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Adopting new standards on adoption


Patchy regulation makes inter-country adoption vulnerable to fraud. We must close loopholes to end a traffic in human misery

By EJ Graff

September 10, 2010 / guardian.co.uk

Two years ago this month, the US and Vietnam let lapse the three-year bilateral agreement that allowed Americans to adopt Vietnamese children. The US embassy in Hanoi had concluded that "the overwhelming majority" of infant adoptions from Vietnam involved fraud: at best, falsified official documents; and at worst, defrauded, coerced or paid-off birth families who had not consented to sending their children abroad for adoption. All told, 2,200 Vietnamese-born children were adopted to the US during that period, according to the state department; approximately another 2,000 were adopted to France, 950 to Italy, 475 to Ireland, and 250 to Sweden. 

The 2008 US-Vietnam closure was one in a long, stuttering series of crises in international adoption. This week, my article "Anatomy of an Adoption Crisis" in Foreign Policy Online analyses hundreds of pages of often shocking internal US state department documents (received under Freedom of Information Act requests) discussing that adoption crisis. These documents show how determined the US embassy in Hanoi was to block fraudulent or corrupt adoptions – and how little power it had to do so, both in Vietnam, and in other countries that have had similar crises, such as Cambodia, Guatemala, Nepal and Romania.

Why? Fifteen years after 66 countries negotiated the 1993 Hague convention on inter-country adoption, why couldn't the US state department screen out the "bad" adoptions and continue the "good" ones? The Hague adoption convention was supposed to streamline the adoption of children who legitimately needed new homes, and "prevent the abduction, the sale of, or traffic in children" for adoption by policing "improper financial gain".

But loopholes plague the Hague convention. The biggest one: technically, Hague protections need apply only to adoptions in which both countries have already ratified and implemented the convention. In the US, that means that adoption agencies must be screened and accredited by a national body before they may arrange adoptions from, or to, other Hague countries. But unaccredited agencies are still free to work in the "non-Hague" nations (presumably, the least prepared to police unsavoury practices). As a result, families adopting from such Hague signatories as China, Colombia or Thailand can rely on two different nations' governmental oversight. But that family has no such protections if it tries to adopt from such non-Hague countries as Ethiopia or Nepal, both rife with troubling allegations about their adoptions.

US inter-country adoption experts point to specific loopholes that can be closed through new federal legislation and amended regulations, as I recently reported in "The Baby Business"; some of their more detailed thoughts are posted here. The most important suggestion, as most experts I interviewed agreed, is that the US should require "Hague accreditation" for any agency working on international adoption from any country, whether or not that country has implemented the Hague convention.

But for this and other proposed changes to move forward, the rest of us have to care. It's easy to believe that ending fraud in international adoption is an obscure and narrow issue. But the problems in international adoption have implications that reach throughout child welfare and development efforts worldwide. When done wrong, experts say, inter-country adoption can hijack a poor nation's nascent or underfunded efforts at family preservation and social services. The focus shifts away from building communities and helping families stay together – and moves instead to "finding" children for western families, thus profiting unscrupulous middlemen and corrupt officials.

The United States needs to put in place improved policies, practices and regulations that simultaneously help prevent the criminal underside of the adoption trade and also support child welfare and protection systems in developing countries. That way, more impoverished families can keep their children at home – and the children who truly need new families can find them without fear of fraud.

2010 Sep 10