Thursday, December 1, 2011

Podcast: Exposing Corruption in International Adoption

At the Chronicle of Philanthropy, a 20-minute podcast described as follows:
Tiny Spark is new podcast on the business of doing good. The first installment takes a look at corruption in international adoption and how it has caused problems despite the generous impulses of many parents. Amy Costello, a freelance reporter and radio producer, hosts and produces the program.

In the past decade, American parents have adopted some quarter of a million children from Cambodia, China, Ethiopia, Nepal, and elsewhere. And in all of these countries and others, fraud has been uncovered.

Pressure from children's advocates and others are leading to changes. But problems persist.
For insights about how the process of trying to place needy children in good homes can go so wrong, Ms. Costello talks with Jennifer Hemsley, who spent years trying to figure out whether a child she tried to adopt from Guatemala had been kidnapped from her birth parents.

She also interviews Erin Siegal, author of the new book, Finding Fernanda, a new investigative account of international corruption in the adoption system in Guatemala.
There's also a podcast about nonprofits that focus on international adoption, which cites that the international adoption process to the U.S. brings at least $250 million a year -- at least without blackmarket adoption considered. In considering the global international adoption market, it cites $1 billion a year.


Amy Costello said...

Hi Malinda. Thank you so much for sharing this link to our podcast with your readers. I'd be very interested in hearing your feedback on this unfortunate aspect of international's always great to get the perspective of listeners who have been through this process themselves.

Amy Costello, Host and Sr Producer, Tiny Spark podcast. (

Jessica said...

As everyone agrees, corruption in international adoption must be identified and weeded out, a monumental task to be sure.

But I think it's important to view the subject of "money" in international adoption within the context of all adoptions, as well as within the context of the often-overlooked but related fertility "industry."

I've spent the past year speaking to groups of parents about a book I wrote about adoption from Guatemala. Many folks tell me our international adoption was "cheap" compared with their private domestic adoption, and/or fertility treatments, and/or payments to donors and surrogates, both here and abroad.

One physician said he thought the high cost of international adoption could be linked to the high cost of fertility treatments in the US. Something to consider.

None of which excuses corrupt practices in international adoption. But it seems as though international adoption often is reported in a vacuum, when in fact it's part of a wide spectrum of ways to create a family, most involving money that changes hands.

Finally, I listened to the podcast and want to clarify that the child Ms. Hemsley was trying to adopt from Guatemala was in fact not kidnapped from her birth parents, although the date recorded on the DNA test was incorrect and Ms. Hemsley feared she may have been. Ms. Hemsley stopped the adoption and the child was placed in an orphanage. The girl now lives permanently with foster parents in Guatemala, with financial support from Ms. Hemsley.

Amy Costello said...

Hi Jessica.

I appreciated your comments and unique perspective on international adoption.

I think you raise a very interesting point -- that adoptions should be viewed as one option among a wide range of ways to create a family.

I'm also glad that you listened to my podcast. Jennifer makes it clear in the interview that her child was not kidnapped...but I'm happy to see you emphasize it again here.

I'm curious whether any of Jennifer's story resonated with you, as an adoptive parent to two Guatemalan children? Also, when you've been speaking to groups in the past year, what have other parents told you about their experiences with paperwork, documentation, etc?

Curious to hear the perspective of other adoptive parents to this story.

Very best,


Jessica said...

Hi Amy:

My view of adoption has evolved--my children are 9 and 7--to the point where I now see it as part of a larger continuum--different ways of family-making.

Re: the podcast. As a fellow adoptive mom with children from Guatemala, I feel deep empathy for Jennifer and her family's struggles. Her responses definitely resonate for me, as they probably do for others who have adopted from Guatemala and spent any time there. As my lawyer once told me, "This is not Paris. This is not Argentina. This is Guatemala. Things are different here."

Enough said.

A number of adoptive parents have shared with me their nightmare paperwork stories, including false names or addresses, or a boilerplate social worker report. This is especially hard because many APs with children from Guatemala want to connect with birth parents, and inaccurate information makes that impossible: children will never be able to trace their biological roots, and birth mothers are unable to be found. I consider that a tragedy.

However, for me, false paperwork is a far cry from kidnapping or coercion, although they are often all lumped together as "corrupt adoption." (In California, where I live, for example, tens of thousands of residents are undocumented and use fake ID, but we don't consider them "criminals." Again, my opinion only.) Jennifer's experience is a case in point: although the date on the DNA was wrong, the baby was not kidnapped, nor was the birth mother coerced. Yet the adoption is labeled "corrupt."

