Adoptions 'like selling goods' - Foreign Minister
Written by Bill Bainbridge and Lon Nara
The crisis in international adoptions from Cambodia is the latest in a history of controversy over a practice that sees adoption agencies, facilitators and officials all profit.
The Post recently obtained a letter from May 1999 in which Foreign Minister Hor Namhong asked Prime Minister Hun Sen to investigate bribery allegations against a prominent US adoption facilitator.
The letter, dated May 18 1999, requested an investigation be undertaken into the "swindling" of children and accused Hawaii-based facilitator Lauryn Galindo of paying $5,500 in bribes to the ministries of social affairs, foreign affairs and the Council of Ministers.
The letter states that Galindo paid $3,500 per adoption to either the Cham Chao orphanage - also known as the Women and Orphans Vocational Association (WOVA) - or a Kampong Speu orphanage and retained $2,500 "for her companies". The Post received no reply from Galindo to emailed questions about the matter.
"After the Royal Government of Cambodia approves proposals, the babies will be handed over to adoptive parents and it is like selling goods," the letter goes on to state.
The letter urged the government to improve adoption procedures and safeguard the well-being of orphans. It led to an exchange of correspondence, obtained by the Post, between Hor Namhong and the Ministry of Interior.
Among the follow-up letters was one dated August 10 1999. In that, co-Ministers of Interior Sar Kheng and You Hockry wrote to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Social Affairs (MoSALVY) to request the processing of adoptions on behalf of an "American family organization". The MoI's letter states that it was on the back of a written request by Senate President Chea Sim.
Hor Namhong's response dated August 18 cited "intercepted documents" as proof for the assertion that Galindo had "trafficked children to the United States". It further stated that she "has not been supported, even by the US Embassy".
The outcome of that case is still unclear, but almost three years on Galindo is still active in Cambodian adoptions. Last December she managed to process the adoptions of 16 children (15 of whom were from WOVA), despite the adoption moratorium, and is now rumored to be fast-tracking an adoption for a high profile Hollywood couple.
Galindo's networks and connections run right through the Cambodian adoption "business". Sometimes referred to on adoption websites as the "queen of Cambodian adoptions", Galindo has been arranging adoptions from Cambodia for more than a decade. She is currently an intermediary for the Nutrition Center, WOVA and Roteang, an orphanage begun by some of Galindo's associates. Human rights NGOs have linked the first two orphanages to numerous cases of child trafficking over the years.
Her associates have also been linked to other suspect orphanages. WOVA director Tith Von started the Asian Orphans' Association (AOA) with Soeung Man, a former driver for Galindo who was briefly detained on suspicion of trafficking in August 1999.
Man concedes that he gave a woman $40 before taking the child to WOVA but says the arrest was a mistake.
"I had already returned the child before the arrest," he said.
AOA president Puth Serey became involved in WOVA in early 1999 before splitting with Man.
WOVA's orphanage is adjacent to a facility run by Sea Visoth, another former Galindo driver. He claims not to know Galindo and told the Post he was not involved in facilitating adoptions. However Visoth is listed on websites as a facilitator for the state-run Kien Klaing orphanage in Phnom Penh, which is used by US adoption agent Harriet Brenner-Sam. A third ex-Galindo driver, named Sunny, also facilitates adoptions through state run orphanages.
Visoth told the Post he had never been to the orphanage, although when it was pointed out that the Cambodia Adopt website has a photograph of him standing outside the center, he recalled he had visited once to pass on donations from US families.
Nannies caring for the babies at the orphanage said that while the children at Kien Klaing were the responsibility of the state, infant orphans were cared for by an NGO which they could not identify. Children at the orphanage said around two couples a week visit the dilapidated orphanage at the old Carmelite convent on the bank of the Tonle Sap.
A recent entrant to the Cambodian adoption business, facilitator Cassandra Kierstead, had four families among those recently denied visas for babies adopted through a state run orphanage. Families adopting through the AOA orphanage were also denied visas.
The current crisis is the worst in years. And that is before taking into account persistent rumors that Vietnamese adoption facilitators have come here to avoid closer scrutiny at home.
Huge fees point to official fraud
An investigation by the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) last month into adoptions resulted in the rejection of US orphan visas for at least 12 children.
The rejections were based on evidence of fraudulently issued documents; the embassy cited widespread abuse within the adoption procedure.
Of 26 adoption agencies emailed to by the Post only Laura Godwin, director of the Carolina Hope Christian Adoption Agency, responded to inquiries regarding alleged corruption.
"We simply pay our facilitator a fee to conduct the adoptions and for his expenses associated with the adoptions. Of all the countries we have worked directly with, the fees paid to our facilitator are the lowest of any country," Godwin wrote.
Bill Herod of NGO Forum and Mia Bopha of Khmer Internet Development Services, recently came to understand the system of gratuities well. Several months ago friends asked them to help with a private adoption so the two investigated the adoptions system. At the same time - and entirely by coincidence - another friend of Bopha and Herod approached them in Phnom Penh and asked them to help find her baby a home.
"She was a vulnerable woman who felt she wasn't able to cope with another child," Herod says. They matched the couple with the baby and set about arranging the adoption.
While both were aware there was a range of "fees" associated with processing an adoption, they were still shocked at the size and number of payments.
"It looked like it was going to end up costing around $10,000," Herod says. However, the pair found that all fees were negotiable with officials prepared to accept a quarter of the asking price to process the paperwork.
