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Adoption agencies considered U.S. Embassy too active in fighting corruption in Vietnam


This week, E.J. Graff published a long article called Anatomy of an Adoption Crises, in which she describes the shut down of adoptions from Vietnam in 2008. The article is based upon the release of several government documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. We are not going to rehash the story as told by E.J. Graff, instead I'd like to focus on the players in this drama.

The first released documents is dated July 2007 and details several visits made by members of the US. Embassy in Hanoi, to several orphanages in Vietnam. Unfortunately the document doesn't provide any detail into the findings of the investigations, since most of it is redacted in accordance with the Privacy Act of 1974.

In the following month Michael W. Michalak is installed as the new United States Ambassador to Vietnam and in the following months the adoption drama in Vietnam starts to unfold. Ambassador Michalak writes a devastating report, January 8, 2008, with the title: Vietnam Adoptions: A trail of corruption. The report makes the point:

1. (SBU) Summary: Reftels document the series of investigations that post has conducted over the past six months. Taken together, these investigations have documented widespread adoption fraud and organized networks engaged in child buying and laundering throughout Vietnam. Post has been able to piece together a picture of how adoption service providers (ASPs), orphanages, and Vietnamese officials are colluding to create a supply of orphans to meet international demand for "as young as possible" infants. While the specific details vary from orphanage to orphanage, the general pattern is consistent throughout all regions of the country, The trail begins with ASPs passing out large sums of money to orphanage directors and ends with infant children, often of unknown origin, in the arms of unsuspecting prospective adoptive parents. End Summary.

For those who have done some research into inter-country adoption, this statement is nothing new, but it is the first time a US official makes such a blunt and obvious analysis of the business of adoption. The fact the Ambassador to Vietnam reaches this conclusion is important. When UNICEF makes similar statements, it can be accused of having a "particular view on child protection". When Terre des Hommes Switzerland makes similar statements, it can be accused of attempts to undermine the abilities of its competing adoption agencies. When the Ambassador to Vietnam makes such statements none of that applies. In fact life would be easiest for the Ambassador if all orphan visas could be granted without much ado. An ambassador has not stake in reducing adoptions.

Unfortunately for the new Ambassador, the situation in Vietnam is rotten to the core, and he not only faces opposition from the authorities in Hanoi, but also from adoption service providers, prospective adoptive parents and members of congress.

The ambassador continues:

2. (SBU) Through numerous field investigations over the past two years, particularly since July 2007, post has pieced together a more complete picture of how infant children progress their way through the international adoption system in Vietnam. This cable will trace each step of this progression, and show how demand for "as young as possible" infants is creating a very real financial incentive for Vietnamese to fill their orphanages to meet this demand. While there are legitimate orphans in Vietnam, the corruption in the adoption process has become so widespread that post believes that there is fraud in the overwhelming majority of cases of infants offered for international adoption.

It's important to note the admission that inter-country adoption relates to "as young as possible" infants. The observation made by the Ambassador relates to Vietnam, but the same can be said about every other country where adoption met the free market, whether we talk about Romania, early 2000's, Guatemala in the years following, or Ethiopia at this time of writing.

The observation of the Ambassador is not just an opinion, it can easily be demonstrated. UNICEF estimates break down the ages of "orphans" as follows:

Age Percentage
12-17 55
6-11 33
under 6 12

A break-down of ages of children adopted internationally looks as follows:

Age Percentage
9 or older 3
5-9 8
1-4 43
under 1 46

The Ambassador continues his analysis describing the steps involved in the corruption of inter-country adoption:

3. (SBU) STEP ONE — SETTING UP SHOP; When the U.S. and Vietnam signed the MOA on adoptions in July 2005, American Adoption Service Providers eagerly jumped at the opportunity to begin matching prospective adoptive parents with Vietnamese orphans. Unfortunately, the Vietnamese Department of International Adoptions (DIA) exercised little discretion in granting licenses for ASPs to operate, with the result that 42 ASPs began competing for a limited supply of young infants. In order to obtain a license from DIA, an ASP had to strike an agreement with a provincial—level orphanage, specifying the donations that the ASP would make to the orphanage and a per diem rate that the ASP would pay for the care of each child for whom they arranged an adoption. [redacted] as a result, given the limited supply of young infants in orpanages, the directors and ASP facilitators began efforts to recruit new "orphans" to meet the-demands of the international adoption market.

