According to media reports, Vietnamese children have been adopted by people from 10 countries around the world, with American couples accounting for the largest number, taking some 600 out of a few thousand adopted each year. In 2007, 828 babies went home with American families, including actress Angelina Jolie's adoption of a 3-year-old boy. That was up from 163 the year before.

Nearly 6,000 Vietnamese infants were adopted by French parents between 1995 and 1999. However, Paris banned the adoption of Vietnamese children in April 1999 after it was revealed that some "orphans" had living parents who were duped into thinking their offspring would return home after a short holiday. [Source: Agence France Presse, August 2, 2002]

Vietnam has a fairly loose adoption policy. Thousands of Vietnamese children have been adopted by foreigners, mostly Americans and French. Since legal processes can drag on for months some turn to illegal means.

Adoption within Vietnam is uncommon because blood relations are so important. The Vietnamese however are suspicious of foreigners who adopt Vietnamese children. In 1994, it was discovered that some papers for international adoptions in Vietnam had been forged and some families had been given lumps of cash to put up their children for adoption.

In November 2011, Vietnam ratified the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption. It went into force in Vietnam in February 2012. The U.S. Department of State said it " applauds the Government of Vietnam's renewed commitment to strengthen its child welfare system and the integrity of its domestic and international adoption process" but "we continue to caution adoption service providers and prospective adoptive parents that, to ensure that adoptions from Vietnam can be compliant with the Convention, important steps must still take place before intercountry adoptions between the United States and Vietnam resume." We further caution adoption service providers against initiating, or claiming to initiate, adoption programs in Vietnam until they receive authorization from the Government of Vietnam.

Problems with Adoptions of Vietnamese Children

A cable from the U.S. embassy in Vietnam, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, said that, "while there are legitimate orphans in Vietnam, the corruption in the adoption process has become so widespread that [the embassy] believes that there is fraud in the overwhelming majority of cases of infants offered for international adoption." [Source: E.J. Graff, Washington Post, January 9, 2009, E.J. Graff is associate director and senior researcher at Brandeis University's Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism]

In 2002, Reuters reported: "Vietnam's Prime Minister Phan Van Khai has ordered the justice ministry to tighten child adoption rules to prevent any potential abuse, given increasing demand from foreigners, official media reported. The Nhan Dan (People) newspaper quoted Khai as telling a cabinet meeting that Vietnam needed to establish a special unit to supervise the process properly. "We have to organize this (adoption) work well in order not to let it be abused," Khai was quoted as saying. He said the new unit, to be controlled by the justice ministry, should keep records of all adoptions and supervise adoption processes. Khai said the unit's establishment would be part of Vietnam's preparations for the signing of the Hague Adoption Convention. Many childless families outside Vietnam are keen to adopt Vietnamese children, but the process can be slow and quite bureaucratic. Some have sought shortcuts. [Source: Reuters, April 5, 2002]

Angelina Jolie Adopts Vietnamese Boy

In 2007, Angelina Jolie adopted a five-year-old Vietnamese boy she and Brat Pitt named Pax. The BBC reported: "The actress collected the boy from a Ho Chi Minh City orphanage after a short and tearful farewell. She is due to hold an official ceremony at the justice department later, which will complete the adoption process. Jolie, 31, has already adopted two children, from Cambodia and Ethiopia, and last year she gave birth to a daughter with actor partner Brad Pitt. Jolie and Pitt visited Ho Chi Minh City in November 2006, where they first met children at the Tam Binh orphanage. She arrived in Vietnam again and went to the orphanage, taking Maddox - her five-year-old Cambodian son - with her. [Source: BBC, March 15, 2007]

About 20 children dressed in traditional Vietnamese tunics welcomed the pair as they arrived. Nguyen Van Trung, the director of the orphanage, said it was an emotional moment when she left with her new son. "They tried to make friends with the Vietnamese boy, who cried when he saw them because for him, they are strangers," he told reporters. "Jolie was very moved. Both of them tried to comfort the little boy," he added. The child has been living at the orphanage since he was abandoned as a baby. Adoptions in Vietnam often take up to six months, but they can be fast-tracked if background checks and issues of whether the adopting family can support a child are quickly resolved. Pitt later told U.S. TV program Today that becoming a parent was the "best thing" he had ever done. Jolie filed adoption papers in Vietnam as a single parent, because the couple are not married.

