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Mother yearns for contact with daughters


Written by Stephen O'Connell and Lon Nara

A CAMBODIAN mother desperately wants contact with her two daughters, adopted by an American family without her permission

Kim Sophoan, a 33-year-old mother of three from Battambang, told the Post that the Director of the Women and Orphans Vocational Association (WOVA), Chhim Naly, tricked her into giving her daughters away.

WOVA, an adoption center near Phnom Penh, is used as a source of "orphans" by American adoption agencies, including Seattle International Adoption - the company which facilitated the adoption of Sophoan's daughters.

And it receives financial support from The Sharing Foundation, a US-based humanitarian NGO.

When Sophoan turned to the Ministry of Women's and Veterans' Affair's (MWVA) Counter Trafficking Office for help, the Chief of Counter Trafficking, Sun Vanna, simply brokered financial settlements between the mother and WOVA's Director, Chhim Naly.

A human rights investigator calls this a clear case of child trafficking which implicates the birth mother, the Ministry, and WOVA's Director.

This case comes in the wake of an increasing number of reports of child trafficking and Government corruption in connection with international adoptions from Cambodia.

Sophoan told the Post that her daughters, Srey Lieu, 9, and Srey Mom, 12, disappeared from her life in 1997.

Sophoan's first husband died of disease in 1991. She struggled to provide for her daughters, but life for her family was difficult.

In 1997 Sophoan came to Phnom Penh with her daughters to visit Naly's step mother. She knew Naly and her family from the years they spent together during the Khmer Rouge regime. She spoke to the women about her troubles.

"After the death of my husband, my two children were lonely because I had to go out all day to make a living and I did not return until late at night. There was no one to stay with them.

"Then Naly said I could leave the children with her and she would make sure they received an education."

Sophoan said she gratefully accepted Naly's offer to look after the daughters so that she could be free to trade vegetables between Poipet and Battambang.

"On that day I left my children with Naly and I went back home. She gave me 80,000 riel ($20). Ten days later I returned to Phnom Penh and went to Naly's house in Steung Meanchey. She then told me my children had been sent to the States.

"I hadn't signed any papers saying I had abandoned my children. I had considered Naly like my sister," she said.

Her two children had been adopted by the same family in America just after Khmer New Year, in 1997.

A year after her daughters were sent abroad, Sophoan returned to Phnom Penh to get information about them. She learned then that Naly had changed the girls names.

"I told Naly that I wanted to thank the people looking after my children and I asked her if I could speak to them. When I went to her house I saw many babies there. I asked her if she was trafficking all those babies."

Naly refused to tell her where her daughters were located. When Sophoan asked to borrow 50,000 riel for the taxi fare back to Battambang, she said Naly only cursed her.

Sophoan left Naly's house very upset and a moto driver took her to the Ministry of Women's and Veterans' Affairs for help.

At MWVA an agreement was soon brokered between Naly and Sophoan by Sun Vanna - Chief of the Counter Trafficking Bureau.

Sophoan was paid $864, but she was given no information about her daughters. "I wondered why I wasn't allowed to speak to my children. I am their mother."

The Post obtained a copy of the agreement kept on file by Vanna. The hand-written document is dated June 3, 1999, but Sophoan insists that it was drafted in mid-1998.

It states: "I, Chhim Naly, handed over a sum of $864 to Kim Sophoan for paying off the mortgage to get back [her] house and land in Sdao village, Sdao district, Battambang Province.

"I, Kim Sophoan, promise that I will stop causing money problems for Chhim Naly. But regarding my two children, I will keep in touch with them and their adoptive parents."

Vanna said the money was passed to Sophoan at the MWVA building.

This agreement was thumbprinted and signed by a number of witnesses, including Kim Sophoan ("Money receiver"), Chhim Naly ("Money Handler"), and MWVA's Sun Vanna ("Money receiver and Handler").

Sophoan told the Post that after she received the $864, she went back to Battambang to pay off the mortgage on her house and land.

Sophoan said she had her next meeting with Naly in December 1999. "Naly said I could meet my children. I came, but I did not see them."

She said she complained again to MWVA and Vanna brokered another settlement.

Sophoan said she was asked by MWVA's Chief of Counter Trafficking, Sun Vanna, to meet her at the Psar Chas market. There, she said she was handed $2,400 in cash.

"I was very frightened to receive that money in the street. I was surrounded by a mob of moto drivers," said Sophoan.

