Investigating one by one
The only legal authority that the United States had to oversee adoptions in Vietnam was through the limited tool of immigration law. In practice, this meant that, legally at least, the United States couldn't hold responsible the adoption agencies or the Vietnamese orphanages that may have actually done something wrong. Instead, the United States would have to wait until adopting Americans had filed applications for I-600 "orphan visas" before investigating any of the circumstances surrounding the adoptions. In essence, the U.S. authorities hold adopting Americans responsible for whether the child promised to them by an adoption agency is in fact a legitimate orphan, on the fiction that they have some independent knowledge about the child.
By that point, though, most Americans had already spent many months and tens of thousands of dollars pursuing the adoption and in some cases had already adopted the child under Vietnamese law. Many thought of the I-600 as the final formality in a long, emotionally fraught process. Few had any idea that their adoption agencies' actions had been essentially unsupervised until then -- or that the child might not in fact be free for adoption. And if the United States did find enough fraud in a visa application to try to prevent that adoption, not surprisingly, "the PAPs [prospective adoptive parents] are very often devastated," as one consular officer wrote. When the accuracy of their prospective child's visa application was challenged, a number of families saw no alternative to spending tens of thousands of dollars on immigration lawyers and camping out in Hanoi to fight the U.S. government -- rather than returning the child to an orphanage that, if the allegations were true, "had already proven it didn't care what happens to that child," as Mary Quigley, one North Carolina-based parent, put it. Monica DiGioacchino, another adoptive parent whose child's orphan visa application was at first denied, is still bitter about the use of immigration investigations in the State Department's campaign for honest adoptions from Vietnam, saying, "We were collateral damage."
A number of these released State Department documents report on investigations into particular cases, heavily redacted because of the U.S. Privacy Act of 1974. What's left are agonized conclusions like this: "government run clinics and orphanages are actively engaged in baby buying and are lying to birth mothers to secure children for international adoption... forcing witnesses and even birth mothers to recant the statements they gave to consular officers so that the adoptions can be completed." In one cable, the embassy reports that it "has discovered 'safe houses' ... where women are offered lodging, medical expenses and money to 'start a new life' in exchange for their child.... The women are required to sign agreements promising to relinquish their children before entering the safe houses and are often separated from their children immediately after birth. Tragically, in some instances these women were told that their children would be adopted domestically and that they would return home once they were 11 years old. Even worse, one hospital in [redacted location] essentially kidnapped infants from their parents by refusing to release the child until they paid their medical bills. When payment was not forthcoming, the hospital declared the children ‘abandoned' and placed them for adoption without the birth parents [sic] knowledge or consent."
In another situation, U.S. investigators found that village officials offered two Hmong women 10 months' salary each to place their newborns in a "social sponsoring center" -- essentially an orphanage. (In many underdeveloped countries, children aren't abandoned at orphanages but placed there temporarily for food, shelter, education, or child care, which is what these women told U.S. investigators they thought they were doing.) After USCIS denied the adoption visas, the documents show that village officials summoned the two women to their offices, "criticized [them] for irresponsibly becoming pregnant," and forced them to sign relinquishment papers. The head of the Department for Intercountry Adoptions, Vu Duc Long, then ordered them to come see him in Hanoi. According to one State Department document, the birth mothers later "reported that they were so frightened about the trip that they became physically sick." Before USCIS spoke with the two mothers again, Vietnamese police officers stopped by to "remind" the women that they had "consented" to adoption. U.S. officials were so horrified by this incident that they refer to it often, both internally in these documents and in discussions with Vietnamese officials. Those two adoptions were successfully stopped -- but USCIS reportedly discovered that a third woman's child had, without her permission or understanding, already been adopted and brought to live in the United States.
Many Vietnamese officials objected furiously to Americans undertaking criminal investigations on their soil, so much so that investigators at times feared for their safety. Consider this report on a State Department attempt to investigate a child's suspicious "abandonment" in a hospital in Can Tho, in the Mekong Delta near Vietnam's southern tip, where the investigator, Chris Brown, was refused entry: "Ominously... the Vietnamese government says we have to give them the exact details in advance ‘in order to avoid problem as occurred in An Giang province on October 10, 2007 and to ensure the safety and smooth coordination for the delegations of the Consulate General traveling outside consular district.' I say ‘ominous' because that certainly could be read as a direct threat."
The documents reveal that Vietnamese officials blocked U.S. embassy investigators from researching orphans' origins in 17 of Vietnam's 63 provinces between 2007 and 2008, often with police or other Vietnamese officials physically blocking the U.S. employees from entering a building or ordering them to leave a province. These investigations were difficult, dangerous, time-consuming -- and worst of all, didn't necessarily stop wrongful adoptions. "Because the decisions of USCIS can be appealed -- ultimately to the federal court system -- denials must be extremely well documented with solid evidence," as one document explained. "Well-documented" means, in practice, that either a birth family has to ask for the child back or someone has to confess to having done something wrong, a highly unlikely occurrence because Vietnamese police themselves were involved in either soliciting or covering up the purchase and sale of children, according to both these documents and USCIS orphan visa appeals denials posted online. And so even when the embassy was all but certain that a child had been fraudulently taken from a birth family -- but did not have evidence strong enough to stand up against the necessary "preponderance of the evidence" standard in court -- it still at times had to allow an American family to bring home that child.