Where Do Babies Come From?

Date: 2002-06-16

By Sara Corbett
Outside Phnom Penh, along a road running west to Cambodia's more rural provinces, sits an orphanage. It was built on a defunct rice paddy and caters exclusively to Americans wishing to adopt children. To get there, would-be parents travel from the city in air-conditioned cars with hired Cambodian drivers, passing windowless garment factories and the shanty settlements that have grown up to house thousands of workers. They pass legless land-mine victims begging money and old women wheeling carts of coconuts in the stultifying sun.

Finally, they turn down a narrow washboard lane, which runs through a village and past a small Buddhist wat, or temple. Occasionally, the rice farmers look up from their work to watch the cars as they rise like apparitions from the dust -- white faces peering expectantly from the back seats -- and then disappear again, headed toward the orphanage. The moment is one of mutual disorientation.

Until recently, the cars seemed always to come -- sometimes once a week but increasingly more like once a day, as greater numbers of Americans arrived from half a world away, their bags stuffed with Baby Gap clothing and Whoozit toys, their hearts piloted by no more than a passport photo of a Cambodian child sent months earlier. If the United States is seen as the world's great exporter -- of culture, of goods, of ideology -- then this must count as an unlikely pilgrim's route.

At the end of the road, there are roughly 150 children housed at a place called the Asian Orphan Association, a collection of aluminum-roofed buildings sparsely shaded by coconut palms. They eat mainly rice porridge and sleep on straw mats spread across the floor, tended by nannies fanning themselves languidly in the humid air. Mosquitoes float in clouds. The infants fill two rooms the size of a convention hall, sprawled in bamboo baby baskets that hang from the ceiling, floating like human pendants above a gleaming tile floor. Nearby, a group of 5- and 6-year-olds dressed in Green Bay Packers jerseys and cotton jumpers sit raptly before a Khmer soap opera playing on a small television set.

But whereas the children were once leaving, whereas adoptive parents used to show up for the sweet awkwardness of having a baby placed in their arms for the first time, the adoptions have now stopped. This orphanage, along with 15 others that work with American adoption agencies, has become the focus of a U.S. investigation of adoption practices in Cambodia, one that questions whether adoption has morphed from an altruistic pursuit into a highly lucrative industry. If the U.S. government worries that these children have become commodities in a twisted free market, adoptive parents tend to view them as needy orphans robbed of the opportunity for a better life.

Harder, perhaps, to know are the hearts of the Cambodian people. Decades of political upheaval -- including the dictator Pol Pot's genocide of three million Cambodians in the mid-70's -- have left the country crippled by epidemic levels of AIDS and tuberculosis and mired in poverty that is virtually unimaginable to an American mind. Meanwhile, fertility rates are among the highest in Southeast Asia. There are Cambodians who will crowd a baby stroller pushed by American parents and stroke the cheek of the adopted child inside, lending tacit approval. ''Lucky baby,'' they will say in Khmer. ''Lucky baby.'' There are others who pointedly avert their gaze.

In the village near the orphanage, the faces of the rice farmers betray nothing, glancing up as they do when another car heads back down the dusty road toward Phnom Penh. For a Cambodian living on less than a dollar a day, there is no conjuring an orphan's journey from straw mat and daily porridge to a lovingly painted nursery and organic squash dished up in suburban Boston. And for the Americans sitting in the back seat, holding a child who has arrived in their laps with virtually no history, no hint of parentage nor of what fate or ill circumstance may have brought him or her to this unlikely moment, for these new parents the child is its own mystery.

Visiting Cambodia earlier this spring, I met a newly adopted baby named Rachel Chronister. She was an ethereal-looking 8-month-old with charcoal eyes and wisps of dark hair and was, at the time, living in a high-rise apartment in Phnom Penh with her adoptive American parents, Christina and Ben Chronister, and their two biological children, ages 5 and 6. The Chronisters started the adoption process last summer, were matched with Rachel in October and were told by their adoption agency that she would be living with them in their Seattle-area home by Christmastime.

But in the fall, consular officers at the U.S. Embassy began flagging what they considered to be fraudulent documents coming from several orphanages, including the Asian Orphan Association, where Rachel was living. Consequently, the issuing of visas to U.S.-bound orphans ground nearly to a halt. On Dec. 21, James Ziglar, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, formally suspended new visa processing for adopted children in Cambodia, citing suspicions that they were being bought or stolen from their parents and put into orphanages with false paperwork in order to feed the growing American demand for babies. ''Documents didn't match up; signatures were forged,'' says Bill Strassberger, an I.N.S. spokesman. ''The paperwork would say babies had been abandoned in a certain village, and then an investigation would show that no baby had been abandoned in that place for years.''