In 2011, Lucy Buckland wrote in the Daily Mail, "It has been four years since young Pax set foot in Vietnam after he was adopted by Angelina Jolie. And it must have been an emotional moment today as his parents brought their son back to Ho Chi Minh City for a visit in a bid to make sure their family stays in touch with his cultural heritage. Fresh from a whistle-stop tour of Tokyo the clan were spotted in Ho Chi Minh City today eating lunch in a rustic restaurant famed for its traditional Vietnamese food. Jolie and Pitt, who have three biological children and three adopted, have always said they want their children to remain in touch with their home countries.[Source: Lucy Buckland, Daily Mail, November 11, 2011]

Adoption Fraud and Shady Vietnamese Facilitators

In 2005, Kit R. Roane, U.S. News & World Report, All Carrie West wanted was a chance to care for an orphaned child. But when she traveled to Vietnam five years ago, she says, she got something else: a quick lesson on the murky world of international adoptions. Here's how she tells the story: Informed by her adoption facilitator that Thuy, the little girl she had planned to adopt, had fallen deathly ill with tuberculosis, she ended up taking a different child. But Thuy's plight stayed with her, and she sought out updates on her condition. Eventually, she learned that the child, far from being ill or convalescing, had been adopted by someone else--long before. [Source: Kit R. Roane, U.S. News & World Report, May 29, 2005]

"With no official government agency to handle the incident, West took her story to the Internet, writing on adoption blogs and other websites about the facilitator she says did her wrong. The facilitator, Mai-Ly Latrace, responded with a libel lawsuit, which so far names three couples, including West and her husband. The libel lawsuit filed by Latrace is based on some contentious issues. Latrace asserts that she has been unjustly maligned by West and the other defendants in the case who criticized her role in facilitating adoptions for them. The critics, on the other hand, point to, among other things, a letter from the Embassy of Vietnam in Washington from March 2005 stating that Latrace is "a child trafficker for money." She was deported from Vietnam, the letter says, on Oct. 18, 2002. The embassy's press attache, Chien Bach, confirmed the authenticity of the letter and added that Latrace "is banned from entering" Vietnam. Latrace says she knows nothing about any of this, saying that she encountered problems with Vietnamese immigration authorities who revoked her visa when she used the wrong type on a trip to the country. But, she says, she traveled to Vietnam just last year and encountered no legal troubles there. Latrace's attorney says that the embassy's letter about Latrace's alleged child-trafficking activities is based on inaccurate and unsubstantiated information.

"Latrace proudly defends her work, saying she has helped hundreds of people adopt children overseas and that she filed her lawsuit only after critics forced her hand by falsely accusing her of improper and unethical conduct. Any bad experiences would-be adoptive parents may have had, she says, were the result of miscommunication. She adds that some difficulties were the fault of her mother, Marie Latrace, with whom she has worked in the past, including West's adoption. (Marie Latrace, who lives with her daughter, denies that she did anything wrong while facilitating adoptions.) Latrace says that the defendants in her lawsuit, along with U.S. immigration agents in Vietnam, have long been out to get her. She also says that she has an affidavit from a Vietnamese couple that shows that they gave up their child willingly. "I never sold a child. I have never bought a child," Latrace told U.S. News . "And I don't know why anyone in Vietnam is saying that I was involved in anything that was criminal. Especially when it comes to kids." Latrace is seeking monetary damages, as well as expenses, interest, and attorney's fees.

