US halts orphans from Vietnam

It was another humid day at the orphanage when we noticed a van pull up outside. We were playing with the children in the cement playground, an enclosed area protecting us from the sun. Through the dimness into the bright light of the entrance we saw that a group of Americans had arrived to collect their adoptive Vietnamese babies.

The potential parents emerged, some holding video cameras, laughing and talking nervously. Six babies whom we, as volunteers, had been playing with, feeding and generally 'watching over' were leaving. And 20 minutes later, after a rushed ceremony and a few brief conversations, they were taken away to their new lives.

A couple of months later another group of children were going to be adopted and we gave ten-year-old twin boys extra English tuition to prepare them. They were very thin boys and, like most of the children, had hair lice and black, gappy teeth. Their American adoptive mother sent me photos to show them the wealthy, middle class lifestyle which would soon be theirs.

One day, however, we arrived to find a thin, graceful looking woman sitting and talking with the twins. It turned out that she was their 'birth' mother, who had trekked from her village in the mountains to the orphanage to say goodbye.

Through an interpreter, she told us that, being single, she could not afford to look after them. At first she had agreed to let one be adopted, but when the adoptive mother pursued both children, she had eventually resigned herself to losing both. She told us she did it so they could have a better life. She gave the boys a letter she'd written, explaining why she did it, and asked them to return one day.

Later I learnt that it might not have been her idea to send the boys away in the first place. She may have been approached and encouraged to by orphanage staff. In 2007 the USA Embassy conducted a thorough investigation and found that the way children came to be put up for adoption was being adversely affected by financial arrangements between adoption service providers (ASPs) in the USA and orphanages.

The donation agreements between ASPs and orphanages are private and negotiable. Some orphanage directors admitted there was a strong financial incentive to maximise the number of children available for adoption. The USA report states:

If the ASP funds a $10,000 project and the per-child donation is set at $1000, then the orphanage would be required to refer ten children ... Should the orphanage not have ten children ... the orphanage director is required to find the additional children to complete their side of the agreement.

Two orphanage directors have confirmed to consular officials that they are feeling pressured to find more children for their orphanage to 'compensate' ASPs for their donations.

A child can be classified as an orphan in two ways: by relinquishment (the parent or parents sign off all rights to the child), or by abandonment (the child is found abandoned and a search fails to locate their parents). Since 2005 the number of 'abandoned' children has suddenly increased. Some orphanage officials admitted that desertions were being staged to conceal the identity of the birth parents.

In the cases of relinquishment 75 per cent of the birth parents stated that, in addition to receiving payments for food, medical care and administrative expenses, they also received money for placing their child in the orphanage. On average this was 6,000,000 Vietnamese Dong, which is the equivalent of 11 months salary.

Most of them stated that they had not previously considered giving their children to an orphanage. Many were also told their child would visit frequently, would return at a certain age, or would send money from the US.

In June 2008 the USA Adopted Children's Immigrant Visa Unit declared that there would be no new adoptions taking place between the USA and Vietnam. Their report found 'cases have frequently been tainted by corruption due to weaknesses in the Vietnamese adoption system':

We will continue to encourage Vietnam to join the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoptions and undertake measures that will advance Vietnam's ability to meet Hague obligations.

While it's positive that fewer children will be removed unnecessarily from their families, it leaves the children currently in orphanages in an environment that would be considered unacceptable by Australian standards. Hygiene and nutrition are poor, and most of the children suffer emotionally from not being in a family.

The worst case I saw was a two-year-old boy who, for months, was unresponsive to any interaction, showing extreme psychological stress.

Months after I left Vietnam, one of the adopting mothers I had met sent me an email. She attached a new photo of her son who looked happy and well cared for. He has opportunities now that he didn't have before. But will it ever be possible to say whether having a privileged life was worth the cost?

Sarah NicholsSarah Nichols is working in the communications department of International Needs Australia and completing a Master of Communication at Deakin University.

