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The waiting game

By Conall O Fátharta

Monday, November 01, 2010

SINCE May of last year, countless headlines have reported the clamour amongst lobby groups for adoptive parents, politicians and scores of couples left in limbo to reopen Vietnam as a country from which Irish couples can adopt.

In May of last year, following concerns about adoption procedures, Minister for Children Barry Andrews decided not to renew Ireland’s bilateral agreement with Vietnam on intercountry adoption.

Amidst accusations of an information vacuum on the subject and calls for a new bilateral, Mr Andrews stood firm, citing concerns about adoption procedures in the country.

Blogs have been humming about the need to reopen Vietnam as quickly as possible, while TDs routinely ask parliamentary questions on the matter.

Understandably, adoptive parents have been left devastated by the decision. They had spent years going through a rigorous adoption assessment process and thousands of euro in adoption fees in order to have a child. Mr Andrews’ decision meant that day was being put off indefinitely.

Vietnam has continually ranked among the most popular countries of origin for intercountry adoption, with at least 10,000 children being adopted from there in the last decade.

Prior to the lapse of the bilateral agreement, Ireland had adopted more than 600 children from the south-east Asian country between 2002 and 2008. That was more than three times the number Canada adopted and also significantly more than countries like Sweden, Switzerland and Denmark. Only from Russia did Ireland adopt more children in this period.

Ireland chose not to resume its bilateral with Vietnam based on a number of concerns raised in Unicef’s International Social Services (ISS) report. Apart from direct criticism of Cork-based agency Helping Hands, which is under investigation by the Adoption Board over fees it charged prospective adoptive parents to adopt from Vietnam, the report also contained other worrying elements.

For example, the report mentioned major concerns that there was virtually "no active promotion of domestic adoptions" so that children could, at the very least, remain in their country of birth. Major concerns were also raised about the origin of children.

These concerns are brought into stark and shocking focus when the reasons why the USA refused to renew its bilateral agreement with Vietnam in September 2008 are examined.

Recently released documents from the US State Department should make for uncomfortable reading for anyone associated with intercountry adoption here. Throughout hundreds of pages of documents are phrases like "baby buying", "baby farming", "fraud" and "corruption". The internal documents from 2007 and 2008, released to EJ Graf of Brandeis University’s Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, detail systemic nationwide corruption in Vietnam and corroborate what was reported in Unicef’s ISS report.

In fact, the US documents go even further, outlining, in startlingly frank terms, a network of people from adoption agency representatives, orphanage directors, hospital administrators, right through to government officials and local police who were profiting by paying for children, coercing and defrauding natural parents into giving their children up for adoption. In some cases, they simply stole children from their families to sell them to unsuspecting American couples.

It is not the first time western countries have expressed major concerns about adoption practices in Vietnam. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, there were countless stories that adoptions were being carried out through corrupt and illegitimate means. However, following pressure and numerous prosecutions, various reforms were put in place in Vietnam. This led to countries such as Ireland and the USA signing bilaterals with the country to continue adoptions.

However, in late 2007 and early 2008, the US State Department began to record very serious concerns that there was a suspicious surge in "abandoned babies" in orphanages that had contracts with international adoption agencies. The issue of agencies providing "humanitarian aid", something Irish adoptive parents will be familiar with, was seen as a key factor in ensuring pressure was kept on orphanages to "find babies". In other words, to ensure that supply met demand.

In one October 2007 email, Jonathan Aloisi, deputy chief of mission in the US Embassy in Hanoi, reported about an upcoming visit of Assistant Secretary of State Maura Harty and what she would have "on her plate" when it came to the issue of inter-country adoption.

"The adoption cases are getting increasingly problematic, with strong indications of a return to ‘baby buying’ and worse. The paper trail for almost every case raises questions, and we find problems and further questions in virtually every case we investigate."

Similar concerns were raised by the US Ambassador to Vietnam, Michael W Michalak, who stated in one communication that: "Government-run clinics and orphanages are actively engaged in baby buying and are lying to birth mothers to secure children for international adoption. Further, when wrongdoing is exposed, rather than investigating corrupt local officials, the police and the Department of International Adoptions are prepared to use their considerable power to ‘correct the situation’ by forcing witnesses and even birth mothers to recant the statements they gave to consular officers so that the adoptions can be completed."