This marks the first time the U.S. government has stopped processing orphan visas in a foreign country, apparently because it seemed unlikely the Cambodian government would take action. While Cambodia, which began allowing foreign adoption in 1989, is now cooperating with the investigation, the country previously had done little to combat child trafficking.

When the United States announced its moratorium, Christina and Ben Chronister were one of an estimated 400 families caught with adoptions in midprocess. And as the U.S. government pledged to conduct a ''special humanitarian initiative,'' sending a task force consisting of American and Cambodian officials to each orphanage in order to review pending cases individually, the Chronisters and a handful of other eager parents had flown to Phnom Penh to wait. The Cambodian government had already sent them an official ''adoption decree,'' which allowed them legally to pick up their children, but without I.N.S. approval they could not bring them home. When I first encountered the Chronisters in March, they had been in Cambodia for several weeks and were growing increasingly impatient for news that Rachel's case had been cleared. ''All we want,'' Christina said dolefully, sitting by the apartment building's small pool one afternoon, ''is to bring our family home.''

For Christina, who had grown up with two adopted Asian-American sisters, Rachel's adoption felt like a natural way to complete the family. She and Ben originally sought to adopt a child from China, but learning that it would take more than a year, they turned instead to Cambodia. Over the last several years, Cambodia's popularity with Americans looking to adopt has skyrocketed. According to the U.S. State Department, applications leapt from 249 in 1998 to about 100 a month in the summer of 2001. The growth mirrors a larger boom in international adoptions, and the increase in Cambodia most likely has to do with the fact that parents adopting there normally have a child in their arms within three to six months of completing their agency paperwork -- a boon compared with the 12 or more months parents spend waiting for most foreign and stateside adoptions to be completed.

Kent M. Wiedemann, who until last month was the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, says that the growing interest in Cambodian adoptions has resulted in new orphanages built expressly to keep the parade of Americans happy and that, more worryingly, these orphanages are filled with children who seem custom-ordered to suit American tastes. In the words of one aid worker, it is the ''cute and cuddlies'' who drive the adoption business, meaning the children who are healthy, young and preferably female. While there are no statistics on the age and sex of children sent to the United States, agency workers say that parents request girls over boys by a margin of four to one and that the demand for infants is great.

Our adoptive preferences have not been lost on aspiring capitalists. Two years ago, when an American nonprofit group, the Sharing Foundation, opened a state-of-the-art orphanage called Roteang not far from Phnom Penh, the entrepreneurs emerged from the woodwork. ''Cambodians would come to the gate and say, 'Baby girl . . . $200,''' says Nancy Hendrie, a pediatrician from Boston and the foundation's director. She is quick to add that once orphanage employees turned down these initial offers, the baby sellers stopped coming. ''But someone, obviously, had given them the impression that Americans pay for babies,'' she says.

Americans do indeed pay to adopt babies, but the money train is expected to stop short of rewarding birth parents or anyone who might profit from delivering a baby to an orphanage. Instead, adoptive parents pay agencies anywhere from $13,000 to $20,000. The agencies then contract with people known as ''adoption facilitators,'' who work on the ground in Cambodia handling everything from finding children to pushing adoption paperwork through the requisite government ministries, passing out a commonly acknowledged bundle of bribes along the way. According to agency directors, a facilitator's fee can account for up to $9,000 of an adoption's total expense -- money that is wired directly into a facilitator's private bank account or delivered in cash by adopting parents upon their arrival in Cambodia. How this money is used is indeterminate: some portion covers orphanage overhead, some offsets the facilitator's expenses and much of it, I.N.S. investigators say, is raw profit.

According to one of Cambodia's largest human rights organizations, the League for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights (Licadho), the moneymaking potential in foreign adoptions is so great that it has inspired a network of unofficial ''recruiters'' who scour neighborhoods in search of young children, often plying birth mothers with lies or false promises in addition to cash in order to get them to turn over their children. Licadho alleges that the recruiters are paid off by facilitators or orphanage directors, who then bribe low-level government officials to create phony paperwork that can be submitted for adoption processing. Along the way, a child is, in effect, laundered -- moved into an orphanage with no true record of his or her birthplace or parents, rendering the child untraceable. ''If a birth mother goes looking for her child,'' says Naly Pilorge, the deputy director of Licadho, ''he or she is practically impossible to find.''

