you can’t con an honest man

To say that I was horrified to learn that the post-placement reports were used to recruit babies for adoption really doesn’t cover it. I was sick. When I read the presentation given to law students in 2005, by the INS officer who investigated fraud in Cambodian adoptions, my hands were numb and my vision got blurry.

This occurred on the flight from Frankfurt to Bangkok, on my third trip to Cambodia.

The sub-conscious mind is the most powerful force in the universe. I couldn’t handle that information until I knew I was on the way to make one last try at finding my child’s origins, so I “found” a copy of the transcript online and loaded it into my reader for the plane. To keep busy. And busy I was, between keeping the blankets tucked around the child so she could sleep, running down the aisle of the plane to throw up, and doing controlled breathing exercises in my seat.

Post-placement reports, generated by the adoptive families, were required as a condition of any adoption abroad of a Cambodian child. We were told by the agent who handled the adoption that we should send these reports, with photos of our child proving what a great life she has in America, to him at the orphanage–as well as to the government ministries. For his records, so that he could maintain files.

We did more than that, though; when I visited Cambodia in 2006 I left a binder with extensive information about my family, and dozens of photos, with his office. By that time I knew that he had no intention of keeping files on anything, but hoped that the birth family might inquire and wanted there to be something they could leave with.

Here’s what I learned from the INS investigation: The pictures provided in those reports were used to create recruiting posters, which were handed out in provincial villages. These posters have pictures of Cambodian children swimming in Pull-ups in a Tucson pool, or climbing the redwood play structure in front of an Atlanta elementary school, or accepting the tiny flag at the naturalization ceremony in Seattle. Below the pictures, which are certainly worth far more than one thousand words, they describe the lifelong support and future immigration preferences that the adoptive families of these children produce.

Our family pictures were used to deceive families into releasing their children for adoption. We freely gave the supporting materials that made some too-good-to-be-true promises, about the future advantages of making a deal today for the custody of your child, seem true.

We were told that the future of adoptions from Cambodia–not our own families, but the prospect of happy lives for the children we saw left behind at the orphanage–was reliant on us staying in touch with the place our kids came from. To show our good faith, our commitment to Cambodia once we had our babies, to prove that their adoptions had led to good for the children, counteract rumors that the kids might be abused or misused after placement. We passed sample reports around online, suggested formats to make them easy to read, and reminded each other about cultural vagaries like avoiding photos with 3 people in them.

So we were deceived into helping to deceive Cambodian families. They say you can’t con an honest man, and it may be true–the placing families who believed the literally incredible had some reason, beyond the inducements, to buy that story, or there wouldn’t be a 12 year old left in Kampong Cham.

The adoptive families conned ourselves into believing that there was such a thing as a society in which healthy babies were being abandoned on the path running through the woods, and no one in the village could say exactly where those babies had come from. Everybody got what they bargained for.

The third time was the charm. I never forgot and never gave up. So now I know: My child was freely relinquished by a family that made tough choices in a difficult situation. They’re apparently delighted by our stubbornness in seeking them out, long enough after the fact that it’s not as delicate a difficult situation as it once was.

But my smarter mind, as we call it at home school, the 90% of my mental capacity I don’t consciously control–the part of the iceberg that sinks ships, below the water line–knows better than to file the FOIA request to open that evidence locker. I don’t really need to see the various posters that were collected during the investigation.

If there is a picture of my baby pushing her wagon across the hard-fought patch of grass we seeded so that our family would have a lawn, or the one where she’s braided and neatly dressed for the first day of preschool, or the one showing her swinging the Dora backpack while my mom helps her launch a kite on my dad’s birthday–I don’t think I want to know that.

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