Maureen, Beth, and De Anna have never met. Yet, the three women share a common experience, one shared by hundreds of American families each year. These women, along with their husbands, began a quest last year to adopt a child from Cambodia. Each year, nearly 1,000 American families begin the process of adopting a Cambodian child, a program that has been profitable for families and children, as well as U.S.-Cambodia relations.
For De Anna Parker of Georgia, the process concluded with the adoption of her Cambodian daughter Bethany, brought home on Sept. 1, 2001. But for Maureen Conklin of Wisconsin and Beth Murschell of Florida, lagging only a few weeks behind the Parkers in the process made a lifetime's difference.
By late that month, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) suddenly halted all Cambodian adoptions. That hold continues today. The two women, along with three dozen other American families whose adoptions were frozen mid-process, found themselves in adoption limbo. The government's decision left them without a child, only a photo of the baby promised. The INS action was so unexpected that some Americans were stuck for weeks in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital, with their new baby pending approval.
The Internet has amplified the love-at-first-sight impact for families pursuing adoption. They readily find photos of available orphans and may become attached to a particular child. "We began looking into adoptions in Asian countries," Mrs. Conklin said. "The photo of Channy [a Cambodian girl] immediately grabbed my heart."
Mrs. Murschell had a similar experience after seeing a photo. "We have no children and have wanted to adopt for three years. We looked at a number of countries-Russia, China, Romania, and Korea. One day I was on the Internet and saw a photo of Sochea and Srey, a brother-sister sibling pair from Cambodia. I instantly fell in love."
The combination of parents longing to adopt a child added to the emotional attachment that many adoptive parents make once they have a photo may be the cause of a three-fold increase in the demand for international adoptions during the past decade. Last year American families adopted more than 18,000 foreign-born children. Leading the list of popular countries are Russia and China. Nearly 4,000 orphans were adopted from each last year. Other popular sources for American couples seeking to adopt orphans are South Korea, Vietnam, and Cambodia.
That demand has created a lucrative international adoption market. At an average price of $15,000 to $20,000 per adoption, the international adoption industry is now generating over $300 million annually. With so much money and emotion on the line, fraudulent adoptions are on the rise. Reports of two specific cases of adoption fraud prompted INS Commissioner James Ziglar to take the unprecedented step of suspending all adoptions from Cambodia.
Mr. Ziglar said the United States received reports of two Cambodian children-one four days old, the other six months old-who were "abducted from their birth mothers." When INS officials discovered that one of the children had been matched for adoption with a family in the United States, they launched an investigation.
Although the Cambodian government had given permission for the children to be adopted, "the supporting documentation, including birth certificate, certificate of abandonment, certificate of orphan status, and biography of the alleged abandoned children, was false," said Mr. Ziglar. Some of the documents were forged; others were intentionally mistranslated from Khmer to English. "Both children have now been returned to their birth mothers," said Mr. Ziglar.
Other would-be adoptive parents cite the huge numbers of orphans and wonder what will become of them during this moratorium. Official estimates place Cambodia's orphan population at 30,000, in part due to an AIDS epidemic that is decimating the adult population. Some humanitarian groups say the numbers may be higher. Sebastien Marot, who assists with adoptions of Cambodian children to France, believes that in two years the number of orphans will leap to 140,000.
With such large numbers of legitimate Cambodian orphans, it may seem surprising that some Cambodian agents are resorting to fraudulent means to find babies for adoption. "Not surprising," says Ted Olbrich, an American missionary based in Phnom Penh. "First you have desperately poor women giving birth to children that they may love but have no means of supporting. Then you have 'wealthy' Americans who will pay almost anything to secure a cute little Cambodian baby. It becomes a formula for disaster when an unethical baby-broker or adoption pimp steps into the middle."
Mr. Olbrich, who oversees 42 orphan care homes in Cambodia (but does not participate in international adoptions) explains the illicit process:
"Knowing that a desperate American couple will pay thousands of dollars for their 'bundle of joy,' some Cambodian agents have started taking baby 'orders.'
"If there is no child available to fill the order, they hit the streets visiting brothels and poor families seeking a child for purchase." Baby-brokers will offer the natural parents $100 to $300 for a child, says Mr. Olbrich. For most people, this represents a full year's wages. Other human-rights workers have described "child trafficking" cases where Cambodian agents pay poor mothers in the countryside as little as $30 for their newborn.
"The temptation is too great," Mr. Olbrich said. Papers are signed testifying the child is an orphan. Government clearance is often secured with bribes to officials and clerks in each of the five government ministries involved in adoptions.
United States immigration law requires an adoption agency to verify that a child meets a very specific legal definition of "orphan" before an adoption petition is approved. In simplest terms, a child is an orphan if the parents are dead or they have relinquished parental rights freely and without payment. According to Mr. Ziglar, "Because of questionable documentation in Cambodia we are unable to make the determination with a degree of certainty that the children are orphans."
Similar problems in Guatemala prompted the U.S. government to require a birth mother who was relinquishing her child to testify in court, to appear at the U.S. Embassy, and to give a blood sample in order to verify maternity.
Before the INS freeze, the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh processed 100 adoption visas each month. The sweeping decision not only brought to a halt new adoption requests, but also put all pending applications on hold. The immediate fallout left 11 American couples with adopted Cambodian children that they could not bring back to the United States.
In some cases, the families already had legal custody of their adopted children. But after the suspension they could not obtain visas for the kids. By January, President Bush ordered INS to review those pending cases and the 11 families were allowed to bring their Cambodian babies home.
But 32 additional cases in process at the time of the adoption moratorium have been harder to resolve. The INS transferred bureaucratic responsibilities to the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, making the review of orphan status even more difficult.
Scrutiny of the 32 cases has led to discovery of questionable documentation in 11 separate cases scheduled for imminent adoption by U.S. families. U.S. ambassador to Cambodia Kent Wiedemann said he had evidence the 11 babies may have been "procured" in outright purchase agreements with the natural parents. According to Mr. Wiedemann, "This involves criminal and unethical elements paying money to obtain children, or through trickery or through theft, to run a baby-selling business. It's truly despicable."
Despite those concerns, the INS, and Mr. Ziglar in particular, is drawing a lot of fire from frustrated would-be parents. Mrs. Conklin understands the necessity to verify orphan status, but she said the government doesn't need to throw "the baby out with the dirty bathwater" by ceasing adoptions entirely during the probe.
"When we got Bethany," Mrs. Parker points out, "she was very malnourished and weighed 14 pounds at 1 year old. There were so many more babies just like her. The orphanage uses the adoption fees to feed the children. With the adoption moratorium the fees will stop. I don't know how they will afford to feed the other babies."
As for Mrs. Conklin and Mrs. Murschell, both became expert mothers-in-waiting. "I am not sure if my adoption case will ever be reviewed," Mrs. Conklin told WORLD after the suspension. She wanted to travel to Cambodia to wait out the unresolved adoption of Channy but could not because of two sons already at home. Patience had its reward, however, and after a six-month delay the State Department granted the Conklin case a special review, along with some of the others in limbo. Channy is now united with her new American family.
Mrs. Murschell's case did not end so well. She has given up adopting from Cambodia and is now looking to adopt a child from South Korea. "I was told adoption would eliminate the discomfort of pregnancy and the labor pains." Regrettably, she adds, "there's no epidural" for the pain caused by baby-brokers and government bureaucrats with no bedside manner.