Erasing the past, to ‘improve’ the future

My parents taught me to clean my room before I went out to play. To do the homework before TV. To save my paychecks until I could afford to buy the albums I wanted. Deferred gratification was drilled into me from my earliest memories. So when I read that once again American families are going to be free to adopt Cambodian children, my first thought was: What about the mess we already made?

During the adoption boom of 1997-2002, over 1200 US families adopted about 1800 Cambodian children. After the adoptions took place in Cambodia, the children were processed for immigration under an orphan visa.

In Cambodia, adoptions were approved by several government ministries. To complete an adoption, the parents-to-be had to provide a dossier of information about themselves. The decrees also relied on sworn statements from orphanage employees, describing and transferring custody of the child.

These documents were used again, by the staff of the US government, to confirm that the children were orphans as described in immigration statutes. Our laws are designed to exclude adoption as a solution for intact but impoverished families. But children who are anonymously abandoned are orphaned, and therefore eligible for immigration and citizenship after adoption.

A large percentage of these adoptees had their identities erased, and that may not be the worst abuse that occurred.

The data to support this outrageous claim is hidden in plain sight, in a search warrant. In 2003, an investigator for the INS inspected the records kept at the US Embassy in Phnom Penh. He testified that none of the visa applications listed a Cambodian relative for the child. Zero. Oddly, these forms were all the same: ‘No relatives’. Over 1800 people, some of them now adults, the youngest entering their teens, were made US citizens, and members of American families, on paperwork that was identically incomplete. All of these children were somehow extracted from families that had no one available to sign off on the transfer, then processed for adoption.

It is unknown what forms of coercion or bribery may have preceded custody transfers, because there was no one to verify an informed consent. Not one of these adoptees’ files has any thread to tug, in the event that s/he desires to learn about his first family.

These threads were tangled, then cut, in a deliberate and repeated process that made the visa procurement a sure thing for the customers, adoptive parents. Some who were looking to adopt back then came to Cambodia in the first place because they could be sure. Sure that after the expense, a child would indeed be forthcoming. Sure that the adoption could be completed long distance by facilitators. Sure that a short visit in country would be sufficient to complete the paperwork. It was a predictable process with a certain outcome. The adoption agencies bragged in their marketing materials that all the children they placed were orphans, properly certified for US immigration.

For some adoptive families, erasing the child’s history is a feature, not a regrettable bug. One adoptive mom, who wanted me to tell her how I’d found my child’s roots in Cambodia, explained this concisely. Right before hanging up on me, this mother said that she had wanted a child that she could be sure was hers to keep. Her 7th grader’s persistent questions about his birth family prompted her to connect with me recently, but changed nothing about her understanding of the deal we all made. In her words, “We knew that he wouldn’t have anywhere to look. The agency told me that in the first meeting.” Her view is that we, the parents, made a deal with the Cambodians and Americans who were making their living finding homes for orphans, and we can’t ask for more now.

Here’s the problem: I can’t waive my child’s right to her identity. It isn’t mine to give away, or give up on. My 13 year old, who rolls her eyes when I say that, thinks it’s not important. She may be right, and it may never be important to her, but she’s not old enough to make that choice. More to the point, she’s in a privileged minority among the Khmer kids she knows: I did what it took to put that choice in her hands, and it was harrowing.

I have no idea what it would take to accomplish the same miracle in Ethiopia, where today six families will obtain visas for their new children. An increasing percentage of ‘orphans’ are presenting to the Embassy as ‘abandoned’ there. Is it likely that this trend isn’t being influenced by the requirements of US law?

How do you feel about creating more paper orphans, erasing the pasts of more deprived children in destitute countries, toward the goal of putting them in loving homes? I dispute the premise. If it’s the law that only children who have been laundered can be adopted, we can change the law. We can change the incentives for child laundering. We can be sure about the right thing, certain that we’re really giving a good home to a child who doesn’t have a shot in life.

But to be certain about what matters, we have to start from the truth. And the truth is, criminal and unethical acts are committed every day in international adoption to accomplish righteous ends. Our kids deserve better.