Thank you for taking on this complicated subject with thoughtfulness and reason. There are no simple answers.


Amy Costello said...

Jessica, thank you for this and for sharing some of the challenges of international adoption.

Until I began reporting this story, I was unaware that so many adoptive parents struggled with the transparency of their adoptions, much in the way that Jennifer did. And I was unaware how this lack of transparency can sometimes continue to trouble or haunt families in the years following their adoptions.

I understand why many parents may choose to "look the other way" because they so desperately want a child. And it's unfortunate that the adopted children themselves may never know their full identities as a result of these corrupt adoptions.

Which brings us to this word "corrupt" and how that can mean a wide range of offenses - as you rightly point out. Yes,thankfully Jennifer's child had not been kidnapped. But when an adoption is "corrupt" how do you have any way of knowing the extent or severity of the corruption unless you undertake a process like Jennifer did?

I remain perplexed about a real and lasting solution moving forward, especially as American parents continue to look to nations with woefully insufficient government oversight - I understand Democratic Republic of Congo is of interest now - a nation I've been to several times. I appreciate the real and pressing needs that exists there among children - healthcare, education, clean drinking water, to name a few. Many argue that the needs of children in places like Congo or Ethiopia or Guatemala can actually be addressed in-country, relatively cheaply, funded by the generosity of ordinary families around the world who care about their welfare.

If those children are to be adopted internationally, I have grave concerns about the ability of the government or private sector in Congo (and other places) to regulate and vouch for the infants and children at the center of the "adoption economy" as author Erin Siegal described it to me. For those who support international adoption, as you do, what can be done to stamp out this corruption once and for all? I hear over and over again that adoptive families are reluctant to raise their voices about this issue for fear of jeopardizing the entire industry itself. But how do we rid the system of corruption without the voices of those who have been through the process themselves? Who have stories to tell? And who have adopted children who also want answers?

Finally, is there a way to meaningfully increase the number of American families who adopt domestically, since the need here at home appears to be so great?

Jessica said...

Amy, I'm not sure if APs choose to "look the other way" so much as they can't conceive of practices that go on. Until I lived in Guatemala and began to process my daughter's adoption myself, I didn't know what was going on, either. Even with all that, I continue to hear revelations I never could have imagined, such as the incident you cite in your interview, a baby being cut from the womb against her mother's will: Who would do that?

When I talk about my book, people say, "I had no idea!" How could they? Parents are busy, they have other children, lives, jobs, doctors' appointments, and soccer games. Travel abroad is expensive; most families scrimp to pay for the adoption and the final pick-up trip. Not all APs can conduct undercover investigations. Besides, they've been fingerprinted, interviewed, and had their homes and bodies examined for fitness, which seems to indicate their adoption is a serious legal proceeding with real oversight. Adoptive parents trust their agencies.

Like Jennifer, I've met the birth mothers of both my children, so I've heard from their own mouths the reasons why they relinquished their children. This has been incredibly beneficial for my children and their mothers, which is why I advocate for open adoption, international and domestic. (As you know, some adoption records in the US are closed, another tragedy.)

Like you and others, including "orphan doctor" Jane Aronson, I absolutely support the idea of family preservation in-country. In addition to funds donated by "ordinary families around the world," it would be great if governments of countries could step up efforts to assist their citizens by earmarking funds for family planning services, food, housing, and education.

That said, there will always be situations where a woman cannot or chooses not to parent her child. In those instances, international adoption can be viewed as one option.

Will international adoption ever be fully transparent? Maybe if enough people make enough noise, it will. In a country such as Guatemala, adoption of non-blood-related children is rare, so without international adoption, the alternative is a lifetime spent in institutional care. Jennifer's account of her daughter's orphanage experience was chilling, and unfortunately, not unique.

Addressing your question about domestic adoption in the US: Family-making is an intensely personal choice. For some, IVF, embryo or sperm donation, or surrogacy makes sense. For others, private adoption where a birth mother chooses the adoptive parents is the right choice. About ~114,000 children are available for adoption through foster care. That process best-suits many.

It's crucial that parents know what makes sense for them, so they are able to be the best parents they can to their children. If international adoption feels like the right choice, so be it.

Finally, stories are emerging, in books and on blogs. An online search will reveal hundreds of titles, including my book, published by Seal Press.