Topic tags: Sarah Nichols, vietnamese orphans, usa adoption service providers, Adopted Children's Immigrant Visa Un



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Existing comments

nice work Sarah !!

pete | 20 February 2009  

For some people, loss and grief begins very early in life. This immediately increases vulnerability which requires even stricter rules and guidelines to ensure maximum care is taken. I am the mother of two adopted children. Ask them if they think adoption was worth the cost. Ask their birth parents. And lastly ask us the adoptive parents if the scrutiny we shoulder all our lives is worth the cost. The answer lies in love.

Marlene Marburg | 20 February 2009  

You do not tell a complete story. You don't mention that the US Embassy has lied to birth parents in order to make them change their minds, or that no one is allowed to represent the birth mother during the Embassy interrogation. There is much more to this story.

All adoptions begin with a sad story. Who are we to tell a birth mother that she cannot make the difficult decision to let her child be adopted.

I do not doubt that there have been fraudulent adoptions in Vietnam but they are not the vast majority. In our zeal to reach a state of zero problems we condemn hundreds and thousands of children to a life less than their potential and in some cases death.

I asked my 25 year old daughter if she would have rather stayed in her orphanage in Korea rather than be adopted. There was no hesitation. She is glad she was adopted.

There is a movement that believes children are better off in their birth culture no matter the circumstances. It will be tragic if this becomes the prevailing belief.

Richard Graham | 21 February 2009  

This is merely an opinion formed by Sarah and I happen to know there is another side to this story. A side that would show the graciousness of the woman who is now caring for two wonderful adopted boys.

Carrie | 21 February 2009  

There are so many aspects of orphanage life that you fail to mention. Your story paints a picture of a woman with a limited view and a one sided story. It is easy to critique a situation once you are removed from it.

Sarah | 21 February 2009  

You speculate on the negatives of adoption to get your story and forget about actual facts – as well as the feelings of the adoptive mother whom you hurt.

Marc | 21 February 2009  

This is a very one-sided article. You don't know the truth of the situation. Did you speak with any other sides of this story before you printed it? There are MANY true orphans in Vietnam who need homes and will never get them regardless of the status of adoptions between the US and Vietnam.

Lina | 21 February 2009  

Why does the author feel the right to judge this birth mother (inferring that she recieved compensation for her children by sending them out to be adopted) and by the description of the adoptive families. It is simply offensive to suggest that the recent closure was related to these families.

m mcguinness | 21 February 2009  

I truly believe that you have compassion for these children. However, you should not be judgemental, the biological mother of these twin boys was aware and appreciated of the boys' adopted mom for giving them love, kindness, and providing her sons a secure, loving home, and ensure that they will grow up with brighter future than she could ever giving them.

The two boys are not the victims, and not to be pitied, they have a loving home with 2 loving parents, and siblings, their life are enriched with 2 parents from 2 different country, but sharing the mutual love for their boys.

mimi lam | 21 February 2009  

"Their American adoptive mother sent me photos to show them the wealthy, middle class lifestyle which would soon be theirs."

Did it occur to you that the adoptive mother sent pictures for the boys to show them that they had people who loved them waiting to be their famaily? That they sent the pictures to help with the boys' adjustment process? So that their new surroundings would be at least somewhat familiar to them? How could you not see that the adoptive parents were trying to help the boys with what they knew would be a horribly difficult time, not bragging about or bribing affection with their lifestyle.

Elaine | 21 February 2009  

I appreciate your first hand report of what you saw and experienced...

Rovin, Adoptive Mom | 21 February 2009  

It is unfortunate that the families and agencies that act out of honor and integrity are persecuted along with those that are accused in this tale.

Kevin | 21 February 2009  

The report you mention is unrelated to this specific orphanage and this specific ASP. You failed to find anything unethical about this adoption and therefore found a report that suited your needs, leading readers to assume something was unethical with these particular adoptions.

