After nearly five years of searching, a village in Quang Binh is finally getting answers about the fate of 13 children
A Ruc mother in Quang Binh Province holds up photos of her two children. She claims a local center sent them out of the country without her consent.
The Italian International Adoption Commission has pledged to cooperate with Vietnamese authorities in reviewing accusations from an ethnic minority community that a welfare and education center conned them out of 13 of their children.
Without their knowledge, the families claimed, their children were sent abroad for adoption back in 2006.
The accusations were initially dismissed by local authorities.
Last year, a UNICEF-commissioned report brought their allegations to light once again. The report cites a Danish anthropologist working in the area as saying that the children had been adopted by American and Italian couples.
Late last year, Quang Binh Provincial authorities issued an apology to the Ruc parents.
Since then, the Italian Embassy has reviewed specific information regarding five of these children and has confirmed that four are in Italy.
The US Embassy has refused to confirm or deny these allegations, citing privacy rights.
The fate of the other nine remains a mystery, for now.
Last week, Italian officials said that the adoptions were conducted in a legitimate fashion.
"We emphasize that the dossiers on the thirteen children, whose names we got only in December 2010, have been thoroughly investigated," said Daniela Bacchetta, vice president of the Italian Commission for International Adoption. "Even today, they appear to be flawless."
Despite her confidence in the legitimacy of the adoptions, Bacchetta said the case remains open.
"Should the outcome of the investigation carried out by the Vietnamese authorities confirm the assumptions of irregularities, we would agree on the steps to take with the Vietnamese Central Authority," she said.
Earlier this month, Thanh Nien Weekly reported that the birthparents of 13 Ruc children in the north-central province of Quang Binh had come forward and claimed that they had been deceived by the employees of a provincial assistance center.
The parents, most of whom are impoverished and illiterate, claimed that representatives from the center had offered to educate and care for their children in a nearby town.
As a result, they turned them over in early 2006.
Six months later, they claimed, the kids were gone and no one would tell them where they were.
The center director Le Thi Thu Ha recently told Vietnamese media sources that all 13 children were turned over to an Italian adoption agency.
The Sai Gon Giai Phong newspaper quoted Ha as saying that all of the children were being brought up in Italy, mostly around the southern city of Naples.
The Italian 5
Dr. Peter Bille Larsen worked in Quang Binh in the late 1990s. In 2008, he says, he alerted Vietnamese authorities and embassies of the parents' complaints.
Larsen, familiar with the Ruc community, helped deliver specific information and documents regarding five children to Vietnamese authorities in 2008.
The Italian authorities reviewed these recently, and confirmed that four were living in Italy. The fifth, they say, must be somewhere else.
The UNICEF report released last November claimed that some of the children had also been adopted by American couples. Larsen also said that American adoption agencies were operating in the region in 2006, though he could not confirm whether or not the children were in the US.
In 2008, the US and Vietnam agreed not to renew their bilateral adoption agreement.
However, US embassy officials could not confirm nor deny that any of the thirteen children had been adopted by American couples.
"Due to privacy rights, we are not able to release information about US citizen adoptive parents or adoptees from the Quang Binh Province," a US State Department official said.
Lorenzo Angeloni, the Italian Ambassador to Vietnam, confirmed that the Italian Commission for International Adoption (CAI) is conducting its own assessment of the issue.
Ambassador Angeloni said that five Ruc children were processed by the Italian organization.
"CAI is well aware of the investigations regarding five children belonging to the Ruc minority (please note that only five children were adopted through Italian organization[s]) and is conducting assessment on the matter," he wrote in an email.
Bacchetta claimed that only four children were adopted by Italian parents and that all related procedures were conducted with "flawless, comprehensive and conclusive" documents.
"No trace of the fifth child could be found and hence he was not adopted by any Italian couple," she said.
Asked to clarify a possible contradiction between her and Angeloni's statements about the number of children adopted, Bacchetta said: "I confirm my previous statements [ ... ] Ambassador Angeloni's statement had a more general approach, based on our comments to the UNICEF/ISS draft, without the update I have thoroughly explained."
Bacchetta said the Italian authorities were surprised by the figure, thirteen.
"Only after reading the report drafted by the International Social Service on behalf of UNICEF did we learn that the procedures that allegedly caused concern involved 13 children," she said.
However, Larsen questioned this assessment.
He said documentation sent to Italian authorities included official letters by the social authorities saying the children would be returned to families "upon improved conditions."
"The so-called letters giving all rights to the center, on the contrary, were handwritten, undated (except for the year 2005) - and signed by illiterate parents," he said.
He said testimonies from birthparents have revealed a lack of parental consent. They discovered that their children were adopted after approaching the center, and in some cases, birthdate change.
"How this can be considered flawless is still a mystery or is this really representative of businessas-usual in the adoption system? I hope not."
Larsen said that from 2008, authorities had been encouraged to undertake thorough investigations of all suspected Ruc cases (estimated then to be around 13) as well as others undertaken in the province. He said countries with active adoption agencies in the province, including both the US and Italy, have been encouraged to investigate all adoption cases undertaken in the province.
"There is a risk and concern that the Ruc may not have been the only parents experiencing such kinds of irregularities. We will soon learn about the true extent of these practices in the concerned center and province from a more comprehensive investigation," he said.
Amidst all the systematic irregularities revealed in the case, it is most important to consider that after all these years, Ruc birthparents are still hoping to see their children again. "The case should not get lost in bureaucratic corridors and legal procedures," he said.