The international adoption system has given many U.S. couples the privilege of becoming parents. Unfortunately, the system that allows this opportunity is rife with corruption and fraud. Increasingly, children adopted overseas have living family, and are in fact, victims of human trafficking.
A lack of transparency in the international adoption community has led to an epidemic of trafficked children into the U.S. under false pretenses. The families that adopt the children do not realize they are participating in a system that kidnaps, recruits young children and buys babies for eager parents-to-be from abroad. The abuse ranges from individual kidnappings to institutional corruption that depends upon a consistent supply of trafficked children.
Stories of adoption fraud have cropped up in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Journalist Kathryn Joyce recently spent time in Eastern Africa, as well as with the families of U.S. parents who adopted children from the region. She found evidence of systematic corruption in the adoption systems in Eastern Africa, as well as in faith-based adoption agencies. In 2010, Ethiopia accounted for nearly a quarter of all international adoptions to the U.S. However, many of the children that are being adopted from the country typically have families. Representatives for faith-based adoption agencies go out and recruit “orphans” from families that do not understand the Western concept of adoption, in order to generate revenue. Potential U.S. parents see videos of kids who say at least one of their parents is dead, which is typically true, but those children also have a support system of another parent or extended family. Across the continent in Sierra Leone, 29 children were stolen from their families in the village of Makeni in 1998 and adopted by U.S. families under the guise of Sierra Leone’s devastating Civil War. A child welfare organization was responsible, but birth families insisted they never gave permission to place their children up for adoption. A commission was created to find whether or not the claims of the birth parents were true. The resulting findings were that the adoptions were, in fact, fraudulent, and that parents never consented to terminating their parental rights.
In China, American parents adopted 3,000 Chinese children in 2012, and reports have begun to emerge about children who were kidnapped from their families and sold to orphanages. Parents that conduct searches for their kidnapped children are often given little help from authorities, and scammers frequently ask for large sums of money to help find a child. With over 20,000 children being abducted every year in China alone, it’s difficult to determine how many are sold to orphanages to be trafficked and sold to adoptive parents. Once these children learn to speak English, parents typically find out that their child’s paperwork was falsified, and had been doctored by recruiters to list children who had been relinquished by living parents as orphans, allowing adoption agencies to avoid prolonged vetting procedures.
In an effort to deceive potential parents, the international adoption system does two things: it violates the rights of families by tearing them apart against their will, and in perhaps the cruelest irony of all, keeps children who have no family, and need homes the most, from being adopted. Street children who have no paper trail, and are often chronically ill do not get adopted because they have no identification, and are considered undesirable by many potential parents who do not want to treat children with special needs or chronic illnesses such as HIV. Kidnapped children in China take precedence in the adoption process over abandoned baby girls that are victims of the country’s One Child Policy and patriarchal culture. The corruption of the international adoption system has very real consequences for thousands of families.
In an attempt to combat the trafficking of children, some countries have moved rapidly to mitigate the damage. In 2011, the Ethiopian government scaled back international adoptions and evaluated several of the country’s orphanages and the agencies they worked with. This resulted in revoking the licenses of several agencies, as well as closing down several orphanages that merely served as transitional homes. Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Social Welfare is collaborating with the U.S. government to help birth families contact their children, and the organization that placed the children up for adoption is facing possible criminal charges. Other countries have moved slowly or completely fail to recognize the problem. But increasingly, investigations into fraudulent adoption have occurred in Guatemala, India, Mexico, and Vietnam.
More work must be done to protect trafficked children from fraudulent adoption. Under the U.S. Trafficking Protection Victims Act (TVPA), these children are not considered trafficked. Although the act of selling and transporting a child occurred, the law does not recognize a victim because they are not sold into slavery, prostitution, or any form of forced labor. For now, the Hague Convention, which regulates international adoption, is the sole authority of which the U.S. follows to conduct international adoptions. However, the Hague Convention lacks adequate protections regarding fraudulent adoptions and the trafficking of children.
The demand for children for adoption from across the world has created an unintended human rights problem that the U.S. must address seriously. The U.S. must be at the forefront of creating reform within the system to provide protection to children and their families. Initiatives to protect children often lead nowhere, but a system of accountability and transparency can create new roads with solutions to this dubious problem, that provide justice to the victims and their families.