Disenchanted with the corruption, they eventually helped the adoptive family process the adoption through the courts, a method that Herod says was professional, diligent and by comparison cheap. At around $3,000 the adoption cost around a quarter of what the lowest priced US-based agencies charge their clients.
Herod says that corruption in the system is endemic and emphasizes that he will not help broker more adoptions.
"Ultimately the question is: Why hasn't the US Embassy raised all these questions long ago?" he says.
He blames agents for driving the trafficking of babies and does not believe Cambodian women are motivated by profit when they surrender their children. He argues that trickery is a more likely explanation.
"We have been approached [to adopt a child] half-a-dozen times and there was never any suggestion that the mothers were looking for money - they were just trying to find a good future for their children," he says. "If a woman was really looking to give up her child, she's not going to go to a facilitator, and if she wants to sell her baby she could probably get a lot more money than they are offering".
In June 1998 Herod assisted in finding an infant who had been kidnapped and then sold for $300. The distraught mother was suicidal at the loss of her child and Herod distributed the child's photograph via email and newspapers, and made numerous appeals on Beehive radio. After ten days the child was recovered. He suspects the motive was adoption.
"If a woman was selling her baby, my first suspicion would be: Is this really your baby?" he says.
It's not the only encounter with the adoption business that Herod and Bopha have had. In 1997 Bopha adopted three children who had come to her through three separate incidents. Bopha said that shortly after the adoptions she found Lauryn Galindo in her home.
"I went home and she was already in my house with a Khmer man. My mother said they had already taken the children for blood tests. She [Galindo] told me she wanted to find homes for them in Hawaii, but I told her she could not have my children," she says.
When Bopha refused to let her take the children, Galindo insisted, offered her $700 and produced an album of photographs of children living with families in the US. She told her that her children would visit Cambodia and bring her money.
"I think I was very lucky. If I had been 15 minutes later I might have lost my children," Bopha says.
A troubled history
International adoptions from Cambodia began in 1989, but were halted less than two years later after controversial adoptions arranged by an NGO called the World Family Foundation.
Adoptions officially began again in early 1994, although some had gone through during the moratorium. In mid-1996 the government banned adoptions from the Nutrition Center and suspended them again during an "adoption rush" in the lead up to the 1998 elections. The most recent suspension lasted from mid-2000 to March 2001.
Despite the regular shutdowns the number of children being adopted out of Cambodia has continued to climb. With the rise in demand has come a growing number of orphanages and facilitators, the less scrupulous of whom have caused problems for those involved in legitimate adoptions, as well as NGOs working with local orphanages.
Jean-Yves Fusil of French NGO ASPECA, says his organization was forced to pull out of funding the Nutrition Center a few years ago to avoid being associated with international adoptions.
"We are very careful about this because we really want nothing to do with adoptions, and Foreign Affairs in France didn't like us working there," he says.
NGOs were warning that adoptions were 'out of control' in 1996 when there were only around 40 processed per year. This year has seen at least 600 adoptions just to the US. The Cambodia Adopt website lists 26 agencies that facilitate adoptions to the US.
ASPECA, which sponsors children in 20 orphanages and 30 schools in Cambodia, recently moved to put even more distance between itself and international adoptions.
"I wrote to the directors of all the orphanages to inform them that ASPECA has nothing to do with adoptions, and that we only sponsor children," says Fusil.
A notice dated October 8, 2001 in both French and Khmer has been posted in Cambodian orphanages emphasizing that ASPECA does not allow its staff to get involved in adoptions.
The adoption process is not governed by any law, only the March 2001 sub-decree. Brigitte Sonnois, a program officer with Unicef, says that a draft bill on adoption has been with MoSALVY since late last year.
The draft bill was produced with technical assistance from Unicef and is designed to bring practices in line with the International Convention on the Rights of the Child.
That states that inter-country adoptions should only be considered where there is no option to care for an orphan in the country of origin. It stresses that all care should be taken to ensure that birth parents give informed consent to adoption. Article 21 states that adoptions should not result in "improper financial gain".
"We are looking forward to the government taking action on the law," says Unicef representative Louis-Georges Arsenault. In the meantime, Arsenault says Unicef would welcome another moratorium.
"We think it would make sense to take the time to put a better process in place and have the legal framework to regulate adoptions properly," he says.
There are no accurate figures available on how many orphans there are in Cambodia, but those involved suggest there are insufficient healthy infants to meet overseas demand. It is an imbalance that invites abuse.
THE battles over adoptions are being fought not only in Cambodia, but across the world and on the internet.
Feuding adoption agencies have been trading insults on Cambodia Adopt's email list as the crisis here has intensified over the past three months.
There appear to be two camps: pro-Galindo and anti-Galindo. The various agents in the US regularly trade blows and allegations over their counterparts, making the internet a vital forum in a Cambodian turf war. Rival agencies have jumped in to defend their facilitators, on whose ministry connections they depend.
The website, which is administered by a former Galindo employee, has flagged facilitators' names with a ratings system. Those of whom "serious concerns have been raised" get a 'thumbs down' sign, others a 'thumbs up'. AOA facilitator Serey is in the first group, Galindo in the second.
A spokesman for the US Embassy said they would be proceeding "much more slowly than before".
With the reopening the squabbles between rival agencies have died down.