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At home in rural Connecticut, with his 3-year-old son Vlad playing beside him, Jim Altman is checking to see how many hits he’s gotten on his Web site. Two years after adopting Vlad from a Russian orphanage, Altman is using the Internet to wage a propaganda war against the agency he claims used his money to bribe court officials.

His story is a common one among a growing number of parents questioning the ethics of an allegedly corrupt system. “Most people agree with international adoption until they hear [about the amount] of money changing hands,” Altman says, adding that fees often run as high as $26,000. “Then they hear of how it changes hands. At that point, people start to feel a purchase rather than an adoption is taking place.”

Altman’s feelings are not unusual. Among the postings on a recent adoption-support Internet bulletin board were numerous reports of scams, bribery and failed international adoptions, none of which went unnoticed by the named adoption agencies. According to Juli Briggs, another American who adopted from Russia, Cradle of Hope Adoption Center “shut them up” when she and her husband went public with the details of a failed adoption experience.

Like Altman, who used a different agency, Briggs was banned from contributing to the agency’s newsletter, cut off from the network of adoptive family activities and discouraged from talking to other prospective parents. Briggs and her husband say they had previously been cheated out of over $21,000 by an agency run by an ex-Cradle of Hope employee when they attempted to adopt a child from the former Soviet republic of Georgia. It was eventually learned that the agency had defrauded at least 30 other prospective couples out of approximately $350,000 without completing any of those families’ adoptions. Among Briggs’ numerous claims are that Cradle of Hope is connected to the Mafia.

Such negative accounts may be beginning to influence prospective parents’ decisions about where to adopt. Jerry and Elizabeth Lang, Americans who eventually adopted a little girl from China, report that they “initially looked into going to Russia, but were put off by horror stories we heard and read.”

Children as commodities

Few would argue that in most cases international adoption improves children’s lives. It is also apparent, however, that international adoption has become big business in recent years, and in some countries the system has become susceptible to corruption.

The boom in international adoption has created a multitude of jobs, especially in the United States, where hundreds of international adoption agencies have been launched. About 80 foreign adoption agencies, most of them American, are active in Russia alone. Charging higher adoption fees than any other country, Russia exported 3,816 children to the U.S. in 1997, raking in approximately $76 million in translation, legal and travel fees. Nevertheless, there are still nearly 600,000 orphans in Russia. Latvia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, the Marshall Islands and Mexico, among other countries, have also opened their doors to international adoption.

China rivals Russia in the sheer number of its children being adopted. In fact, Chinese programs are gaining in popularity because of their relatively low cost and reputation for reliability.

To many Westerners, the Chinese government’s 1981 decision to limit families to one child was a profound violation of people’s human rights, although to environmentalists fearing a potential worldwide population of 7 billion by the year 2010, the measure was greeted as a globally responsible, if drastic, measure. Few suspected that the policy would result in the nationwide orphanage of more than 500,000 unwanted baby girls, many abandoned by their parents in hopes that their next child would be a boy.

Stepping in to take up some of the slack were foreign adoption organizations such as Holt International, a non-profit agency that pioneered the concept of international adoption in the 1950s, in response to the needs of orphaned children in Korea.

With so many new agencies on the horizon, reputable ones such as Holt are in high demand. Meanwhile, many others are under investigation. Currently, 100 families whose Mexican adoptions remain incomplete despite the investment of several thousand dollars per family are the focus of a multinational investigation, say sources whose lawyer advised them to remain anonymous. A federal grand jury has been convened, naming a Wisconsin-based agency and several other individuals in the suit.

Global parenting

According to Tara Tlevs, a former document specialist for International Children’s Alliance in Washington, D.C., most couples who favor international adoption over local adoption do so because it is less difficult than adopting a child of their choice in their home state or country.

“The waiting time is significantly shorter,” Tlevs explains, an observation confirmed by Altman: He and his wife would have faced a waiting period of 10 years in their home state of Connecticut. In addition, Tlevs, who was herself an adopted child, points out that restrictions on parents are usually much less stringent in foreign countries. “We had a lot of couples who were older than most, actually not legally married, or were nontraditional [gay]. There were also single parents.”

