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From Ethica:

Orphaned or stolen? The US State Department investigates adoption from Nepal, 2006-2008

February 24, 2011

From The Huffington Post and The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism:

Exclusive State Department internal cables from Freedom of Information Act requests

Children abducted from their families for international adoption, so that middlemen could profit from Westerners’ cash. Families that left their babies temporarily with a child welfare center during times of illness or financial distress–only to discover on returning that, to their horror, their children had been sent away forever to Spain, Italy, or the U.S. A “demand and supply” effect: when international adoptions were suspended, reported “abandonments” drop. Fees that suddenly increase without rhyme or reason–unless orphanages needed more cash for bribes or just out of greed.

That’s what the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu was seeing between 2006 and 2008 when it checked into how children had become available for U.S. citizens to adopt, as documented in official internal cables received by the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.

During 2006, the first year of the U.S. investigation, 394 children were adopted internationally from Nepal; 66 of them by Americans. In March 2007, because of allegations of rampant corruption in orphanages and adoption agencies, the Nepali government halted international adoptions. Even after Nepal allowed international adoptions to resume in early 2009, the U.S. government found that fraud and corruption persisted, causing such concern that the U.S. State Department suspended all adoptions from Nepal in August of 2010.

During the period between 2006 and 2009, 950 children from Nepal had been adopted internationally, 168 from the U.S.

Now dozens of American families are caught between these two countries’ conflicting regulations over international adoption, and have, for some months, been stuck in Kathmandu. Here’s their dilemma: under Nepalese law, they have adopted and have full custody of and responsibility for their new children. But the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu has not yet issued the visas that will allow those families to bring home their new children. Instead, in concert with the Department of Homeland Security’s Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu has been asking for more information and investigating whether the children are indeed in need of adoption–or whether the paperwork that declares the children free for adoption is false.

For the Americans in Kathmandu, this is a shocking disruption of their lives. But for longtime watchers of international adoption, the story is painfully familiar. Just in the past decade, this has happened to families hoping to adopt from Cambodia, from Vietnam, and from Guatemala. It may soon be about to happen to families hoping to adopt from Ethiopia. Once a U.S. Embassy begins to spot “irregularities” –signs of fraud, coercion, corruption, baby buying, and other serious problems–in adoptions from that particular country, it begins to post carefully worded cautions to prospective parents on the Embassy’s website and on the State Department adoption website. Sometimes the nation reforms its adoption process. But if not, eventually the U.S. State Department comes to think it has no choice–given its limited powers to regulate or oversee adoptions–but to stop approving adoptions from that country altogether, lest the U.S. unwittingly approves adoptions of children whose birthfamilies never intended to give them up. U.S. adopting families get caught in the middle of this policy change, legally responsible for children they cannot bring home.

How did it come to this, once again, in Kathmandu? For many years, Nepal allowed very few of its children to be adopted internationally–in part because, traditionally, Nepalese children were not abandoned. Rather, families in distress passed their children to grandparents, cousins, or others in their extended network. Nor did Nepal have a mechanism for domestic adoption that was in any way comparable to that of the West, or understand the concept of permanently relinquishing biological ties. Occasionally, visiting Western expats would meet an orphan or a child in dire circumstances and petition to bring him or her home, but for the most part, children in troubled situations were taken care of in their impoverished regions.

But in 2001, some international adoption agencies and facilitators discovered Nepal. International adoptions spiked from a total of 8 in the year 2000 to 394 in 2006–an enormous leap in a small country undergoing a civil war, when opportunities for corruption and fraud are often particularly rife.

With that rapid expansion, NGOs and the news media began to report on systematic adoption irregularities much like those that had already been seen in Cambodia and Vietnam. Orphanages were being started (or converted) specifically to focus on international adoption, rather than to offer temporary children’s shelters and boarding schools for poor families during periods of illness or financial stress. Illiterate parents who left their children in these child-caring institutions, expecting to bring the child home a few months later, would discover to their shock that the child had been adopted abroad. Apparently, once some corrupt officials and unscrupulous individuals discovered what large amounts of Western cash were available for each international adoption, they began to “find” the healthy infants and toddlers that Westerners most wanted to adopt. In 2007, plagued by these accusations, the government of Nepal shut down its international adoption program for reform.

To find out what had been happening behind the scenes that led to that 2007 adoption shutdown, the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to the U.S. State Department to learn what the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu and other official government bodies investigated American citizens’ applications for orphan visas. As E.J. Graff reported in “The Baby Business,” the U.S. government has until recently had very little power to regulate international adoption, to oversee how adoption agencies run their businesses, or to investigate whether other countries’ orphanages and officials may have bought, solicited, or otherwise fraudulently “found” children to offer for adoption. In her September 2010 article “Anatomy of an Adoption Crisis,” she reported on and analyzed a large cache of State Department documents related to the adoption fraud problem in Vietnam–documents much like the ones we present here.

These internal State Department documents about adoptions from Nepal point to a different, albeit similar, situation. This batch of FOIAs is made up entirely of official cables that the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu sent between March 2006 and September 2008 to the Secretary of State’s office in Washington, D.C., reporting on its troubling findings about adoptions. As a result, the story we find here is not as in-depth as what we found in the cables, emails, and other internal discussions about Vietnamese adoptions. Yet there is enough here to concern any parent who had hoped to adopt–or already has adopted–from Nepal. (Read more about the history of international adoption in Nepal and find resources and related documents.)…

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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." 

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