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Adopt change

By Conall Ó Fátharta

Irish Examiner, Wednesday, February 01, 2012

The discovery of a Mexican child trafficking ring brought questions about inter-country adoption to the fore. However, this should have happened long ago, writes Conall Ó Fátharta

Any future adoptions to Ireland will be far fewer and the children will be of an older age profile

INTER-COUNTRY adoption is one of the few topics that takes a scandal before a wider debate on the ethics of the practice is considered.

The questioning of 11 Irish couples in relation to a child trafficking ring in Mexico, which may have operated for over 20 years, and which allegedly involves a lawyer who claims to have carried out about 60 of Ireland’s 92 Mexican adoptions, has again brought the moral and ethical issues around inter-country adoption sharply into focus.

Much of the media attention and comments by politicians have focused on the plight of the heartbroken Irish couples detained in Mexico.

Few mentioned the Mexican victims: The children and mothers, already victims of grinding poverty, illiteracy, and circumstances of birth.

This is not to denigrate the motives or genuine nature of Irish adoptive parents and prospective adoptive parents. There can be nothing more honourable than giving a needing child a home.

However, the debate is that inter-country adoption is saving millions of children worldwide from abandonment, abuse or life in an institution. The reality is not so black and white.

Inter-country adoption is a relatively recent phenomenon. Since the mid-1990s, as the numbers available for domestic adoption fell, the number of foreign adoptions worldwide more than doubled up to 2010.

The decline since then is largely due to increased regulation in countries encouraged by the Hague Convention. This urges states to provide support for natural families or promote domestic adoption.

Sadly, the boom in inter-country adoptions came with stories of fraud, corruption, baby buying and horror stories of children being coerced or stolen from their natural families. Such a growth routinely outpaced regulation in some countries and has led to an adoption industry, which Unicef noted was often driven by demand, rather than the needs of children.

A statistic often quoted is Unicef’s estimate of 153m orphans worldwide. However, this figure is based on the definition of an "orphan" as a child who has lost one or both parents. The vast majority of "orphans" are living with a surviving family member, and 95% are 5 or older.

As EJ Graf of Brandeis University’s Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism wrote in her influential article The Lie We Love: "Orphans are rarely healthy babies; healthy babies are rarely orphaned".

Whether or not people choose to believe such statements or Unicef statistics is another matter, but they are worthy of debate about good practice in inter-country adoption.

What is certain is that a boom and bust pattern often develops internationally with regard to inter-country adoption. Countries open, allow the poorly-regulated adoption of large numbers of children, and close down amidst scandal. Western countries then simply move onto the next popular sending country.

Ireland has been no different. Following concerns raised in a Unicef report that the availability of children for adoption corresponded more to demand than to the actual needs of "abandoned" and orphaned children, and amidst widespread reports of baby selling and baby farming, Ireland chose not to renew its bilateral agreement with Vietnam and ceased adopting from there.

Before that, Vietnam, Guatemala and Romania, which accounted for 25% of all adoptions into Ireland between 1991 and 2008, all closed due to concerns around corruption with the process. In fact, Guatemala is commonly regarded as having had the world’s worst record as regards corruption in inter-country adoption.

Now, TDs are lobbying furiously for a bilateral agreement with Ethiopia, an internationally popular sending country.

Numerous allegations of corruption, fraud, and the direct recruitment of children from birth parents by adoption service providers in Ethiopia have been raised recently, most notably by the US state department. Few TDs have mentioned these.

When a country does reform, the numbers available for adoption usually fall dramatically. That pattern is now being seen in Vietnam, which recently ratified the Hague Convention. Any future adoptions to Ireland will be far fewer and the children will be of an older age profile.

Ireland should be endeavouring to adopt from primarily Hague Convention countries and only agree bilateral agreements which are strictly in line with the spirit of the convention.

The Mexico case is interesting for another reason. It yet again raises questions for the Adoption Authority of Ireland (AAI), a body which has been routinely reticent to answer any.

Carlos Lopez, one of the lawyers at the centre of the Mexican investigation, and who has denied any wrongdoing, has said he helped 60 Irish couples adopt legally from Mexico since 2004.

The AAI has, to date, declined to answer specific queries in relation to Mr Lopez’s involvement in previous adoptions into Ireland, saying it will not comment on individual cases. All it will say is that it is satisfied any adoptions registered here from Mexico are safe and secure.

This mirrors the response it gave in 2006 in relation to the activities of My Lind Soland in another adoption scandal affecting Ireland.

That year, it emerged that Ms Soland — who was interviewed by the then Adoption Board in 2004 for the role of facilitator for adoptions of Vietnamese babies by Irish couples, and who later operated in this role for the Helping Hands adoption agency — had served a three-year sentence in the late 1990s for fraud, obstruction of justice and intimidation of witnesses.

She was later secretly recorded saying how the 150 adoptions she facilitated for Irish couples were accompanied by fraudulent paperwork which altered the children’s histories. Concerns about her involvement had also been previously brought to the board.

Following the furore, the Adoption Board informed the gardaí and said it would launch an internal investigation. There is no record of this report ever being made public, although the Adoption Board confirmed that it sent a copy to a journalist.

Its public response at the time was simply to state that the adoptions in question were fully legal.

However, questions must remain concerning any previous Mexican adoptions to Ireland which may have involved Mr Lopez. Was he involved in 60 of the 92 adoptions into Ireland, as he has claimed? If so, will the AAI launch an investigation into the matter?

Simply not answering these questions is not good enough. The entire adoption community — adoptive parents, adopted people and natural parents — deserve better.

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“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage, to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning . . . and the most disquieting loneliness." 

Alex Haley, Author of Roots 





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