Red Cross offers babies for adoption

Date: 2000-09-29

Written by Stephen O'Connell and Lon Nara

BLACK-market babies are readily available at the Cambodian Red Cross Health Center and other Phnom Penh hospitals, according to Khmer facilitators brokering adoptions for foreigners.

"To get a baby from orphanage centers is more costly than from the Red Cross Health Center or the Municipal Hospital," said a facilitator who refused to be named.

He said his clients prefer babies from the hospitals because it had become difficult to find HIV-free babies at state orphanages.

Though getting a baby from the hospitals is less expensive, it is not free.

"We had to give money to those who looked after the babies. Some people on the maternity staff gave away babies in exchange for a little money. Others wanted to sell babies to us, but we did not buy."

He said one client gave a new mother, who had just delivered at the Red Cross Health Center, a $350 "donation" for her baby.

The Cambodian Red Cross is headed by Bun Rany, wife of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Since 1997 the facilitator has been assisting foreigners with "independent" adoptions - a less expensive alternative to the American agencies which typically charge clients $11,500 to adopt from Cambodia

The facilitator said once a baby was found, the clients had to bribe Red Cross staff to obtain the infant's birth certificate.

"To take a baby from the hospital we had to get its birth certificate and pay about $200 to the Red Cross Health Center's maternity department Director."

The Director of the department, Chhun Heng, told the Post she knew little about foreigners wanting to adopt babies from the hospital, and she denied ever demanding fees for birth certificates.

"I have learned that sometimes mothers abandoned their babies at the entrance door of the hospital, but I am not sure of this information," she said.

After the interview with Heng, it took the Post only a few minutes to find a worker at the Red Cross brokering babies.

"We've just acquired an abandoned baby a couple days ago. The mother abandoned her baby here because she is very, very poor. Do you want a boy or girl," asked the worker.

"The baby is so dear. If you want, I can get her for you immediately. I gave the birth mother $100. It is up to you how much you give me in exchange for the baby.

"If you don't get the baby now, some one will get the baby tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow," she said.

After finding a baby, the facilitator's clients would pay more bribes to obtain false papers from Phnom Penh's Nutrition Center certifying the baby as an orphan.

"They had to spend a few hundred dollars to get the letter saying that the baby was coming from the Nutrition Center," he said.

The Director of the Nutrition Center, Mrs Sovanna, said she could not answer any questions unless she had approval from the Ministry of Social Affairs (MoSA).

"All I dare say is that the information you have heard is not true. I cannot say anything more than this."

The Post contacted another facilitator who assists in independent adoptions and he confirmed that bribe money must be paid to both the Cambodian Red Cross Health Center's maternity department Director and the Director of the Nutrition Center for the papers.

The Nutrition Center, funded by the French NGO Aspeca, was established in 1980 to care for abandoned babies or orphans. Sovanna has been the Director there for eight years. Of the 110 babies now at the center 41 are HIV-positive and 62 are disabled.

After the clients had a baby, a birth certificate and false orphan papers, they would then go to MoSA to get Government permission to adopt.

The facilitator said the Director of MoSA's Adoption Bureau, Chem Sun Heng, interviewed the parents and examined their documents and financial records.

"The parents had to pay $450 to the Adoption Bureau for the paperwork fee. I learned that to get a baby, the parents spent thousands of dollars more with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Council of Ministers," said the facilitator who helped his clients only as far as MoSA.

"I believe that it is corruption money. Whenever they run the paperwork, they want a commission from the parents," he said.

Sun Heng refused a Post request for an interview.

But a source at MoSA, who spoke to the Post on the condition of anonymity, said any money given to the Adoption Bureau is simply a "donation" and the parents are given receipts. These donation funds are used to buy office supplies for the ministry, as well as provide "gifts" of food and medicine to orphanages.

The MoSA source said the Government has no official adoption fees, nevertheless American adoption agencies contacted by the Post charge their clients $5,500 for "legal adoption fees" in Cambodia.

Neither the Government nor the agencies will say which ministries receive these fees.

On June 15 international adoptions from Cambodia were suspended by Prime Minister Hun Sen till reforms were made to the system.

The MoSA source said irregularities in Cambodia's adoption procedures are being addressed and the suspension is expected to be lifted soon. American agencies are telling their clients that adoptions from Cambodia will resume in a few weeks.

Directives have been sent to orphanages across Cambodia stating that brokers looking for children in the countryside, or who falsify documents saying that a baby was abandoned by the mother, shall be arrested on charges of child trafficking.

MoSA officials simply dismissed allegations presented by the Post that staff at the Red Cross Health Center and the Nutrition Center are involved in trafficking.

The source said if a new draft adoption subdecree is approved by the Council of Ministers, American agencies and facilitators will not be allowed to operate in Cambodia. Instead, adoptive parents will be forced to handle all the paperwork themselves.

The subdecree - drafted by staff from the Council of Ministers, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Interior Ministry and MoSA - will soon be debated by an interministerial meeting at the Council of Ministers.

The source said there will be a minimum, official "donation fee" that will have to be paid directly into a Government bank account by the adoptive parents - but they will be free to pay more.

This account will be available to the above-mentioned ministries so that they can cover their administrative costs.

He said the Government plans to set a two-week time limit for each ministry to examine the adoption applications, which will probably mean a two-month stay in Cambodia for adoptive parents.


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