Pedo-profiting: The Selling of Cambodian Babies

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Above: Soum Savy, center, holds one of her two-month-old twins Feb. 1, 2004 in Laing Kout village, Kampong Cham province, Cambodia, 90 miles north of the capital Phnom Penh. Savy was asked if she wanted to sell her 2-month-old twins to a family overseas. She desperately needs the money, and has no idea how she will feed them, but the 40-year-old mother of nine said no.

Chea Kim, the chief baby trader in this dirt-road village 90 miles from the capital, waits at a pagoda to hear whether a neighbor will sell her 2-month-old twins to a family overseas.

“No?” Kim says when told the desperate woman has changed her mind about giving up her children for as little as $20 each. “Why not?”

Although illegal baby sales may have slowed since the United States, France, the Netherlands and several other countries started suspending international adoptions from Cambodia in 2002, the practice persists in poverty-stricken villages like Laing Kout.

The director of one U.S. agency that appears to have benefited from Laing Kout’s thriving baby trade is scheduled to be sentenced this month, in a case that made international headlines because the agency also handled the adoption of actress Angelina Jolie’s son, Maddox.

There is no evidence that the actress did anything wrong or that the boy was not an orphan — one of several hundred Cambodian children adopted by Americans each year until the ban, peaking at more than 400 adoptions in 2000.

Regretting the decision

Chea Kim, a chief baby trader feeds a baby Feb. 1, 2004 in Laing Kout village, Kampong Cham province, Cambodia, 90 miles north of the capital Phnom Penh. Chea Kim has brought 18 babies to an orphanage near Cambodia’s capital that caters to international adoptions. For each infant, Chea Kim was given $100, about half of which she gave to the birth mothers.

In Kim’s case, an orphanage catering to international adoptions approached her five years ago and told her it was willing to pay up to $100 for newborns so she gave them her own 3-day-old daughter.Later she regretted the decision, and when asked if she wanted to give another child said no. But that didn’t stop her from persuading other mothers to sell their babies — 18 in total — claiming they had been abandoned and the birth parents were unknown.

Others in this poor village, most of whom earn less than $1 a day as contract laborers in rice and bean fields, recognized a good business opportunity when they saw one and also started bringing babies to the WOVA Cham Chao orphanage just outside Phnom Penh, the capital.

It was one of several used by Seattle International Adoptions, which placed at least 700 children in American homes before the U.S. ban in December 2001.

Following a U.S. investigation, the Seattle agency’s doors were shut last year and its director, Lynn Devin, 50, and her sister, Lauryn Galindo, 52, were indicted on charges of conspiring to commit visa fraud.

Among the charges they faced were falsifying documents to make it look as if babies with parents were orphans, swapping at least one sick child with a healthy one in the middle of adoption procedures, and using the names of dead infants for the living.

Devin, who pleaded guilty to visa fraud and conspiracy to launder money, is to be sentenced this month. Galindo, who pleaded innocent to the visa fraud allegations, is scheduled to go to trial in June.

Many of the women who gave up their newborns in Laing Kout were too poor to raise them — receiving as little as $20 for each child from intermediaries like Kim. Some did so after being left by their husbands, out of spite or desperation, or in hope that adoptive parents, or the children, would send back money in years to come.

Complaints about baby sales and thefts have come to a near standstill since the United States and France — the two largest markets for Cambodian children — put a hold on adoptions, said Women’s Affairs Minister Mu Sochua.

It takes a village to sell a child

But some villagers are still trying to cash in.

WOVA Cham Chao stopped accepting babies a few years ago, but another orphanage opened in nearby Kandal province’s Kein Svay district allegedly run by a former employee, said villagers from Laing Kout.

Nop Phat, a farmer, who has delivered five babies to the orphanage, rattles off the names of pregnant women in and around Laing Kout. He knows who is willing to sell a baby, and who is not. He had high hopes for Soum Savy, who had twins two months ago, but she changed her mind.

“At first I was going to give them away, because I was sick and had no milk,” said Savy, 40, as she emerges from a wooden house on stilts with the twins, one weighing just 4 pounds, his skeletal legs badly deformed.

“Now that I’m feeling better, I want to keep them,” said Savy, who has seven other children and no idea what she and her husband will do to feed them.

Kim, waiting at a pagoda nearby, was disappointed by the news.

Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world and stories about selling children are not uncommon — whether for adoption, prostitution or domestic service.

&Mac253;ecades of war — bombing by the United States in the early 1970s, the Khmer Rouge genocide in 1975-79, military occupation by Vietnam in the 1980s — have destroyed the social fabric, said Dr. Sotheara Chhim, deputy director of Transcultural Psycho-social Organization.

