Will the Vietnamese Ruc children come home? Part I - “case closed” or is there hope?

Date: 2008-05-02

Peter Bille Larsen, anthropologist
May 2, 2008

Vietnamese adoption practices have recently come under fire following the release of a critical US embassy report. In this article, I point raise to the specific case of Rục ethnic minority children adopted from an isolated border area of Quảng Bình province in Northern Central Vietnam – and the urgent need for support.

In previous communications with institutions and organizations in Vietnam, I have sought to raise awareness of the situation of several children from one of Vietnam’s smallest ethnic minority communities, the Rục, being taken away and adopted under questionable circumstances without the appropriate conditions and informed consent of their parents.

Living in the middle of the Phong Nha Kẻ Bàng World Heritage site in Quảng Bình province, Rục communities only total a few hundred people characterized by high levels of poverty, illiteracy and poor access to basic services.

During a recent return to the area in 2007, some parents expressed a concern to me regarding their children. As one mother explained, local officials from the “Trung tâm nuôi dưỡng người có công đối tương xã hội” Centre in Đồng Hới, the provincial capital, and communal authorities had come to the village offering help to the children. After some discussions and visits, several households agreed to send their children to the institution in Đồng Hới. These were supposed to be short stays, but now apparently many of the children were gone and had not come back to the Rục villages. One mother explained how she had become worried and gone to town to see her children, only to be informed that they were gone. “Do you know if my children have been sold?”, she had asked me. She had received a photo picturing what seemed like a ceremony of her children being handed over to foreigners and was now seriously worried about the fate of her children. Others told me that some villagers had received money, apparently as “poverty alleviation” support. Figures mentioned were between 500.000 VND (some 31 USD) and 1.000.000 VND (some 62 USD).

Mothers, many illiterate, had apparently signed two contracts. One official contract involving support to the child in a provincial children’s centre. The other, in hand-writing, entailed giving away all rights to the children. Apparently as many as 10 to 13 children in this small ethnic minority community had been sent to this institution, and many were being adopted without the formal or informed consent of the parents. These included older children such as the siblings Cao Duc Muoi and Cau Duc Buoi aged between 7 and 10 at the time of adoption.

While a more comprehensive investigation of the specific cases is urgently needed, the practices mentioned are strikingly similar to the “irregularities” raised in the unusually critical US embassy report (http://vietnam.usembassy.gov/irreg_adoptions042508.html). A US embassy warning issued in April notes how “recent field investigations have revealed incidents of serious adoption irregularities, including forged or altered documentation, adoption without the knowledge or consent of their birth parents.” The case of the Rục children would partially seem to fit the description. Whereas adoption cases generally involve some kind of research, verification and consent process, it is also likely that the area has not been accessed adequately by routine adoption investigations due to its status as a “border area”.

Government authorities and key international agencies have now been alerted, and it seems that adoption activities in the area have been limited and concerted  responses are in the making. At least one international adoption agency active in the Quảng Bình province has discontinued its adoption activities of older children, although apparently for different reasons.

The US is now ending its 2005 intercountry adoption agreement with Vietnam due to stated irregularities. The Vietnamese government, according the Vietnam News Agency, on April 25, announced it would allow the completion of adoption cases filed before July 1. While the head of the Vietnamese International Adoption Agency, Mr. Vũ Đức Long, questions many of the US embassy findings, he also, according to the Vietnamese News Agency recognized the presence of incorrect practices and that his department was taking corrective measures (May 2, 2008).

The case of the Rục children indeed calls for particular attention in this respect. Not only does the case point to certain types of irregularities raised in the US embassy report, it also involves older children whose reintegration “back home” could very well form part of corrective measures mentioned by Mr. Vũ.

These children, whose exact number needs to be determined, are hopefully living a positive experience, but may also likely be suffering from significant socio-cultural stress in new socio-cultural and linguistic environments.

What are the chances of these children seeing their families again? What are the chances of the mother, who expressed “coming to late” to the provincial capital to reunite with her children, of seeing her children again?

A Rục mother may be poor, illiterate and easy to convince about better “alternatives”, but would this justify that she will never see her children again?

