when his wife fell ill, a friend suggested that he send his oldest son to the Tuguda Balbalika Udaya Kendra in Kathmandu to be looked after.
Shahi found out last Julythat his son, Kobi Raj, was now an adopted child in Spain. The distressed father says the children's home director, Chandra Man Joshi, tried to placate him saying they were good people.
Shahi says he never agreed to put Kobi Raj up for adoption, but the paperwork is all in order. Under Nepali law, there is no way to reverse such an adoption. Gyan Lama of the DAO's child welfare council says at most Joshi could face criminal action. This isn't enough for Padam Bahadur Shahi. Maybe they can punish Joshi, he says, but that isn't justice for me. I want my son back.
Kids as business
There are over 500 children's homes and 60 orphanages in Kathmandu whose registration details include the stated intention of providing children for foreign adoption. Children are in demand, and every time a child is rescued from the streets the Administration Office gets phone calls from orphanages.
In the past year the Nepali media has reported cases of children taken from parents who are told the kids will be educated for free. Some are sent to India, others are in orphanages and homes in the Valley, not always in the conditions their parents have been promised. Child rights workers say an orphanage in Thankot filled with children from Humla until last July functioned as a feeder orphanage, supplying kids to others who needed them. Last month Himal Khabarpatrika reported a case of 88 children missing from an orphanage and of children being moved from one children's home to another in exchange for cash (Where are they?, NT #335).
Many homes and orphanages receive large donations from foreign and Nepali well-wishers, but often the standards of health, nutrition, and cleanliness are abysmal, and few orphanages provide the stimulation children need for healthy development. Prospective adoptive parents complain that even at institutions such as Bal Mandir, the children are under-nourished, have skin diseases, and that toddlers confined to tiny, dark spaces sit all day, clutching at the bars of their cribs, rocking back and forth.
Two interpreters who have spent the last three months to two years accompanying prospective parents to orphanages say children are trained like monkeys to play cute for westerners, and prohibited from speaking to Nepalis who are not orphanage staff. They have seen administrative staff and board members display signs of increasing wealth, going from chappals to Rs 10,000 sneakers, and from motorcycles to SUVs in a matter of months.
Setting up shop
The hardest part of the business to unravel is the role of agents and facilitators. While most adopting countries have a central adoption authority, parents usually go through approved agencies. In countries like Nepal facilitators work as middlemen between the agencies and the orphanages or birth parents. The email on the right outlines a standard procedure for going into the adoption business and fairly standard fees. Some facilitators are themselves adoptive parents; their early expertise in adopting a Nepali child is an asset in the business.
Facilitators and agencies can both be problematic. Agencies can and do lose their licenses for unfair practices. One, Focus on Children, which also had photolistings of Nepali children until the site was recently disabled, was busted last week by the US State Department for tricking parents in Samoa into giving up their children for adoption. But already back in 2005, after the death of a child in its care, and evidence of gross negligence in an FOC home, the Samoan government tightened legislation. Other agencies, such as one in Spain we were told about, started after connections had been made in Kathmandu to set up an orphanage to supply children.
There are also complex connections between established orphanages, Kathmandu- and Delhi-based facilitators, and international agencies In Nepal, extended families own multiple orphanages and children's homes. If an orphanage falls out of favour with agencies, relatives open up another one. Adoptive parents referring orphanages and agencies to friends may thus not know that one they had a bad experience with has simply resumed under a new name.
Meanwhile, there are connections between some Nepali orphanages and facilitators with at least one orphanage in India. One well-known Indian facilitator who acts for agencies in the US, Austria, and for a German agency which lost its license last summer, is also increasingly active in Kathmandu. He is said to charge $6,500 for an Indian adoption; officially, adopting parents in India cannot pay more than $3,500.
Date: Tue, 12 Sep 2006 13:51:55 +0545
From: [Kathmandu-based American Facilitator]
To: US Agent
Subject: some info
I wanted to work with a Canadian agency because I'm sick and tired of the way the American Consulate treats me. Other American Agent's facilitator has put some rupees in the pockets of a couple of the orphanage's board members so the director has to contend with this. He absolutely wants to work with me.
I have to be very careful because I don't want anyone to accuse me of anything, so can't give them much money.
Currently, the "going rate" in US dollars is a $5,000 donation. This can be reduced to $4 or even $3 if you can make a monthly donation to be used for initial capital expenditures and operating expenses until they're stable. I imagine this could be done by you by keeping the donation at the same rate from families to you and managing Nepali Orphanage's cash flow for them.
Let me lay out the financial details for you:
Money going to Nepali Orphanage: in total either $5,000, $4,000 or $3,000 depending on the monthly donation arrangement.
> Application fee: $300
> Processing fee, due at the time family applies to adopt child or on acceptance by US agency of referral: either $1,000 or $1,200.
> Donation to orphanage, due on finalization of adoption: Total donation amount less Application Fee and Processing Fee.
Other costs in Nepali system:
Costs for US visa:
Money going to me [Kathmandu-based American facilitator]:
> Facilitation Fee: $4,000, half paid when family applies to adopt, half paid on finalization of adoption
> Foster Care: only for babies in my care. $450 per month, back dated to the date on which the baby arrived in our care. I've got some video I took yesterday for the parents of our current babies. I can give this to you to show families the quality of care. The foster care fee covers care giver salaries, all food, housing, and related expenses.
> Medical Care: for babies in my foster care this usually amounts to about $500.
[Kathmandu-based American Facilitator]