Christina Chronister has heard Licadho's claims and says she believes they are exaggerated. She is quick to defend the Asian Orphan Association and its director, an affable Cambodian man named Serey Puth, who facilitated Rachel's adoption and whose orphanage work, says Chronister, is motivated by love for children. One muggy morning this spring, she and I went to visit Puth, 43, who speaks fluent English and in addition to overseeing the orphanage operates a successful import operation in Phnom Penh. Puth is one of seven adoption facilitators working in Cambodia -- three of them are American women; the rest are Cambodian men -- and by most accounts, they are a highly competitive lot. While some, like Puth, maintain their own orphanages, others contract with state-run or private facilities to place children with adoptive parents.

As facilitators go, Puth was in the enviable position of having a host of especially adoptable children at his disposal. According to a chart in the office, girls outnumbered boys 95 to 62, and the majority of the orphanage's children were under a year old. Twenty-eight of the 157 children already had adoptive parents waiting for them in the States. Christina Chronister had come primarily to take photos of these children, which she planned to e-mail back to a group of waiting parents she met through online groups concerned with Cambodian adoption. It was hard not to be moved by the sight of her, a hazel-eyed, ponytailed woman of 30, making her way through the orphanage's cavernous rooms, snapping photographs. ''Your mommy loves you,'' she would say, bending to touch a baby's shoulder. Sometimes, she would wrap her arms around a child and squeeze tightly, as if to administer a transcontinental dose of love.

A few of the orphanage's children had obvious disabilities -- there was a 1-year-old girl with a head tumor; a boy with a cleft palate -- but their overall health bore stark contrast to the images I would take away from my visit a few days later to the Nutrition Center, a large orphanage in central Phnom Penh. There, I would see babies with bodies whittled so thin by AIDS that they hardly resembled babies, as well as entire rooms filled with 7- and 8-year-old children whose palsied limbs and vacant expressions bespoke a bleak future. Touring Puth's orphanage was a decidedly less provocative experience, one more tailored to the feel-good part of adoption in which we might congratulate ourselves for giving a child a better life without the burden of feeling guilty about more needy children being left behind.

Licadho claims that in order to maintain the appearance of propriety, some orphanages will keep a respectable number of older and disabled children while maintaining what Nancy Hendrie calls a ''side stash'' of infants elsewhere -- including in houses that also operate as storefronts for purchasing children. Last September, under pressure from Licadho, the police in Phnom Penh raided two such houses after being tipped off by a Cambodian woman who claimed she had sold her two children. Police officers discovered 10 babies and two older children there and took four adults into custody under suspicion of child trafficking. Two of the children were promptly hospitalized.

The following day, Serey Puth produced documents stating that the 12 children were registered at his orphanage and that he had been paying for their care. While human rights workers say they believe the houses were merely way stations for children who had been bought from birth parents and would soon be placed for adoption through orphanages, Puth insists the opposite. He had brought the children from the orphanage to one of the houses, he says, believing it to be a medical clinic. (He did admit to me, however, that he wasn't sure whether the woman running the clinic was in fact a doctor.) Early this year, charges against the four people connected to the houses were dropped after several key witnesses suddenly -- and suspiciously, say embassy officials -- recanted their testimony. Puth himself was not charged. He denies any wrongdoing. ''I have never paid for a child,'' he says.

When I went looking for the house Puth had called a clinic, I found it padlocked and shuttered. It was located on a garbage-strewn dirt avenue in one of the city's poorer corners, a section of the Tuol Kok district known as Construction Area 12. Inside the house next door, a round-faced woman sat on a hammock, nursing her year-old son. Speaking through a translator, she said that the supposed clinic had operated for about a year leading up to the raid, run by a Cambodian woman and a nanny, and had been filled with small children. She seemed genuinely concerned. And her characterization was consistent with police reports regarding the raid. ''Mothers brought them here to sell,'' she said. ''They were very poor. A boy was $150; a girl was $180.'' (In Cambodia, the dollar is the currency of choice in any big-ticket transaction.) Periodically, a man came and took the children away, to a place she called a ''child center.'' She declined to give her name, saying she feared for her safety. ''This is a very bad business,'' the woman said finally. ''They lie to people, and tell them if they give their children away, they will get money from abroad.''

The act of adoption is, at its best, one motivated by equal parts compassion and need. Historically, Americans have adopted children left parentless by war: 8,000 Japanese and European orphans were adopted in the late 1940's; thousands more came from Korea a decade later. Since then, adoption agencies have launched programs everywhere from Azerbaijan to Sierra Leone. According to State Department figures, the number of international adoptions in the last decade has doubled, with a record 19,237 children granted orphan visas last year.