"There were other issues as well, and like many in the often-confusing world of international adoptions, they are tangled. Tedi Hedstrom, the owner of Tedi Bear Adoptions, worked with Latrace during the period in which West was attempting to adopt. Hedstrom voluntarily relinquished her license to Florida authorities in March 2003 after the state found several violations, including having personnel files that lacked proof that workers had been screened or met training requirements. But Hedstrom, who now works in Georgia, blames Latrace. "My agency had only one registered complaint in seven years; we had an excellent reputation," she says. "After I began working with Mai-Ly, we had approximately 30 complaints all directly related to her within a very short period, a couple of months. I believe that choosing to work with Mai-Ly Latrace was the worst business decision I have ever made in my entire life." Latrace says Hedstrom caused her own difficulties and points out that the state's complaint never mentions her.

Ban on Vietnamese Adoptions

In 2008, Vietnam stopped adoptions to the United States because of concerns over the kinaping and sale of children. Margie Mason of Associated Press wrote: "Washington ended the joint agreement in September 2008 after a spike in the number of abandoned babies, raising concerns about whether the children truly were voluntarily given up by their birth parents as U.S. law requires. Months earlier, the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam reported evidence of fraud, bribery, kidnapping and outright baby-selling for adoptions that can cost more than $20,000. Washington had previously halted an agreement in 2003 over similar concerns, and resumed it three years later after safeguards were supposedly put in place. [Source: Margie Mason, Associated Press, June 15, 2011]

"After the 2008 suspension, most of the 534 cases already being processed were resolved and the children were allowed to leave. But officials put the brakes on some cases because irregularities were uncovered, including wrong birth mothers' names on paperwork, according to Keith Wallace, director of Families Thru International Adoption, the Indiana agency brokering the adoptions. He said they reinvestigated most of the cases and fired a staffer who had taken "short cuts."

"In one case, a baby who already was matched with an American family was returned to its birth mother because her financial situation had improved after she married, he said. In other cases, the agency obtained DNA samples and new paperwork from birth mothers stating they knowingly gave up their babies, Wallace added.

Ban on Vietnamese Adoptions Prevents U.S. Parents from Receiving Kids Promised to Them

Margie Mason of Associated Press wrote: "Marsha Sailors painted the nursery pink and green at her Missouri home, put up princess pictures and built a crib for her new little girl. They hadn't yet met, but she already was in love with the smiling 6-month-old in a photo sent from Vietnam. Three birthdays have since passed, but the child has never slept in the room or worn the clothes hanging in the closet. Sailors and her husband visited the girl they named Claire a combined nine times in unsuccessful attempts to bring her home, and now are barred from any further contact. [Source: Margie Mason, Associated Press, June 15, 2011]

"Instead, Claire remains stuck inside a decaying Vietnamese orphanage along with 15 other kids who also have American families waiting to adopt them. Their cases went into bureaucratic limbo in 2008 when Washington suspended its adoption agreement with Vietnam over broad suspicions of fraud and baby selling. "I just can't spend a lot of time in her room because it's just so sad," said Sailors, from Kansas City, who celebrated the past two Christmases at the orphanage in southern Bac Lieu province with her husband Chuck before authorities barred the visits in January. "We're just longing to bring her home because otherwise her future ... I can't go very far down that road before my heart starts to break," she said.

"Most of the adoptions already in the pipeline went forward under exceptions to the 2008 moratorium, but paperwork problems delayed the Bac Lieu cases. Vietnam now says it hopes to join the international Hague Convention on adoptions in October and that the pending cases must start over under those tighter rules, which bar prospective parents from even seeing the children until everything is finalized. Some families blame the U.S. State Department for the hold up, arguing it has pressured Vietnam so hard to impose stricter regulations that their cases ended up getting stuck. They're now hoping for exemptions and have gained some leverage: Two U.S. senators have blocked President Barack Obama's pick for the new U.S. ambassador to Vietnam over the issue.

