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On the Adoption Dollar Trail

By Michael Montgomery

A tinge of guilt passed through me when I contemplated my new assignment: investigating the shadier side of international adoption. Certainly the topic was worthy. International adoption has rapidly expanded over the past decade as more U.S. families seek orphans in such far-flung countries as China, Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. We've heard a lot about how these children are changing the face of many communities in America. But there's been less attention to the skyrocketing cost of adoptions and the boom in for-profit adoption companies in the United States and overseas, often with little or no regulation.

The story looked fine. So what about the guilt? Well, as it happens, three years ago I traveled to Kazakhstan with my wife and seven-year-old daughter. There we adopted an 11-month-old boy, Bo. Our journey was more or less the typical adventure that adoptive parents love to tell (often at extreme length). Deep anxiety and exhaustion transformed into exhilaration at our first encounter, followed by more anxiety and exhaustion as we returned home with our new son.

American RadioWorks producer Michael Montgomery in
Moscow with his adopted son Bo

One element of Bo's adoption bothered us, however, and prompted my sense of guilt. Like many adoptive parents, we were told by our agency to carry thousands of dollars in cash (and in clean, new currency) to Kazakhstan and hand the money to an agency representative as soon as possible after arrival. We were also told not to expect an itemized receipt for most of the cash.

When we asked prior to traveling where the money was going, we received a sharp rebuke from our agency. It was as if asking about such things was breaking an unwritten code of silence. Further, our agency's (non)response suggested we might be endangering Bo's adoption if we pressed any further.

We let it slide, focusing instead on the huge logistics - gifts, passports, plane tickets and all that new cash. And thus my present guilt. Why didn't I ask more questions? Why didn't I demand more answers? All too often, answers about the money trail have been missing in the international adoption world. The rules are set not according to what's most efficient or fair or humane but in terms of what works. And prospective parents rightly (though obsessively) focus on that equation and on getting their child, no matter the hurdles and compromises.

This is because many adoptive parents see themselves as idealists but at the same time are emotionally and financially vulnerable. I certainly was. On the one hand, I believed (and believe) that we were giving Bo a life he never could attain growing up in an orphanage. But in order to give him that life, how far was I willing to compromise ethics and the law?

"There's a general perception that these children (overseas orphans) are better off in America," says Trish Maskew, an adoption advocate and adoptive parent. "We certainly see among some parents, agency people and even government officials the belief that we can overlook some small things because it's in the best interest of the children to keep adoptions open."

The problem, as Maskew suggests, is the slippery slope: If it's okay to excuse some small ethical lapses (even if well-intentioned) what about something larger?

I don't mean to suggest that most adoptive parents are ready to break the law and indulge directly in buying children. Indeed, adoptive parents care profoundly about the welfare of children overseas, and not just the individual children they are bringing home. Many parents continue to donate to their child's orphanage, even when their child is no longer there. And many fight to make sure other families can continue to bring orphans into this country.

When we finally arrived in Kazakhstan we felt the sharply different living standard. We recognized the power of the money we had tucked away in our bags. Ten thousand dollars goes a long ways in poor countries. My wife and I dared ask ourselves: Is it enough to buy a child?

Probably not. In any event, by using our broken Russian we learned that some of the money was used for what we term in America "document facilitation." That is, getting Bo's passport and making sure our return home was not delayed. If some of the money went directly to the orphanage without our knowledge, so be it, as long as it was used to improve conditions and boost the staff's puny salary and not as a payoff to the orphanage director. We trusted our agency enough (and were confident in its non-profit status) that we parted with the wads of cash without complaint.

The problem here is not necessarily in what our agency did with the money. It's in what our agency was not willing to tell us and in what we were not willing to demand. Why didn't they tell us where the money went? Possibly, because they didn't know or didn't want to know. Many American adoption agencies (including ours) have signed a voluntary code of practice that forbids under-the-table payments in adoptions. So perhaps under the current rules (or lack of rules) the less an American agency knows explicitly about where parents' money is going overseas, the better.

Of course, all that could change and parents might learn a lot more about money and adoptions with the implementation of the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. There is hope that the treaty will coax adoption agencies to open their books to prospective parents. However, I suspect those days will not come soon.

What did I learn by examining international adoption as a reporter and not a parent? Perhaps the central lesson is that adoption in America is an industry. And we adoptive parents are consumers, in addition to a lot of other things. So the responsibility is on us to ask more and demand more from agencies and governments. A child is a lot more valuable than a car.

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