Domestic adoptions still outnumber international ones, but that margin appears to be quickly closing. Like Cambodia, the United States has no shortage of adoptable children: it is just that most of them are over the age of 5 and living in foster care. There is also the little-discussed issue of race: white infants make up the minority of available children but also are the most requested. In addition, the growing movement toward ''open adoption'' in this country allows for varying degrees of information and contact between birth parents and adoptive parents. This, coupled with the specter of several high-profile court cases in which biological parents have successfully reclaimed their children after years of separation, can intimidate potential adopters. ''I was terrified of hooking up with a birth mother who would change her mind, even if there was only a small chance of it happening,'' says an Oregon mother, describing her decision to adopt from Cambodia instead of domestically.

In this respect, international adoption appears to be more straightforward and decidedly more anonymous, though the situation in Cambodia and other countries suggests that adoption, in any setting, is irrefutably complicated. ''People go overseas to adopt because there's no legal risk regarding birth parents,'' says Samuel C. Totaro, a Pennsylvania attorney specializing in adoption. ''Those parents' legal rights have been all but terminated.''

Every year, thousands of international adoptions are conducted legitimately, though the possibilities for exploitation always exist. As prospective parents spell out their wishes and adoption agencies work to meet them, the quest to find the youngest children and the quickest turnaround often leads to less-developed countries, where regulations surrounding adoption tend to be loose and the amount of money involved can be dazzlingly influential. A team of U.S. government researchers reported last year that ''almost every discussion we had of adoption in Romania involved the use of commercial terms, terms such as 'auction' and 'market' and 'price.''' (The Romanian government has since suspended adoptions.) Similar problems exist in Guatemala, and in the last few years, child-smuggling rings geared toward adoption have been broken up everywhere from Vietnam to Cyprus to Mexico.

Mary Lib Mooney, director of the National Association of Ethical Adoption Professionals, blames the large number of U.S. agencies using freelance facilitators, who operate on commission, rather than salaried staff members to locate adoptable children in foreign countries for the cycle of corruption. ''They go to these countries, and they hire any Tom, Dick or Harry,'' she says. ''Whether it's the trash man or a schoolteacher, they hire whoever can get the most babies for them. It's money, money, money.''

The agencies I spoke with claimed to do their best to check out the facilitators' backgrounds, but they admitted that hard information can be difficult to come by. Wide Horizons for Children, an agency that makes 500 adoption placements a year, has used Serey Puth as its facilitator for about a year, paying him $6,900 for each child placed. And while the agency divorced itself from another facilitator working in the Republic of Georgia because of questionable ethics, it remains supportive of Puth. ''I'm not a detective,'' says Vicki Peterson, executive director of Wide Horizons. ''Until I see some real evidence that he's involved in a way that's inappropriate, I'm not in a position to feel that we shouldn't be working with him.'' Anne Polasko, who runs the Asia program for a Maryland agency called Adoptions Together, traveled to Cambodia in December to establish a program there, but she ''didn't have a good feeling'' about the facilitator she had planned to hire. ''It really is hard to know who you're dealing with over there,'' Polasko says.

In Cambodia, there is no centralized registry for births and deaths. Record-keeping is done at the village level, if at all, and children do not generally receive birth certificates unless they are being considered for adoption. Because of a complex set of statutes in U.S. immigration law, children who are abandoned -- as opposed to delivered to an orphanage by their parents -- tend to have an easier time meeting requirements for an orphan visa. By the time an application reaches the U.S. Embassy for processing, a child's birth history more often than not has been entirely erased.

According to her documents, the Chronisters' little girl, Rachel, had spent the first part of her life named Suorsdey Rath. (Suorsdey loosely translates to ''hello.'' Rath, the Khmer word for ''ward of the state,'' appears in many adopted children's names.) She arrived at the orphanage when she was about 5 days old. On the morning Christina and I visited, Serey Puth pulled Rachel's dossier from the drawer of a shiny file cabinet where he keeps the orphans' records. It was, as most orphanage files are, only a few pages long, containing a brief medical history and a single sheet written in Khmer, saying that she was born on June 26, 2001, and had been abandoned on July 1 in a village called Cheng Meng. There was a request for the orphanage ''to kindly accept'' the baby, signed by the village chief and notarized. Upon her arrival at the orphanage, Rath had been issued a birth certificate. With no information to work with, Puth says that he guessed at the infant's birth date. In the spaces provided for the names of her birth mother and father, he had written in ''Unknown.'' After a mandatory 90-day waiting period, he alerted an adoption agency that she had become available. Twelve days after that, Suorsdey Rath was offered to the Chronisters.

For Christina, our meeting with Puth was a chance to fill in some of the informational holes in her daughter's documents. ''Who named her?'' she asked.