"The orphanage is a two-room former prison deep in Vietnam's Mekong Delta. Couples had rotated visits there before January, each time taking food, milk, clothes and toys for the children who otherwise receive very little. Three Florida families have enlisted the help of Sen. Marco Rubio, who a placed hold on the ambassador nominee after Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar lifted a similar block. Rubio has concerns over the State Department's handling of the "long-delayed adoptions," said his spokesman Alex Burgos.

Alison Dilworth, adoptions division head at the U.S. Office of Children's Issues, said Washington has pressed Vietnam's Communist government to release the children, but that officials there have refused to provide information on why they rejected the cases. "We've made it very, very clear that we want them to move forward on these cases, and I can understand why the parents are absolutely frustrated," Dilworth said.

Baby Trafficking in Vietnam

The trafficking of Vietnamese babies for foreign adoption used to be big business in Vietnam. Children sell for up to $5,000 a piece. Some are kidnapped, some are sold by their parents. Many are produced by their mothers with the purpose of selling them. Sometimes the children are sold outside of Vietnam, namely China. Other times the cases involve children born in a different country, namely Cambodia.

In 2008, Nga Pham of the BBC News wrote: " Vietnamese authorities have arrested three women and a man for allegedly smuggling newborn babies to China. The suspects were detained with two baby boys, aged one month and one week old, in Hanoi and Ha Tay provinces. Hanoi police said they had also detained an eight-month pregnant woman who confessed to agreeing to sell her unborn baby to the gang. The woman was being transferred to China, where she is expected to give birth to the child. All the babies were sold for eight million dong ($500) each. [Source: Nga Pham, BBC News , February 21, 2008 ++]

"The police said they would be offered for adoption to couples in China for around $2,000 each, because they were boys. Girls would be sold for half the amount, according to investigators. This is the first time the Vietnamese police have uncovered the smuggling of unborn babies. One of the boys has been returned to his birth mother, while the other is being looked after at a children's hospital in Hanoi. ++

In April 2000, Associated Press reported: "A court in the northern province of Ninh Binh convicted and sentenced 12 people for their roles in selling 174 Vietnamese children for foreign adoption, a court official said Friday. The children were given false documents and sent abroad for adoption, mainly by French and Belgian couples who paid from $1,000 to $1,500. The alleged leader of the ring, a senior official in the provincial Justice Department, Vu Tien Manh, received a 4 1/2-year jail sentence, while the other defendants were sentenced to lesser terms and fines. Manh was convicted in a three-day trial that ended Thursday, said Presiding Judge Hua Dang Dung. Dung said Manh and his associates solicited children from unwed women and desperate families. Manh falsified documents for 174 children who were then sold for foreign adoption from 1992 until the ring was uncovered in 1998. The adoptive parents were told that the children had been abandoned. Ring members confessed to charging $1,000 to $1,500 per child, Dung said. The court ordered the defendants to pay fines of $27,000, Dung said. The defendants have 15 days to appeal their sentences.[Source: Associated Press, April 1, 2000]

Nine Vietnamese Jailed for Smuggling 199 Babies Overseas

In January 2000, AFP reported: "Nine people have been jailed for up to 20 years for smuggling 199 babies abroad for adoption. Ringleader Le Quoc Binh, who brokered the adoptions between 1995 and 1997, and Bui Van Khanh, a population registrar in the southern province of An Giang, were each jailed for 20 years, a court official said. [Source: Agence France Presse, January 22, 2000 /=]

Pham Thanh Hai, director of Long Xuyen center, which cares for motherless children, received an eight-year prison term, the official at An Giang provincial court said. Six others, including a provincial hospital doctor who helped Binh locate babies, received terms of between one and seven years for receiving bribes. Prosecutors said Binh's network approached poor Vietnamese families and young mothers in hospitals offering to care for their children at the center. After putting their babies in the orphanage, parents later discovered their children had been placed for adoption abroad. The case has raised international concern about lax laws and dishonest brokers who dupe both natural parents and foreigners seeking to adopt children from Vietnam. /=\

