The cost of reshaping adoption

Serious concerns over ‘irregularities’ in adoptions from Vietnam have led to the lapsing of an agreement with Ireland at a time when a new Adoption Bill aims to update the law.

Carol Coulter

May 23, 2009 / The Irish Times

THE DEBATE ON the Adoption Bill 2009 concluded in the Seanad earlier this week, marked by emotional exchanges on the issue of inter-country adoptions. It now goes back to the Dáil for its final stages, when it will bring into Irish law the Hague Convention, the main international statute governing inter-country adoptions, as well as consolidating all existing laws on adoption.

The debate coincided with the lapsing of the bilateral adoption agreement between Ireland and Vietnam, which is currently under renegotiation between the two countries. This follows the publication of a highly critical report on adoption in Vietnam by the US embassy in Hanoi in April of last year, which the Minister for Children, Barry Andrews, told the Seanad last week “had an influence in our decision not to roll over the existing bilateral agreement at that time [last autumn]”. In the meantime he has written to the Vietnamese seeking an interim agreement, pending renegotiation.

The issue of adoptions from Vietnam is an important one, as it is now the main country from which children are being adopted. In 2008, of the 498 declarations of eligibility issued by the Adoption Board, 286 were for Vietnam, followed by 125 for Russia, and the trend continued this year, according to its chief executive, John Collins.

The US report to which the Minister referred, Summary of Irregularities in Adoptions in Vietnam , available on the internet, makes for disturbing reading. Among the abuses it found were instances where children were described as “deserted” when their parents could be found and identified, unexplained pockets of “desertions” in certain areas and payments to the birth parents of “relinquished” children, though these are outlawed by Vietnamese law.

The basic problem it identified was the autonomy of local officials, and the inability of the central authority in Vietnam, the Department of International Adoption (DIA), to police what happens at local level. It stated: “The lack of verification and accountability regulations in Vietnamese adoption law creates a situation where an unscrupulous orphanage director or local official who fabricates a ‘desertion’ or ‘relinquishment’ is also only that official [sic] who can investigate the alleged fraud in the case.”

CORRUPTION IS rampant in Vietnam, according to international bodies such as Transparency International and Global Integrity, so it would be extraordinary if it did not turn up in the adoption process. The minimum salary for government employees in Vietnam was set at 540,000 Vietnamese Dong (€21.75) a month in January 2008, according to PricewaterhouseCooper.

In the area of adoption, there are two bulwarks against corrupt practices and undue influence being placed on the birth family – supervision by the Vietnamese authorities and careful oversight by the agency arranging the adoption. That is why in bilateral adoption agreements, and in the Hague Convention, the existence of an independent mediation agency based in the adopting country, is seen as crucial.

According to the Hague Convention, this should be not-for-profit, directed and staffed by people qualified “by training or experience to work in the field of the area of inter-country adoption”, and be subject to supervision by the competent authorities of the contracting state as to its composition, operation and financial situation.

The first, and so far only, Irish mediation agency working in this way is the Helping Hands Adoption Mediation Agency (HHAMA), based in Cork and with an office in Hanoi. “We had no framework for an agency for inter-country adoptions,” Collins says. “We set up a temporary arrangement. We established guidelines and advertised in the media for an agency based on the guidelines. We got a couple of applications and one got through. We regard it as a three-year pilot, and it will be finished in 12 months.”

The chief executive of the Helping Hands agency is Sharon O’Driscoll, who was a member of the Adoption Board when the HHAMA was chosen as the mediation agency, and resigned later. She is an adoptive parent. It has a four-person board, all adoptive parents, each of whom receive a stipend of €4,500 and expenses. According to the PR agency in Cork to which The Irish Times was directed when it sought to contact the agency, “The directors . . . bring medical, accounting and general management expertise to the agency.” Since it was founded, HHAMA has received €1.6 million from the HSE and Lottery funding (through the Department of Health).

The fee for adopting a child in Vietnam is $11,100 (€7,960). This is set by the Vietnamese authorities, not the agency, and, according to HHAMA, is broken down into $2,100 (€1,500) for administration costs, including translations, notarising legal documents, transport, medical checks and so on, and a $9,000 (€6,450) “humanitarian aid/province fee”.

This $9,000 has to be seen in the context of wages and the cost of living in Vietnam. It represents over 25 years’ minimum salary of a government official. Asked about the money, especially the “humanitarian aid/province fee”, and where it goes, Collins says: “Monitoring the money is a big issue. This has to be tightened up.” This point was also mentioned by the Minister for Children, Barry Andrews when he spoke to The Irish Times .

HHAMA says it only works with state- funded social care centres, not privately-run ones, which featured in the US report. “No donation is linked to an individual child,” it says in response to a series of written questions. “HHAMA does not make monthly payments to the social care centres in relation to the children. Our projects are not related to the number of children being placed for adoption. HHAMA has projects in provinces where applicants do not adopt from.”

Andrews says that he is satisfied that there are controls in place that ensure that many of the issues identified by the US authorities do not arise with Irish adoptions. Collins says that, following the publication of the report, the Vietnamese authorities were asked to carry out a review of all the Irish adoptions and confirmed that there was no problem with them.

Nonetheless, if Vietnamese adoptions are to continue, a number of issues have to be resolved. On the one hand, there must be a robust bilateral agreement based on best practice and on transparency in the process. That will involve understanding precisely the steps in the adoption process, including who makes the decisions, what happens to the fees paid to various authorities in Vietnam, the procedures that ensure full and free consent, the opportunity of a parent to change his or her mind, and adequate control from the central authority.

On the other hand, there must be an adoption mediation agency in place that can ensure best practice operates on the ground. Inter-country adoption is a complex and challenging area, involving international human rights law and international child law, as well as familiarity with the many difficult practical, psychological and emotional issues that arise both for adoptive parents and adopted children.

THE MINISTER IS drafting regulations to go with the Adoption Bill that will regulate adoption mediation agencies beyond the existing guidelines. While in recent weeks the focus has been on Vietnam, Collins points out that the cost of adoptions in Russia runs to many tens of thousands of euro, and “we don’t know where that money’s going”.

There are 600,000 children in institutional care in Russia, and an unknown number in Vietnam. Many of them will never be adopted in their own countries, and there are many couples in this and other countries who can offer them loving homes. The challenge is to ensure that in the process, the rights of the children, their birth parents and, indeed, of the adoptive parents, are fully protected.

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