You have defined adoption through the narrowest of lenses and compared these children to chattel -- something to be bought and sold. Adoption is not about money, it's about the creation of families. This article does a great disservice to the families (both birth and adoptive) involved here.

mary | 21 February 2009  

With 143 million orphans in the world, just how many would you say are "for sale?" Most orphans remain orphans and live a life of poverty devoid of love, food, an education, medical care -- basic care and comfort -- is that the "privileged life" you wonder about?

wildflower | 21 February 2009  

I am very concerned and apologise for any offence my article has caused, in particular for adoptive families. My article is about the illegal and unethical actions of Vietnamese adoption authorities, it is by no means questioning the motives or actions of adoptive families. I do not question their intentions or the quality of life their children will have. I also was not commenting on adoptions that take place in other countries besides Vietnam. All of the facts and events in this article are true and the U.S government halted adoptions in Vietnam after a lengthy investigation found corruption and unethical practices.

Sarah Nichols | 21 February 2009  

I am the grandmother of two children adopted from Vietnam. The circumstances which brought them to an orphanage was thoroughly investigated by the United States before their adoption was made final. This kind of article really does them and their birth country an injustice.

Jane | 21 February 2009  

Your title is incorrect. US did not halt adoptions from Vietnam. Vietnam requires, by law, an MOU which has expired.

Please consider when you share your stories that innocent children's histories should be preserved as best as possible and kept private.

While certainly rampant corruption does exist, it is also advisable that you are careful to understand that the details which you know about the cases you cite are only as honest as the corrupt players have led you to believe. The stories you have been told are certainly told in a way that would invoke a certain response from you and in a way that would make the storyteller appear in the best light - no matter whom the storyteller is.

VVAI | 21 February 2009  

I am relieved to see the comments here don't bite on the emotive language ("after a rushed ceremony", "she had eventually resigned herself to losing both") and take the knee-jerk low road condemning IA and tarring it with the broad brush of "corruption", but rather acknowledge the reality of life for millions of children.

Sandra Hanks Benoiton | 21 February 2009  

I don't think your articles was about "illegal and unethical actions of Vietnamese adoption authorities." The focus was on adoptive families. Using real families as examples and insiuating all VN adoptions follow this path is simply not true. There are many of us who have and continue to fight against illegal activity in adoption, in VN and elsewhere. Your story distorts the truth in an egregious manner.

Mary | 21 February 2009  

I am also the mother of a child from a Vietnam, who was adopted at the age of 4. My daugher was supposed to have been adopted as an infant and was shut out in the last shut down. She waited four years for a family. Our ASP was praised by the US Embassy for being a model ASP. There are other children in Vietnam, right now, who will never have a forever home because of this shut down.

Gretchen | 21 February 2009  

Adoptive parents are asked to send photos as a way of preparing the children to meet their new adoptive parents. The caregivers use these photos to help the children make the transition, as adoptive parents show the pictures of foster parents and orphanage workers when we return home so that the children will have something from their past.

There is corruption in international adoption but as an adoptive parent I do everything in my power to try to support ethical adoptions by using ethical agencies (Holt International) and by supporting other organizations to care for the children left behind.

Amanda | 22 February 2009  

I can relate to the two year old who was unresponsive. It is more common then you know. In my case, I was 8 years olds when I was adopted and not only experience the new family, there was also the physical and sexual that happened. I was locked in my own shell for 18 years! It's funny, all those years, my adopted family thinking I had learning problems and was not very smart. It took years, but the longer I was living on my own - I had surprised them and proved them wrong!

Anh Hansen | 22 February 2009  

I, too, was a volunteer in Vietnam's orphanages, and I, too, am now an adoptive mother to my 2 incredible Vietnamese boys. Using words like "collect" when referring to adoptive families uniting with their new children is disrespectful. So is reducing a very complicated adoption of 2 ten year old boys to a very loving home into an oversimplified, one-sided story. That story belongs to REAL people, so perhaps a bit more sensitivity would have been warranted.