"If the Government makes it clear this sort of thing leads to a heavy penalty, then people will be more careful," said a foreign lawyer and father of an adopted child. The lawyer said he and his wife arranged the adoption without going through a broker after discovering it was impossible to find a legitimate one. "It's rotten to the core. We talked to a couple of agents through reputable adoption agencies and you would have no idea of how they got children," he said. "I assume they paid for them." Most of the 199 babies were aged under one and came from poor farming families and provincial hospitals. /=\

Eight Vietnamese Jailed for Trafficking Babies to France

In August 2002, Agence France Presse reported: "Eight people, including a senior policeman, have been jailed for up to 12 years for trafficking children from southern Vietnam to France, officials said. The accused were convicted of selling 39 babies to French couples between January 1996 and February 1998, and helping them fast-track through adoption procedures, a court official in Ho Chi Minh City told AFP Friday. Ringleader Ho Thi My Hanh, 38, was jailed for 12 years, as was Nguyen Si Vinh, 45, a senior officer in the Ho Chi Minh City Police Investigation Division, for accepting bribes to turn a blind eye to her activites. Six others, including three women, were imprisoned for between two and nine years. Since 1998, at least 28 people have been imprisoned for selling new-born babies to foreigners and forging adoption documents. [Source: Agence France Presse, August 2, 2002 +]

In May 2002, two Vietnamese women were jailed for five years after being convicted of buying three babies from impoverished mothers at a hospital in the Mekong Delta province of An Giang for as little as 15 dollars each. French couples account for about half the Vietnamese babies who have found new homes with foreign families since the early 1990s. Other couples found themselves being asked fees of up to 10,000 dollars from intermediaries who engaged in an underground trade in babies from the impoverished Mekong Delta. +

In January 2000, Reuters reported, a court in southern province of An Giang sentenced 14 people to prison terms ranging from 13 months to 20 years for involvement in a major illegal adoption ring. Last November, official media reported that another 16 people were due for trial in Ho Chi Minh City for alleged involvement in a ring that bought 39 babies from poor mothers in the city and nearby provinces and sold them to foreigners in the late 1990s. [Source: Reuters, April 5, 2002]

Vietnam and France Sign Pact to Thwart Illegal Adoption Trade

Huw Watkin wrote in the South China Morning Post, "Vietnam and France have signed an agreement on child adoption, signalling the end of a French suspension of Vietnamese adoptions imposed last year amid fears that lax administration was fuelling the illegal trade in children. Until the ban was imposed last May, France was accepting about 1,400 Vietnamese children each year - representing about half of all foreign children adopted annually by French couples. [Source: By Huw Watkin, South China Morning Post, February 14, 2000 ]

"Paris suspended adoptions in Vietnam after a French Foreign Ministry probe and local media reports revealed that corrupt officials were making huge profits from selling children to foreigners. Those officials were reportedly making large sums of money by selling "legitimate" paperwork to child-trafficking rings, which then sold children to foreign couples for as much as US$5,000.

"In one trial of members of a child-trafficking ring centered in northern Ninh Binh province, the court heard that 105 fake adoption papers had been used to sell 371 children over a three-year period. According to child welfare agencies, the huge profits to be made had also prompted an undetermined number of women to become pregnant specifically to sell their newborn infants to foreigners.

"A member of Unicef's family welfare and child protection section said despite the French decision to suspend adoptions pending a review of procedures, couples from the United States, Australia and Israel continued to travel to Vietnam in search of children to adopt. But he said recent legislative and administrative changes meant the potential for abuse of the system had been significantly reduced. "Traffickers of children now face life in prison and prosecution has been made easier by changes to procedures," he said.

"An official at the French Embassy in Hanoi said the agreement defining new adoption procedures between Vietnam and France had been signed late last month, but had still to be ratified by Paris. He said French ratification would "take some months" but the authorities were confident that the centralised control implemented by Vietnamese authorities allowed better supervision of adoptions.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

Last updated May 2014

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