When the topic of enforcing international adoption laws comes up, people usually assume it involves irregularities in the adoption process, including kidnapping and coercing birth parents to give up their babies.
This is what has happened in Guatemala, where an estimated 1 percent of the country's total babies born in 2006 landed in American homes as a result of lenient regulations and a lack of government oversight. In the African country of Chad, six members of a French charity received stiff prison sentences in December for allegedly stealing children who had parents with the intent of passing them off as orphans from Darfur.
But there are other inequities, such as the obstacles faced by many potential adoptive parents, and there are the concerns of adult adoptees, who can offer their own special insight into a process they don't always wish to see continued.
In December, the United States ratified a set of regulations that will aid in preventing unethical adoption practices and child trafficking.The U.S. joined 70 other nations in recognizing the 1993 Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Cooperation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption. The convention's 48 articles cover areas such as accrediting the agencies that handle the adoption, maintaining records about the child and the child's birth parents, providing counseling before the adoption and preventing "improper financial gain" from the adoption.
Although adoptee advocates argue that the convention is just a start in protecting children from trafficking, it is in the adoptees, adoptive parents and birth parents' interest to ensure the U.S. institutes the regulations that the convention requires.
In the weeks leading up to the U.S. ratification, newspapers published human-interest stories about couples whose adoptions from Vietnam were being delayed by the U.S. government. One reason is that their adoption files had irregularities, which the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Embassy were starting to take more seriously than their Vietnamese counterparts.
Potential adoptive parents were uncertain whether the problems would be resolved. They have done the work to prepare to adopt a child internationally. Having paid their fees, traveled around the world to pick up whom they believed to be their new sons or daughters only to see them in limbo and unable to get back to the U.S., tested their resolve. These potential adoptive parents started to demand that the U.S. government make exceptions for these children, insisting that they had done all the required bureaucratic tasks to make these children's adoptions legal.
Adopting a child from Vietnam generally takes almost a year, or more. During this period of rigorous paperwork, weary waiting and figuring out how to pay for five-figure adoption fees, they become much attached to the child they hope to adopt long before that child arrives in their home.
Another human face to this story is the adult adoptees, whose lives are often shadowed by adoptive parents' concerns. Many are pushing to enforce international adoption laws, even though relaxed standards may have enabled their own adoption. I have been studying the community of Vietnamese adoptees born during the Vietnam War and adopted by American families. The adult adoptees have discussed and written about various adoption concerns, often centered on the lack of racial education they received from white parents or on their desire to return to the nation of their birth. They note the apparent favoritism exhibited in the case of actors Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, who received their Vietnamese son after 10 months of paperwork — the barest minimum of delay — when it takes most prospective adoptive parents much longer to complete the process during those precious first year or two of the baby's life.
Adoptee advocacy groups recommend regulating international laws to help safeguard adoptees, adoptive parents and birth parents in the interest of protecting all groups in the entire adoptive family. Potential parents can choose to adopt with countries that have signed and are enforcing the convention.
When reports of corruption surfaced regarding Guatemalan adoptions, the State Department advised U.S. citizens to refrain from adopting from the Central American country until it agrees to comply with the convention (scheduled for early 2008).
Guatemala is not the only country accused of dragging its feet in respect to the Hague Convention. Because of individual state governments, it took 14 years for the U.S. to ratify the convention after originally signing on in 1994.
But, such as other international laws, the convention will be difficult to police. This is especially true in the U.S., where enforcement involves close coordination between individual states.
As part of a potential adoptive parent's education, he or she should be made aware not all children living in orphanages are legally "orphans," which is commonly understood to be a child with deceased biological parents. An orphanage is sometimes described as a "nursery" because many of the children's parents have not consented to an adoption of their children, and only plan for them to live there temporarily. Orphanages are considered charities where impoverished parents can place children if they cannot afford to feed them or pay for child care while they are working. Because the institutions often provide education, they function more like subsidized boarding school.
Making sure that the child in the nursery has parents that agreed to the adoption can hold up the adoption for many months.
Many of the adult Vietnamese adoptees whom I interviewed for my research remember their Vietnamese parents visiting them in the nursery before they were sent to the U.S. It was apparent that these parents did not simply discard their children. They made a huge sacrifice to place their child's most critical and immediate needs over their desire to have their children with them.
Several of these adult adoptees eventually found out that their birth parents did not actually consent to their adoption. This knowledge is a terrible burden for them to carry, since they have to take on the difficult task of reconciling this information of their past with their present lives in their adoptive families.
Adoptee advocacy groups have begun letter writing to support the convention and urging adoptive parents to do the same. They argue that it is in the best interest of the adoptee and adoptive parents to avoid potential pain and guilt by supporting the convention's tighter international adoption laws. Most of the adult adoptees I have spoken to are emotionally moved about these children left in limbo and do not wish to see prospective adoptive parents become victims of fraud or extortion.
It should come as no surprise that adult adoptees desire to look at their adoption files, search for biological parents, or question the larger ramifications of international adoption. Some of them want to eliminate international adoption all together. They cite many reasons, one of which is that sending children abroad will not fix the root cause of poverty that created the conditions for their parents to give up their children in the first place.
Adoptee advocacy groups who support international adoption argue that adoptive parents and adult adoptees share the same interest in enforcing convention regulations. They foresee that if adopted children explore their own past it will be devastating for them and their adoptive parents to find out that their birth parents did not consent to their adoption. For these groups, getting the U.S. to sign the convention was the first step.
Adoptee advocacy groups acknowledge that international adoption mostly involves white parents adopting children of color, and they recommend incorporating race-conscious education along with provisions for post-adoption counseling. Adoption agencies should receive proper accreditation and transparency, especially financial transparency. They contend that adoption agencies should be able to make a clear financial trace of the child's life from their birth parents to their adoptive parents without significant gaps and questions arising. Finally, every adoption agency should provide clear information about where adoption fees of up to $30,000 are spent.
For more information about the ethical conduct of adoption, potential adoptive parents can go to Ethica's Web site. Ethica is a research and policy institution — not affiliated with any adoption agency — whose goal is to protect adoptive parents from adoption fraud and trafficking. Ethica's Web site has the most up-to-date information about State Department warnings, Hague Convention violations and adoption industry irregularities.
Natalie Cherot is a sociologist teaching at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is completing a manuscript titled, From Vietnamese Orphans to Adoptee Community.