Long-standing concerns about irregularities in overseas adoptions were heightened recently by discrepancies between official government figures and those claimed by officials at two local adoption centers.
Ministry of Social Affairs records indicate a total of 472 orphans were adopted overseas between 1993 and early last year, three ministry officials confirmed. But local rights workers are complaining that records of just two of the country’s 22 adoption centers show a combined total of more than 700 for the same period.
The discrepancy, they say, indicates a high rate of irregular adoptions. And the possibility of an unregulated black market in children has some concerned. In cases where overseas adoptions are carried out through intermediaries—who may or may not be representing couples seeking to adopt—children could be vulnerable to sale into the sex trade or as cheap labor, Kek Galabru, founder of the Cambodian rights group Licadho, said Sunday.
The inflated costs for suspected bribes, meanwhile, may be driving some prospective parents away, some say.
“It is certain that illegal adoptions are being carried out by corrupt officials in the government and adoption centers,” one local rights worker, who requested anonymity, said. “Some of the children adopted abroad are not officially listed by the ministry, yet they reach another country safely because they held the official letter issued by the ministry.”
Concern over the disparity has spread through the NGO community. Last week, Ith Sam Heng, minister of social affairs, Nim Thoth, secretary of state for the Ministry of Social Affairs, and Son Chheng, director of the child welfare department of the ministry, all confirmed that their records show only 472 overseas adoptions.
Ith Sam Heng on Thursday acknowledged the discrepancy, but added he could not explain it and intended to investigate the matter. “I cannot believe, however, that [given the number of ministries involved] illegal adoptions are taking place through government channels,” he said.
Kek Galabru said the discrepancy may suggest a combination of incompetence and corruption in the government’s handling of overseas adoptions. She added that the exorbitant fees allegedly paid by foreigners may not always be going to the government ministries involved in the process of overseas adoptions.
Foreign couples seeking to adopt local orphans are required to seek a license from the Ministry of Social Affairs and procure a temporary passport for the adoptee from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kek Galabru said. The process is supposed to cost about $200.
“Normally, [foreign adoptive parents] shouldn’t have to pay that much,” Kek Galabru said. “But if they’re paying anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000, as some have claimed, then obviously the money isn’t going to the Ministry of Social Affairs or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It’s going to someone, but I don’t know who.”
She added: “If the government would like to have children adopted overseas, they should make the regulations stricter. They shouldn’t allow the selling of children, because that’s illegal.”
Ith Sam Heng said that no less than four ministries are involved in processing overseas adoptions, including the ministries of Social Affairs, Foreign Affairs and Interior, as well as the Council of Ministers and the prime minister’s office. Officials assert that the involvement of so many government bodies reduces the chance of illegal adoptions.
And Son Chheng, director of the Ministry of Social Affair’s adoption office, suggested that adoption centers are inflating their overseas adoption figures to improve their image. “I don’t know about [the centers’] purpose in reporting so many more children adopted than those registered in the ministry,” Son Chheng said. “But I think they want to show their achievement to the public.”
Directors of two of the country’s 22 adoption centers responded that their figures were accurate, adding that the adoptions through their centers were approved by the government.
Chhim Naly, director of the Woman and Orphan Training Association, a local NGO, said more than 500 resident orphans were adopted overseas since the center was founded in 1994.
And Youn Sovanna, director of the Nutrition Center, an adoption center subsidized by the Ministry of Social Affairs, said that 430 children at her facility were adopted overseas between 1993 and early 1999. “I never allow anyone to be adopted without the ministry’s approval, and do not sell them to foreigners or any Cambodians,” she said. “I do not take money from the foster parents, but if they give us [charitable contributions], I accept.”
But a staff member at the center, who declined to give her name, maintained that anyone seeking to adopt a child through the center is required to pay at least $500 in “donations.”
Carol Rodley, counsellor at the US Embassy, said the official government numbers appear also to conflict with data available to the embassy. “Those numbers are clearly low compared to the number of adoptions processed for the US alone during that period.”
The quasi-legal status of overseas adoption over the years may be a factor in alleged irregularities, some observers say. A freeze on adoptions was imposed in 1991 and re-emphasized in 1996.
“There seem to be a lot of adoptions once again,” said Sebastien Marot, coordinator of Mith Samlanh, an NGO that works with street children.
“And while I’m not aware of any inconsistency in official records, a lot of cases don’t seem to be in line with regulations…. Besides, even if adoptions are carried out legally, the child is coming through a system that is not morally acceptable.”
Some NGO workers expressed concern that the inflated costs of adoption may discourage prospective domestic families from seeking to adopt children.
“One concern I have is that the process shows a real preference for foreign families,” said Laurence Gray, a program manager who works with orphans and children from broken homes for the Christian NGO, World Vision. “For instance, the costing to have an assessment is only affordable for foreign families…
“Another concern is that there is inadequate accountability concerning the charges when an adoption goes through. [That money] could probably be used more effectively, perhaps for domestic adoptions.”
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