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Montag, 31. Dezember 2012

Russia bans IA by American families

On December 28, 2012, Russia's president Vladimir Putin signed federal law No. 186614-6, which bans adoptions by American families. The law named Dima Yakovlev Bill is a reaction to the Magnitski Bill which US president Barack Obama signed a week earlier. That law bans Russian civil servants who are suspected to be invovled in the death of hedgefund employee Sergei Magnitski to travel to the USA.

The Dima Yakovlev Bill is obviously a retaliation which is motivated by foreign policy consideration and not by the interest of children. It however draws on a brewing conflict between Russia and the USA which has gained momentum during the last year. Russia is with China and Ethiopia one of the most important sending country for IA into the USA. During the last 20 years American families adopted about 60.000 children from Russia. At least 19 children died at the hands of their adoptive parents. A highly controversial case is the death of Dima Yakovlev. The 2year old boy was left by his adoptive father in his car seat for an entire day and died of dehydration. Another widely publicised case was  Artyom Savelyev, who was sent back to Russia on his own with a note by his adoptive mother that she refused to parent him any longer. A farm in Montana which specialised a facility for children with severe behavioural problems was strongly criticized by the ombudsman for the right of children in Russia, Pavel Astakhov. Other critical issues were the fact that US adoption agencies circulate photos of children on the internet who had not been placed for adoption by Russian agencies and were generally rather insensitive when dealing with Russian authorities. Because of these controversies a bilateral agreement had been negotiated in summer 2012 and came into force in November. It stipulated a number of measures such as the ban of independent adoptions, a stronger role of Russian authorities in the process of adoption disruptions and the prosecution of adoptive parents who hurt their children in the USA and tighter supervision of authorities. However there are claims that the US authorities are not willing or prepared to give the Russian authorities the role as observers in court cases as agreed.   
Beyond the tit-for-tat kneejerk reaction by the Russians, the ban therefore highlights a number of issues in IA, which are currently fiercely discussed:
  1. There is no question that the Russian government has the right to ban IA, whether it is bad for its children or not. Care provisions for children are in the sole responsibility of nation states.
  2. The right of authorities of sending countries to monitor the wellbeing of children in their new homes is rather unusual. Usually adopted children become citizens of the country of their adoptive parents and are subjected to the laws of that country. Authorities and families in sending countries do usually not have more than the right to receive regular reports. The bilateral agreement contains an element of mistrust towards not only adoptive parents but also American court system which is problematic. It however indicates - maybe correctly - that internationally adopted children have no lobby who ensure their wellbeing when abuse take place within the family.
  3. American adoption agencies are still too driven by their own agenda and do not respect legal and ethical boundaries. Photolisting of children on the internet violates the right to privacy of those children. They also do not educate adoptive parents about the challenges of raising traumatized and severely handicapped children. As a consequence many adoptive families have a hard time with their children and are generally left on their own. They therefore created the context which the Russian parliament could use to ban adoptions altogether.
Obviously the Russian government had not the interest of children in mind when it banned IA for American parents. There are too many Russian children living in bad institutions in Russia. Russia has failed its vulnerable children badly for a very long time. Moreover, the Dima Yakovlev Bill also bans human rights organizations in Russia that are funded by American money. This is a harsh blow for civil society activists and human rights in an authoritarian country.

Intercountry adoption: reinforcing legislation to ensure that the child’s best interests are upheld

On November 30, 2012 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe passed a Resolution in which the member states are asked to improve the regulation of International Adoption. It argued that in some countries the human rights of childrean are violated when children are placed into the adoption system through kidnapping, trafficking, forgery of documents and pressure on biological parents.

The resolution is based on a report by the German social-democrat Marlene Rupprecht. The report recommends to establish a central authority for the supervision of adoption agencies in all countries. International adoptions should be closely monitored before, during and after the adoption. Member states should ensure that adoptions should be integrated into the strategy for ensuring childrens rights (2012-2015). The report does not contain any new arguments or facts on IA. The problems are presented more or less accurately but in a rather impressionistic way. Scandals guide the arguments more than a systematic analysis of the issue. Independent adoptions, for instance, are not directly addressed even though they are a major problem particularly within Europe.

The Council of Europe is an important institution for safeguarding human rights in Europe. Since IA is a crossborder issue which affects many member states both as receiving and as well sending countries, the council of Europe should become more active on the issue. It could also be more forthcoming in its recommendations and maybe become a coordinating institution. What is desperately needed within Europe is an ombudsperson on IA who could deal with human rights violations in IA. At the moment human rights issues in IA are not clearly defined and certainly not appropriately implemented.


Mittwoch, 19. September 2012

Investigating the Grey Zones

The US branch of ISS - International Social Service - has published a detailed report about illegal practices in intercountry adoption. The report titled "Investigating the Grey Zones of Intercountry Adoption" covers a wide spectrum of problems ranging from Baby Farms, Child Laundering to Abduction and Forced Abandonment. It is a comprehensive overview of reported scandals and links those intelligently with international law particularly with the The Hague Convention of 1993 (THC 93). It's starting point is in fact that despite the increasing ratification of the Hague Convention about 60% of all intercountry adoptions take place in countries which are not covered by the Convention. Those countries who are covered tend not to get involved, while those countries, particular sending countries, who are involved are not covered by the convention.

