exposing the dark side of adoption
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The Tale of Angelina's New Son


The boy whom the world would know as Pax Thien Jolie was brought to the Tam Binh orphanage when he was one month old after being abandoned by his mother at Tu Du obstretics hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. "His mother gave birth and left immediately," said Nguyen Van Trung, director of orphanage. Hospital authorities put up notices and tried to search for the mother for 30 days but no one showed up. So he was placed in the orphanage, which was provided with a police report of attempts to find his birth parents, as is standard practice in Vietnam.

The child was known at the orphanage as Pham Quang Sang. Pham is a fairly common family name in Vietnam; the second two given names together mean "bright light." No one at the orphanage seemed to know for sure — the name was on his file when he arrived at the orphanage — but the name may be the only thing his birth mother left to him. It is standard practice for Vietnamese hospitals to require women in labor to provide proposed names for the child, one for a boy and a second for a girl, in case the mother dies in childbirth. The practice is a legacy of the hard years of famine and poverty after the war when women more often died in childbirth.

As it happened, according to Trung, when the actress Angelina Jolie applied to Vietnam through an agency asking for a healthy boy between ages 3 and 5, Pax happened to be the only one at Tam Binh orphanage who met the criteria. There were 31 other boys the same age, but all of them had relatives or were not "healthy." "Only Sang met the set criteria for adoption in general and her request," Trung said. "She was lucky at the time she applied that there was this boy who met the request and criteria." (Vietnam's national adoption director says that he prepared 10 dossiers of boys, including those at other orphanages, in response to Jolie's original application and criteria.)

"In past years, we have received so many applications for adoptions but few children really meet with the requirements," Tam Binh's director Trung continues. "In so many cases, they are not totally or really abandoned — they still have parents out there and sometimes even other family who come to visit them. For example, the mother may have been sent to jail or is in a mental institution, or the parents may have leprosy — so we cannot let them go." Some of the children also have physical or mental handicaps that make them harder to place. In the end, only about 30% of Tam Binh's children eventually get adopted. The same situation applies to the rest of the country's orphanages. In fact, in the group picture of Tam Binh orphans that circulated shortly after the adoption took place, the boy who is now Pax Thien Jolie was the only child in the portrait who was eligible for adoption, according to Trung. "None of the others in the photo are slated for adoption."

Trung describes Pax Thien (a name in two languages, the Latin for "peace" and the Vietnamese for "sky") as a bright and amiable boy,though with a tendency to be laughing one moment and then turning suddenly shy, as he apparently did when he started crying when he met Jolie on the day he was adopted. "It's common for ophans to be shy. When they play in a group or team, he's very active, but shy once separated."

One person who will especially miss Pax is Bui Thi Bach Tuyen, who was his primary caretaker for the last 18 months (the orphanage has about 15 caretakers at any given time for the 153 children who are Pax's age). Wandering around the orphanage dormitories, Ms. Tuyen points out the small now empty bed that Pax slept in in the corner of the room. "He was here, and now he's gone," she says sadly. "I'm very happy for him. I miss him and so I am sad — but we have other children to take care of." She adds, "Everyone is sad since he's left," Tuyen says. "We have mixed feelings — happy, proud of him, missing him."

Ms. Tuyen says she didn't have time during the brief ceremony to coach Jolie on how Pax should be fed, but she's not worried that Pax will have trouble adjusting to the food in America, since he already eats some Western-style food. "Sang loves to eat yogurt and spaghetti." (Unlike most east Asians, many Vietnamese eat locally made yogurt, a legacy of French colonialists.) "He's very clever and I hope he has a good life. We just hope he will return to visit us. But we don't know," says Tuyen.

Vietnam's rules of adoption call for Jolie to send the orphanage regular reports and photos of Pax's progress. "For Sang's case," says Trung, Tam Binh's director, "she is required to send a report every six months updating us about his health, mental development, hobbies — and a photo," says Trung. "It's required for the first three years. After three years, it's not required because we can see if the kids are being taken care of for the first three years so we can be assured they are in the good home."

If Jolie had not whisked him from the orphanage to instant fame, Pax Thien most likely would have ended up being adopted by another, probably foreign, family, because of the intense overseas demand. "At present, there are more [foreign] requests for adoptions than there are eligible children for adoptions," says Vu Duc Long, head of Vietnam's International Adoption Department, which is part of the Ministry of Justice. "There is more demand than supply." Last year, 163 U.S. parents adopted Vietnamese children, making Vietnam the 14th most popular adoption source. (China is number 1 with more than 6,000 U.S. adoptions in the same period.)

Ho Thi Kim Thoa, who is second-in-charge at the orphanage, remembers the first day Jolie and her partner, the actor Brad Pitt, visited last November bearing toys and playing with children. She didn't know at the time she was in the presence of two of the world's biggest superstars. Asked if she did not notice that the woman playing with the children back then was exceptionally beautiful, Thoa shrugged and said "she was dressed normally and wasn't wearing any make-up, I guess." Thoa adds, "We considered her as just another guest giving charity at that time and had no idea she might adopt from here."

What Thoa does remember is Jolie's ease with the children then — and now that she knows more about about the boy's new mother, she says has no worries about his future. "I think she'll be a good mother to him," she says. "She already has experience."

Kay Johnson, TIME's Hanoi-based reporter, also contributed to our sister publication People magazine's coverage of the Jolie adoption. For People's story and exclusive photographs go to People.com

2007 Mar 22