Jury out as Vietnam, US look to revive adoption programs

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The two countries are on track to restart scandal-beset adoption programs, but have a long way to go to ensure ethical and transparent practices, experts say

Hollywood stars Angelina Jolie (C) and Brad Pitt (2nd, R) get off a plane with their children at the Con Son Airport on Con Dao Island, offshore of Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province in Vietnam on November 11, 2011. Jolie was in Vietnam for her first known visit since adopting an orphan from the country in 2007. Insiders and experts are cautious as Vietnam and the US are looking to revive adoptions that were halted in 2008, saying much is needed to be done by both countries to keep the adoption processes clear of unethical practices and fraud.

Orphaned children, many of them afflicted by cerebral palsy and disabilities, fill the playground of the Thi Nghe Orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City's Binh Thanh District.

They play, laugh, cheer and cry.

Abandoned by their parents, these children were brought here to live with the shelter and care they need, but their caregivers say they need more than Thi Nghe can give.

"Foreign adoptive parents would be able to get medical treatment for the children and could save their lives," Lai Anh Vu, a spokesman for the orphanage, told Vietweek.

Vu said American couples had historically been more willing to adopt Vietnamese orphans who were either mentally or physically challenged and get them the medical treatment they would otherwise never be able to afford.

But the US slapped a ban on inter-country adoption programs with Vietnam in 2008, citing a report by the US embassy in Hanoi that said Vietnamese babies had been trafficked and that Vietnamese families had been coerced to give up their babies. Vietnam bristled at the allegations, saying the report had included "a lot of distorted and slanderous information."

Now that the two former foes are looking to revive adoptions, many Vietnamese people like Vu are hopeful that restarting the programs will throw a lifeline to unfortunate children. But insiders and experts are more cautious, saying much is needed to be done by both countries to keep the adoption processes clear of unethical practices and fraud.

Adapting adoption

Vietnam and the US are looking to resume a pact allowing Americans to adopt Vietnamese children again, US Senator Mary Landrieu said late last month. The Democrat from Louisiana was leading a delegation of senators on a visit to Vietnam during which they met and worked with related Vietnamese agencies on children's welfare issues and the revival of adoption programs.

Landrieu, a leading advocate of restarting the programs, said Vietnam now has safeguards in place to resume adoptions, including a central authority overseeing the process, the Associated Press reported.

"The government of Vietnam seems to be willing to restart, and there are just some final details to be worked out with the government of the United States," she was quoted by the newswire as saying. "We hope that it will be in the near future."

But while insiders are expecting the programs to restart early next year, government officials from the two countries have stopped short of a specific timeframe.

Luong Thanh Nghi, spokesman for the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, only said the two sides would "continue to consider" restarting adoptions. Meanwhile, US embassy spokesman Spencer Cryder said: "Both governments are continuing their dialogue... including discussions regarding a program aimed at special needs children."

Lay of the land

International adoptions from Vietnam have been in steady decline since 2008, with several countries, including the US and Sweden, halting adoptions in 2008 and 2010 respectively, Peter Selman, an expert on international adoptions at Britain's Newcastle University, wrote in a report for the National Council for Adoption, a Washington-based advocacy group.

In mid-2008, nine countries received adopted children from Vietnam: Canada, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the US, a UNICEF-commissioned report into adoptions in Vietnam said in 2009.

Nigel Cantwell, an international consultant on child protection who co-authored the UNICEF report, has been compiling annual statistics on international adoptions. Cantwell said after steadily climbing for many years, the number of inter-country adoptions worldwide peaked at about 45,000 in 2004 and has been falling every year since then down to, in all probability, less than 20,000 in 2012.

He stressed that for some receiving countries the fall has been "particularly steep": the US from around 23,000 in 2004 to just 8,700 in 2012, and France from over 4,000 to some 1,600 in the same period.

But experts say the global decline in adoptions was not triggered by a fall in interest of prospective adopters, but by measures taken by both countries of origin and receiving countries. A number of adoption agencies have closed as foreign countries tighten restrictions and encourage domestic or internal adoptions.

Meanwhile, the demand to adopt young infants abroad is still high in America, and Vietnam is an attractive country of origin.

 "One of the features of Vietnam that made it "˜attractive' was the possibility of adopting babies and toddlers, which an ever-decreasing number of countries have been willing to allow," Cantwell said.