''The village chief,'' Puth said.

''Where is this village?''

''Oh, maybe two kilometers from here.''

When I asked for directions to the village, Puth insisted on coming along. Soon, we were sitting in the two-room concrete home belonging to the chief of the rice-farming village. He was a heavy-lidded, Buddha-bellied man named Phon Phorn, who greeted us stoically after we woke him from a midday nap. Any time a pedestrian or motorbike passed down the single-lane dirt track that served as the village's thoroughfare, Phorn leaned forward in his chair like a watchful troll. As chief of Cheng Meng, a community of 182 families, he served primarily as arbiter in local land disputes. Speaking through a translator and with Serey Puth listening carefully from a nearby seat, Phorn told us that he had been finding two or three abandoned babies a month, sometimes more. He shook his head sadly. ''There are a lot of country people working in the garment factories,'' he said. ''Unmarried women get pregnant, and they are afraid to go home to their villages. Maybe they know this is a safe place to leave the children.''

If birth parents knew Phorn's village as a friendly place to abandon infants, then word curiously seemed to have spread, following the U.S. adoption suspension, that the Asian Orphan Association was no longer accepting children. Cheng Meng's last orphan, Phorn said, was abandoned early last July. All things being accurate, that orphan would have been Suorsdey Rath, the Chronisters' daughter. The news caused Christina to sit up in her seat, realizing that Phorn remembered the girl, that this unexpressive village chief offered a gossamer line into the clouds of her daughter's past.

''Why did you name her Suorsdey?'' she asked.

The chief allowed himself a smile. ''It's a happy name,'' he said.

''Where did you find her?''

He would show us.

And so it was that we ended up on a dusty corner of red earth where Cheng Meng's two roads bisect and where the village office, a pitch-roofed building with a community water pump, sits behind barbed wire. Phorn gestured to a patch of ground littered with palm husks next to a wooden fence post, a few feet from the intersection. ''Here,'' he said. ''This is where they leave the babies.'' He added that the infants are usually left early in the morning and that he hears their cries from his office, about 30 yards away. When I asked if he has caught a glimpse of a person or a car, or if a parent ever simply brings the child to his door, his answer was unequivocal: ''Never.''

It seemed possible that Phorn had been coached on this answer. Serey Puth also claims that in three years of running one of the area's largest orphanages, he has never met an infant's birth parent. Given that the U.S. investigation is centered on possible monetary transactions between birth parents and adoption facilitators or their associates, the safest answer may be to deny any interaction with birth parents whatsoever. Licadho suspects that a good number of the orphanage's children never passed through Cheng Meng at all, but rather came from other sources. A village chief, the group suggests, might be paid to provide paperwork stating that he discovered an infant abandoned in his village. (I.N.S. investigators claim, for example, that Phon Phorn's wife told them there hadn't been an infant found there for years.)

Nancy Hendrie, the American doctor who oversees the Roteang orphanage, says that desperate birth parents are seldom anonymous, that fathers or relatives routinely deliver children directly to her orphanage or give them to its staff nannies when they are visiting their home villages. The Roteang orphanage, she claims, has records on the birth parents of all but one of its 77 children, though it submits the requisite ''abandonment'' documents to the U.S. and Cambodian governments in order to get adoptions approved. While she regrets the duplicity, Hendrie scoffs at Puth's assertion that the majority of his orphanage's children are found in Cheng Meng and another neighboring village. ''Cambodian people are not heartless,'' she says. ''They don't leave newborn children lying by the side of the road.''

At the fence post, Christina Chronister spent a long moment staring at the desolate corner as the sun beat down on the dry rice fields around her. She took a few pictures of the spot for Rachel's scrapbook, then put the camera away and squinted again at the ground. Had her daughter been left here last July, the height of the rainy season, approximately 5 days old and, as Phorn recalled, wrapped in a piece of cloth? It seemed impossibly possible. Who knew what the circumstances were? What American could even begin to imagine?

I asked Christina what she would tell Rachel someday about the invisible birth parents and the village fence post. She said: ''I'll tell her everything I know. I'll tell her it was a quiet corner close to a good orphanage. Somebody cared enough to bring her here.'' She looked around one last time before beginning to walk away. ''I see it as an act of love.''

Not long after my visit to the fence post, I spent some time with a 3-year-old girl named Narak Den, a moon-faced child with silky cropped hair and attentive brown eyes. She was born in 1999 and lived with her mother and younger brother in a densely populated settlement west of Phnom Penh until she was 2 -- at which point her mother, who was hungry, pregnant again and having trouble affording rent, decided to sell her. Den's mother had heard about a place, a medical clinic of sorts in the Toul Kok district of Phnom Penh, where you could take a child, and so that's what she did. She was given $50 and promised another $100 in a week.