The documents also reveal multiple cases of corrupt adoption practices. In some cases, which are heavily redacted, titles such as: "A child for a pig"; "A town that sells its children"; and "I never gave up my son" are enough to tell the tale. However, other cases are more specific.

In one embassy dispatch, US investigators outline how two ethnic Muong women were promised the equivalent of 10 months salary by village officials to place their newborn children in the local social sponsoring centre (essentially an orphanage). In both cases, it was never made clear to the women they were giving their children up for adoption. The women were also paid very little money after being told it was used to pay vastly inflated hospital bills. After US officials denied adoption visas, both natural mothers were "summoned" to appear at the Commune People’s Committee Offices where they were "criticised for irresponsibly becoming pregnant and told to sign papers confirming the relinquishment". The women were then ordered to the offices of the head of the Department for Intercountry Adoptions, Vic Duc Long, in Hanoi at a personal cost of three times their monthly salary. According to the US State Department document, both women "reported that they were so frightened about the trip that they became physically sick".

Before US investigators spoke to the women again, local police officials had also spoken to them and "reminded" them that they had consented to the adoption. However, thanks to US pressure, both adoptions were stopped.

However, US officials found a third woman from the same village, whose child had already been adopted and brought to live in the USA. The adoption was contracted without the woman’s consent or understanding.

Other cases outlined in the documents reveal instances were women were told their children were to be adopted domestically and would return home when they were 11 years old, while, in another instance, a local hospital essentially kidnapped children by refusing to release the child until the natural parents had paid inflated medical bills. Other cases show illiterate women being made to sign consent forms they could not read, let alone understand.

Cases such as these forced the US Ambassador to Vietnam to conclude in one communication in March 2008 that there was essentially a market for children in Vietnam with a standard price being paid for babies. "Overall, the evidence collected during this visit to the province adds to the mounting body of evidence that in Vietnam there is a market on which children are being bought and sold often against the express wishes of their biological parents. The practice has become so widespread in some parts of (location redacted) that a market and a standard price for a child has emerged.

"Yet, local, provincial and central authorities all participated in the production and certification of documents that they knew were false. As a result we must conclude that these documents are unreliable and that no competent Vietnamese authority exists either to verify the facts in an adoption case or to protect children from being reduced to a commodity, and sadly, one worth less than a pig," wrote Ambassador Michalak.

By December 2007, Assistant Secretary of State Maura Harty was in Vietnam to discuss the seriousness of the adoption situation with Vietnamese officials. During her visit, US officials repeatedly pressed for Vietnam to ratify and implement the Hague Convention, even offering technical assistance to help draft Hague-compliant adoption law. She also expressed her concern that officials were blocking US investigators from examining the origins of orphans in 17 of Vietnam’s 63 provinces.

Embassy officials note in one memo that head of the Department for Intercountry Adoptions Vic Duc Long believed the problem was that American agencies’ contracts with provincial authorities for "humanitarian donations" was putting pressure on the adoption system to meet the growing need to provide children for adoption.

In short, the very problem highlighted in the ISS report, that orphanages were producing "abandoned" children to meet the demand of foreign adoption service providers.

That report noted "the provision of humanitarian aid as a condition for undertaking intercountry adoptions from a given country arouses far more concerns than it does support".

Certainly, the cases and concerns of US authorities in 2007 and 2008 seem to confirm that statement.

Vietnam considered the humanitarian aid requirements as being of the utmost importance and it was also a key component in Ireland’s 2004 bilateral agreement with the country.

In fact, the official fees charged for the adoption process in Vietnam amount to approximately $200 (€143.25). However, Ireland’s only adoption mediation agency, Helping Hands, which was singled out in the ISS report, charged couples $11,100. No less than $9,000 of this was identified as a required "humanitarian aid" donation.

