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System meant to protect parents and children doesn't bar unaccredited agencies from doing international adoptions.By David Shaffer
October 14, 2009 / Star Tribune
Last year, an adoption agency in Florida was denied permission to find children for American families in 77 foreign countries that have agreed to operate under the rules of an international treaty aimed at cleaning up abuses in international adoption.
But the agency, Celebrate Children International (CCI), is still promoting adoption in four nations that have not signed the treaty, including Ukraine and Ethiopia.
Critics say the case is a stark example of how the U.S. government has created a double standard as it implements the Hague Adoption Convention to protect parents and children during foreign adoptions.
"It just totally invalidates what the Hague is trying to do," said Elizabeth Emanuel, of Nashville, who has adopted four children from other countries. She is among the parents who complained about the Oviedo, Fla., agency when it was seeking Hague approval.
The Hague treaty was drafted in 1993, when it became clear that the worldwide phenomenon of inter-country adoptions was overwhelming the ability of governments to deal with it. Dozens of nations got together and created a uniform set of rules aimed at removing fraud and duress from the process of finding new homes for orphans.
After spending more than a decade on approval and implementation, the treaty finally took effect in the United States last year, amid new allegations of corrupt adoption practices in Guatemala and Vietnam, including kidnapping and baby trafficking.
A lengthy process
The treaty promotes ethical conduct and professionalism by U.S. adoption agencies and their contractors abroad. Agencies that want to operate in Hague-approved nations must first undergo a lengthy accreditation process to make sure they meet various ethical and professional standards. A nongovernmental organization oversees compliance on behalf of the State Department.
But the treaty has a big loophole. While 14 adoption agencies in the United States were denied accreditation, they weren't kicked out of the international adoption business (though two closed down). Neither were many other American agencies that haven't sought accreditation. Hague regulations don't bar agencies from working in countries that haven't signed the treaty, including 17 nations where Americans have adopted children in the past decade. Altogether, more than 100 nations have not signed the treaty.
U.S. officials concede the treaty creates a double standard. But they emphasize the improvements offered by the new multi-nation system. Under Hague rules, for example, agencies must prevent buying and trafficking of children for adoption and are prohibited from encouraging adoptions by providing finder fees to brokers. Breaking the rules can lead to the loss of accreditation.
A State Department official said in an e-mail that the department is not ready to support a requirement that all international adoption agencies be accredited because "more work needs to be paid to perfecting the current process prior to its expansion."
Lesley Harmoning, an adoptive parent from Red Lake Falls, Minn., believes the United States needs to enforce a single standard now.
"There needs to be greater authority to hold these agencies accountable because the states don't seem to be doing it," said Harmoning, who also complained about CCI's conduct in Florida.
CCI was denied accreditation because it did not meet Hague standards. Government officials declined to provide reasons for all denials. CCI director Sue Hedberg declined to comment.
In Minnesota, which has the highest rate of international adoption in the country, 14 of 18 agencies that have pursued international adoptions have obtained Hague accreditation. No Minnesota agencies were denied, but one firm elected to end its China adoption program rather than go through the nine- to 18-month process, which costs at least $7,500.
Chosen Ones Adoption Agency in Maplewood, which has found U.S. homes for about 20 Chinese orphans since 2000, is now referring clients to other agencies because China is implementing the treaty, agency director Esther Harris said.
"It's prohibitive," Harris said of the accreditation process. "The concept of the Hague is good. It is supposed to stop trafficking, but it is stopping a lot of other things too."
Altogether, 213 U.S. agencies have passed accreditation, and 48 more agencies are under review.
Important protection lost
Americans who seek foreign-born children using a non-accredited agency lose one of the most important protections under the treaty -- a place to complain if something goes wrong.
Complaints against accredited agencies can be lodged online with the State Department. That provision doesn't apply to non-accredited agencies.
The job of investigating complaints was given to the Council on Accreditation, a nonprofit organization in New York that also handles accreditation duties. Only the state of Colorado will investigate its own cases. If an investigation confirms that an agency violated standards, it can lose its accreditation, shutting it out of the 77 treaty countries.
But in an interview, Richard Klarberg, the council's chief executive, conceded that the council isn't prepared to conduct international inquiries into complaints of corrupt adoption practices. Baby stealing or other fraudulent adoption practices have been alleged in Vietnam, China, Liberia, Guatemala and India. Some countries halted adoptions after such revelations.
"The reality is that the Council on Accreditation lacks the resources, either in staff or financial resources, to send someone to China to review a complaint. ... We lack that capacity," Klarberg said.
The council is an unlikely investigative unit. It was founded in 1977 by child welfare advocates to promote high standards and professionalism by social workers and others in the field. For a fee, the council offers an 18-month review of an organization's standards and practices. Institutions as varied as sheriff's youth programs to chemical dependency treatment centers have been accredited by the council.
Klarberg said the council has just three staff members to investigate complaints against U.S. adoption agencies. They can question U.S. agencies and gather documents related to their foreign activities. So far, the agency has opened at least 17 investigations, but no agencies have been sanctioned. The council will leave the more complicated job of investigating foreign conduct to foreign governments or the State Department.
That's not good enough, said Gina Pollock, an adoptive mother and board member of Parents for Ethical Adoption Reform, a group that lobbies for changes in federal laws. She said the job of investigating international wrongdoing should be the government's, not a nonprofit organization's.
"I believe they have the desire," Pollock said of the council. "I don't think they have the capacity. ... I don't think they can wear a police hat."