I was told this story by the child's 51-year-old aunt, Narin Keo, one humid evening this spring as we sat cross-legged in her two-room, tin-roofed shack on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. The day's last light was fading, and so we talked in the gathering darkness, surrounded by Keo's own three children and her elderly mother. On the floor, several emaciated kittens pranced playfully in and out of a small basket. The 3-year-old, Den, sat quietly by her aunt's feet, dressed in purple shorts and a shirt with puppy dogs.

''When she told me she sold her baby,'' Keo said through a translator, ''I could not do anything but cry.'' She added that she persuaded her younger sister to reveal the child's whereabouts by threatening her with a stick. And when she implored her sister to return the money in exchange for Den, who had been gone two days at that point, her sister confessed that she had already spent half of it. Keo, who is divorced and unemployed, then borrowed 100,000 Cambodian riel (about $50) from a neighbor, agreeing to pay 25 percent interest monthly.

It was Keo's 22-year-old daughter, a garment worker named Marida Kong, who followed the mother's directions to an unmarked clinic in Construction Area 12 -- a place she would later recognize in the newspapers as the site of the September police raid -- and asked for the child back. She brought a police officer with her for good measure and was nonetheless met with reluctance by the man and woman who appeared to be running the clinic. ''They told me that this baby was bought for adoption for foreigners,'' Kong said that night. ''They showed me a file written in English.'' When Kong persisted, the couple finally relented. Kong says that she paid $50, and Den was returned to her, wearing a yellow paper bracelet that indicated she was scheduled to be moved from the clinic the next day.

Den now lives with her aunt, grandmother and cousins, the six of them supported by Kong's garment-factory wages of between $40 and $70 a month, depending on how much work is available. The family struggles with the never-diminishing high-interest loan it took to remove Den from the Toul Kok clinic. Last year, Den's mother moved to the countryside, but not before she sold Den's brother, a year-old boy, to the same clinic. Keo explained this apologetically, saying they had no money to go looking for him. ''I tried to stop her,'' she said. ''We don't know where that baby boy has gone.''

According to Keo, her sister was told that when her son was adopted, his new parents would send money from abroad. Since then, the mother has heard no news.

I had a number of conversations with families like Keo's who said they had sold, or been approached to sell, their children. One woman, Bopha Meas, claimed that several years ago an American facilitator named Lauryn Galindo offered to place her three children in an orphanage. She suggested that Meas could not possibly care for them on her own and showed her a picture of a well-fed American couple holding a Cambodian baby -- proof, it would seem, of some better alternative. According to Meas, Galindo said she would give her $700, an offer Meas declined. Galindo, who has facilitated more than 400 Cambodian adoptions, acknowledged meeting with Meas but denied offering to buy the children. ''There's absolutely no truth to that allegation,'' she said.

Another woman wept on the phone from her home in a rural province, begging me -- through a translator -- to find her 5-year-old son, Rasme Hang, who she had relinquished in exchange for $100 when he was 8 months old, having been told that he would go to the United States and that the adoptive parents would send photos. ''I want to know he's O.K.,'' she said.

Finally, there was Chanthea Chea, a 31-year-old sturdily built woman whose hair hung in a ponytail down her back. Her husband divorced her last year when she was six months pregnant. Three days after her baby son was born in June, she was approached by a neighbor. ''He said, 'Ah sister, if you have problems feeding your child because he has no father, I think you should send him to an orphanage where they raise children,''' she recalled. Chea, who was exhausted and hungry after birth and could not continue her job farming mushrooms, said that she would think about it. The following day, the man resurfaced with two women who claimed to represent an aid organization helping women and children.

Chea allowed her neighbor and the two women to take her infant son for a medical exam with the promise that they would return with him in an hour or two. But the boy never came back. Instead, Chea said that her neighbor took her to a house in Construction Area 12, near the clinic that was later raided. The two supposed aid workers pushed her to sign papers, relinquishing her son. ''I asked them where my child was, and they said they already sent him to the orphanage,'' Chea said. After sitting at a table for two hours, feeling hopeless, Chea agreed to turn over her son to an unnamed orphanage with the understanding that she could visit him there once a week. There was no talk, she said, of adoption. The women gave her an $80 ''donation'' and told her she would receive an additional $30 a month as she recovered from the birth.