The ISS report criticised the fact that a recent $1,000 increase in the adoption fee was in fact an increase in the "humanitarian aid" component of the total cost charged to couples. The report said this should have been made clear in an information letter sent to the Adoption Board which said it was an increase requested by Vietnamese Authorities.

Helping Hands admitted that its humanitarian aid was transferred as per the bilateral agreement, but "how these funds are transmitted, distributed and ultimately accounted for is a matter for the Vietnamese authorities [and] we were concerned that we could not account for how this money was spent."

Given the US evidence of widespread corruption among Vietnamese authorities, as well as Vic Duc Long’s statements to US officials that the level of humanitarian donations was putting pressure on the adoption system to meet the growing need to provide children for adoptive couples, such a statement could not but arouse concern. Amidst mounting evidence of baby selling and baby farming, the USA declined to renew its bilateral with Vietnam in September 2008.

Ireland followed suit in May 2009.

The Irish Examiner understands that the push not to renew the bilateral with Vietnam came after "serious concerns" were expressed directly to the Adoption Board by the Irish Embassy in Vietnam. These were then relayed to the Attorney General and the Minister for Children Barry Andrews.

These concerns were further cemented following a visit by senior officials at the department and members of the Adoption Board to Vietnam in October 2009. It is also believed the inclusion of humanitarian aid as a requirement in the 2004 bilateral agreement with Vietnam is now seen as a serious error.

In both the USA and Ireland, the decision not to renew their respective bilateral agreements with Vietnam attracted widespread media attention. In Ireland, numerous couples were left in limbo after spending years undergoing assessment and thousands of euro in a lengthy adoption process. The Government continues to be lobbied to reopen Vietnam as quickly as possible.

TDs and lobby groups representing adoptive parents urged for a new bilateral to be put in place.

Understandably, adoptive parents were devastated and criticised Mr Andrews for failing to provide enough information as to why the bilateral agreement was not being renewed.

As recently as last week, Fine Gael TD Charles Flanagan asked a parliamentary question as to the situation regarding adoptions from Vietnam and if they were expected to recommence.

However, given the shocking evidence revealed in internal US State Department and Embassy documents, coupled with the Irish Embassy’s own serious concerns raised in 2009, Mr Andrews’ decision seems to have been a prudent one.

Speaking on RTÉ radio recently, chairman of the Adoption Board Geoffrey Shannon made his feelings known on the issue, acknowledging that there could no longer be any link between so called "humanitarian aid" and individual adoptions.

"The elephant in the room over the past number of years has been around humanitarian aid. My view is that there should be a clear distinction between humanitarian aid and individual adoptions and I think that that’s very important to state.

"I’m not saying that we shouldn’t provide humanitarian aid but the humanitarian aid should be provided for in the context of Ireland’s very generous contributions to aid to third world countries and to developing countries, but there should be a very clear demarcation line. It must be transparent and every cent given in humanitarian aid must be accounted for in terms of child protection systems and improvements in child protection systems."

As for Vietnam, Mr Andrews’ recent comments suggest that Vietnam will not be re-opened for international adoption until it ratifies the Hague Convention.

"It is my understanding that the Vietnamese National Assembly has recently passed legislation which should allow for a move to ratification of the Hague Convention. In the event that both Ireland and Vietnam ratify the Convention, there is every reason to expect that adoptions from Vietnam could recommence subject to the provisions of the Convention and the legislation in both countries being met in this regard," he said.

However, the new Adoption Act, due to come into force here today, states that Ireland can only adopt from countries that have signed up to the Hague Convention, or from countries with which it has a bilateral agreement. The reason bilaterals are still to be permitted is that most of the countries that have ratified the Convention have few children for adoption, a fact recently attested to by International Adoption Association chairman Brian O’Callaghan.

Given the failure of both the previous USA and Irish bilateral agreements with Vietnam to combat corrupt practices, it is to be hoped that any future agreements will be entered into in the strictest terms possible.

The ISS report dedicates a substantial section to the dangers of bilateral agreements in relation to intercountry adoption. It can only be hoped that these concerns are heeded. Otherwise, stories about children being treated as commodities "worth less than a pig" will be making headlines again.

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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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