Big bribes key to US baby-buying

Date: 2000-08-18

Written by Stephen O'Connell, Bou Saroeun and Lon Nara

AMERICAN agencies facilitating adoptions from Cambodia must pay thousands of dollars to Government officials to expedite the approval of their clients' paperwork.

A source with intimate knowledge over several years of the foreign adoption business told the Post money is passed to Government officials by employees of the American agencies responsible for moving the paperwork through the system.

The three biggest recipients of bribe money are officials in the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Council of Ministers.

The source said the amounts of money paid to officials depend on whether the Government perceives a problem with the adoptive parents' application. On average a minimum of $3,000 is pocketed by officials who must sign approval documents, but several thousand dollars more might be demanded if officials are concerned about the applicants' suitability to adopt.

He said the American facilitators operating in Cambodia are fully aware of the need to pay bribes. When clients of the American agencies agree to accept a child available for adoption they must immediately wire $5,500 to Cambodia. It is this money that the facilitators hand to their employees to speed the bureaucratic process (See Phnom Penh Post May 26).

The source said Cambodian adoption centers - including the Woman and Orphan Vocational Association (WOVA) used as a source of babies by a number of American agencies - have a network of village, commune, and district chiefs spread across Cambodia who encourage poor mothers to hand their babies to the centers. These chiefs are paid between $10 to $15 each to sign papers stating the babies were abandoned.

According to the US Embassy, 240 visas were issued for adopted Cambodian babies to go to the United States in 1999.

He said brokers buying babies for the adoption centers are also active throughout Cambodia, but they are not the major source of children.

On August 10 the human rights organization Licadho helped a poor mother retrieve her baby from WOVA near Phnom Penh's Chom Chao District.

On July 19 Eng Ny, 24, handed her five-month-old son Pich Thea to a baby broker, Hem Dany (who also goes by the names Hem Sokdavy and Mom), in exchange for $40 and the promise that the parents who adopted her son would send money back to help her and a nephew she is raising. Dany told Ny she would send the baby to WOVA.

Ny comes from Prey Veng Province. She was widowed after her husband died from sickness and exhaustion when she was six months pregnant with Thea.

She stayed in Phnom Penh after her husband's death, sleeping in Wat Ounalom and begging to feed her children. When she stopped producing breast milk she found it difficult to feed Thea.

Ny then met Chan Vanna, 38, the biological mother of a three-year-old infant girl, Rath Srey Pao, who was adopted through WOVA by an American family in May 1998.

It was Vanna who introduced Ny to the baby broker, Dany. On the day she gave her baby to Dany, Ny, an illiterate, was directed by Dany to thumbprint a contract and told she would not be allowed to see her son again.

But a few days after handing her baby to WOVA, Ny had a change of heart and wanted her son back.

She went to Licadho to get help in retrieving Thea from WOVA.

When Ny first visited WOVA on August 7 - accompanied by a Licadho investigator - WOVA's Manager, Tith Von, refused to allow her to enter, saying the center had not accepted new babies since the June 15 suspension of adoptions.

On August 10 Ny and Dany were escorted back to WOVA by police. Von then allowed Ny to reclaim her baby from the crowd of infants.

Vanna told the Post she was paid a $10 commission for introducing Ny to the baby-broker, Dany.

Vanna said when she handed her daughter, Rath Srey Pao, to WOVA in 1998 she was given 100,000 riel ($26) and told the Americans who adopted her daughter would provide some financial support for the rest of her life.

Pao was adopted within a week after she arrived at WOVA, but Van-na never received more money.

Vanna showed the Post photos taken at WOVA of the American couple holding Pao on the day they arrived to claim their adoptive daughter from the center.

Since parting with Pao, Vanna has made a meager living telling fortunes and living at Phnom Penh's railway station.

Russei Keo's District Inspector, Tin Prosar, said the police brought the suspected baby trafficker, Hem Dany, to WOVA in response to a complaint filed by Licadho on behalf of Ny.

Dany had been detained at the Tonle Bassac police station on August 23, 1999, on suspicion of child trafficking, but was freed after only a few hours when Government officials intervened.

Prosar said when police arrived at WOVA, accompanied by Ny and Dany, they found the baby had not yet been "sold to the foreigners"

He said because the baby was still at the orphanage there was no evidence of baby trafficking and no grounds to press charges.

Prosar said the $40 paid for the baby was a gift to help the mother. "We cannot arrest someone because they felt sorry and paid money to the poor," he said.

The Prosecutor, Ouk Savuth, said he will not investigate the allegations of baby trafficking unless the police file a case with his office.

Chhim Naly, Director of WOVA (and Tith Von's daughter), strongly denied allegations that WOVA was involved in baby buying. She said any money given to the mothers was simply a donation to help the poor women.

The Ministry of Social Affairs (MoSA) refused all requests by the Post for an interview. But in a written response to questions, Secretary of State Nim Thoth said MoSA could not say when the suspension of adoptions would be lifted.

In his letter Thoth did not answer questions from the Post about the nature of the reforms to be included in the subdecree on foreign adoptions.

But a source in MoSA told the Post he expects only minor changes to the adoption law.

One of the most significant changes under consideration is the elimination of foreign adoption agency involvement in the paperwork process.

The source said there are officially no fees charged by the Government for adoption and he did not understand why American agencies charged their clients up to $5,500 for Cambodian paperwork fees - though he did acknowledge it could go towards bribes to expedite approval.

The source said he didn't understand why Americans families always used agencies while French families handled the paperwork themselves and spent far less money to adopt from Cambodia.

He said it is likely that Americans wanting to adopt will have to apply to MoSA themselves once the new subdecree is passed.

An American man who came to Cambodia last year to adopt a child from WOVA told the Post by email how distressed he was by the way the system works here.

"It wasn't until I was in Cambodia that I started to question the whole [adoption] process. I mean, before one is actually there, one is caught up in the fervor of accomplishing one's goal," he wrote.

"There is also this blinding presumption that the whole concept of adoption is nothing but a good and noble pursuit accomplishing nothing but good and righteous results at both ends of the spectrum.

"It's hard for me to describe the sick feeling I had from the very core of my being when I realized that I was just one of thousands being herded into the [hotel] for the same purpose. To get a baby, to go through the paperwork, to give up the money, and to get out while you can.

"And that the process was going on before I got there and continued after I left - this revolving door through which faceless, overfed Americans with cash bulging from every pocket continuously entered and continuously left with their sick and crying little Cambodian babies.

"I'm sure that the corruption exists and that the desperate poverty of an unbelievably ravaged people is being exploited. Perhaps I'm only attempting to justify my own participation in this somewhat revolting process, but we all need to survive somehow.

"We have our Cambodian baby now. He is loved unreservedly and heir to our fortune and misfortune. His biological mother has her hundred bucks or whatever the deal was she made and we all have to live as best we can the rest of our lives."

A spokesperson for Licadho said, "We are coming to the realization that whatever end of the spectrum you are looking at, no one is doing anything [about] this."


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