From 2007-8, I lived in the Marshall Islands, an isolated Pacific island nation. The day before I left, my host uncle came to me in private. "Seven years ago, my daughter was born in the capital. When my wife and I were raising her, an American came to me asking for our baby. Because it is our culture, we agreed. Do you know when she will come back?"
He gave me the name and address of the adoption agency, Journeys of the Heart, whose agent had taken his child. When I returned to the United States I began contacting agency personnel, who did not respond. Each time I wrote, I clearly described the tragic details of the story and asked them to forward my requests for information to the adoptive family. Finally, I received an e-mail from the executive director, Susan Tompkins. She wrote: "Journeys of the Heart does not provide family contact information, as this would be illegal and unethical." I replied that kidnapping was unethical.
In 2002, seven U.S. adoption agencies were working in the Marshall Islands. After a law was passed to prevent corrupt adoption practices, the only agency to receive a license was Journeys of the Heart. Its Web site proudly advertises "Marshall Island (sic) Child Adoption Going Strong." It continues, "The birth mother and her family generally welcome any contact including visits, phone calls or the required letters." As for visits, the island I lived on receives a boat that offloads food every two and a half months. Anybody who has been to the Marshall Islands knows that the majority of people do not have any access to telephones or mail. But for kidnappers, the facts are of no consequence.
The agency's main goal is to get "as many of the world's children out of harm's way as possible." By this logic, it is harmful simply to live in poor countries, which apparently can't approach our own moral and cultural superiority. Thus, any baby living in a poor country is a legitimate target of such supposedly progressive ideals. We can be reminded of a similar humanitarian vision stated by Christopher Columbus: "Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending (to Spain) all the slaves that can be sold." It seems the worst aspect of colonialism is still our manifest destiny.
For carrying, bearing, beginning to raise and giving up their infant, the young mother and father received nothing. The reason is simple: for adoption companies, giving birth parents nothing is more profitable than giving them something. This is what happens when children become commodities, and agents are paid based on commission.
I was hoping that what happened in the Marshall Islands was an anomaly. But instead, the conditions are generalizable. The practice of concealing the "illegal and unethical" adoptions behind the front of legitimate agencies is called child laundering.
In 2008, the Hague Adoption Convention entered into force in the United States. The Preamble reads in part that "each State should take, as a matter of priority, appropriate measures to enable the child to remain in the care of his or her family of origin." However, this law is not followed in practice. David Smolin, the foremost expert on child laundering, argues in "Wayne Law Review" that in most cases, adoptive parents "spend thousands of dollars (or tens of thousands of dollars) to arrange an intercountry adoption, when aid of less than a thousand dollars would have kept the child with their birth family." But no law requires that this option be offered. Ethan Kapstein notes in "Foreign Affairs" that the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) states "that the placement of children should not result "in improper financial gain for those involved in it.'" Unfortunately, the United States and Somalia are the only United Nations members not to ratify the CRC. Thus, paying commissions per child is legal, with predictable consequences.
Last year more than 4,100 children were adopted from Guatemala, America's top baby "supplier." But for the last six years, the country has failed to meet its obligations under the Hague Adoption Convention; thus, as of March 9, 2009, the U.S. stopped accepting adoptive babies from Guatemala. This ban is part of a larger cycle. Smolin contends that in the past 20 years "40 percent of those significant sending nations have virtually dropped out of the intercountry adoption system, apparently due largely to scandals related to child" laundering. Therefore, it is possible that the majority of international adoptions are thefts (I couldn't find statistics).
An April 4, 2009, New York Times article notes that our demand for babies from China, the second-biggest (and soon to be biggest) child "supplier," contributes to a lucrative market in abducted children that may number in the "hundreds of thousands." Some parents "post fliers in places where children are often sold and travel the country to stand in front of kindergartens as they let out." Tragically, in the future we should expect that an adoption scandal will rock the Chinese market as well.
Anecdotally, recent news of celebrity adoptions has spurred interest in international adoptions. Those who support this trend may want to take a closer look. Madonna's recent move to circumvent Malawi's strict adoption laws resulted in a court ruling on Friday banning her adoption of another child. To do so, she must fulfill the country's 18 month residency requirement, designed to prevent child laundering. Ironically, the court allowed her to keep the first child she adopted from Malawi, which she reportedly obtained through donating $3 million to the child's orphanage. I have no doubt that international adoption is often a loving and sublime experience for all parties involved. But the other day I wrote my host uncle's urban relatives a letter: "Please tell him his baby will never come back."