Adoptive parents tell of agency's deception
Written by Bill Bainbridge
Dale Edmonds and Jimmy Yap thought carefully about the ethics of adoption before choosing to adopt from Cambodia. The Singapore-based couple decided to adopt older children in part because they understood that infants are often trafficked for adoption.
"We were very, very wrong," Edmonds wrote in an emailed interview with the Post. "We remain extremely angry with [American adoption facilitator] Harriet Brener-Sam and the rest of the adoption industry in Cambodia. They operate in secrecy, they charge exorbitantly high fees in a poverty-stricken country and they treat children as commodities."
The couple's anger hinges on a range of unethical practices that they claim they encountered when adopting in Cambodia.
In November 2000, after struggling to conceive a child of their own, the couple investigated the possibility of an international adoption. After posting to several email lists about their desire to adopt two or three siblings below the age of six, they were contacted by an American adoption attorney and forwarded a photograph of two children.
"They were dressed in rags and extremely thin. Neither smiled, the little boy [was] crying," wrote Edmonds. They were quoted $18,000-to-$20,000 "for a fully facilitated adoption for the two siblings".
Despite the fact that a moratorium on international adoptions was in place at the time, the Brener-Sam and Associates agency began the process by forwarding medical records and telling the couple the children's mother had died and their father had voluntarily relinquished the children to an orphanage in Pursat.
"She assured us that they had been ethically placed at her orphanage in Pursat," Edmonds wrote.
The couple was told that the children's father was a fisherman whose wife had died in 1999 and that they had no siblings. The agency said they had been brought starving to an orphanage by their father because he thought they might die if they stayed with him.
Only after adopting the children did Edmonds conclude that the story was: "Pretty much entirely a lie, except that the father was a fisherman."
Edmonds alleges in the email that Brener-Sam was not operating through an orphanage but using a house in a Phnom Penh suburb.
"There were several dozen infants and toddlers at the 'baby villa' as it was referred to by Ms Brener-Sam," Edmonds wrote. Despite the large number of infants, Edmonds saw fewer than ten nannies on her visits to the "baby villa".
The Street 95 villa now sports a "Branch Office of Pursat Infant Center" sign, although Edmonds claims that there was no sign at the time of her adoption. The director of the center, Chea Kheng, was unavailable for comment and Brener-Sam and Associates did not respond to emailed queries by the Post.
At least a dozen infants and toddlers were present when the Post visited the center February 12. Staff at the center said they were continuing to receive visits from adoptive parents.
After opting to take over the process herself, Edmonds paid the adoption facilitator $3,000 and the children were delivered to her hotel room.
It was then that serious doubts were raised. The older of the two children, "Emma", claimed to have other sisters, that her mother was in fact alive and told Edmonds that she wanted to see her family.
The distressed Edmonds sought Brener-Sam's assistance but was told that tracing the birth family would be impossible.
However after taking the children home the couple began to learn more about the children's background and the care they had received at the "baby-villa".
"Emma told us that she had spent her time at the orphanage working as a child nanny. She said she had often been hungry," Edmonds wrote. "She was not allowed a toothbrush, although she asked for one. She went to the doctor once for her medical examination, but not again, even when [she was] ill.
"She did not attend school during her entire time in Ms Brener-Sam's orphanages or foster homes. As a child nanny, she was made to clean, feed and quiet the babies in care at the 'baby villa' that Ms Brener-Sam runs."
Edmonds returned to Cambodia and, with her adopted daughter's help, quickly located the birth family, not in Pursat but in a Phnom Penh street.
According to the birth-father the children had not been placed at an orphanage but had been taken by a woman acting as a conduit. When the family later sought to find the two children they were first told the children had been taken to Poipet to work as beggars, then that they had been placed with a wealthy Khmer family who did not want contact with the birth-family.
Edmonds reunited the children with their parents and older sisters.
"Their reunion, with children that [the birth mother] thought had been lost forever, was extremely emotional," she wrote.
"The mother is not in a situation where she can take care of the children, even with financial aid. She asked that we consider adopting Helen [a third sibling], and after much discussion, we decided to do so. Helen is doing wonderfully at home with us now," wrote Edmonds in the email to the Post.
The couple are now providing a home for the three children as well as keeping them in regular contact with their Cambodian family. But she remains bitter about the experience and determined to warn others of the dangers in Cambodia's murky adoption business.
Edmonds is skeptical about how much of the high fees charged go towards the care of children in orphanages. She concedes that she paid another facilitator $4,000 to "move our paperwork through the Cambodian bureaucracy", but says the children were not well cared for.
"My daughter came to me with broken flipflops, two changes of raggedy clothes, one book and a tube of lipstick she'd been given," she wrote.
Edmonds journey has ended where it began, on the internet. She has now developed a website and email list to share information with other prospective parents.
The website can be found at www.oggham.com/cambodia.
A toddler at the "baby villa" in Phnom Penh, February12.