Seamy side of cross-border adoptions

Seamy side of cross-border adoptions
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In January, Britain stopped automatically recognising adoptions made in Singapore as the Republic is not party to the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption.

This meant that children adopted in Singapore by British parents would not be automatically eligible for British citizenship, which could leave the child stranded. By contrast, children adopted from the 90 states that have ratified the treaty don't face this risk.

Accordingly, Singapore banned British citizens from adopting children here from June.

Why has Singapore not acceded to the convention?

One possible reason is that there is little bang for the buck. The treaty mandates only one thing, that a national agency be set up to "prevent the abduction, the sale of or traffic in children". But Singapore is insignificant as a source or receiving nation, with fewer than 50 such adoptions on average a year. This tiny volume may not merit the administrative costs of running such a national agency.

More importantly, the treaty as it stands is not worth acceding to just yet. This is because it fails to address the corruption already endemic in the cross-border adoption system, which receives media coverage only when Hollywood superstars are the adopters.

For example, the father of David, the Malawian boy Madonna adopted, later claimed he did not know he was surrendering custody of his son to the star. And the woman who facilitated Angelina Jolie's adoption of the Cambodian boy Maddox later pleaded guilty to criminal charges related to her inter-country adoption business.

In the cross-border adoption market, "child laundering" has long been documented. This involves impoverished, illiterate parents in undeveloped countries being cheated of their children.

Or, unscrupulous intermediaries may buy or kidnap children from orphanages and hospitals or off the streets. Then corrupt local officials are bribed to issue phoney paperwork to certify them as relinquished or abandoned "orphans". Foreign adoptive parents are then furnished with fake papers about these children.

This systemic corruption that existed pre-treaty remains in the post-treaty era. This is because the treaty does not mandate any penalties to deal with the issue.

Indeed, this illegality was extensively documented in the 1990 Report on Intercountry Adoption of Children by the scientific secretariat of the Hague Conference on Private International Law. The report specifically proposed that the treaty include a mechanism to deal with these abusive practices.

Unfortunately, the treaty's final text left the issue largely unaddressed, so child laundering continued unabated, even after 1995 when the treaty came into effect.

The Department of State, which oversees cross-border adoptions in the United States, has reported several adoption scandals post-1995 involving child laundering in Cambodia, India, Guatemala and Vietnam, among others.

The treaty cannot tackle systemic corruption as it fatally relies on compliance within the source countries. These countries are responsible for ensuring that there is no child laundering involved. But they are generally impoverished nations without the regulatory and law enforcement capacity to do so.

The treaty also fails to specify penalties for non-compliance, leaving it to each state-party to legislate as it sees fit. Even when meaningful penalties are legislated, enforcing the law in source countries, where fraud or financial inducement and even force may be used by some adoption agencies, is likely to be spotty.

In the receiving countries, usually affluent Western nations, oversight basically means verifying the legality of an adoption by inspecting the child's birth certificate and signed consent of the biological parents.

But in many source countries, such documents are easily forged.

The treaty also endorses the involvement of what it calls "approved non-accredited persons", largely for-profit adoption agencies and their intermediaries working for a fee.

It is perplexing that such agencies are specifically allowed to be involved when it is Western dollars that are fuelling the child laundering. The unusual provision was written into the treaty to suit the US, the largest receiving country, whose cross-border adoptions are largely run by private adoption agencies.

In most countries, anyone may start a cross-border adoption agency. No licensing requirements exist. Moreover, the treaty doesn't require an agency to disclose how adoption fees are charged or how they are actually used. This lack of financial transparency is the root of the lack of accountability in the whole system.

Clearly, an ethical system for cross-border adoptions would require the receiving nation to send experienced criminal investigators into a source nation to suss out child laundering there.

Since this is less than practical, child laundering in source countries is unlikely to be eradicated. Thus, the system will remain shot through with illegality to which adoptive parents in affluent countries may conveniently turn a blind eye.

In this respect, South Korea has an excellent track record as a source nation. This is because in that culture, orphans and children of single mothers are culturally unacceptable, so they are sent out of the country. The happy thing is that its government manages the process well, with no private firms involved. In all, Seoul is the exception that shows just how flimsy the treaty framework really is.

This article was first published on July 02, 2014.
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