Little has been done in the years that followed to rebuild institutions that traditionally foster a sense of community or build values and trust.

The most severe damage was done during the Khmer Rouge’s bloody four-year reign, when Maoist-inspired revolutionaries purposely obliterated all aspects of traditional Cambodia, emptying the cities and herding people to the countryside to work as slaves in the rice fields.

As many as 2 million Cambodians, or one in five, died of starvation, overwork, execution or illness.

People were taught to think only of the revolution, with the result that they learned to think only of themselves in order to survive, said Chhim.

“We were not even allowed to cry if someone in our family died,” he said. “Without the tragedy all of us have experienced, people would have a broader way of thinking. They might still be poor, but I don’t think mothers would resort so quickly to selling their children.”

Though it is impossible to say how widespread the problem is, even Cambodia’s king has expressed concern, describing the adoption issue as “a complex but very sad one for me.”

“Extreme poverty among a large number of our people … has pushed a non-negligible number of parents to sell their children to rich foreigners,” King Norodom Sihanouk, 81, wrote on his website in February.

Though some go to loving homes in America and Europe and are given education, he said, “we are losing our dignity if we sell children.”

Cambodian law limits adoptions to abandonment or the death of a child’s parents. To get around this, adoption agencies and facilitators have claimed children were abandoned with birth mothers unknown.

There are plenty of other loopholes in the system, and UNICEF is working with the government to draft a new adoption law.

In Laing Kout, a Khmer Rouge stronghold during their bloody reign, most women gave up their children voluntarily. But they miss their children and want to know if their babies are really better off. Many long for letters or photographs that never arrive.

‘The lucky one’

Some mothers, however, say they did not realize they would never see their children again.

Main Dim, 40, was divorced with five children when she became pregnant again by a man from Laing Kout who later abandoned her. Angry and worried that she would not be able to care for another child, Main Dim agreed to give Kim her month-old boy for $50. But she thought that he was being taken to a center, and that she would get him back when she was on her feet again.

“He was crying when I let him go. So was I,” she said. “I think about him everyday.”

Still, she is seen as “the lucky one” in Laing Kout and serves as inspiration to the rest.

Unlike others, she gets about $100 a year from the American family who adopted her son and has received dozens of pictures: The boy bundled in ski clothes, in a bath with his blond-haired sister and another Cambodian brother, eating breakfast in front of the TV.

And the American family promised her that when the boy was 18, he would come to Cambodia for a visit.

“I still miss him, but when I see the pictures I’m happy, because he does have a better life than any I could give him,” she said, showing off a radio given to her by the boy’s new family. “If they offered to give him back, of course, I want that. But at least I know he’s being taken care of.”

Sou Soam, 64, hopes that’s true for her grandson, too, but she has no way of knowing. She sold the day-old boy for $40 after her 43-year-old daughter died in childbirth seven years ago.

“I just want to see how he’s grown, what he looks like,” said Soam, who said she was left with no choice but to give up the boy. “I had no money and five other grandchildren to care for.”

Many Cambodian parents think they were doing the right thing, and in some cases maybe they were.

Run Chenda, sold by her mother into prostitution when she was 9 for $80, says children who were sold to rich foreigners are the lucky ones.

“If I could trade places with any of them, I would,” she said.

Now 16, Chenda spent five years in a brothel in Phnom Penh, then managed to escape. When she didn’t do as she was told, she was beaten with a belt. Other times, her genitals were squeezed with pliers, she says, tears dripping down her cheek.

Bending the rules

Neither Devin or Galindo — the sisters who ran Seattle International Adoptions — would comment for this story; nor would their lawyers. But supporters say tales like Chenda’s are one reason the sisters, from Mercer Island, Wash., and Hanalei, Hawai‘i, respectively, felt the need to bend rules.

The families who adopted the children paid up to $11,500, at least half of which went to the Seattle agency. The rest of the money went to the Cambodian government as bribes, or to orphanages as “donations,” human rights groups say.

Deborah Porter, who comes from a suburb of Seattle, legally adopted two children through the agency in 1998.

She believes Devin and Galindo were not motivated by profit but by a desire to help those in need and to place them in good homes.

“The bad side of the investigation is that the people who are getting punished aren’t the people who started the rampant baby-buying,” Porter said, noting that the sisters were taking steps to reform the system in Cambodia, trying to help set up a Safe Children’s Act.

“The people who care the most, who are the most compassionate and interested in reform are the ones we’re going to get on a technicality.”

— Robin McDowell and Gene Johnson

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