There is no human bond stronger than that between a parent and their child. As any adoptive parent will tell you, the lack of a biological connection in no way diminishes this bond. In the last four decades many thousands of children from Vietnam have been adopted by people in other countries. Children who may otherwise have faced a life of deprivation and uncertainty instead found loving homes, and parents were able to nurture a child they might never have been able to have. However, there has been an ever-increasing demand for adoptions in western countries, and places like Vietnam have been a popular source of children to meet that demand. This has at times lead to questionable practices by some involved in both sides of the adoption process. It is an emotionally charged issue, and the international rules meant to regulate the adoption process and protect both children and parents, which Vietnam recently signed-on to, have also meant that fewer Vietnamese children are finding new homes in other countries.

By Brett Davis. Photos by Fred Wissink.

The Vietnamese Diaspora has spread to almost every country on the globe. This has been the product of many factors, a significant one of which has been the adoption of Vietnamese children internationally. Particularly since the American War, many thousands of Vietnamese children have been adopted overseas. A large proportion of these children have gone to the United States, but also to countries such as France, Italy, Canada, Sweden, Ireland and Denmark among many others. On average, over a thousand children have been adopted from Vietnam each year in the last decade, rising to a peak of more than 1,600 a year in 2007 and 2008. Since the late 90s, as demand from prospective parents in developed countries has steadily risen, Vietnam has consistently been one of the most popular ‘source’ countries in the world.

There have been peaks and troughs over the years and the processes for adoption within Vietnam have not been without troubles. In order to centrally regulate inter-country adoptions the government set up the Department of International Adoptions, part of the Ministry of Justice, in 2003. Bilateral agreements on adoption were subsequently entered into with a number of countries. These ‘receiving’ countries were then able to authorise agencies to undertake adoption activities in Vietnam.

However, this system was still problematic and several countries, notably the United States, Ireland and Sweden did not renew their bilateral agreements. Indeed, the US has had a moratorium on all adoptions from Vietnam since 2008, after investigations by its embassy alleged cases of bribery, fraud and coercion in the procurement of children for adoption.

An example cited in a Unicef report in 2010 was that of 16 people convicted in Nam Dinh province for receiving bribes and forging documents in relation to 266 Vietnamese children between 2005 and 2008 to meet the demand of the foreign adoption market. Despite this kind of action by local authorities there were enough reports of similar cases for the flow of adoptions from Vietnam to be tightened considerably.

The New Ground Rules
The Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption is the rather long-winded name for the international agreement generally known as the Hague Adoption Convention. Drawn up in 1993, the goals of the document are to establish safeguards ensuring international adoptions take place in the best interests of the child and with respect for their fundamental human rights.

In effect this means establishing central bureaucracies to manage the adoption process, undertake adequate investigations into a child’s eligibility for adoption and to ensure unethical practices such as paying parents to relinquish their children have not occurred.

Unicef has worked closely with Vietnamese authorities over the last several years to assist in the country’s ascension to full member status of the convention. As mentioned, a central adoption authority was established and Vietnam’s national assembly passed a new adoption law in June 2010, the same year it signed the Hague Convention. A year later the government ratified the convention and it became a full member in February this year.

At the time of the ratification in December 2011 Unicef’s Vietnam representative Lotta Sylwander said it was, “a formidable step forward in ensuring that inter-country adoption is pursued in conformity with the standards and principles of international legislation requiring any placement decisions to be in the best interests of the child”.

Yet there has been a difference in views as to what is in the best interests of children eligible for adoption in Vietnam. There is also a degree of separation on how various countries have applied the convention both within their own borders and to other states their citizens adopt children from.

There were hopes that once Vietnam became a full member of the Hague Convention that adoptions to the US might resume. This proved a false dawn, with a statement released only days later, on 6 February, stating the US State Department had determined Vietnam had, “not proven capable of meeting its obligations” under the convention. The government of Ireland on the other hand, which also placed a moratorium on adoptions from the country, has indicated it will look at re-opening adoption links with Vietnam.

Whose Best Interest?
It is the use of the Hague Adoption Convention as a reason for shutting down international adoptions from some countries that has some questioning if the rules do in fact serve the best interests of children who might otherwise find loving homes. The argument being that holding a country’s system to an unrealistic standard condemns many more children to an institutionalised life where they are exposed to greater risk of things like health problems or falling victim to sex trafficking.

One such critic is Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Bartholet who, along with being an adoptive mother herself, has been working in the field of adoption advocacy for over 30 years. She says while people who engage in illegal practices should be punished, the Hague Convention rules have been used as an opportunity by those ideologically opposed to inter-country adoption to curtail the practice. As an example she singles out Unicef for what she believes is their relegation of inter-country adoption behind other solutions in the child’s country of origin.

“They will talk about things like family-based care, in-country foster care, adoption in-country, and they never mention international adoption, and if they do, well, it’s to be considered a last resort,” she says.