The UNICEF report weighed in on this argument, saying it was "understandable" and "foreseeable" that the vast majority of foreign prospective adopters, most of them Americans, will be seeking to adopt "children of the youngest possible age."

Experts say Vietnam is also a good choice for American couples who have already adopted Vietnamese children and are looking for another chance.

Whose needs?

According to statistics compiled by Selman, the British expert, by the time the US imposed the adoption ban, around 2,600 Vietnamese children had been adopted by Americans over the 1998-2008 period. Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie, who adopted a boy from an orphanage HCMC in early 2007, was among them.

Experts say the driving force behind adoptive parents' decision to adopt from Vietnam is the speed, ease and lack of requirements imposed on them, especially for would-be parents with low incomes unable to afford expensive adoptions or travel costs that are too high. Parents who are older, are in worse health and/or also already have children or ex-spouses and/or long marriage have also been particularly drawn to countries like Vietnam.

But on the flip side, "unfortunately these factors can unwittingly contribute to the demand for child buying and other unethical practices in giving countries," said Nicki Bradley, founder of the Voices for Vietnam Adoption Integrity, a collaborative blog advocating ethics in adoption.

The UNICEF report said the demand from prospective parents, most of them Americans, had fueled a supply of young babies in Vietnam. Procedures for verifying the child's status and for ensuring free and informed consent to adoption are inadequate and inconsistent, it said.

"The availability of children who are "˜adoptable' abroad corresponds more to the existence of foreign prospective adopters than to the actual needs of "˜abandoned' and orphaned children," the report said.

Both sides

In 2011 Vietnam ratified the Hague Convention, which took effect from February 2012. The country's revised Law on Adoption had come into force in January 2011.

The adoption of the Hague Convention and the enforcement of the amended laws envisaged implementing better monitoring of the adoption process. Senator Landrieu also cited Vietnam's central authority as a measure towards better monitoring in the adoption process. 

But experts in the field do not buy into this latest bout of headway.

"Having a central authority for adoptions is only one of many steps towards an improved process," Linh Song, a Vietnamese-American adoption reform advocate who was the former executive director of the now-defunct nonprofit Ethica, told Vietweek.

"There needs to be consistent controls on what happens on the provincial level or how to balance money from adoption agencies with promises of humanitarian aid," Song said.

Experts have lambasted Vietnam and America's inability to police what amounted to "referral wars," where adoption agency personnel and orphanages were paid finding fees for young, infants and children. These cash payments were often masqueraded as "donations" or "humanitarian aid" to the orphanages.

"Unless Vietnam can create a system similar to that of South Korea, where there are legal protections for families, women, and children against coercion and strong regulation on adoption agency practices, there is little hope for a successful international adoption program," Song said.

But it is a two way street.

"There isn't enough political will to bring about real reform here, either. Let's just say adoption ethics receives a lukewarm response with the US Department of State and Congress," Song said.

A report critical of the US adoption system by Johanna Oreskovic and Trish Maskew summed it up best.

"Although domestic adoptions are regulated at the state level, the existing state licensing system is not designed for, nor in most cases does it effectively regulate, the agencies involved in international adoptions," the report said.

It said international adoption "agencies" do not need to be licensed at all in some states, nor, in some states is there any requirement that agencies operate as not for profit enterprises. Licensing requirements vary widely from state to state and seldom cover the most problematic issues in inter-country adoption with very few states requiring that agencies provide educational background information on their overseas employees, it added.

"Perhaps most importantly, no state requires agencies to take legal or contractual responsibility for the acts of their overseas employees and contractors."

"˜Best choice'

Given the lingering loopholes in the adoption systems of both the receiving and sending countries, experts and insiders appeared not to be very cheerful over the headway made on resuming the adoption programs.

Vietnamese justice minister Ha Hung Cuong has maintained that international adoption should be considered only as a last resort for a child.  But his position has apparently not trickled down to Vietnamese caregivers.

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Vu, the spokesman for the HCMC's Thi Nghe Orphanage, only wished he could fast-track the adoption processes for the children at his orphanage like he had before. The new laws with stricter restrictions have slowed the procedures and wait times increased accordingly.

"The faster, the better for the kids," Vu said. "American adoption is always the best choice for them."

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