Interestingly, Ambassador Michalak wrote about this specific topic even clearer, two month earlier, after meeting with Dr. Vu Duc Long, head of the department of international adoption (DIA):

Long went on to say that DIA was looking to revise the donation system because the current system was “putting too much pressure on orphanages.” As Long explained it, under the current system, ASPs now agree to fund projects at orphanages for certain amounts of money. These donations are then divided by the orphanages into a “per child donation rate” to determine how many children will be provided to that ASP at "a 'per child" rate. Long went on to explain that this could be a problem because if an ASP agreed to accept funds for a project with a donation equal to 10 for example, but the orphanage only had 4 children to deliver, then the orphanage had to find additional children to meet obligation to the ASP. (Comment: We were quite surprised to hear DIA give this unusually frank account of the financial dealings of orphanages with ASPs. which clearly raises serious issues with regard to how the “orphan business” is being run and the pressure on orphanages to produce babies.

This is one of the central issues in inter-country adoption to developing countries. Charitable donations to orphanages work according to the tit-for-tat principle. The more funding an adoption service provider provides to an orphanage, the more infants an orphanage has to provide to an adoption service provider. Ultimately the "generosity" of the ASPs prospective adoptive parents leads to a shortage of adoptable infants, making the orphanage indebted to deliver the goods through illegal means.

The same mechanism applied to adoptions in Romania in the early 2000's where a point-system was in place. ASPs could earn points (each point equaled one child) by making donations to an orphanage. The more donations an ASP made, the more points they gathered, the more entitled they were to receive children in return. The results were the same: illegal adoptions through payments, lies, fraud and coercion.

How this works, Ambassador Michalak explains  in the following two points:

4. (SBU) STEP TWO - RECRUITMENT; In several provincial orphanages, notable [redacted] post field investigations have documented startling high numbers of abandoned infants under the age of 1. This is even more striking when local officials confirm that prior to 2005 (the year the MOA was signed) there were no abandonments in their provinces and the orphanages had few, if any, infants. This leaves us with the logical question. Where did all these babies come from? [redacted]

5. (SBU) In a variation on this theme, post has discovered "safe houses" in [redacted] where women are offered lodging, medical expenses and money to "start a new life" in exchange for their child. Again, women are often referred to the safe houses by nurses and hospital workers. The women are required to sign agreements promising to relinquish their children before entering the safehouses and are often separated from their children immediately after birth. Tragically, in some instances these women were told that their children would be adopted domestically and that they would return home once they were 11 years old. Even worse, one hospital in [redacted] essentially kidnapped infants from their parents by refusing to release the child until they paid their medical bills. When payment was not forthcoming, the hospital declared the children "abandoned" and placed them for adoption without the birth parents knowledge or consent.

Threats, coercion, fraud, but it doesn't stop just there. In an email of a member of the Hanoi Embassy, related to the visit of the Joint Council on International Children's Services, a remark is made about: "

recent killings of parents by criminals who kidnap and traffic children


Parents in Vietnam were actually killed so American families could adopt their children, instigated by the charitable donations made to the orphanage. Similar practices are known to have taken place in Guatemala.

Ambassador Michalak continues:

6. (SBU) STEP THREE - HIDING THE TRAIL Currently in Vietnam the vast majority of children offered for international adoption have been abandoned. Orphanages and hospitals throughout Vietnam all report that prior to 2005 there were very few abandonments at their facilities, today these facilities may have as many as 15 purported abandonments a month. These abandonments are shams designed to obscure the child’s true origins from the USG. [redacted]

Again this is a pattern known from other countries too. Abandonments of infants soared in Romania as a result of inter-country adoption, the same is known to be true for Guatemala and Nepal.