Laurie | 22 February 2009  

I know for a fact that those twin boys have a great home life. Maybe you should write about the positive outlook on adoption instead.

Donna Hassen | 23 February 2009  

I think many of the people commenting have read Sarah unfairly; perhaps out of understandable defensiveness. Surely she isn't at all condemning the birth parents or assuming that the children's life in their adoptive families will be miserable. And to expose some commercial pressures and dodgy practices will surely help the process become (even) cleaner and help ensure (even) fewer sad outcomes.

john fox | 23 February 2009  

This article if full of misinformation and misrepresentations. Unfortunately, you extrapolated statistics inaccurately (that were from a very poorly written government "study") and therefore skewed the facts.

Furthermore, you used information to which you were privy because of your volunteerism, about children who are REAL children. Your volunteering is to be commended, but these children deserve their privacy.

I am the parent of a Vietnamese adopted child and while nothing is more important to me than ethics, there are many, many considerations this article fails to discuss.

For many children, it's not a matter of a "privileged" life (in the States) vs. a less privileged life (in Vietnam). If it were only that simple.

Laura | 23 February 2009  


NIKKI | 23 February 2009  

you write as if adoptive parents are merely picking up accessories for their home. adoption gives families completion where some could never get otherwise. the "pictures depicting middle class life" are to give the child comfort and ease their mind before travel to a strange new world. no doubt there have been corrupt individuals within the adoption world, but certainly not ALL of us.

marci michelle | 24 February 2009  

As an adoptive parent AND an advocate for ethical adoptions, I am saddened by this article, as the author does much to sensationalize and little to shed light. While the Vietnamese adoptive community is well aware of the glaring corruption and lack of oversight, it is something that we as a community take seriously and have been working hard to address, as well as to push our government and our agencies to address. To paint a picture of all adoptive families as opportunistic is simply not the whole picture. To use this family, in particular, these children in this way, without their permission is an abuse of their privacy and misrepresenting the situation.

Jena | 24 February 2009  

The language used in this story to describe adoptions and adoptive families is very loaded and makes the reader question the writer's ethics and motives. Most of all it does a grave disservice to the adopted children and their families.

Lorna Schmidt | 24 February 2009  

How unfortunate that the author of this article has decided to tell only a very narrow view of adoption in Vietnam. I truly hope that others who read this article take it for what it is, a misinterpreted opinion of what adoptions are in Vietnam.

Pamela | 25 February 2009  

As an adoptive mother to a Vietnamese child, I find the phrase "collect their adoptive Vietnamese babies" just appalling. As if we wouldn't give anything in the world to have more communication and time with the very people who brought our children into the world, as well as those who took care of them for the months/years prior to be united with us, their new family? Meeting our children for the first time is something completely indescribable and something not taken lightly. Perhaps to the orphanage staff, it’s now become a routine and, so for the benefit of those involved on their end, it is easier to make it an efficient process, but please do not make it sound like this was our choice.

While I appreciate your time spent in the orphanage caring for children, it’s unfortunate you didn’t gain more insight into a process and journey so much bigger than you or I. Was the adoption process in Vietnam perfect? No, but did completely ethical and legal adoptions take place every day? Yes. To infer that something about the cases you witnessed was less than ethical and legal isn’t fair. It’s also unfair to make it seem that the vast majority of adoptions are based on corruption. Moreover, the boys and the adoptive family you spoke about know THEIR story, it’s personal, private, unbiased and truthful … the way it should remain.

Jenna | 25 February 2009  

I, too, have worked in an orphanage in Vietnam, and I did not adopt a child because of the ethical concerns of doing so.

There are so many facts you could have used to make this story, and yet it seems that you capitalised on one family's PRIVATE adoption experience to sensationalize something that requires no sensationalisation.

There is certainly rampant corruption in Vietnam adoptions; no one disputes that. Characterising the situation as a debate between leaving children in a less privileged environment versus living a "privileged life" completely misses the point, however.