American couples in their late 30s and single parents are often eligible only for “special-needs” children — those with disabilities or serious health disorders. Gay couples are not permitted to adopt in many Western countries, including most of the U.S.

About 80 percent of those seeking to adopt from Russia do so because they want same-race children, Tlevs claims. Competition for Caucasian children, especially infants, is particularly intense in the U.S.

“We were starting to get involved with the domestic process,” Jerry Lang said, “when we began wondering why we were waiting in line with hundreds, if not thousands, of other couples for the next healthy white baby when there were so many little girls in China waiting to be adopted.”

Unlike domestic adoption, international adoption, especially through the program in China, offers a high probability that a couple will get a child in a predictable amount of time. Through most agencies operating in that country, it takes two to five months to develop an adoption dossier, which includes verification of income and a criminal-background check. Most parents are given a green light for the journey to pick up their children eight to 10 months after their dossier is sent to China.

Also opting for international adoptions are parents who see orphans in socially or economically unstable countries as being more at risk than children in their own country and want to do something to help.

“We have people calling to ask if there are children available from Yugoslavia,” Tlevs says. “Many of them have already adopted several children internationally. Those who can afford it want to do anything they can.”

In fact, cost is a major factor. Because expenses involved in adopting children from Eastern European countries can run as high as $26,000, most couples adopting internationally come from higher-income brackets. In some cases, however, Tlevs explains, “we did see employers donate money to the cause. They would sponsor children into a family.”

According to Holt International, there are hundreds of companies offering some form of sponsorship, ranging from financial assistance to parental leave. Among participating companies are Microsoft, IBM, Marriott International and Merrill Lynch.

Costs associated with adopting in China are significantly lower than in many countries. The Langs’ adoption of their daughter Rachel cost a total of $12,500, including travel expenses. Other couples adopting through China report expenses of $15,000-$18,000, still far below that of Eastern European countries.

Tlevs added that while domestic adoption varies greatly from country to country, and on a case-by-case basis, adopting from China can even be less expensive than adopting locally. Adopting a Caucasian infant in the U.S., for example, usually requires paying the birth mother’s medical and living expenses, on top of the already substantial legal costs.

Pockets full of holes

While the allocation of adoption funds is said to be straightforward and traceable in China and some other host countries, expenditures in Russian adoptions appear to vary greatly depending on the agency used.

Mark Dorcey, an American who adopted a child from a Moscow orphanage through an American agency, described the adoption process as “smooth,” but admits, “we were taken financially.” After paying the standard agency fees, which he later learned were $10,000 higher than those charged by other agencies, Dorcey was told to bring an additional $1,000 to Moscow for what the agency termed “gifts,” but which he calls “bribe money.”

Altman supports Dorcey’s claims. “I know our coordinator bribed people to get our paperwork done. We constantly went to the head of queues that people had been waiting in for days. Paperwork that should have taken a week to process came back the same day. Then the Russian agency said they needed an additional $500 to solve a legal problem that appeared from nowhere and vanished just as quick when we refused to pay it. Everyone, it seems, has their hand out. From the orphanage director to the passport official, they all want their cut.”

Ironically, most of those who have experienced the system believe that very little of this money trickles down to the orphanages, where it is most needed.

“The director could not tell me how I could directly wire a personal donation to the Moscow orphanage,” Dorcey says. “It made me wonder what happened to the $6,500 that was supposedly wired to them by the agency earlier.”

The reason Russian adoptions are so much more expensive than those elsewhere is something of a mystery. According to Tlevs, Russia does not currently require the notaries and other bureaucratic procedures that other countries do, which can add to the costs. Rather than going to the orphanages, the money goes to the “government and legalization process,” Tlevs says, adding that out of roughly $26,000 in adoption costs for a Russian child, the International Children’s Alliance only receives about $5,000.

Other agencies find Russian adoptions much more lucrative, so much so that they are often willing to go to great lengths to establish links in the country. An agency must have a coordinator living in the region where it wishes to work, who submits licensing documents, limited power-of-attorney papers and the agency’s history to the Regional Adoption Center. If there are already several agencies working in the area, the agency is often refused permission to operate. But according to Briggs, who formed the National Council for Adoption to challenge corrupt practices, “gifts” are often given to the Center to “aid” it in making a decision. Gifts have included trips to the U.S. for family members of a high-level adoption official, fax machines and computers. Because the Center is responsible for choosing the children available to the agencies for adoption, Briggs claims that the gifts do not stop there.

