Babies for sale

A Tennessee woman recently ‘returned’ her adopted Russian son, shining an unflattering spotlight on foreign adoption

Angelina Jolie with her adopted son, Maddox.
(Image credit: Getty)

How does international adoption work?

It’s governed by a patchwork of local, national, and international rules, which makes the system vulnerable to abuse and corruption. Working through an array of international and private agencies, U.S. families adopted 13,000 foreign-born children last year—more than the rest of the world combined. Many of these adoptions go smoothly, and result in thrilled new parents and in children whose futures are immeasurably brighter than they would have been otherwise. But international adoption can also be a legal no-man’s land, in which prospective parents shell out tens of thousands of dollars only to be subject to delays, uncertainties, and demands for more money. The demand for foreign-born children by childless American couples has opened the door to some truly horrific abuses, including bribery, kidnapping, and the selling of babies.

Isn’t that illegal?

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In theory. But in practice, Western adoption agencies often rely on in-country facilitators, including orphanage directors and “child finders” who are paid for each adoptable child they produce. This system provides incentives to kidnap and sell children. Several years ago, six employees of a French charity were charged with kidnapping 103 
children in Chad, many of whom turned out to have families, so they could be adopted. In Chennai, India, a toddler was kidnapped outside his home, and by the time his grief-stricken parents tracked him down to a nearby orphanage, he had disappeared into the international adoption pipeline. David Smolin, a 
law professor in Alabama, adopted two children from an Indian orphanage only to learn later that the children had been placed there by their illiterate (and very much alive) mother, who had expected them to be educated at the orphanage. “Credulous Westerners eager to believe that they are saving children are easily fooled into accepting laundered children,” Smolin says. “For there is no fool like the one who wants to be fooled.”

Is the entire system rotten?

No. There are many ethical agencies, and several unscrupulous operators have been closed down in recent years. Still, horror stories keep cropping up. A few years ago, Guatemala was sending an average of 270 babies a month to the U.S.—far more than were in the nation’s orphanages. Local “finders” were being paid up to several thousand dollars for each baby they produced. Catriona Aldridge, who adopted three children from Guatemala, says she was motivated by giving them a better life, but now feels she may have contributed to the exploitation of desperate families. “We need to improve the situation for people—or women in particular—in these developing countries,” she says. After reports of stolen babies and of families being coerced to give up their children, Guatemala placed a moratorium on international adoptions in 2008. But when one country cracks down, the “market” simply heats up someplace else.

Where are the hot spots today?

China, Ethiopia, and Russia were the top sources for U.S. adoptions in 2009. But Russia may no longer permit adoptions to the U.S. In April, Torry Ann Hansen of Shelbyville, Tenn., put 7-year-old Artyom Savelyev, whom she adopted last year, alone on a plane back to Russia. She pinned a note on him that said: “I no longer wish to parent this child. … I was lied to by the Russian orphanage workers and director regarding his mental stability.” Hansen later said that the boy, who had spent most of his life in an orphanage, was violent and angry, and threatened to burn her house down. Russian President Dmitri
Medvedev called the incident “a monstrous deed” and put a freeze on U.S. adoptions.

Could the mother in that case be prosecuted?

Tennessee law-enforcement officials said that while Hansen showed “some bad judgment on the way she turned this child back,” she apparently didn’t break any laws. When adoptions originate abroad, laws are murky or non-existent. And as celebrity adopters like Madonna and Angelina 
Jolie have demonstrated, with money and connections, most obstacles can be overcome. In 2006, Madonna adopted a child from Malawi; it turned out the boy had a father who hadn’t signed off on the adoption. And one of Jolie’s children was reportedly acquired with the assistance of a hospital in Ho Chi Minh
 City, Vietnam, that the U.S. State Department considers a source of “unreliable” birth certificates. More than 75 countries have signed on to an international treaty, known as the Hague Convention, that establishes standards aimed at protecting both children and adoptive parents. But enforcement mechanisms are weak.

Will anything change?

There are signs that the international adoption market has been tightening, reflecting increased scrutiny. And as nations such as China and Russia grow more prosperous, they are less eager to send children overseas. U.S.
adoptions of Chinese children, for instance, dropped from nearly 8,000 in 2005 to about 
3,000 in 2009. But critics say international adoptions will remain suspect as long as the demand for children exceeds the supply, and as long as money is a driving factor. “You can get away with buying babies around the world as a United States citizen,” said Richard Cross, a senior agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “It’s not a crime.”

Protecting Haiti’s ‘orphans’

When self-styled American missionaries attempted to take 33 Haitian orphans out of the country following the Jan. 12 earthquake, the effort exposed a grim reality. As it turned out, many of the “orphans” actually had families. Even before 
the quake, some 380,000 Haitian children were living in crowded orphanages that serve as a last resort for impoverished parents who feel they can no longer care for their children. The missionaries may have sincerely believed they were saving children, but at the same time, say prosecutors who charged them with kidnapping, they did nothing to determine if the kids had families that would not have wanted them whisked out of the country. While the most serious charges have now been dropped, child advocates hope the negative publicity will lead to tighter adoption controls. “Even in an emergency,” says State Department official Michele Bond, “it’s important to do things carefully and methodically and not to scoop up the children and take them away.”

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