Thank you for caring,
Jessica O'Dwyer

Amy Costello said...


Thank you for taking the time to paint such a full and heartfelt picture of the many aspects and complications of international adoption.

I have put a link to this discussion, and an Amazon link to your book, on my website.

I wish you, and all adoptive parents, a joyous holiday season. And I hope you will contact me any time if other stories emerge that you think would be of interest to our program.

All the best to you,


Mirah Riben said...

Jessica shared her opinion that:

"However, for me, false paperwork is a far cry from kidnapping or coercion, although they are often all lumped together as "corrupt adoption"." She goes on to describe the difference between using false ID and doing something "criminal."

First off, I was under the impression that it is a crime to use false ID, but that is not really the point. The point is that the word corruption is not a legal terms and thus it is not only kidnapping that defines corruption in adoption. By definition, corruption is more of a moral issue than a legal one.


1. the act of corrupting or state of being corrupt.
2. moral perversion; depravity.
3. perversion of integrity.
4. corrupt or dishonest proceedings.
5. bribery.

That's the dictionary definition.

Transparency International(TI) defines corruption as "the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. This definition encompasses corrupt practices in both the public and private sectors." TI uses perceptions as a measure of corruption because "corruption – whether frequency or amount – is to a great extent a hidden activity that is difficult to measure."

Note that here too the definition is not dependent on legality or criminality.

Adoption corruption takes many forms and exists in domestic as well as IA. Any and all deceit for the intent of earning a fee for their adoption, such as labeling children with parents "orphans" for instance, is corrupt.

I thus respectfully disagree with your opinion.

Jessica said...

Dear Mireh Riben:

I appreciate the dictionary definition of corruption and respect your interpretation of it.

For me, the issue is not black-and-white, but a spectrum of gray.

My opinion only,

Jessica O'Dwyer

Mirah Riben said...

Well, Jennifer, everyone is entitled to an opinion. I just hope and pray that those who make laws to protect children, protect ALL children from all forms of corruption, exploitation and commodification.

I hope that anything done that does not put the best interests of children first is eradicated as evil. I see no gray areas when it comes to lifelong pain, loss and harm caused to children and their families. None whatsoever.

Gray areas -- yeah, it's called GRAY MARKET ADOPTION wherein lurks the murky world of coercion and fraud that has found convenient legal loopholes or simply lack of laws and regs to prevent the harm they commit, the ruined lives. Accepting gray areas is accepting all of the corruption that lies there in the grayness because it hasn't quite crossed some imaginary line or non-existent laws and regulations.

It's a slippery and very dangerous slope. We must instead be super diligent INHO because EVERY child is precious, not just SOME.

Do we likewise turn out back and accept SLIGHT acts of child abuse - those that don't leave physical scars or broken bones?

The gray shadows hide the hidden dangers and allow adoption to be "marketed" as a good, a "win-win". We need to shed light in all the dark areas and gray corners and bring ALL corruption into the spotlight not continue to allow it to lurk and continue operating legally in shadowy gray corners.

As a mother - any harm done to YOUR child is a crime! Not just some that cross over some imaginary line.

And moral, ethical societies uphold such standards and do not allow evil to survive in the black or in the gray.

malinda said...

I'm so glad to see the conversation continue, Amy, Jessica & Mirah!

In terms of language to describe "problems in the adoption process," we do sometimes see sloppiness in how people use language for things I see as potentially different problems: trafficking for purposes of adoption, corruption in adoption, illegal adoption, unethical adoption.

I do see corruption as the word with the broadest definition. I see corruption as encompassing both criminal and non-criminal conduct. Corruption would include trafficking, in my view, though is not limited to trafficking.

I think it's possible to have an illegal adoption that is not a corrupt adoption. For example, if there's a state requirement that an adoption decree be registered, and the decree is not registered as required, the adoption would be illegal, but it wouldn't necessarily be corrupt. (It might depend on the reason behind the failure to register -- if it was for financial gain, then I'd consider it corruption).

I think it's also possible to have a legal adoption that is unethical. Say, for example, state law gives a birth mother 10 days to revoke consent, and the birth mother informs the adoptive parents that she is considering revoking her consent on day 8. Even if she does not formally revoke before the end of day 10, I would consider it unethical to proceed with the adoption.

Does it matter what words we use? As a lawyer, I tend to say yes! But sometimes the insistence on "correct" language isn't particularly helpful to the discussion, is sometimes used to avoid addressing the real problems.