Like many other parents, Briggs also found that she and her husband were charged “way over the [standard] rate” for bureaucratic and legal costs, lodging and transportation fees in Russia.

The International Children’s Alliance maintains a solid reputation by employing overseas coordinators who work exclusively with that agency, Tlevs says. Many agencies employ overseas coordinators who work on a freelance basis.

Difficulties and rewards

South Korea gave up scores of children for foreign adoption after World War II, something that has haunted the social consciousness of the country ever since. “They are very embarrassed about it, and are still regretting it,” says Tlevs, who volunteered in a Korean orphanage before working in Washington, D.C. Although South Korea still offers a number of orphans to international families, lawmakers there have recently made it much more difficult — in some cases, impossible — to adopt.

“I saw an orphanage full of children in which none of them were eligible to be adopted,” Tlevs says.

Jerry Lang feels that China will one day “have to deal with the impact of its one-child policy. The adoption boom of the ’90s will be merely a small subset of its social implications.” On a more optimistic note, he adds, “From our personal experience, the process has had a positive impact [on the country]. We received an overwhelmingly warm response from people on the street in Hefei.”

In a letter written to family members about the adoption, Lang described crowds of well-wishers descending on them and their newly adopted daughter in China.

Altman also has concerns about host countries, though his are more financially rooted.

“While it may be in the best interest of a child to be placed internationally, having rich Westerners throwing millions of dollars around to bypass bureaucracy is a very corrupting influence in a society that is struggling with a fragile democratic and free-market system.”

In an effort to curb bribery and adoption scams, Russia has recently begun debating legislative measures that would strengthen control of international adoptions.

Other concerns are that adoptive parents may not be getting accurate health information about their children before they adopt. One of the biggest problems associated with Russian infants is fetal alcohol syndrome. Because special-needs children are available locally in many Western countries, most parents adopting internationally are not willing to adopt a child with health problems.

“We never had parents who were willing to adopt a child with FAS,” says Tlevs, although some parents are willing to adopt children with correctable problems, such as cleft palate.

Altman, whose wife is a pediatric neurologist, is among the parents concerned about adopting a healthy child. “We were not allowed to examine [their child] medically in any way. Our coordinator was concerned that we would offend the medical staff at the orphanage.”

Agencies usually offer videos of available children, which potential parents often take to a medical professional for review. Unfortunately, the younger a child is, the less useful a video becomes, since many problems, such as autism, may not become apparent until the child is older.

By the time parents get to examine their child, the adoption process is often already complete. In a statement that ironically underscores Altman’s own allegation that parents are buying and selling children, he says, “The pressure to accept the child no matter what [the health condition] is intense. Many people do not have the money to return again if their child proves unacceptable.”

Briggs, whose 9-year-old adopted Russian daughter suffers from a severe attachment disorder that has proved destructive to her family, says that parents should only adopt internationally if they have “an ironclad support system in [their] family and [their] community, because before, during, and after, it’s grueling.”

In addition to the normal adjustment problems experienced by some adoptees, the Briggs’ daughter’s situation has been exacerbated by a language barrier and by her evident fear of losing her cultural and personal identity.

Briggs, who learned 600 words of Russian to ease communication problems with her adopted children, agrees that “their loss of ethnic identity is very, very tragic,” but contends that her adopted children stand a better chance of being productive members of society in their new country. “They were born into societies that don’t protect individuals, have no element of humanity in the responsibility of parents, and can’t provide adequate schooling and health care, particularly mental,” she said.

Tlevs urges prospective parents not to be discouraged by others’ tales of bureaucratic and cultural difficulties. “It’s amazing when a child is brought home into a real family,” she says. “They gain weight and their condition improves. They aren’t generally undernourished in the orphanages, but I think the accelerated development comes because they’re getting so much more individual attention and affection.

“There are still a lot of children out there.”

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