The US will resume the adoption of Vietnamese children after a six-year ban triggered by flagrant corruption and poor oversight.
The US ban went into effect in 2008, following a report from the US embassy in Hanoi that found many adoptees had either been trafficked or their families had been coerced to give them up.
Vietnam bristled at the allegations, saying the report included "a lot of distorted and slanderous information."
The reversal of the ban comes at a time when the US is taking broad steps toward a closer military, diplomatic and commercial partnership with its former foe.
According to a statement issued by the US embassy in Hanoi, the adoptions will resume as soon as Vietnam officially authorizes two US adoption service providers, Dillon International Inc. and Holt International Children’s Services Inc.
Nguyen Van Binh, director of the adoption agency at the Ministry of Justice, confirmed to Thanh Nien News that they would be licensed on Tuesday.
If that proves to be the case, the three countries that suspended adoptions from Vietnam in the 2008-2009 period (the US, Sweden and Ireland) will have re-established their programs -- a development many foresaw after Vietnam ratified the Hague Convention in 2011.
That same year, Vietnam enacted its revised Law on Adoption.
Adoptions with limits
New US adoptions will be limited to children over the age of five, sibling groups and those with special needs.
Prior to the ban, only about five per cent of adoptees were aged five years or older. The great majority were under two, and it was this broad willingness to offer babies and toddlers to foreign parents that made Vietnam an attractive country of origin for prospective adopters.
In 2009, a UNICEF-commissioned report on adoptions in Vietnam noted that it was "understandable" and "foreseeable” that the vast majority of foreign prospective adopters sought to adopt "children of the youngest possible age."
Americans were the most interested in adoptions, particularly as Hollywood stars Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie adopted their son Pax in 2007.
The outsized demand fueled a supply system for young Vietnamese babies that often skirted domestic and international protocols on verifying adoptee origins and ensuring free and informed consent from birth parents, the report said.
Experts say the resumption of the program reflects the work of the Vietnamese government and the adoption lobby who agreed to stricter standards and laws governing the adoption process.
“It remains to be seen whether US adopters will still see Vietnam as ‘attractive’ with these new restrictions in place, and what proportion of applicants will be approved specifically for taking on the ostensibly more challenging task of caring for these children,” Nigel Cantwell, an international consultant on child protection who co-authored the UNICEF report, told Thanh Nien News.
Adoption goes out of style
Inter-country adoptions have continued to decline around the world.
At their peak of 2004 international adoptions stood hit 45,281 and plummeted to just 16,100 in 2013, the lowest point in 15 years--according to statistics compiled by Peter Selman, an expert on international adoptions at Britain's Newcastle University.
Adoptions between sending countries and the US have fallen by nearly 65 percent over the last decade.
Experts attribute the decline to the 2008 recession, bans inspired by trafficking allegations, and the Hague Convention which established programs to find suitable care options in-country.
Child rights groups have lambasted Vietnam and America's inability to police what amounted to "referral wars," in which adoption agency personnel and orphanages were paid finding fees for young, infants and children. These cash payments were often described as "donations or "humanitarian aid.”
They say unless Vietnam can create a system similar to that of South Korea -- one that strongly regulates adoption agency practices and offers legal protections to families, women, and children--there is little hope for a successful international adoption program.
Vietnam’s accession to the Hague Convention and the enactment of its 2011 laws signalled better monitoring of the adoption process. The country also set up the central adoption agency tasked with overseeing the process.
Experts raised a major question: How has Vietnam managed its orphan population in the past six years?
There were 236,224 orphans in Vietnam (a country of 90 million) in 2013, figures from the social affairs ministry showed.
“I would guess that the numbers of abandoned, healthy young infants dropped considerably once international adoptions closed. This was the case in Cambodia,” said Linh Song, a Vietnamese-American adoption reform advocate.
“With international adoptions resuming the misconception is that there are thousands of infants available. I hope that Vietnamese media would put that myth to rest,” she said.
Hope in restraint
Since only two US adoption agencies will be licensed in Vietnam this time, experts say they are hopeful that both the US and Vietnamese authorities will have an easier time policing the adoption process from beginning to end.
Likewise, limiting eligible children to only those most in need will help curb the overwhelming demand that many blame for breaking down the system.
Nicki Bradley, founder of the Voices for Vietnam Adoption Integrity (a collaborative blog advocating ethics in adoption), said these two changes will make the largest contribution to ending what has been an ongoing problem of corruption in past adoption agreements.
Vietnam and the US both have to continue to resist pressure from the adoption lobby and unscrupulous players seeking to expand the program both in terms of adoption agency approvals on the US side and the loosening of the criteria for child availability in Vietnam, Bradley said.
“There is already concern that new actors who see the potential for financial gain both in the US and Vietnam will begin, or have already begun, vying to expand the number of agencies permitted to function within this special program,” she said.
“If Vietnam and the US tolerate such negotiations and start expanding the number of agencies allowed to function within this program before it has been tried and proven for some time, it will expand the potential for corruption exponentially.”
It remains to be seen whether Vietnam will be able to withstand such pressure.
On September 15, Bloomberg quoted Becky Weichhand, interim executive director with the Washington-based Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, as saying: “I would hope they would be willing to expand it to other [adoption] agencies once the system is proven. There is a lot of interest from the US.”
Vietnam’s Minister of Justice Ha Hung Cuong has maintained that international adoption should be considered only as a last resort for a child. Binh, the Vietnamese adoption agency official, reiterated that position, saying international adoptions will be similarly restricted so that locals have priority to adopt needy children before foreigners.
He was adamant that only two service providers would be licensed until the end of this year.
“That number may extend to three until I retire next July,” he said. Asked if the government would consider licensing more in the future, he said: “It depends.”
‘A terrible system’
This wishy-washy attitude has left many experts skeptical.
“Vietnam has promised to limit accrediting agencies in the past and not kept its promise. This is why before the last moratorium we saw [no less than 42] agencies working in Vietnam,” Song said.
“That is a ridiculous number and made the accreditation basically a payment,” she said.
Adoptions, at that time were made “without vetting qualifications such as whether the agency was actually a non-profit, staffed by social workers, or even had any legal standing in the US,” she said.
“It was a terrible system with no oversight on both sides of the ocean.”
Experts say at the end of the day, having a central authority for adoptions is only one of many steps towards an improved process. There needs to be consistent controls on what happens down to the provincial level.
According to the experts, neither agencies nor prospective adopters should ever be required, invited or allowed to make payments for “humanitarian assistance” or “development aid” or to contribute to residential facilities for children.
“Before anything gets started, it needs to be clear who will be the oversight body,” said Caroline Nguyen Ticarro-Parker, co-founder and executive director of Catalyst Foundation, a US-based child rights group.
“As potential adoptive families become more impatient for a referral, there will be more pressure for every party to ‘meet the demand’, which is where many mistakes can be made again without oversight,” she said.