Friday, February 20, 2009


Vietnamese orphans for sale
Sarah Nichols

February 20, 2009
It was another humid day at the orphanage when we noticed a van pull up outside. We were playing with the children in the cement playground, an enclosed area protecting us from the sun. Through the dimness into the bright light of the entrance we saw that a group of Americans had arrived to collect their adoptive Vietnamese babies.

The potential parents emerged, some holding video cameras, laughing and talking nervously. Six babies whom we, as volunteers, had been playing with, feeding and generally 'watching over' were leaving. And 20 minutes later, after a rushed ceremony and a few brief conversations, they were taken away to their new lives.

A couple of months later another group of children were going to be adopted and we gave Bich and Tach, ten-year-old twins, extra English tuition to prepare them. They were very thin boys and, like most of the children, had hair lice and black, gappy teeth. Their American adoptive mother sent me photos to show them the wealthy, middle class lifestyle which would soon be theirs.

One day, however, we arrived to find a thin, graceful looking woman sitting and talking with the twins. It turned out that she was their 'birth' mother, who had trekked from her village in the mountains to the orphanage to say goodbye.

Through an interpreter, she told us that, being single, she could not afford to look after them. At first she had agreed to let one be adopted, but when the adoptive mother pursued both children, she had eventually resigned herself to losing both. She told us she did it so they could have a better life. She gave the boys a letter she'd written, explaining why she did it, and asked them to return one day.

Later I learnt that it might not have been her idea to send the boys away in the first place. She may have been approached and encouraged to by orphanage staff. In 2007 the USA Embassy conducted a thorough investigation and found that the way children came to be put up for adoption was being adversely affected by financial arrangements between adoption service providers (ASPs) in the USA and orphanages.

The donation agreements between ASPs and orphanages are private and negotiable. Some orphanage directors admitted there was a strong financial incentive to maximise the number of children available for adoption. The USA report states:
If the ASP funds a $10,000 project and the per-child donation is set at $1000, then the orphanage would be required to refer ten children ... Should the orphanage not have ten children ... the orphanage director is required to find the additional children to complete their side of the agreement.
Two orphanage directors have confirmed to consular officials that they are feeling pressured to find more children for their orphanage to 'compensate' ASPs for their donations.

A child can be classified as an orphan in two ways: by relinquishment (the parent or parents sign off all rights to the child), or by abandonment (the child is found abandoned and a search fails to locate their parents). Since 2005 the number of 'abandoned' children has suddenly increased. Some orphanage officials admitted that desertions were being staged to conceal the identity of the birth parents.

In the cases of relinquishment 75 per cent of the birth parents stated that, in addition to receiving payments for food, medical care and administrative expenses, they also received money for placing their child in the orphanage. On average this was 6,000,000 Vietnamese Dong, which is the equivalent of 11 months salary.

Most of them stated that they had not previously considered giving their children to an orphanage. Many were also told their child would visit frequently, would return at a certain age, or would send money from the US.

In June 2008 the USA Adopted Children's Immigrant Visa Unit declared that there would be no new adoptions taking place between the USA and Vietnam. Their report found 'cases have frequently been tainted by corruption due to weaknesses in the Vietnamese adoption system':
We will continue to encourage Vietnam to join the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoptions and undertake measures that will advance Vietnam's ability to meet Hague obligations.

While it's positive that fewer children will be removed unnecessarily from their families, it leaves the children currently in orphanages in an environment that would be considered unacceptable by Australian standards. Hygiene and nutrition are poor, and most of the children suffer emotionally from not being in a family.

The worst case I saw was a two-year-old boy who, for months, was unresponsive to any interaction, showing extreme psychological stress.

Months after I left Vietnam, one of the adopting mothers I had met sent me an email. She attached a new photo of her son who looked happy and well cared for. He has opportunities now that he didn't have before. But will it ever be possible to say whether having a privileged life was worth the cost?

Sarah Nichols is working in the communications department of International Needs Australia and completing a Master of Communication at Deakin University.

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