LONDON, United Kingdom — The past few decades have seen an upsurge in the phenomenon of “paper orphaning.” Children are taken illicitly from their birthparents and are falsely presented as orphans by means of fraudulent documentation, rendering the children “legally” adoptable to satisfy the demand for intercountry adoptions. This demand, mainly from couples in developed countries wanting to adopt from the Global South, combined with the adoption fees associated, results in recruiters in sending nations using illicit means to generate a sufficient supply of “adoptable” children, or illegal orphans. According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, illegal intercountry adoption is a human rights issue as the act violates several human rights and has “devastating consequences on the lives and rights of victims.” Intercountry adoption processes must at all times consider the best interests of the child. The Borgen Project spoke to Professor David Smolin, director of Cumberland School of Law’s Center for Children, Law and Ethics on the topic of illegal intercountry adoptions.
False Promises and Financial Incentives
Through coercive tactics such as deception, bribery or even abduction, wily recruiters obtain children from impoverished, vulnerable families and sometimes even pregnant women, a research article by Griffith University law lecturer Kathryn E. van Doore discusses. These recruiters promise better opportunities for the children, such as a good education, and tell parents that they can see them during the holidays. There are further incentives such as financial or other rewards. Many parents, therefore, do not give consent freely but under psychological pressure and/or deception. Sometimes, recruiters take children by force and, in some cases, parents actually pay to relinquish their child.
These children are then legally “adoptable” through the falsification of identities and papers, including falsified birth certificates and death certificates of the parents, and they become “paper orphans.” These incidents have occurred in Nepal, Cambodia, Uganda and Ghana, among others, says Van Doore on a Griffiths University news page.
Paper Orphaning and Poverty
“Paper orphaning” has links to poverty. Adoption requires fees, which act as motivation for those in sending countries to engage in illicit tactics in order to procure illegal orphans. Adoptive parents often pay thousands of dollars to agencies and orphanages, which can be a life-changing sum for those in poorer countries.
Further, orphanages in sending nations also profit. Save the Children reported in 2009 that four out of five children globally in orphanages were not actually orphans, but rather, illegal orphans. According to van Doore’s research paper, in Ghana, for example, “running an orphanage has become a business enterprise, a highly lucrative and profitable venture” and “children’s welfare at these orphanages has become secondary to the profit motive.” Orphans then often live in these orphanages, where volunteers may pay fees to “help” these children, and sometimes, orphans have to put on shows to encourage donations. Recruiters also receive a profit from selling these children to orphanages or adoption agencies.
Activism Leads to Change
In the 1990s in Andhra Pradesh, India, the Indian government shut down several orphanages due to adoption irregularities, and subsequently, charged two workers with buying babies from the Lambada tribe for around $15 to $45 before selling them to orphanages for $220 to $440. The orphanages would receive between $2,000 to $3,000 for an adoption. Following another scandal, the government implemented a decree banning the relinquishment of children on the “grounds of poverty, number of children and unwanted girls” and subsequently stopped all adoptions from the state.
In an interview with The Borgen Project, Professor Smolin highlights that local activists are largely responsible for the actions to address illegal intercountry adoptions. In Andhra Pradesh, activist Gita Ramaswamy fought for a nationwide moratorium on international adoptions, also fighting several court cases to prevent foreign adoptions. She argued that “poverty and the degradation of women in Indian society are the reasons that so many poor women decide to sell their girl babies.”
Some countries have also placed moratoria on intercountry adoption, with the recognition of the harm that illicit adoptions cause the birth parents and children. For example, Guatemala placed a moratorium on international adoptions following significant evidence regarding illicit adoptions. Further, it implemented a national strategic plan and adoption law in line with international conventions.
Activism from Victims
Jane Jeong Trenka discovered when she was 40 years old that the adoption agency in Korea had given her a false identity to make her more appealing for adoption. Trenka became aware that her legal birthday conflicted with the birth papers supplied by her orphanage. “Her family history and physical description [were]rewritten to hide the fact that she was in poor health, having been abused by her father,” CNN reported in 2013. The agency also misled Trenka’s birth mother into thinking “a pair of wealthy Dutch lawyers” will adopt Trenka.
Following extensive advocacy, in 2012, the Korean National Assembly implemented the Special Adoption Law, developed by a group of activists, including Trenka. Among other regulations, a mother giving her child up for adoption must provide express and verifiable consent and must register the birth. A mother will also have the right to reverse the adoption within six months.
“It’s a paradigm shift,” Trenka told CNN, to prevent illegal intercountry adoptions by ensuring ethical procedures are in place.
Another example is Adam Crapser, who won a case over his illegal intercountry adoption to an abusive family in the United States. Crapser sued the South Korean government and the adoption agency because of “fraudulent paperwork and screening failures,” according to KELOLAND News. In 2023, the court in South Korea ordered the agency to pay 100 million won in damages to Crapser for “mishandling his adoption as a child in the United States.”
While progress is visible, the adoption fees provide an incentive that appeals to impoverished recruiters. In countries such as India, fees are limited and donations are only allowed to be given after the child has left India, according to an article by Professor Smolin.
Moreover, there have been proposals to reduce fees to only those that are strictly necessary, such as fees for legal services, Professor Smolin explained.
In the meantime, to prevent illegal intercountry adoptions, concerted efforts are necessary to ensure that child protection and welfare are the primary consideration and that children are not separated from their parents. Systems of accountability must be established within international adoption systems. If influential countries such as the United States sets an example, other countries may follow.
– Ottoline Spearman