exposing the dark side of adoption
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Babies bought for sale to foreigners


Written by Stephen O'Connell and Bou Saroeun

A Phnom Penh orphanage has been buying babies from a local village to supply foreigners wanting to adopt Cambodian children.

Residents of Chrey Koang Village, which is near Phnom Penh's Woman and Orphan Vocational Association (WOVA) which runs the orphanage, said they had been buying babies from poor families to satisfy the overseas demand.

They said the orphanage had usually acquired babies from the provinces but recently they had started looking closer to home. The Post found one local mother who had sold her baby, and another family who was recently asked by WOVA's manager,

Tith Von

, to sell their infant daughter.

Hong Tha (names of villagers have been changed) said she was given $100 by Von for her baby daughter, Srey Poeu. Von told her if she was lucky, the baby would be adopted by "foreigners". Tha said after she sold Poeu she cried a lot, but thought life would be better for her daughter.

Tha's first husband had just died and her hut had been destroyed by a storm. As a homeless widow with no money and two children to feed, Tha was overwhelmed. But Von said that there was a chance that if her daughter was adopted abroad, her new parents would send money back to help Tha and her son.

But four days after the sale, Tha changed her mind. She feared her son might not look after her when she was old, so she went back to WOVA to negotiate buying her daughter back. Tha set up a payment plan with Von, and took her daughter home.

Tha said WOVA normally only takes babies from far away. "Grandma Von doesn't ask many people [for their babies] around here because she is afraid they will come back like I did," she said.

However, just three months ago Von offered a neighbor of Tha's, Chhim Vadey, $100 for four-month-old Chhim Metha . The baby's father, Pen Than, a laborer, said although the family is very poor they refused to sell their daughter.

"We are human beings. We are not animals. We cannot sell our children. Even animals would not sell their children," he said.

But for families in dire financial circumstances the offer might prove too tempting, he said.

"If very poor and with no other options, maybe people have to decide to sell their babies. Maybe the husband died and [the mother] is very poor."

Vadey said Von made vague promises that if their daughter was adopted to a foreign family then they might receive extra money from that family on top of the initial sale price.

She said Von told her $100 was the limit WOVA would pay, "But if the foreigner has a good relationship with the family they will provide help for that family," said Vadey.

The WOVA orphanage has been operating at Chrey Koang Village in Chom Chao Commune since 1997. When asked by the Post, Von denied having ever bought babies for the orphanage. She said most of the children's parents were either dead, or the unwanted babies of single women working at garment factories.

"This center never gives money. The center is very poor and can't even buy milk," said Von.

The only money they ever give, said Von, is a few thousand riel for transportation costs to moto drivers or grandmothers who bring babies to the orphanage.

Von said normally a child is adopted only every one or two months. She insisted that she did not know to which countries the babies are sent. She said the orphanage had about 50 babies at the moment, but she did not know how many were available for adoption.

But a human rights organization investigating baby trafficking for international adoptions interviewed a former nanny at WOVA. She said her close relative,

Pich Chanda

, procured babies for WOVA. She told the investigator Chanda received $60 per child from WOVA.

Chanda used to live near the WOVA orphanage, but moved to Kampong Speu, then on to Svey Rieng.

Human rights investigators spoke to former neighbors of Chanda in Kampong Speu. They said Chanda used to tell the neighbors that if they found raising their babies too difficult, they could give them to WOVA in exchange for cash.

The neighbors said they used to see people coming to Chanda's house to discuss selling their babies to WOVA.

A neighbor who lived next door said


told her she had bought two babies from Kong Pesei District in Kampong Speu, and three from Battambang Province which she passed on to the WOVA orphanage.

Seattle International Adoptions (SIA), an American adoption agency that obtains babies from WOVA, was asked by the Post if SIA was aware of Von's alleged baby-buying business.

SIA's director Lynn Devin responded, saying: "Recently a [Cambodian] multi-ministry committee was formed to inspect the records of various orphanages to ensure that proper protocols were being followed regarding the relinquishment of Cambodian children.