That night, Chea had a change of heart. ''I went back to my house,'' she told me. ''I could not sleep. I was weeping. In the morning, I brought the money back, but they said in order to get my child back I must pay $160. That night I lit a joss stick and candle and prayed for my child to come back to me.'' Chea said that she returned to the clinic several times over the next month, asking to see her son, but each time was turned away. At one point, Chea said she was given a passport-size photo of her son to assure her of his well-being.

When news of the police raid broke in early September, Chea sought the help of Licadho, the human rights group. The boy turned up in the custody of an organization run by an adoption facilitator named Sea Visoth, who, like Puth, works with American agencies. (Visoth could not be reached for comment.) Chea took the case to court, and after she accurately described her son's birthmarks to a judge in November, the boy was returned to her. ''I was separated from my child for almost four months,'' she told me. ''When I met him again, I almost couldn't breathe.'' Meanwhile, three people -- Chea's neighbor and the two women who paid her for the child, one of whom, according to court officials, is Sea Visoth's wife -- have been charged with human trafficking but have yet to be prosecuted. Sea Visoth was not charged.

Not long after Chea's court date, the U.S. Embassy produced an identical copy of the boy's passport photo, which had been included in an adoption application. The paperwork -- signed by the director of a state-run orphanage in a rural province far from where Chea had relinquished her son -- claimed the boy's name was Borin Rath and that he had been ''abandoned and picked up by a kind person'' before being dropped off at the orphanage on June 15. According to the embassy, Borin Rath had been matched with a couple in Maryland and his adoption was in the ''final stages'' of processing. Chea said she has since given the boy a name of her own -- Sak Kada -- meaning ''strong spirit and good luck.'' Embassy officials say the family in Maryland has been matched with another child.

Adoptive American parents like to call attention to the paradoxes of their situation, especially in the increasingly complex skein of reproductive politics. ''The government's holding up my adoption because maybe somebody gave the birth mother $25?'' asked Janice Corkery, an Atlanta woman who was in Phnom Penh adopting Cambodian twins. ''I did in-vitro and paid someone for her eggs! Isn't that baby-buying?'' Others make the point that privately arranged adoptions in the United States often require adoptive parents to pay a birth mother's medical and living expenses -- up to tens of thousands of dollars -- during and after pregnancy. In a country like Cambodia, where thousands of children die of malnutrition or disease each year and even more children fuel a booming sex trade, there are those who question the harm in giving a birth parent some money so that she can properly look after the rest of her family.

Yet the experience of someone like Chanthea Chea, whose poverty and relative powerlessness appear to have been aptly exploited, seems to offer a cautionary tale about what happens when first-world money flows into third-world adoption. Narin Keo, the aunt who went into debt to buy back her sister's child, says her sister was unduly influenced by the offer of money. ''If no money was involved,'' she said, ''she wouldn't have given up her babies.'' As far as she was concerned, the promise of a better life in the United States should not eclipse love, even when staying in Cambodia means inevitable hardship. ''I understand they have food over there, but I would not feel calm if I could not see my niece,'' Keo said. Finally, she reiterated her disgust for what her sister had done -- and possibly for the impression it created about Cambodian women and their children. ''Being a mother is important,'' she said that night as I took leave of the small, unlighted shack she shared with her family. She gestured to the half-starved kittens, now curled in the shadows next to their mother. ''Even an animal,'' Keo said, ''takes care of its children.''

When is an orphan no longer an orphan? Christina Chronister says she feels that Suorsdey Rath became her daughter in October, when an adoption agency employee e-mailed the child's name and photo in what is commonly called a ''referral.'' From that day on, Chronister says, it became painful to imagine the girl sitting parentless in an orphanage.

While the Chronisters went to Phnom Penh, other waiting adoptive families have had little choice but to maintain their vigils at home, photos of Cambodian children stuck uselessly to the refrigerator. In the eyes of the U.S. government, however, an agency referral has virtually no meaning: a child is not formally adopted until both the Cambodian and U.S. governments have signed off on the process. This kind of appraisal infuriates prospective parents, who accuse the I.N.S. and the U.S. Embassy of viewing their situation heartlessly. In recent months, families waiting to adopt from Cambodia have engaged in a passionate letter-writing campaign to Congress. They have picketed the I.N.S. building in Washington, toting posters that bear the plaintive faces of orphanage children, emblazoned with slogans like ''The Only Family That Wants Me Is in the U.S.''

Few seem willing to consider the government's assertion that some of these children may have been bought or that birth parents could have been intentionally misled. At the very least, many insist that shady practices are sporadic rather than systemic and that a shutdown of adoption is unwarranted. Most remain convinced that their particular agencies, facilitators and orphanages are not suspect. Adoption agencies appear even less capable of self-examination. I talked to a number of agency representatives who extolled their own virtues while happily smearing their competitors with off-the-record tales of underhanded behavior, particularly on the part of rival agencies' facilitators. ''For my money, there's not an entirely reliable facilitator out there,'' Ambassador Kent Wiedemann says. ''We don't trust any of them.''

