A look at the families affected by corrupt international adoptions.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
May 8 2009 7:08 AM

The Orphan Trade

A look at families affected by corrupt international adoptions.

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Click here to read a slide-show essay about international adoption.

Click here to read a slide-show essay about international adoption.

Who wants to buy a baby? Certainly not most people who are trying to adopt internationally. And yet too often—without their knowledge—that's what happens with their dollars and euros.

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Westerners have been sold a myth that poor countries have millions of healthy abandoned infants and toddlers who need homes. But it's not so. In poor countries, as in rich ones, healthy babies are rarely orphaned or given up—except in China, where girls have been abandoned as a result of its draconian one-child policy.

Yes, tens of thousands of needy children around the world—many languishing in horrible institutions—do need families. But most children who need new homes are older than 5, sick, disabled, or somehow traumatized. Quite reasonably, most prospective Western parents don't feel prepared to take on those more challenging kids, preferring to wait in line for healthy infants or toddlers.

The result is a gap between supply and demand—a gap that's closed by Western money. Adoption agencies spend sums in-country that are enormous compared with local per-capita incomes. In poor countries without effective regulation or protections for the poor, that can induce locals to buy, coerce, defraud, and kidnap healthy children away from their birth families for sale into international adoption.

To use the language of globalization, orphans are sometimes "manufactured": Children with families are stripped of their identities so that Westerners can fill their homes. No one knows how many or how few are "manufactured." Whatever the proportion, the Western adoption agencies can plausibly deny knowing what their local contractors are doing wrong—and yet continue to send tens of thousands of U.S. dollars in per-child commissions to local "facilitators" who supply children. Once an illicit orphan-manufacturing chain gets going, "facilitators" may even solicit older and unhealthy children to order. When one country's adoptions are closed down to regulate or stop the trafficking, the adoption industry moves to the next "hot" and under-regulated country. (For Americans, these are currently Ethiopia and, to a lesser degree, Nepal.)

Sometimes these people don't seem real; their names are strange, and they live far away, in unimaginably different circumstances. To help imagine their lives, we present some pictures of families affected by corrupt adoptions.

Click here to read a slide-show essay about international adoption.

E.J. Graff is associate director and senior researcher at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, Brandeis University. You will find documentation behind these stories, as well as more research and information about irregularities in international adoption, at the institute's Web site.

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