The waiting game
By Conall O Fátharta
Monday, November 01,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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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