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Preying on Parents

Part: 1, 2, 3, 4


The Perdues thought about filing a lawsuit. But that was too expensive, especially since the adoption had cost about $25,000. They did tell their story to the FBI, which has been investigating Yunona. Other families have complained to the state of California. But earlier this year state investigators determined they have no enforcement power over Yunona since it's not a licensed adoption agency.

That doesn't surprise Trish Maskew of Ethica.

"We've had cases where people have done investigations, they believe they've found evidence of child trafficking or purchase of children and yet they have no law to prosecute anyone under," says Maskew. "And so they can't bring those kind of charges."

Yunona president Ivan Jerdev claims he's been cleared by the state of California and says he's done nothing wrong. Jerdev says the company's problems are mainly due to a few disgruntled families and rival companies. He says all risks, including the possibility that medical information about the child is unreliable, are enshrined in Yunona's contracts with parents. But Jerdev doesn't deny using bribes. He says payoffs are necessary for all agencies to circumvent Soviet-era laws and rescue children from wretched conditions.

"It's everywhere. It's the reality," he says.

But Jerdev says he's not violating US law because independent coordinators make the actual payments.

"We don't pay," he says. "The coordinators must go do this. And they pay. They have to pay a lot of people. Bribes. The money always finds a way to go around."

Bribes are a sensitive topic for other more established agencies. Many have signed a voluntary standards of practice that discourages or bans such payments. But many of those same agencies routinely require adoptive parents to deliver large amounts of cash when they travel abroad without saying where the money is going.

"There really is no accounting for most of the money that goes overseas," says Trish Maskew. "Whether that money is being paid to an official, a family member, to a facilitator to pay a middle man somewhere to find a child. There are all kinds of schemes. That is trafficking. We're using money to move the child through the system."

Maskew says U.S. laws against trafficking and paying bribes are difficult to enforce and rarely applied to adoptions. And it's not illegal to make so-called grease payments to make adoptions happen faster.

Maskew says many agencies do have the welfare of children and parents at heart. But in a competitive industry with uneven regulations, a few rogue operators can accelerate a "race to the bottom." And Maskew says sometimes it's hard for good agencies to keep up.

"If you have an agency saying we're going to follow all the rules and it's going to take you 13 months (to adopt a child) and you've got somebody else saying we can do this in six (months), adoptive families are going to instinctively say I want the child sooner," Maskew says.

When they are exposed, illegal or unethical adoptions often have broad consequences. Nations such as Vietnam and former republics of the Soviet Union have temporarily shut down international adoptions following reports of baby trafficking.

New laws are in the works. The United States has signed the Hague Convention on International Adoption, a treaty aimed at stopping child trafficking. Based on the treaty, the State Department is drafting regulations that could require licensing for all adoption service providers. In theory, that could close loopholes for so-called facilitators like Yunona, at least if they are arranging adoptions in countries that also have signed the Hague convention. And new regulations could require agencies to disclose more information about their financial transactions and the medical histories of orphans. But some people worry that if the regulations are implemented, children will languish in overseas orphanages as agencies fight through more red tape. And adoption experts say even with new regulations, parents should carefully research the agencies they work with.

"You're not placing an order with Amazon.com," say Joan Hollinger, an adoption specialist at Boalt School of Law at the University of California at Berkeley. "And as sympathetic as I am to prospective parents who get emotionally connected through images to a particular child, I would also say that people have to understand that there just are enormous risks and uncertainties in any kind of adoption."

Each year thousands of Americans take that risk through international adoption, and create happy families. Some families are still adopting children through Yunona, though Ivan Jerdev says business has dropped since rumors of an FBI investigation started circulating on the Internet. Nevertheless, the company has expanded its offerings. This summer Yunona announced a new program. Its Web site posted ultrasound images of unborn children in Guatamala. Yunona says one day soon the children might be available for adoption.

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