While the report is certainly very useful as a documentation of widespread abuse of the system, it's overall message and approach is not as effective as it could be. A few comments can point to the problem:
  • The report aims to cover "grey zones". In fact the examples given and the themes discussed are not at all grey but clearly illegal. Document falsification, baby farming and stealing, forced abandonment are all criminal acts - even in countries with weak administrative systems where they usually take place. This is not a grey zone but rather a zone in which illegal acts are not prosecuted. Even in countries such as Ethiopia baby stealing, laundering and forced abandonment is not legal. This is a big difference because it points to potential solutions of the problem.
  • The debate about definitions of illegal adoption as child trafficking might hinder international cooperation but the act in itself - the illegal adoption - can be prosecuted even if it is not defined as child trafficking.
  • Problems of enforcement and prosecution of illegal adoption procedures point to the fact that in many sending (and sometimes receiving) countries, public authorities such as the police, courts and immigration authorities are implicated in illegal adoptions. Courts for instance processes cases which do not have sufficient paperwork; police officers report children as abandoned without searching for their families; immigration authorities give entry visa even though the adoption papers are dubious. If these public agencies were more careful in playing their roles and held accountable, much less of illegal adoption would take place.
  • The responsibility of the receiving country is downplayed in this perspective. The receiving country usually has the resources and the administrative capacity to apply the rule of law to intercountry adoptions. They should be hold accountable for the legality of the adoptions they process. Rather than pointing to weak administrations in poor countries, agencies and public authorities of receiving countries need to take on their responsibilities which their governments agreed to under THC93.
  • The money flow in ICA can be regulated by receiving countries. Fees could be monitored and agency behaviour could be controlled. It is a lack of will in receiving countries that allows easily corruptable actors and procedures to flourish.
  • Therefore there is little need to wait for THC93 to be strengthened or even applied in all sending countries. The lever for stopping abuse in the system lies squarely with the regulators in receiving countries. This is where the emphasis and spotlight should be.
Again, a great report but also a missed opportunity to identify the weaknesses of existing regulation in ICA.

Mittwoch, 20. Juli 2011

Reforming international adoption

For several years now, we are confronted with reports about unethical practices in adoption procedures in Ethiopia. There is evidence that structures have developed over time in which children are placed for adoption by criminal methods using corruption, lies and the falsification of documents. The primary reason for these adoptions are not humanitarian but financial. There is a growing demand for small children, and even older children are abandoned by parents for adoption. Parents hope that their children have opportunities abroad which they cannot provide at home. To simplify placement procedures, papers are forged and false statements are made. Children are robbed of their right to know their origin and first family. The basis of trust on which a new adoptive family can develop is undermined by these practices. 

As adoptive parents, we know that Ethiopia is currently not in a position to care for all its abandoned children. International adoption are measures of individual care, which can not solve the problem of poverty and underdevelopment - nor should it aim to do so. However, this generally useful practice of individual assistance is increasingly discredited through unethical practices.

We call on the authorities to take the following measures to combat criminal practices (trafficking, fraud, corruption, forgery of administrative documents) in international adoption:

  1. Adoption placements must only be made on the basis of complete documentation of the biological family of the child and the circumstances of abandonement. Testimonies about the situation of abandonement must be obtained and documented. Adoption agencies are responsible for the veracity of the documentation. The relevant courts, immigration and youth authorities are requested to ask for this information. 
  2. Adoption agencies are requested to establish and maintain contact between adoptive parents and the family of origin if at all possible. Direct contact prevents lies about the family situation and helps the child in its further development.
  3. All payments in the context of an international adoption must be documented and justified. Payments to families and intermediaries for the supply of children must be prohibited by cost transparency. All fees must reflect real efforts and costs.  Otherwise, they are a covert form of child trafficking.

Samstag, 25. Juni 2011

Quotas for cutting the number of placements

We have now received (unconfirmed) information that the cuts of placements as decided by the Ethiopian Government is implemented by a quota which is operated for each adoption agency. Apparently the government aims to limit the number of placements to 2 adoptions per month for each agency. German agencies are therefore hardly affected since the total number of adoptions per agency was not much higher. The much larger U.S. American agencies are likely to be hit more severely.

Moreover, the reasons for the measure are not only the manipulation of paperwork and document in preparation of the placement. Also the attitude and behaviour of adoptive parents in Ethiopia, which were perceived as sometimes condescending or even degrading seems to have triggered the decision.

Samstag, 11. Juni 2011

International Open Adoption

While in Germany open adoption has now informally become the standard, this is not the case in international adoption. Why actually? Thinking from the perspective of the child, which should be at the centre of all placements, contact with the first family is a valuable if not integral part of their identity.