"I was subsequently informed that the committee found evidence of some impropriety occurring at one of the orphanages but that records from both the Nutrition Center and WOVA Cham Chou passed inspection with flying colors."

Lee Slater, the director of Hawaii International Child's Cambodia program - which also acquires babies from WOVA - said: "We know of no circumstances that would lend credence to either the 'buying' or 'selling' of babies. If we had we would not engage in such a program.

"Hawaii International Child is a long established agency that has been doing international adoptions since 1975. We have been doing adoptions in Cambodia for the last three years without a hint of scandal as to the improper handling of the placing of children into orphanages."

Lauryn Galindo, who works as an adoption facilitator for both SIA and HIC, and has been on the WOVA advisory board since 1997, said she does not believe there is any truth to the stories told to the Post by the villagers, or the information obtained from the humans rights investigator regarding WOVA's alleged involvement in baby trafficking.

"I am suspicious of what these informants hope to gain by 'coming forth' and would venture to say that they may be pawns of someone who wishes to discredit WOVA, or international adoptions in general," she said.

"Though I do not speak Khmer and Grandma [Von] speaks no English, I feel she speaks volumes through her dedication to the orphans she serves."

The $100 the villagers said they received or were offered in exchange for their babies is a pittance compared to the amounts of money channeled by the agencies from the adoptive parents to the orphanges and Government Ministries in Cambodia.

The information that SIA sends prospective clients states that SIA's adoption program from Cambodia costs $11,500 - or $12,500 for clients living outside the United States. SIA breaks down the costs as follows:

Clients must pay $2,500 to SIA when they accept a child that SIA says is available for adoption. The clients are given 48 hours to decide whether to take the child. At the same time $ 5,500 must be wired to Cambodia. After successfully completing the adoption procedure in Cambodia, a third payment of $3500 must be made to the orphanage before the client leaves the country.

Those costs do not include the US Immigration and Naturalization Service filing fee ($405), home study and post-placement study costs, child's visa ($325), medical exam ($95), and travel to Cambodia and expenses while in Cambodia, said SIA.

Should the child require special medical attention during the adoption process, the parents must pay the additional expense or they may choose to adopt a different child, the agency said.

The Post emailed SIA asking how the $9000 sent to Cambodia is spent. Devin did not answer the question, saying only that adoptions from Cambodia are a bargain compared with other countries.

"International adoption can be a very expensive venture for adopting parents," Devin said. "It is not uncommon for parents adopting in China to have fees between $18,000 and $20,000 and the adoption fees for Eastern European children usually started in the range of $20,000 and go up considerably.

"The fees in our program are substantially lower than any other US-based facilitators and we work on a sliding scale."

HIC also charges $11,500 to adopt a child from Cambodia. HIC said in the information it sends prospective clients that $2500 is for their service fee, $5500 is the Cambodia paperwork fee, and $3,500 is the orphanage donation and service fee.

The Post also asked HIC how the Cambodia portion of their fees were spent, but HIC did not answer.

Galindo said: "I can assure you that the staff of the various ministries involved do not charge for their duties in the facilitation of the adoption process. I have never been pressured for financial contributions in all the years I have assisted with placing orphans in adoptive homes.

"Voluntary, not mandatory, donations to assist orphans are accepted, and the Adoption Bureau issues receipts for these orphanages... The adoptive parents I assist entrust me with the disbursement of their voluntary donations. It has been my pleasure to utilize the donations in the most responsible way possible.

But according to the information SIA and HIC send people interested in a Cambodia adoption, there is a set - not voluntary - fee of $3500 that the agencies allocate to the orphanage centers.

HIC tells prospective clients: "[The] orphanage and donation service fee is to be given directly to Lauryn Galindo, the Adoption Facilitator in new and clean $100 bills (no markings on the bill). The orphanage donation/ service fee is in cash $3,500 US."

But neither the agencies, Galindo, nor the Ministry of Social Affairs will account for the $5,500 that the agencies say must be wired directly to Cambodia within 48 hours of prospective parents agreeing to adopt a child.