Yes, kidnapping a child for the purposes of adoption is really, really, really, really bad, arguably worse than many other corrupt practices in adoption -- but problems of corruption can't really be defended by saying, "At least she wasn't kidnapped!"

marie said...

It is really interesting (and shocking) to see how some APs downplay the term corruption, ignoring or excusing how coersion, falsification of documentation, fake IDs, fake birth certificates, erroneous dates, negative DNA results and paying birthmothers, as not falling under that heading! What makes it even sadder is the excuse is given that is "the way things are in Guatemala." Yes, colonialism still exists in Guatemala and those with no voices are used for profit, end of story but that does not mean that should be accepted by Adoptive Parents!

The argument is used that many APs have "searched" for the biomothers, which in MANY cases have turned out to be biofamilies found, complete with a father in the picture and siblings older than the adoptee that were kept and siblings younger than the adoptee who were born after the relinquishment of the adoptee. The question does come to mind, then why was that child relinquished? This interesting scenario is glanced lightly over by many APs. The child is NOT an orphan!

What do they expect the extended happy and healthy biofamily to say to them? Do they expect to hear that the pregnant biomother was approached at a remote market place and told how relinquishing the child to a family in the US would guarantee monetary benefits down the road and dependency on that US family and...ultimately on the child in the future as the child becomes an adult? How the mother was escorted and provided for during the pregnancy or aftwards? Seriously? I think not.

Of course they are going to reiterate the very scripted synopsis of the reason for relinquishment, especially when many APs come offering money, groceries, educational support for biosiblings, buy businesses for them, property and even new homes for the biofamily, not to mention many APs also supply expenses paid vacations to extended biofamilies that would be totally out of the question in their reality due to the classicism that exists in Guatemala today. Do APs really think that biofamilies are going to offer another version different from what the AP heard about the reason for the relinquishment or how somehow a poor and illiterate pregnant woman found herself in an attorney's office in Guatemala City? Why were older siblings kept and one child relinquished? Why were other children born after the relinquished child? Why was the biofather who is present in the family not mentioned in the SW reports? Interesting.

Once again we see the adoptee being profited by others with these searches/searchers who make a profit from this business. ICA corruption just morphed into another form.

It takes ALOT of courage to stand up to verify the documentation that one is presented when one is a PAP. Atleast this child can truly know who she is. Using a "searcher" does NOT provide verification of the facts. Interesting to note that many "searchers" were once noted "busquadores" who found the pregnant women in the first place! So those in the adoption biz have just morphed into being in the "searchers" biz. As were those involved in processing ICA. Folks this is well known in Guatemala circles, just sharing. The best method for verification is using a private investigator like the Hemsleys did AND with notifying authorities in Guatemala.

Please note that the Hemsleys did not give up on the child and the child is not living in an orphanage. The child is STILL in process, the PAPs are still the Hemsleys, the Hemsleys are also financially supporting the child who lives with a foster family (Legal Guardian) and the Hemsleys are awaiting approval by the CNA. Omitting this detail is not respectful to neither the Hemsley family nor the child. Instead of PAPs pushing for their adoption to go through and ignoring vital points, they should have investigated the delays and verified the information.

Downplaying the term corruption in the end hurts us all.

Jessica said...

Malinda, I appreciate your legal interpretation of the term "corruption." And by not equating all forms of dishonesty, I don't mean to imply "At least she wasn't kidnapped!" Just that I don't view all questionable behavior as equal.

Mireh and Marie, I respect your views, which are in essence close to mine.

Marie, I believe I did state that the Hemsley's child is in foster care, supported by the Hemsleys. I must have missed the part of the interview where they said they are still in process and hope to complete the adoption. My mistake, and I apologize.

Jessica O'Dwyer

Mirah Riben said...

One final thought for Jessica (who I mistakingly addressed as Jennifer in an earlier reply)....

I find it really odd, interesting and very telling that an AUTHOR - a person of words - would simply dismiss definitions of the word she is using.

Your justifications are totally in line with the scene in the documentary "Wo Ai Ni (I Love Your) Mommy" in which the prospective adopter is counting out her bribery money and noting that some might think it wrong but it's simply "how things are done here here."

Bribery is what fuels corruption. No Johns, no prostitution. Only those who have benefitted from the corruption financially or otherwise attempt to redefine it as out government does when calling war missiles peace makers. Sugar coating acts of destruction with doublespeak make them no less destructive.