Disastrous Adoptions

Mario Tama/Getty Images, courtesy NY Times

In recent days there has been a lot of controversy and concern over children in Haiti, in the aftermath of the country’s devastating earthquake. Questions about orphans, what children are really orphans, parents relinquishing their children, international volunteer or aid groups and child trafficking abound.

This recalls very similar, and similarly disturbing, activities and concerns after the horrific tsunami struck in the Indian Ocean in 2004. In India, many children were lost from remaining parents or other family members, and subsequently ripped from the villages and homes they had known all their lives by “well-meaning” aid groups who rushed too quickly to place them into orphanages or foster/adoptive care. Far worse were the groups who knowingly took children, capitalizing on both the disaster as well as the poverty and illiteracy of many parents in places struck the hardest. In subsequent months, many reports of child trafficking and children being “sold” into illegal adoptions with false paperwork abounded.

Detained Americans/Photo AP

Today with Haiti, this begs the question of people can learn from mistakes of the past. Can we use the lessons of the 2004 tsunami to protect Haiti’s children better? The Baptist missionaries charged with trying to take 33 children out of the country without permission or proper paperwork were not only acting illegally, but clearly rushing into trying to “save” these children without any real thought, investigation or planning as to what the familial status of the children really was, and how ripping them from their home would traumatize them. Some are calling the church group traffickers, others believe they acted with good intentions but improperly.

“We are watching this with a great deal of discomfort,” said Christopher de Bono of UNICEF. “There are at least tens of thousands, potentially hundreds of thousands, of children in Port-au-Prince, in Haiti, who currently need urgent help. And they need that help in Haiti. They don’t need to be plucked out of the country and taken away,” he said.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-0102/LeMoyne

A spokesman for Save the Children agrees. “The possibility of a child being mistakenly labelled as an orphan during this time is incredibly high,” he warned. “Only once the family tracing effort has been exhausted and it is determined that children cannot be reunited, and after proper screening, should international adoption be considered.”

It’s clear from the lessons of India that removing children, particularly with plans to adopt them internationally, should be the last recourse and done only after extensive due diligence. In the confusion of such a disaster, especially, conditions are ripe for child trafficking and corruption. Even without a disaster in place, reports worldwide exist about children being kidnapped, stolen, lured, parents being tricked into relinquishing, illegal adoption schemes…far, far too many such reports.

While researching and writing this book, I came across story after story of illegal adoptions; children who were never relinquished or placed for adoption by their poor parents, who were instead taken advantage of by people who forged papers and sold them to adoptive parents, who were mostly blissfully ignorant of what was happening.

The Smolin Family

Stories like that of David and Desiree Smolin. In 1998, the Smolins were ecstatic to be adopting two sisters from India. But the couple was struck immediately by how traumatized and upset the girls were when they arrived at their new home in Atlanta. “We expected that there would be some shyness at the beginning, but we expected that they would be happy to see us at least after they got over the initial shock of being here,” Desiree Smolin says.

The adoption agency described Manjula and Bhagya as sisters who had been waiting a long time for a home. But the girls insisted they had been stolen — kidnapped from their mother. The Indian mother was poor. She placed the children temporarily in an orphanage, and the orphanage essentially sold them. You can read more about their story as it was featured on NPR.

Manjula Smolin with her birth mother, December 2005 in Andhra Pradesh, India.

This set off a journey that continued for years, where the Smolins attempted to find the girls’ mother – as well as learn what had gone wrong and how such a thing could happen. In 2005, David Smolin returned to India with Manjula and Bhagya, where they were reunited with their birth mother. The couple also became somewhat of experts on international adoption, speaking freely and trying to advocate for safer international adoption practices. David is a professor at Cumberland Law School and has written extensively about adoption law. Desiree started a blog called Fleas Biting, to tell their story and try to prevent such traumas from happening to other children. The couple also started a website for ethical adoption.

David also weighs in on the debate over Haiti’s children. The New York Times put the issue front and center in its February 1 “Room for Debate.” In the debate, David says:

Views of intercountry adoption vacillate between the positive, in which it is portrayed as a humanitarian act of goodwill benefiting both child and adoptive family, and the negative, in which it is portrayed either as child trafficking or as a neo-colonialist child grab.

The American mind has been shaped by the positive vision of families saving bereft orphans from a grim life in a Dickens-esque institution or from death on the streets. Increasingly, however, adoption trafficking reports from Cambodia, China, Vietnam, India, Guatemala, Nepal and Samoa are substantiating the negative view.

Adoption trafficking has continued because the adoption community has chosen to minimize the problems, rather than fix the system. Since you can’t fix what you will not admit is broken, there is a perverse tendency to repeat, over and over again, the same mistakes in intercountry adoption.

Trying to move children quickly out of a country in the aftermath of a disaster, particularly for adoption, is one of the old mistakes. International organizations have warned against it in past disasters such as the Indonesian Tsunami of 2004, just as they are doing so currently for Haiti.”

Read the entire debate here, where others weigh in on both sides of the issue.

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About Shelley Seale

Shelley is a wanderer and student of the world, yoga chick, voracious reader and dog lover. She pounds the keyboard as a freelance writer, author and publication designer, based in Austin, Texas when she isn't traipsing around the globe. Shelley has written for National Geographic, USA Today, The Guardian, The Week, Fodor's, The Telegraph and Texas Monthly, among others. Shelley has performed a catch on the flying trapeze, boarded down a live volcano, and was once robbed by a monkey in India. But she doesn’t know how to whistle.

Posted on February 5, 2010, in adoption, children, global, India, journalism, orphans, shelley seale, trafficking and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. there were already 143,000,000 orphans worldwide – please see the UN

  2. Hi, I just wanted to point out to you the completely inappropriate use of the degrading term “birthmother” used for the MOTHER of those poor girls. Her children were stolen from her. How on earth does this connote that she is no longer their mother in every sense of the word?

  3. That term was not meant to be inappropriate or degrading. If you will note, in the sentence just before that, and everywhere else in this article, I used the term “mother.” However, the girls DID also have an adoptive mother, whatever the circumstances, and when I talked about them being reunited with their mother I wanted to make sure it was clear that this was their Indian mother who gave birth to them.

    If you read this blog or my book at all, you would know that I am a tireless advocate for preventing things like this from happening, and for telling these stories to protect the rights of all parties involved, but most importantly the children.

  1. Pingback: Missionaries or Traffickers? « The Weight of Silence

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