Sophoan said that according to a document Vanna ordered her to thumbprint, she was supposed to receive $3,000, but she suspects $600 was held back as a commission fee by MWVA staff.

"Naly handed this money to Madame Vanna to pass on to me, and asked me not to sue her. Madame Vanna forced me to take the money at the market, not at MWVA.

"Madame Vanna forced me to put my thumb print on an agreement that for $3,000 I would transfer motherhood to Naly. I don't know when this contract was written. The dates of the [contracts] are incorrect and I don't know why. I thumbprinted them because I was forced to do so and Vanna did not allow me to read the contract."

Vanna told the Post the contract was thumbprinted on August 28, 1998, but Sophoan said it was thumbprinted at the end of the harvest season, in December 1999.

The contract states: "I, Kim Sophoan, 32, live in Sdao village, Sdao district, Battambang Province. I, the mother of two girls - Dany, 8, and Dana , 6 [not their real names]- would like to transfer motherhood of my two children to Chhim Naly, assistant for WOVA in Sangkat Chom Chao, to be their grandmother in order to raise and find a future for them.

"Because my family's living standard is very difficult, I am not able to provide a bright future. Chhim Naly will become mother of the two children from the date of making the contract. Whereas I, the birth mother, will no longer have rights as their mother. Moreover, I will not come seeking any trouble with Chim Naly.

"I would like to express my profound gratitude to your generosity in adopting my two children, and for providing me $3,000 to be used as capital for launching a business and for giving me good advice.

"Following the above description, if I, Kim Sophoan, do not comply with the contract and still make contact with the two children, I will take responsibility before the law."

Vanna told the Post that she had nothing to do with the money and said the $3,000 was paid to Sophoan at the WOVA center in Chom Chao. "Chhim Naly gave Sophoan $3,000 herself," said Vanna.

"[Sophoan] became poor trash [roham ] after her husband's death. I wanted to uphold her, to give her money to build a new life with her new husband ... Based on my sympathy for her I gave her $3,000 in order to pay off the mortgage to get back her land and house. But she is a real ingrate. The $864 and $3,000 were my personal money," said Naly.

"I sent her children to the United States to be brought up by a tycoon family. When they are 18 years of age they will show their thanks by giving her money and feeding her for the rest of her life. She does not worry for the future of her children," she said.

Naly told the Post that Sophoan is her relative, but Sophoan said they are not related - they had just been close friends

Sophoan said she still wanted the address of her children and she complained again to MWVA in September this year.

She told the Post that she doesn't consider the previous payments from Naly adequate compensation for the loss of her daughters. Sophoan said she didn't know how much money Naly had received for them, but if she can't have contact with the girls then she wants $5,000 each for them.

Vanna told the Post that after receiving requests for more information about Sophoan's daughters' whereabouts, she referred the case to the Phnom Penh Municipality First Deputy Police Commissioner, Muong Khim, on September 11, 2000.

Muong Khim told the Post his office has no expertise in cases like this, but he felt it was not a case of trafficking seeing contracts had been signed.

"If [Sophoan] does not agree, she can bring back the children to collect rubbish in Cambodia....I will exchange my three-year-old daughter with her if [Sophoan] agrees to run the proper paperwork with me," said Khim

Sophoan said she now fears for her life "Naly is very wealthy. I dare not go to Steung Meanchey market alone. I'm afraid she'll use a black way to shut me up."

Sophoan said she wants to meet her daughters' adoptive parents. "I don't know where America is. The police did not say anything, but they gave me a photo with the address of the parents. Naly said she didn't know their names. I said, 'you don't even know their name, how can I contact them?'"

But the Post obtained the adoptive parents' names and address in the United States from the back of photos of the girls on file at MWVA.

"I want to be able to touch my children, but I want them to be able to stay in America.

"I don't want money from [the American family], but I would not refuse to receive money from them. I heard they are tycoons. I'll be very happy if I can meet with them."

On October 9 Mu Sochua, Minister of Women's and Veteran Affairs told the Post that she had just received information about this case from MWVA's Under-Secretary of State, Chumteav Im Run.

"Acting on complaints of the birth mother, I will order a committee established to investigate. I am going to fire my officials who were involved in this.

"Kim Sophoan came to our ministry asking for our intervention. But the Ministry of Women's and Veterans' Affairs will not handle such a problem again in the future because adoptions are the work of the Ministry of Social Affairs," said Sochua.

2000 Oct 13