The Baby Business

07/07/2010 11:36 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011


By E.J. Graff, Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University

What's more heartbreaking than this: A group of parents storm a government office, demanding the ability to communicate with their children. The parents say that, a dozen years ago -- during Sierra Leone's civil war -- they temporarily placed their children in a group home for food and safety, and visited regularly. "We were reluctant to hand over the child," [one] mother, Mariama Jabbie, told The Associated Press. "When they told us that they were going to educate her up to college level, we decided to hand her over. That was how they were able to entice us to do so."

And yet, reportedly -- without their mothers' and fathers' permission -- these children were adopted by Americans who would have been horrified had they thought they might take a child away from a loving family.

Over the past decades, hundreds of thousands of large-hearted Westerners -- eager to fill out their families while helping a child in need -- have adopted from poor and troubled countries. In many cases these adoptions were desperately needed. But in too many countries, there's a heartbreaking underside to international adoption. For decades, international adoption has been a Wild West, all but free of meaningful law, regulation, or oversight. Too often, the disproportionately large amounts of money that American adoption agencies have sent into underdeveloped countries has induced unscrupulous middlemen to buy, coerce, or even kidnap children away from their families -- so that they could be sold, at a profit, into international adoption. Serious problems have, at one time or another, been uncovered in the adoption systems in Albania, Cambodia, China, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Liberia, Marshall Islands, Nepal, Peru, Romania, Samoa, Sierra Leone, and Vietnam, as the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism reported in "The Lie We Love," Foreign Policy, Nov./Dec. 2008.

No American parent wants to hear that their beloved child was never willingly given up. So what can the U.S. do to help prevent the criminal underside of the adoption trade -- and to build the support systems needed by poor families and disrupted communities to keep their children home?

To answer that question, the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism undertook an in-depth investigation and research into the relevant policies, treaties, statutes, regulations, and practices. The result, just published in Democracy Journal, is "The Baby Business", notes that already in place are a treaty, a law, sets of regulations, and a host of aid efforts on behalf of children. But significant gaps remain. Plugging some important holes, outlined in this article, would go a long way toward saving children from being wrongfully taken from their birth families, and saving Americans from discovering they unwittingly paid someone to buy them a child. At the same time, the Schuster Institute has posted on our website a significant amount of the documentation, resources, and other materials that pointed to the conclusions reported in the article. That evidence can be examined at the Schuster Institute website dedicated to the topic.

Experts, practitioners, and advocates in international adoption have launched a discussion about the article's suggestions. Those include Congressman Albio Sires (D-NJ), law professor David Smolin, "orphan doctor" Jane Aronson, director of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute Kathleen Strottman, and the watchdog groups Parents for Ethical Adoption Reform (PEAR) and Ethica, Inc.

Many publications, reporters, broadcasters, and bloggers tell stories about what's right with international adoption. As an investigative reporting institute, we feel an obligation to speak for those whose stories have not been told. And so our Institute has been investigating what can happen when things go wrong, and why. We hope that this information will be useful to concerned citizens and policymakers.

The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University