Looking at Fraud in International Adoption
E.J. Graff is the associate director of the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. She suggests that fraud in international adoptions is more widespread than we think, and that governments must be
more active in preventing criminal fraud and support child welfare systems.
Is it ever right to arrange an adoption via fraud or under false pretenses? That question is at the heart of Deann Borshay Liem’s film, which shows us so movingly the profound and painful consequences of erasing and replacing a child’s identity, past and even her footprint. Liem shows us how shockingly easily it can be to change a child’s identity — cavalierly moving her from one name to another, one family to another, one country to another. By investigating her origins without bitterness or blame and showing us the rich lives led by the “real” Cha Jung Hees, Liem never allows us to conclude complacently that growing up in the wealthy United States was necessarily better than growing up in impoverished post-war South Korea. In the end she may have constructed a rich identity out of her partitioned childhood, but her film leaves us with the understanding that that does not necessarily justify the well-intentioned fraud that changed her fate — a fraud apparently motivated by an uneven tangle of humanitarian intentions, adoption agencies’ business interests, poor countries’ need for Western investment and a lack of Korean (or international) investment in Korea’s urgently needed social and family services.
All those factors continue to lead to fraud in international adoptions. Two years ago this month, the United States and Vietnam let lapse the three-year bilateral agreement that allowed Americans to adopt Vietnamese children. Fraud lay behind that decision — in some cases, extremely serious fraud. As revealed in my recently published article, “Anatomy of an Adoption Crisis” on Foreign Policy’s website, the U.S. State Department believed in 2008 that the vast majority of Vietnamese infant adoptions involved falsifying official documents, at a minimum, as well as frequently lying to, bribing or coercing birthfamilies to relinquish their children, and at times even abducting infants outright. According to internal government documents received in response to Freedom of Information Act requests, the State Department concluded that Vietnamese adoption fraud was widespread. The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services personnel at the Ho Chi Minh City consulate investigated and came to believe that those frauds were perpetrated by various networks that were comprised of police officers, orphanage directors, hospital personnel, coercive maternity homes, American adoption agency representatives and government officials at the village, province and national levels. And yet there was little the State Department was able to do to stop those questionable adoptions, short of shutting down all adoptions from Vietnam — the needed adoptions along with the problematic ones. Nor is Vietnam’s an isolated case. Over the past 20 years, similarly endemic adoption problems have been found in Cambodia, Guatemala, Albania and at least a dozen other countries. The latest allegations of significant adoption fraud have been coming from Ethiopia, where foreigners adopted more than 3,000 children in 2009.
Korea, on the other hand, has long been held up as a country with a “clean” international adoption program, one in which the children involved genuinely needed new homes. Korea has had this reputation ever since Bertha and Henry Holt, an Oregon evangelical couple, pioneered large-scale international adoptions after the U.S.-Korean war in the 1950s. That’s why it’s so shocking to learn from this film that identity fraud could so easily be perpetrated in adoptions from Korea.
At 8 years of age, Deann Borshay Liem was old enough, when adopted, to know that she was not Cha Jung Hee, the name on her passport. As a result, when she was ready, she could search for her birth family and her case file, which in turn helped her piece together a meaningful identity. Infants adopted under falsified documents have no such option. In some cases, adopted infants whose identities have been fraudulently altered have been “found” by searching and bereft birth families from such countries as Guatemala, India, Nepal and Sierra Leone. But that’s rare. Most such fraudulently adopted infants will lose their original identities more permanently than Liem did, and — if those adoptees feel that as a loss — will be forced to fashion their new selves with gaping holes where real facts might have been.
How can such fraud be stopped? My article “The Baby Business,” published in this summer’s issue of Democracy Journal, examines the holes in the treaties, statutes, regulations and policies that currently govern U.S. ventures in intercountry adoption — and looks at what needs to be done to plug those holes and protect birth families, children and adopting parents from fraud. Representative Albio Sires of New Jersey is planning to introduce legislation toward that end.
Liem’s moving film reminds us that “the matter of” a child’s identity is an important matter indeed. And yet, given how relatively few of us adopt or are adopted across national borders, it’s easy to believe that fraud in international adoption is an obscure and narrow issue. But the problems in international adoption have implications that reach throughout child welfare and development efforts worldwide. What’s the right way to help children after the Haitian earthquake or the Liberian civil war? How can the United States help African AIDS orphans become productive citizens instead of pirates, child soldiers or insurgents? What is international adoption’s correct role in child welfare? How should Western nations and the international community balance their citizens’ personal investments in individual adoptions with the need to build better social services infrastructures for all of a poor country’s children? The answers are linked. The United States needs to put in place improved policies, practices and regulations that simultaneously help prevent the criminal underside of the adoption trade and support child welfare and protection systems, so that impoverished families and disrupted communities can keep most of their children home — and so that the children who truly need new families can find them without fear of fraud.
E.J. Graff is the associate director of the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, and investigates and reports on fraud and corruption in international adoption and on the policies, practices and regulations that could help prevent them. Her work has recently appeared in such publications as Foreign Policy, The Washington Post, Slate.com and Democracy Journal. For an extensive array of information, reporting, academic research, government and non-governmental organization reports and other resources on irregularities in international adoption, go to http://www.brandeis.edu/investigate/gender/adoption/index.html.