Rachel | 25 February 2009  

Do you have permission to use these children's stories? They are people that need a voice ... one of their own, not yours!

lisa | 25 February 2009  

The editors will not receive any further comments that cast unwarranted aspersions upon the ethics or competence of this article's author, or that make unsubstantiated claims about the article's accuracy.

The Editors | 27 February 2009  

I have to disagree with you about the United States halting the adoption process with Vietnam. I was in the process of adopting a baby from Vietnam. The MOU (which the Vietnamese Government requires) expried on September 1, 2008. That is the reason that adoptions between The United States and Vietnam were stopped.

Kathy | 06 March 2009  

As an adoptive parent of a child from China, and another special needs child soon (also from China), I respect this author's right to form an opinion based on her brief experience. She's not obligated to introduce the "other side" of the story - she's simply commenting on what she saw and what she reports through limited research.

Most of us who have been active advocates for adoption over the last 10 years know full well (through the stories our children tell us when they have acquired langauge mastery) what the environment is like in many orphanages. Our family hosted a teenage orphan for medical care with a serious medical condition for which he received no treatment until the chance to come to the US presented itself at age 19. Would he have been better off with an adoptive family? Yes!

There are organizations out there, like Holt International, that have a philosophy of family preservation first, domestic adoption second, international adoption third. I'm not commenting on this article, this author, or the specific situation she depicts - I'm simply trying to make others aware that adoptive parents, especially ones who adopt older children, fully aware of the situations their children left, and they go through a lot of paperwork, background checks, and counseling to complete their adoptions. It's not all about handing over money to an agency and picking up a child. We get that child's history with it, and we are aware of the risks.

Suzanne Mabee | 06 March 2009  

As an adoptive parent to a child from Vietnam I have wondered about my child's birth family and the exact circumstances she came to be in the orphanage. However, I also know, I put alot of research and prayer into making my agency choice - integrity and country involvement being the 2 key factors - and feel confident her family truly abandoned her with her best interest in mind and under no distress or lies from anyone. As a bio mother I can not imagine the heartache of turning your child over to an orphanage-how strong and brave it is of those people to truelly be thinking of the childs care. Yes many drop the children off just to live there so they are cared for and do not originally have the intention of letting them be adopted to foriegners but in the end what is truly best for the child? Life in an orphanage where family visits once a year and fed enough to survive or adopted to a family with a true relationship and future.

bw | 07 March 2009  

Thank You For telling the truth about what has happened in Vietnam. As an adoptee, I cannot imagine being treated like a commodity. The corruption with IA is sickening and I for one am elated that they have stopped in Vietnam and Guatemala. Of course it is all about supply and demand.

Keep on writing and telling the TRUTH Sarah

Adoptee | 09 March 2009  

"Later I learnt that it MIGHT not have been her idea to send the boys away in the first place. She MAY have been approached and encouraged to by orphanage staff."

You might not have involved the people mentioned when your accusation is so vague?

The "truth"? | 11 March 2009  

Sarah, this adoptee applauds your article. I don't see any "questioning" of the "motives or intentions" of adoptive parents in the article as written at all.

What I see in the comments are people reacting defensively to things that aren't even in the article, perhaps because they're understandably sick of having strangers question their family planning decisions.

But we all know "the other side of the story", the happy family side, because that's the side most commonly encountered in articles about adoption. I think articles like this one provide balance. Thanks for writing it.

Laurel | 21 March 2009  

Excellent work Sarah!

When criminal activity is found to occur in 75 out of every 100 transactions it is definitely time to look beyond the superficial happy stories that make up the majority of adoption accounts.

If the money adoptive parents pay for children actually went to the orphanages and remaining children, these orphanages should be the equivalent of 5 star hotels and the kids should be well cared for and educated - in their own countries. The corruption among adoption agencies and the prospective adoptive parents denial of that corruption feeds the machine at the cost of families around the world.

Carol | 21 March 2009  

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