The pattern is not even denied by Tom DiFilipo, CEO of the Joint Council on International Children's Services, but apparently he doesn't see is it as something negative:Difilipo made an interesting point about the availability of better orphangage care, through American ASP support, being a contributing factor to the increase in numbers of orphans that we're seeing. it's the 'you build it and they will come"  theory, or as he put it 'a dentist opens up shop in the village and suddenly everyone has more problems with their teeth}

However, he didn't explain why the children are coming to these orphanages ovenivhelmingly through abandonments, why they are almost all newborn infants, and why so many abandonment stories are being fabricated. We think we know why because demand (backed by a lot of $$) for 'as young as possible infants" exceeds the number of infants in orphanage and therefore incentivizes orphanage directors and ASP facilitators to use whatever means they can (baby buying, lying to biological parents, and perhaps worse) to meet this demand. The abandonments are used because they require less
documentation and provide better cover for whatever the true origins of the infant really are.

The disagreement over whether to limit adoptions in Vietnam comes down to explaining the phenomenon of abandonments and orphanages being filled with infants in Vietnam. That is why the idea to limit adoptions to older and special needs children makes sense. Until Vietnam has an effective "competent authority" in place, and until power is taken out of the hands of orphanage directors and placed into this competent authority’s hands, l do not see how we can continue to process infant cases. ln our field investigations, these cases are repeatedly the cause of concern, and from what we've seen they are the cases most likely to involve serious violations of the law.

from: email: JCICS visit to Vietnam part 2

Unfortunately Step 4 of Ambassador's Michalak's exposé on the Vietnamese situation is mostly redacted out. Apparently it contains too much private information to be allowed to become public. The only phrase not redacted reads:

"These abandonments are so common in several villages with less than 2000 residents, single individuals have found multiple abandoned children. At Hospital A in [redacted] abandonments are now a weekly occurrence."

The Ambassador continues:

8. (SBU) STEP FIVE · MAKING THE MATCH: Vietnamese law requires that orphan children first be made available for domestic adoption before they can be matched with international prospective adoptive parents. Nevertheless, orphanages involved in international adoption process few if any domestic adoptions. Why? There is no question that the financial incentives clearly weigh in favor of international adoptive parents and the ASPs acting as their agents. Further, the close relationship between orphanage directors and ASP agents ensures that ASPs learn of the child's existence the minute they enter the orphanage, if not before: Post has repeatedly seen orphanage directors and ASPs make early "soft referrals" before the required time frame for domestic adoption has expired. In a recent filed investigation, post was told by [redacted] that many Vietnamese families came forward to adopt but were “unqualified.” In practice, this close collusion between ASP officials and orphanage directors not only ensures that in almost all cases there is no effort to make these abandoned orphans available for domestic adoption but also turns legal safeguards to protect the rights of birth parents into paper exercises whose outcomes are a foregone conclusion.

Two very important issues are addressed here, issues again not unique to Vietnam: a) inter-country completely out-competes local adoptions. b) soft-referrals.

Soft-referrals relates to the practice of making preliminary reservations on specific children. PAPs are informally promised a particular child long before an actual placement decision is made. It is known that in Guatemala the adopted name of the child was put above their cribs (of course Guatemala mostly produced infants), long before any actual referral was made. Similar practices are known to have taken place in Romania.

There are several advantages to this approach for the ASPs involved: PAPs assigned a specific child "invest emotionally" in that child, even claim to "bond" to pictures of that child. This makes PAPs much more gullible. PAPs in the process for "a" child, are much more likely to maintain their cognitive capacities than parents who have their heart set on a specific child.

Soft-referrals also help ASPs push through the adoption when the process stagnates due to legal issues. PAPs with soft referrals are much more likely to contact Members of Congress when the adoption of a specific child is at stake than when they are adopting "a" child. Members of Congress, especially the likes of Barbara Boxer and Mary Landrieu, are known to use their influence to put pressure on the Department of State to expedite the processing of adoption visa.

According to Ambassador Michalak

7. (SBU) WHEN THINGS GO WRONG — DIA TO THE RESCUE: Post has repeatedly shared info from field investigations with DIA regarding violations of Vietnamese law and fraudulent abandonments, urging DIA to take action to punish those responsible. In response, DIA has repeatedly sprung into action, not to punish wrongdoers, but to fix whatever “paperwork problem” the Embassy has uncovered. In many cases DIA informs post that it has discussed the cases with local officials to ensure that “proper procedures were followed.” When post contacts these officials, however, they deny any conversation with DIA. In other cases, DIA has told post that actions were in accordance with Vietnamese law but when pressed could not cite the section of law. In fact, on several occasions DIA has stated in the same note that an action is both illegal and permitted. These responses occur because DIA sees its role as working hand-in-hand with ASPs to ensure that no child is left behind. They have actively assisted in rebutting Notices of Intent to Deny, going so far as to pressure individuals who previously signed sworn consular affidavits to recant their stories.