Bartholet says she believes that in any human undertaking of a certain scale there will always be irregularities, but that should not be cause to discontinue adoptions because all corruption cannot be weeded out of the system. She says policy makers are not really paying attention to the rights of children because they are not adequately considering the harm that can be done when international adoptions are shut down.

“Everyone in this debate says they are interested in the children, but I think if that were the case they would come up with different policies,” she says.

Another argument often raised in support of freeing up international adoptions is that more children will otherwise spend longer periods in institutional care. Absolute numbers are difficult to pin down, but in 2007 the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs estimated there were 168,000 orphans or children deprived of parental care in Vietnam, with some 20,000 living in public or private care facilities.

Even at the height of international adoptions from Vietnam, only a small percentage of children would have the opportunity to escape that existence to a life with a new family in a new country.

The Facilitators
One sector suffering under the stricter regime is adoption agencies in receiving countries. With fewer children available for adoption many are going out of business, particularly in North America. However, among long-established operators there is support for the Hague Adoption Convention.

Pearl S. Buck International (PSBI) has been working with disadvantaged children in Vietnam since the late 1960s, and continues to support health, nutrition and education programs in many care facilities in the country. They have also facilitated more than 150 adoptions of Vietnamese children in that time.

The organisation’s CEO Janet Mintzer says she is a supporter of the Hague Convention. “We are very happy about the convention and happy the US is a part of it so providers have to meet certain standards so only ethical agencies will facilitate adoptions in the US.”

Mintzer recalled how another agency, also in their home state of Pennsylvania, was a few years ago arranging the adoption of several hundred Vietnamese children a year. “It was very surprising to me,” she says of the years before the bilateral agreement between the two countries lapsed.

This is the other side of the coin that needs to be remembered in the adoption discussion. International adoptions are as much driven by demand as other factors, and some agencies in developed countries have not always acquitted themselves well.

“When we met with adoption officials in Vietnam, we strongly encouraged them to limit the number of agencies,” Mintzer says. She adds that should Vietnam again open up to adoptions to the US they would like to be involved, although she believes the US government will continue to take a ‘watch and see’ approach on the issue to gauge the level of enforcement of the Hague Adoption Convention in Vietnam.

“We would like to continue to help children who are eligible for adoption rather than have them live for a very long time in orphanages,” she says.

Adoption is such a personal, emotionally-charged thing, yet when it crosses borders it also becomes an issue of national interest and broader legal entanglement. Hopefully amongst all the geo-political debate over the issue, everyone involved will find the right balance between safeguarding the process while helping as many needy children as possible live the life they deserve.

A Mother’s Story
There were echoes of history repeating for Lorie Carnie when she adopted her daughter from Vietnam. As an infant Carnie had been aboard the infamous ‘Operation Babylift’ flight in 1975 that crashed soon after takeoff from Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat airport. She was one of the lucky ones to survive and was ultimately adopted by a family in the United States.

Twenty-five years later, after having three boys of her own, she decided to adopt a little girl from Vietnam. She never expected the daughter she christened Mia, would have her own dramatic false start on her journey to a new life.

“I always knew I wanted to adopt myself. It was a dream for me even when I was young,” Carney says. So in September of 2000 she started the process, and by the end of October the following year she was taking part in the official ceremony at the orphanage in Ha Nam province where little Mia officially became her daughter.

Things started to go awry a few days later when they went to the US consulate in Ho Chi Minh City to process the necessary paperwork for Mia’s visa. “They were asking me a lot of questions, and it probably didn’t help that I’m Vietnamese,” Carnie says. “I think they thought I traded her for money.”

Mia was denied a visa to the United States and Carnie’s world went into a tailspin. After making no headway in Vietnam she decided her only option was to seek legal assistance back in the US. This meant making the agonising decision to leave Mia behind. After organising care for her daughter, Carnie departed on 28 November. “I was heartbroken, but I was also driven,” she says of her feelings at the time.

Once back in the States she was on the go almost around the clock, working on Mia’s case through the night and being available to her three young boys during the day. “I slept when they were napping, but no, there wasn’t much sleep for me at the time.”

A decision to make a personal appeal to the immigration official handling the case instead of sending in the lawyers proved pivotal. “I said to him that if Mia really doesn’t belong to me and there is another woman out there that does want her then that is what I want.” She continued pleading her case saying, “I want to do what is best, if you know there is a family out there that wants her back, then I am going to bring her back. But, if you know that there is not a family out there who wants her, then let her stay with me.”

On Christmas Eve, Carnie received the call that her appeal had been successful. Her immediate response was one of tremendous relief, but also overwhelming exhaustion. “Before, I think adrenaline and the drive was keeping me going, and then when I got the notice the exhaustion really took over.”

On 7 January 2002, after one of the most trying experiences imaginable, Lorie was waiting at the airport in Los Angeles when Mia arrived at her new home.