The current practice so far largely prevented contact with the first family. Sometimes it is possible to meet the family of the child, when picking it up. But even that is not a compulsory part of the programme. Adoptive parents are rather discouraged by agencies who point out that the first family could ask for money, or express their expectation that their children would provide for them from Germany. One would rather avoid these scenes by not meeting the family. This abrupt cutting of ties with the first family is compensated at a later stage when parents or the agency take them to the country and visit the orphanage. Then it is usually too late to get in touch with the family of origin: many contacts are lost, much has happened in the family, grandparents have died and children are born. Families might leave their villages and move on.

It is time to change the practice. Liaising with the first family should play a much larger role in the adoption process. The careful documentation of family relationships and face to face contact prevent corruption and child trafficking. It makes it much harder for traffickers, orphanages and agencies to cover up shady deals. In addition, a permanent contact helps to deal with identity issues of the child. This contact can take the form of regular exchanges of reports and photos - and if it is only a card for Christmas and birthdays. A search for one's roots is largely redundant, if the roots are always known. Nagging questions about the reasons of the adoption can be made easier and also answered if the addressees are tangible.

So far there is hardly any structure for this. Therefore, adoptive parents must take action themselves. The first step in the direction of open adoption is taken at the point of the pick up of the child. If the agency is unwilling to organize a meeting, parents should persist and only accept good reasons (e.g., violence and abuse in the family).

The meeting with the first family should be well prepared. If possible, it should take place in two separate parts. The first part is about getting to know each other and saying farewell to the child. It is quite appropriate to give small (not expensive, but attentive) gifts. The family can give the child their blessing and thereby facilitate a good start for the new family. The adoptive parents get an impression of the family and learn a lot about their child. The child learns that her first family has trust in her new parents.

In a separate part, there should be a meeting in a quiet atmosphere and in the absence of the child. In that meeting the family history with names, birth dates and places of residence, as well as the relationships, major events and diseases in the family are documented in detail. This is also the moment to check out inconsistencies in the social report. Conversely, adoptive parents should be prepared to pass on the own family history including address and phone number to the first family.

What to do if the child was found abandoned? Here, the search for the first family is the starting point. This is significantly more difficult but not impossible. A visit to the site of abandonment is important - for reasons documentation for the child, but also to ask questions. You can leave business cards and hire a searcher to find clues to the origin of the child. Beware, this is not easy in a country like Ethiopia but a mere attempt can show agencies and authorities that one does not lightly accept abandonement reports. Tipps for such a search in China you can find here. 

In the long term, open adoption is the only ethical way in international adoption. When children are placed in a new family, they have two families. It is time to accept this and learn how to handle it. 

Sonntag, 5. Juni 2011

The Myth We Love

'The lie we love' was published in the winter of 2008, in Foreign Policy Magazine. The journalist E.J. Graff analyzed the myth of the millions of abandoned children (babies) in orphanages in poor countries who are waiting to be saved by Western families. The myth was that in reality most children in orphanages have parents and are either sick or older; the babies who are adopted have been placed for adoption with dubious methods or through trafficking. The culprits are not the adopting parents who have good intentious but are largely naive, but middle men (and women), orphanages, authorities and agencies which demand and earn high fees in the transaction of placing children for adoption.

There is enough evidence for this argument. Baby trafficking took place in Guatemala and more recently in China. Child abductions are known from India and Nepal. There are unscrupulous orphanages in most countries, that place children abroad. Reports like this are useful for alerting the public and making clear to those concerned that the public has an eye on their practices.

At the same time, scandalizing reports like this cover as much as they unveil. They aim to mobilize rather than  inform. They emphasize on the fraud and pars pro toto insinuate that fraud is endemic in the system as a whole. By doing so they perpetuate another myth.

The other myth is that international adoption is an unregulated industry. (The use of the terms 'industry' and 'markets for babies' in these reports are deliberate innuendos to highlight that children are treated as commodities.) This is a popular but false assertion. Any adoption recognition of a foreign court by a German, any visa application and naturalization of internationally adopted children is mediated by the state and highly regulated. German courts regularly reject requests for legal recognition, if the procedures do not fulfill German standards of adoption and alternative forms of care were not checked. This hurts the families, but it is enough to make agencies taking the existing regulation more seriously. 

The same is true for the US. If the American embassy staff  feel "uneasy" with many visa applications (Graff, p. 65), then they have a duty to act. And in contrast to the myth of unregulated industry American embassies have acted in the past. Last year, 80 adopting families were stranded in Nepal due to embassy action; currently Cambodia is in the spotlight. Countries have been completely closed for IA by receiving countries due to corruption and trafficking. As a result, there are steadily falling numbers of adoptions and more and more countries closed for adoption despite the myth of a networked and seemingly profitable industry backed up by a powerful political lobby.

The point is not to excuse any trafficking or corruption in international adoption, which clearly takes place. There are too many irregularities and corrupt middlemen in many procedures. The existing regulation via  issuance of visas and recognition procedures of court is too indirect, bureaucratic and often painfully slow. This is undisputed. However, the image of an unregulated industry entirely governed by greed, corruption and lies is equally a myth - just like the millions of orphaned babies waiting to be rescued. It is an image that is portrayed as a counterpart to the idyll of the loving adoptive family in a world full of scandals. The truth is, as is so often, somewhere in the middle: complex, complicated and less suitable for a good story.