Features

Orphaned again

Adoption | Seedy baby-brokers break parents' hearts and thwart an otherwise healthy adoption business with Cambodia

Issue: "NEA: School bully," June 22, 2002

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.

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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:

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