On Jan. 1, 2008, Guatemala closed its doors to American adoptions so that the government could reform the broken process. Britain, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain all stopped accepting adoptions from the country several years earlier, citing trafficking concerns. But more than 2,280 American adoptions from the country are still being processed, albeit with additional safeguards. Stolen babies have already been found in that queue; Guatemalan authorities expect more.
Guatemala's example is extreme; it is widely considered to have the world's most notorious record of corruption in foreign adoption. But the same troubling trends have emerged, on smaller scales, in more than a dozen other countries, including Albania, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Liberia, Peru, and Vietnam. The pattern suggests that the supply of adoptable babies rises to meet foreign demand -- and disappears when Western cash is no longer available. For instance, in December 2001, the U.S. immigration service stopped processing adoption visas from Cambodia, citing clear evidence that children were being acquired illicitly, often against their parents' wishes. That year, Westerners adopted more than 700 Cambodian children; of the 400 adopted by Americans, more than half were less than 12 months old. But in 2005, a study of Cambodia's orphanage population, commissioned by the U.S. Agency for International Development, found only a total of 132 children who were less than a year old -- fewer babies than Westerners had been adopting every three months a few years before.
Even countries with large populations, such as India, rarely have healthy infants and toddlers who need foreign parents. India’s large and growing middle class, at home and in the diaspora, faces fertility issues like those of their developed-world counterparts. They too are looking for healthy babies to adopt; some experts think that these millions of middle-class families could easily absorb all available babies. The country's pervasive poverty does leave many children fending for themselves on the street. But "kids are not on the street alone at the age of 2," Cantwell, the child protection consultant, says. "They are 5 or 6, and they aren’t going to be adopted." That's partly because most of these children still have family ties and therefore are not legally available for adoption, and partly because they would have difficultly adjusting to a middle-class European or North American home. Many of these children are deeply marked by abuse, crime, and poverty, and few prospective parents are prepared to adopt them.
Surely, though, prospective parents can at least feel secure that their child is truly an orphan in need of a home if they receive all the appropriate legal papers? Unfortunately, no.
In many countries, it can be astonishingly easy to fabricate a history for a young child, and in the process, manufacture an orphan. The birth mothers are often poor, young, unmarried, divorced, or otherwise lacking family protection. The children may be born into a locally despised minority group that is afforded few rights. And for enough money, someone will separate these little ones from their vulnerable families, turning them into "paper orphans" for lucrative export.
Some manufactured orphans are indeed found in what Westerners call "orphanages." But these establishments often serve less as homes to parentless children and more as boarding schools for poor youngsters. Many children are there only temporarily, seeking food, shelter, and education while their parents, because of poverty or illness, cannot care for them. Many families visit their children, or even bring them home on weekends, until they can return home permanently. In 2005, when the Hannah B. Williams Orphanage in Monrovia, Liberia, was closed because of shocking living conditions, 89 of the 102 "orphans" there returned to their families. In Vietnam, "rural families in particular will put their babies into these orphanages that are really extended day-care centers during the harvest season," says a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman in Hanoi. In some cases, unscrupulous orphanage directors, local officials, or other operators persuade illiterate birth families to sign documents that relinquish those children, who are then sent abroad for adoption, never to be seen again by their bereft families.
Other children are located through similarly nefarious means. Western adoption agencies often contract with in-country facilitators -- sometimes orphanage directors, sometimes freelancers -- and pay per-child fees for each healthy baby adopted. These facilitators, in turn, subcontract with child finders, often for sums in vast excess of local wages. These paydays give individuals a significant financial incentive to find adoptable babies at almost any cost. In Guatemala, where the GDP per capita is $4,700 a year, child finders often earned $6,000 to $8,000 for each healthy, adoptable infant. In many cases, child finders simply paid poor families for infants. A May 2007 report on adoption trafficking by the Hague Conference on Private International Law reported poor Guatemalan families being paid beween $300 and several thousand dollars per child.
Sometimes, medical professionals serve as child finders to obtain infants. In Vietnam, for instance, a finder's fee for a single child can easily dwarf a nurse's $50-a-month salary. Some nurses and doctors coerce birth mothers into giving up their children by offering them a choice: pay outrageously inflated hospital bills or relinquish their newborns. Illiterate new mothers are made to sign documents they can't read. In August 2008, the U.S. State Department released a warning that birth certificates issued by Tu Du Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City -- which in 2007 had reported 200 births a day, and an average of three abandoned babies per 100 births -- were "unreliable." Most of the hospital's "abandoned" babies were sent to the city's Tam Binh orphanage, from which many Westerners have adopted. (Tu Du Hospital is where Angelina Jolie's Vietnamese-born son was reportedly abandoned one month after his birth; he was at Tam Binh when she adopted him.) According to Linh Song, executive director of Ethica, an American nonprofit devoted to promoting ethical adoption, a provincial hospital’s chief obstetrician told her in 2007 "that he provided 10 ethnic minority infants to [an] orphanage [for adoption] in return for an incubator."