The personal and social disasters experienced by indigenous, tribal and ethnic minority children being adopted and sent abroad have now been recognized at a global scale. The removal of children for residential schooling, growing up among non-natives were commonplace and policy-driven across the Arctic countries, Australia and one of the most painful experiences of indigenous peoples in those countries. Not only was removing children among indigenous children considered acceptable, it was considered an improvement framed in language of helping indigenous children to get out of native culture and getting into civilization. Many of these children have since lived with conflicting identities, personal and social problems.

The risks are likely to be similar in the case of the Rục children, whose integration in another socio-cultural environment, let alone another country is likely to pose significant personal and family challenges. If not now then in the future.

In other countries, a strong effort is now made to reconnect indigenous children with their parents even if years have passed by. Similar solutions need to be explored urgently for the Rục children before more harm is done.

Yet, will the concerned countries and government agencies make the additional effort to determine the situation and well being of a small group of Vietnamese ethnic minority children now living apart from their families? Is there now readiness and willingness to look carefully at the best interest of the Rục children that have been adopted without ethnocentric bias (e.g. presuming they will be better off in rich Western countries than back home?). I believe so.

I also believe that adoption agencies and adoptive parents are concerned about the well-being about the children they live and work for and will do what they can once they are informed about the real conditions.

What is at stake here is the best interest of the child. The Hague Adoption Convention, to which Vietnam is likely to adhere, in its article 21 speaks of the return of the child “as a last resort.. if his or her interests so require”. In the US Vietnam bilateral agreement it is spelled out how competent adoption authorities may determine that it is no longer in the best interest of the child to keep it in the adoption family. Will adoption authorities explore the relevance of such steps?

I believe so. Clearly information gathering and exchange between countries (as spelled out in the US-VN bilateral agreement) will be necessary to identify the children, their new identities and their current well-being. Yet, the traumatic experiences of many other indigenous children growing up in other socio-cultural environments would more than justify such an effort.

The long history of socially engineered family disintegration among indigenous families on a global scale has been deeply harmful, yet also led the international community to determine “best practice.”

There is clear emphasis in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) on the “best interests of the child”. One can only hope that local officials did not consider it in the best of interest to separate these children from their families. Clearly practices have not taken place in accordance with neither Vietnamese legislation, nor international standards.

The adoption process according to the CRC requires authorization and informed consent. The engineering of double “contracts” providing support to children on the one hand, and having (largely illiterate) parents sign over all rights to children on the other hand can hardly be considered informed, nor voluntary, consent.

Furthermore, the optional CRC protocol, ratified by Vietnam in 2001, in its article 10.2 also speaks of State Parties promoting “international cooperation to assist child victims in their physical and psychological recovery, social reintegration and repatriation.”

Addressing the particular conditions of indigenous children, the Committee on the Rights of the Child 1 in its 2003 recommended state Parties to safeguard “the integrity of indigenous families and assist them in their child-rearing responsibilities” (article 17).

This is indeed is very critical not least in the context of small ethnic minority communities as the Rục. I do not know to what extent such ideas have already been considered by Vietnamese authorities.

What I do know is that Rục people and Quảng Bình province suffered substantially during the war years from American bombing of the the Hồ Chí Minh trail system, and throughout the last 30 years continued to suffer from severe food shortages.

The Rục people is one of the the country’s smallest ethnic minority communities, only numbering a few hundred people. Within the last 40 years, they have experienced dramatic social, economic and cultural changes. Losing their children would be a both personal and socio-cultural catastrophe.

The plight of of ethnic minority children in the region is indeed urgent. Levels of malnutrition, disease and illiteracy remain high, and there is an urgent need to strengthen
intercultural education efforts to preserve and value the unique languages, ways of life and cultures of this region.

As a first step, it is now critical to document what has happened to the Rục children, and identify ways of restoring the relationship between the children, the parents and the community. Things may not have taken place in a correct manner, but it is not too late to restore what has been broken. A second step it is critical to assess what is taking place and whether this is affecting other communities in the region as well.

Concerted action from authorities in Vietnam as well as receiving country authorities, adoptive families and agencies is now urgent to secure the best interest of the children.

For further information please contact peterbillelarsen@yahoo.com


Pound Pup Legacy