U.S. Interrupts Cambodian Adoptions
By SETH MYDANS
It was, of course, love at first sight. Still jet-lagged from their long flight across the Pacific, the American families embraced their adopted babies and pronounced them, in one voice, adorable.
They gave the babies food, more than they could eat. They gave them bright new clothes and playthings. They gave them names -- Chloe, Sarah, Isabel, Joshua, Rebecca, Alaina, Angel.
''She's the most amazing thing that's ever happened to me in my life,'' said Kathy Niemasik, a teacher, of her new 6-month-old baby. ''She talks up a storm. She sings to us at dinner. She has a squeal that lights up your heart when she's happy.''
Then, for these seven families, the road home stopped abruptly. Officials at the American Embassy refused to issue visas for the families' new children. Questions were being raised, they said.
Were these babies really orphans?
Few people doubt that babies are bought and sold in Cambodia, bringing huge profits to a chain of corrupt officials and middlemen. Now for the first time, the embassy said it had concrete evidence of trafficking, and it acted quickly.
Midstream, the adoptions were put on hold while the embassy began to investigate. Cambodia -- which had been the ninth-largest source of foreign babies adopted by Americans, with nearly 100 a month -- was out of the adoption business.
The seven families were stranded with their new babies, unsure if they could ever take them home.
''We're desperate here,'' said Greg Sferes, a distributor of industrial supplies. ''You don't just trap us here. If there's problems now, there have been problems in the past. Why make us the ones who have to suffer? Just let us go with our children.''
That would be illegal, an embassy official said.
''We've heard that there's a pipeline, a network, in which the embassy, as the final step, stamps its legitimacy on the process -- which, at its base, could make us a party to trafficking in babies,'' the official said.
''It would be wrong -- in fact it would be illegal -- to say, 'Well, we'll look the other way for these few cases.' ''
He offered no encouragement to the new parents. The suspension, he said, will last as long as it takes to ensure that the adoption system in Cambodia is not systematically corrupt, and private aid agencies and Cambodians say that could a be long time. The outlines of the baby trade here are well known.
Bill Herod, a spokesman for a private aid group, NGO Forum, talked of ''the famous 18 steps'' in the adoption process, each requiring a payoff.
Naly Pilorge, a human rights worker for a local group called Licadho, has intervened on behalf of trafficked children and has learned some of the network's tricks.
''The mothers are offered $30 to $70, and the United States couples pay $10,000 to $20,000,'' she said. ''It's a system where you have recruiters, you have facilitators, you have possibly high-ranking officials being paid. Look at the gap between what the American couple pays and what the mothers get. Where is that money going?''
The seven families said they each paid about $15,000 in fees to adoption agencies.
Meas Bopha, who runs a guest house here, knows what it is like to be victimized. One day she came home and her three children were gone. An acquaintance had simply taken them to sell.
''I ran and I cried and I took them back,'' she said. ''So she came to me and tried to pay me $700 for my three children. I said no. Then she paid $100 for a neighbor's child.''
Since then, Ms. Bopha has learned more about her acquaintance, and says of her: ''She has pictures she shows people, saying: 'We can take to the States, beautiful home, happy healthy baby. I'll send you pictures every month and when the baby is big he can come back and help you.'
''She approaches the mother: 'Don't you love your child? Don't you want to give him a better life?' ''
But the pictures are never sent and the baby is never seen again.
The seven stranded parents said they are certain that these stories do not apply to them, although all their children came from an orphanage where the alarm about trafficking was first raised.
''These are all abandoned children,'' said Don Korta, an administrator at a software company who has adopted two small children. ''There is no information on the mother or father. We were told that most of the children here are abandoned.''
Some of the babies were frightened, sullen and poorly fed when they first met their new families, the parents said. It has been a thrill to bathe them in love, to watch them begin to talk and laugh and play.
''It's like making a new friend,'' Mr. Korta said. ''You get to know their likes and dislikes. This one likes chocolate. This one likes strawberries.''
But for most of the new parents, time and money have run out after three weeks or more of waiting.
''I'm leaving tomorrow because I don't want to lose my job or my house or my car,'' said Ms. Niemasik, the teacher. She will leave her new daughter, Angel, in the care of a Cambodian family, unsure if she will ever see her again.
''And it will break my heart to leave her,'' she said, weeping.
There was no way to know whether Ms. Niemasik has a Cambodian counterpart, a mother who calls Angel by a different name, wondering where she is.