Inter-country adoption is the process of moving children from an almost totally corrupt country to a somewhat less corrupt country (the only exception is  South Korea, but here adoption was institutionalized at a time, just after the Korean war, when corruption was still rampant there).

Officials in nearly all sending countries are actively protecting the corrupt interests of orphanage directors and child traffickers. Vietnam is again no exception. Though it's interesting to learn that one of the Embassy's emails speaks of threats that Dr. Long had made to Maura Harty about the safety of our investigators.

Finally the Ambassador states:

8. (SBU) Comment: Viewed collectively, the evidence from post's field investigations shows that in Vietnam baby buying is the norm and that unscrupulous ASPs are providing financial incentives for Vietnamese officials to fabricate documentation to hide the true origins of “abandoned" children in Vietnam. These practices are able to continue because DIA has failed to take on the regulatory role envisioned both by the GVN and the 2005 Memorandum of Agreement. While the investigations have been instrumental in shining a spotlight on the corruption, we are already beginning to see officials adjusting their tactics, so as to prevent consular investigators from documenting fraud. Further more, the endemic nature of the fraud in the adoption of infants makes it clear that absent significant legal change in Vietnam, the problem will only continue to get worse. As a result, post believes that the USG needs to take the initiative in changing the terms of the adoption program; We will send in a strategy-for achieving this goal via Septel. End comment.

Now comes the interesting part of the process. The Ambassador here states that legal change (expiration of the adoption agreement between the US and Vietnam) is the only option.

ASPs never like it when their well-running programs are put on hold (possibly indefinitely). Their interests are promoted by their trade association, the Joint Council of Adoption (JCICS). Predictably after this devastating report by the Ambassador in Vietnam, JCICS pays a visit to the country. Predictably they were critical of the messenger of the "bad news".

Among areas unresolved or of dispute, the group evidenced a belief that the Embassy is so “down on DIA” that the relationship has become counterproductive. ln other words, we aren’t willing to help them improve. I explained the limitations of DlA’s authority and the threats that Dr. Long had made to Maura Harty about the safety of our investigators. Nonetheless, we told the group, we deal with DIA on a weekly – and often daily – basis. Our frustration is that even information on cases of criminal activity are met with a "not our business" response. While the group didn't object to my statement on the need for credible investigations, members clearly believe we are being too active in trying to track down evidence.

This is a very interesting observation by a State Official. Members (JCICS) clearly believe the Embassy in Hanois is too active in trying in tracking down evidence, and believe Embassy is so “down on DIA” that the relationship has become counterproductive.

In other words: JCICS members would rather see Embassy look the other way and let the demonstrably corrupt Department of Intercountry Adoption continue their practice. In the mean time JCICS's will implement their "Standards of Practice", as the emails mention.

It shows how the Joint Council on International Children's Servives, as trade association of Adoption Service providers is just as sleazy as the tobacco lobby is. Just like the tobacco lobby, JCICS is ultimately impotent and incompetent. That's what happens if you are on the morally wrong side of the debate.

JCICS is impotent in countering illegal adoptions from corrupt sending countries, because they are part of the problem.

JCICS has shown to be incompetent in making their "Standards of Practice" improve the adoption practices in Vietnam

JCICS is impotent in helping its members maintain healthy organizations. Members go belly up all the time and inter-country adoption numbers keep plummeting

JCICS is incompetent in making an industry that is destroying itself, self-regulate.

Despite JCICS's impotence and incompetence, they are not an entirely toothless tiger. Thanks to very cozy relations with Congress, JCICS is not to be dismissed. With the implicit support of 49 of the 100 senators in congress, the Joint Council will likely be successful sustaining a corrupt industry, just like the tobacco lobby manages to achieve.

Related documents:
by Kerry and Niels on Wednesday, 15 September 2010