The Ministry of Social Affairs (MoSA) is responsible for processing applications by foreigners to adopt Cambodian children. The Ministry's Deputy Director of the Child Welfare Department, You Sinim, told the Post that there were no substantial paperwork fees. She would not provide a precise figure, but said it only amounted to a few thousand riel for photocopying expenses.

Sinim said she knew nothing about the $5500 the agencies charge for Cambodian Government paperwork fees.

She said the MoSA's Adoption Bureau first checks the documents of foreigners applying to adopt. Then they investigate if the child in question was really an orphan, or abandoned, so that there will be no complaints later on.

If satisfied, the MoSA sends a letter to the Council of Ministers requesting approval for the adoption. Before the Council gives its approval, they ask the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for its opinion on the matter. If Foreign Affairs is satisfied, then the Council sends a letter back to MoSA saying the adoption can proceed, said Sinim.

Sinim said that in 1999 the Government approved 381 adoptions by foreigners. The US Embassy in Phnom Penh said last year the embassy processed 240 visas for infants adopted in Cambodia.

The French Embassy did not provide a figure, but a spokesperson said in recent months there had been a marked increase in the number of French families adopting from Cambodia.

However, a foreign couple who were living in Cambodia and who adopted a Cambodian child provided the Post with a list of the unofficial fees various Cambodian government ministries insist on. They discovered this list on a visit to a local orphanage where they were shown a letter titled: "Possible Expenses of Adoption of Child: Confidential".

They asked the director of the orphanage for a copy of the letter. The director refused to give a copy, but allowed the couple to make the following notes from the list of fees contained in the letter:

1. Ministry of Social Affairs - $2000. One needs to pay the administrative office up to the highest level.

2. Submit papers to the Council of Ministers for approval. Big payments need to be paid to the [Council of Ministers] since there are many units that check and verify and approve the submitted papers - Bureau d'Ordre, Head of Section, Vice Minister, Council of Ministers. Total: $2000.

3. After Council of Ministers, all papers and documents need to be submitted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for approval. Some payments need to be made there - Bureau d'Ordre, Administrative Office, Head of Consul Section, Minister. Total: $2000.

4. All papers returned to the Ministry of Social Affairs for certification to be issued. Final step - money needs to be paid again for computer work. Total: $500.

5. Telephone cost: $150.

6. Medical certificate from clinic: $350."

Last, there were registration and orphanage fees which came to another $3000. So according to the letter's fee list, the total amount of money paid to Cambodian Government officials and to the orphanage came to $10,000.

The couple who took the notes told the Post the letter went on to say that the money for processing all the papers must be provided in "due full amount" so it can be spent while working on the paperwork.

An NGO director, who did not want to be named, but with considerable experience with orphanages in Cambodia, told the Post: "The costs for adoptions are fixed and agreed in the home country of the adopting parents, not in Cambodia, and I know for a fact that some agents use a large percentage of the fees received to grease the palms of Cambodian officials in Ministries.

"I feel the high cost of adoptions can be laid squarely at the feet of Cambodian public servants who are forced into charging for their work simply because their salaries are too low, and too late, too often."

An American woman, whose adoption story is posted on the web, decided to abandon her attempt to adopt a Chinese baby when she and her husband heard the process was much quicker in Cambodia.

"Our documents were being authenticated for China when we heard of a Cambodian adoption program that would only take a few months, offered through Seattle International Adoptions.

"We jumped from the slow boat to China and on to the Cambodian bobsled," she wrote.

SIA said it takes about seven months to complete the whole adoption process. Single people may adopt from Cambodia.

For Cambodian adoptions there are no restrictions about having other children at home or having been previously divorced, said SIA.

"If you are childless you must be open to receiving a boy or a girl ... if you have a boy already, you may request a girl ... if you are a single woman with no children, you may request a girl but should you decide to adopt again, you must be open to a boy or an older toddler girl.

"Single men can apply to adopt boys only at this time ... it typically takes approximately three months to complete a dossier. The time between submitting the dossier and having a referral is typically about one-two months. Expect a longer wait for infant girls."

2000 May 26