Last week, in a horrifying move, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill to ban American citizens from adopting Russian children—ironically enough, in retaliation for U.S. efforts to punish Russian violations of human rights. It's ironic because thousands of Russian children (and children across the former Soviet bloc) live in institutions, as no child should. Denying those children desperately needed new families could almost be considered a violation of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which requires that countries act on behalf of the best interests of the child. Many of the children in those Russian institutions have medical or developmental challenges, whether that's HIV, fetal alcohol syndrome, or attachment disorders, so finding families for them is difficult. But American adoptions of Russian children hurt Russian pride, and some of those adoptions have gone so terribly wrong (as with the 2010 incident in which Tennessee woman returned her adopted son by putting him on a plane, alone, back to Russia) that this will be domestically popular. For the children's sake, let's hope that the ban can be quickly undone.
But today I want to discuss an entirely different kind of problem in international adoption, at the opposite end of the spectrum: wrongful adoptions, in which children who—unlike those in Russia—do not need new families are defrauded, coerced, purchased, or even abducted away from their birth families, or at a minimum, are wrongly declared abandoned when their families have simply left them in an institution temporarily because of illness or poverty. (This earnest eight-minute film gives a heartbreaking and accurate example of how easily one Ugandan infant left for temporary care could have lost his father forever.)
There's no way of knowing how often such fraud happens. But in some countries, during some periods, entire adoption systems are overtaken with fraud and corruption, so much so that Americans cannot count on a single adoption from that country being honest and reliable.
My question for you: would you call that "trafficking"?
Here's how it generally works. Imagine you are a maternity nurse in Vietnam or Guatemala, or an orphanage worker in Ethiopia or India—a poor country, rife with corruption. You make a couple of hundred dollars a month, well above the standard of living for the genuinely poor, illiterate people from a despised ethnicity who live on dirt floors and cook over indoor fires. An adoption agency worker tells you that wealthy families in developed countries will pay hundreds of dollars in “fees” for healthy infants or toddlers, especially girls. You presume they want servants: why else would anyone buy the children of the Dalit or the Mayans? Even so, a servant in Spain or America would be better off than becoming the tenth child of a family that can’t pay its medical bills for the birth.
And so you tell the woman who just gave birth that her baby died in childbirth. You sell that child for a finder’s fee of $200—a month’s income—to the Christian adoption agency in the next town, saying you “found” the child abandoned on the street.
Or you go out into the Ethiopian bush, asking illiterate families if they want to send the youngest of their children to get an education in America. You offer each family who hands over a child $20—a fortune—to help feed their remaining children, and promise that the new American guardians will send pictures and money every year.
Or you simply steal the liveliest, prettiest child you see off one of India’s teeming streets, and sell her to the adoption agency to go to Australia—surely a better fate than being sold to the brothels.
Is what you’ve done “child trafficking”?
Yes, to almost every developed nation in the world. But no to the United States.
Recently a source passed me an unclassified State Department cable, dated June 11 (I believe this to be 2012) explaining how unique the United States is in making distinction between trafficking in persons and “irregular” or fraudulent adoptions. I am absolutely confident in the reliability of this particular source, whom I will not name. The cable, here, titled "Fraudulent Intercountry Adoption Does Not Constitute Trafficking in Persons," explains that, under U.S. law, human trafficking involves “exploitation through force, fraud, or coercion.” The law in question is the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the statute that authorizes and encourages American anti-trafficking efforts, here and abroad. In this definition, someone is trafficked when he or she is transformed into a slave, their labor and bodies used for someone else’s gain.
The word “trafficking” makes most of us think of “transport.” But a person can be trafficked without being moved. Say a 13-year-old runs away from an abusive home and finds a new boyfriend at the Greyhound station, and that “boyfriend” grooms her until she’s being sold over Craigslist, drugged, and kept in his stable under threat of violence and death. Under our laws, that child has been trafficked. The movement isn’t from hither to yon; it’s from freedom to slavery. That’s what the United States means by trafficking: you've been moved from freedom to slavery.
That’s not what happens when children are bought or abducted for adoption. Being sold into a brothel or forced to work 12-hour days, 7 days a week, for no pay in a tomato field is of course far worse than being adopted under fraudulent pretenses. As one of the cable’s subheads emphasizes, “The Intent Of Intercountry Adoption Is To Place A Child In A Loving Home.” It goes on to explain:
Children made eligible for intercountry adoption may fall victim to bad actors engaged in criminal practices and questionable procedures. In the majority of these cases, however, the persons committing the fraud do not intend to exploit the child for purposes of commercial sex or forced labor.
The United States regulates international adoption, to the extent that it does, as a party to the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. The Hague was negotiated after a series of scandals in which entire countries were overrun with crooked adoption brokers; by now, nearly every developed country in the world has joined the treaty, as have many of the countries whose children get adopted. The Hague Convention’s key idea is that every country should have a social welfare system that puts the child first, before the interests of people who want a child. Every country that has acceded to and implemented the Hague Convention does so in a slightly different way. Many regulations flow from that idea, as you might imagine.
The U.S. Intercountry Adoption Act of 2000, which brought us into the Hague accreditation system, has never met the TVPA. The two statutes are on completely different dance floors. One is about how to help Americans adopt only genuinely needy children; the other is about how to help people escape slavery. The word “trafficking” never shows up in the IAA.
Keeping that in mind, here’s the section of the leaked June 11 DOS cable that really struck me, from a section titled “The U.S. Definition of Child-Buying Omits Trafficking”:
The U.S. government appears to be unique among Hague contracting states and most of the international adoption community in rejecting the use of the term “trafficking” to refer to illicit adoptions.... This can be especially confusing when reading the text of the [Hague Adoption Convention.]… Although the text explicitly refers to the prevention of child trafficking as one of its primary objects (Article 1b) … the U.S. government rejects the idea that child-buying for adoption is trafficking.
This position is not shared by many of our foreign counterparts. For example, in many african countries… fraudulent intercountry adoptions are officially referred to as trafficking. In December 2010, Ethiopian officials accused a Minnesota-based [adoption agency] of child trafficking for placing children without a birth parent’s consent.
You can see now why the United States doesn’t define the case studies mentioned above as trafficking. Those children may be transported—but not into slavery. Children taken fraudulently into adoption are merely transported from truth to lies. While there’s always a loss at adoption’s beginning—a child loses her first family—the new family is formed with love and generosity, not intent to exploit. Yes, those children’s birthfamilies are exploited when their offspring are taken for someone else’s gain. You could say that they were trafficked into loss. But those foreign families' exploitation—their transportation into grief—is not the concern of the US government.
(Please note that I am not saying that all or most international adoptions involve this kind of fraud, corruption, irregularities, abduction, or whatever you might want to call it. But they exist, and therefore deserve attention.)
I’ve reported on fraud and corruption in international adoption—not child trafficking, by U.S. definition—at length. A couple of years ago, an aide to Representative Albio Spires told me that, prompted by my reporting, his office was drafting legislation to help prevent some of the wrongs in international adoption. In 2012, Senator Kerry sponsored that bill in the Senate, where it passed; Spires introduced it in the House, where it languishes in committee. The proposed fix is too technical to explain here—if you want the background, you might be interested in my 2010 Democracy Journal article—but it would make an enormous difference to adopting families and birth families alike.
The United States should join the rest of the world in defining trafficking. When a child is bought, defrauded, coerced, or abducted away from its birth family to be sold into adoption, call it trafficking. And deal with it accordingly.