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Orphaned again

"Orphaned again" Continued...

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

"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.

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