All this leaves adoptive parents in a particularly tough spot, often consumed by their wish for a child and left with spotty information not just about the people and process involved but also about the child they have chosen to adopt. Last spring, a woman named Dale Edmonds traveled to Phnom Penh to pick up two siblings -- an 18-month-old boy and a 6-year-old girl -- she was adopting using the services of an American facilitator named Harriet Brener-Sam. Once home, Edmonds, a native of New Zealand living in Singapore, learned enough Khmer to converse with her adopted daughter. Her daughter claimed to be 11 years old and not 6. She also said that she and her brother had been born with names different from those given to Edmonds and had been instructed not to discuss their history. More alarmingly, Edmonds says Brener-Sam told her that her children's birth mother had died in a rural province, when in fact her daughter insisted her birth mother was living in Phnom Penh. Edmonds returned with her children to Cambodia late in the fall and was able to locate their mother and another sister.

Edmonds will not discuss the birth mother's circumstances, saying it would violate her children's privacy, but she says the birth family was repeatedly denied access to the children during their eight-month stay in an orphanage. The birth mother did not object to the sibblings' move to Singapore, and Edmonds and her husband have now, at the mother's request, adopted her other daughter. What matters most, Edmonds says, is that her Cambodian-born children were stripped of their names and histories and essentially hidden from their birth family. ''I wanted to think our adoption was ethical,'' she says. ''It hurt bitterly to have those beliefs challenged.'' (Harriet Brener-Sam declined to comment on Edmonds's account.)

Other parents say they will wait for the I.N.S. to produce credible proof before accepting the U.S. government's allegations. ''The only way I would ever return Isaac is if his birth mother came forward and could prove he was hers,'' said Dawn Smith, an Indiana mother who spent three months in Phnom Penh before being cleared to take her son home in May. She pointed out that since the United States suspended adoptions, Cambodian birth parents have not exactly lined up to reclaim their children. ''Even if the government proves these children were trafficked,'' Smith said, ''they're still going to sit in orphanages.''

And life in a third-world orphanage can be demonstrably cruel. A Missouri couple who received an agency referral in September stood by from a distance of 12,000 miles as their 10-month-old adoptive daughter struggled with pneumonia. A boy destined for Ohio came down with malaria, and just before Christmas, an infant named Tia, who had been matched with a family in Florida since October, died at her Phnom Penh orphanage.

In the meantime, since the December shutdown, the I.N.S. has cleared 141 children for adoption. But it is proceeding with a criminal investigation that could involve charges against citizens of both Cambodia and the United States, though the agency will not discuss its progress. Strassberger, the I.N.S. spokesman, concedes that it is difficult to conclusively establish that a child has been trafficked, given the poor record-keeping and endemic corruption in Cambodia. ''We know that something is not right, but because we can't prove it in U.S. courts under the U.S. systems of justice, we have no choice but to approve [an application] and allow the child to come in as an orphan,'' he says.

As a result, the United States plans to continue its moratorium on new adoptions until the Cambodian government passes legislation intended to eliminate child trafficking. Until it does, hundreds of legitimately parentless children will collect in orphanages around Cambodia, growing older without a family.

This thought keeps Christina Chronister up at night, despite the fact that Rachel's adoption was cleared by I.N.S. in late April. The family flew home immediately and was greeted by a group of friends at the airport in Seattle. But Christina still spends hours corresponding with fellow adoptive parents, many of whom continue to hope for I.N.S. approval. The children at the orphanage at the end of the dusty road, she says, live quietly at the back of her mind. There is Piseth, a chubby 3-year-old who tumbled around the toddler area. There is Chan Thol, a little girl not much older than Rachel, whose adoptive family waits in Missouri, and Saran, a sad-eyed 7-year-old boy who once he turns 8 will no longer be eligible for adoption under Cambodian law. Rachel herself will celebrate her first birthday with a big party at the end of this month, a happy baby surrounded by her American family in a comfortable suburb, the mysteries of her past remaining just that.

Photos: After 3-year-old Narak Den was sold for adoption, her aunt went into debt to buy her back. The child's cousin, Marida Kong, in window, eventually retrieved her.; Dawn Smith spent three months in Phnom Penh before she could take her son home to Indiana.;
Serey Puth at his Asian Orphan Association. (Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos for The New York Times)


Pound Pup Legacy