After the United States halted adoptions in Vietnam, one Knoxville organization is working support underprivileged orphanages.
Tracy Foster, a mother of three adopted children from Vietnam, began a nonprofit organization called Project Being There earlier this year. Its objectives include raising funds for food, clothing and basic necessities for non-government sponsored orphanages in Vietnam.
In 2008, the United States suspended all adoptions from Vietnam following a report by the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi claiming corruption and illegal trafficking in Vietnam's adoption system. According to Associated Press reporter Vu Tien Hong, this report claims agencies were pressuring mothers to give up babies to be sold for adoption. The report stated that some American agencies paid orphanage brokers as much as $10,000 for a referral.
According to the article, over 1,200 Vietnamese children were adopted by American families from 2007 to 2008. Despite the fact that the United States is a major leader in Vietnamese adoptions, the defaming report shut down 42 U.S. adoption agencies operating in Vietnam.
Even though there are all these restrictions, the problem is that the orphanages are all still full. Tracy Foster, Executive Director of Project Being There
In response to the reports revealing corruption, in October 2008, over 78 countries ratified the Hague Adoption Convention, which established restrictions to ensure adoptions are safe and within the best interests of the children involved. While the United States sanctioned the legislation in 2000, Vietnam has yet to comply. International organizations such as UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund) also strongly supported the legislation.
According to its Web site, UNICEF's official stance on inter-country adoption states that "Inter-country adoption is one of a range of care options which may be open to children, and for individual children who cannot be placed in a permanent family setting in their countries of origin, it may indeed be the best solution. In each case, the best interests of the individual child must be the guiding principle in making a decision regarding adoption."
Vietnam is not the only country to face adoption restrictions, however. In the past few years, other countries like China, Guatemala and Russia have enforced stricter qualifications for international adoption. According an article by Pam Belluck and Jim Yardley in the New York Times, China prohibits candidates who are single, obese, over 50 years of age, do not meet economic standards or suffer from psychological health problems from adoption.
According to Tracy Foster, while these rules are not completely unreasonable, it is surprising that the governments of countries with such high orphanage rates would suddenly become so strict. Foster attributes a lot of these changes to political agenda. "Why in the world would they make it more difficult to adopt babies? The general consensus of some is because international organizations like UNICEF take a strong position against international adoption," said Foster. "They feel that these children should be adopted in birth countries they grow up in. Of course, there's definitely nothing wrong with that, but let's look at how many domestic adoptions in Vietnam happen every year. They can probably be counted on one hand."
There were probably 200 children in each orphanage with eight or nine kids sharing a room. It's a lot of kids in one place, so they don't get as much attention as they deserve. Thien Mai, UT student
"Even though there are all these restrictions," Foster said "the problem is that the orphanages are all still full."
Most of the orphanages in Vietnam are not government sponsored but are owned privately by churches. These private orphanages are run by the donations and charity of non-Vietnamese firms like nonprofits or mission groups.
University of Tennessee student Thien Mai, who worked with several orphanages in Ho Chi Minh City with his church group over the past two summers, described his visits as "an eye opening experience." "Because the orphanages aren't backed by the government, the kids don't have many opportunities. There were probably 200 children in each orphanage with eight or nine kids sharing a room," said Mai. "It's a lot of kids in one place, so they don't get as much attention as they deserve."
Foster began Project Being There in March 2009 in an effort to improve the conditions of the orphanages in Vietnam. "The whole idea came across because of the three orphanages of our children. Each of those facilities had limited resources, no heat, no air and no money. But we noticed the difference between the three had to do with the staff training, which makes a huge impact." According to Foster, her son Noah's orphanage had the worst conditions. "All of the children had scabies, skin conditions and diarrhea or were very sick."
Project Being There works closely with St. An's orphanage, which is located in North Vietnam. So far, the nonprofit has raised over $10,000 which goes toward facility upgrades, education support and medical expenses for the children. "We used a portion of the funds to purchase fleece coats for all the kids and paid for the salary of the special needs' teacher," said Foster.
Project Being There's motto is "small victories in a big world." Foster believes that everyone's place in the world is significant and with every small change, a victory occurs.
As of May 2009, Sweden joined the United States in suspending further adoptions from Vietnam. Currently, the United States has made no plans to renew another bilateral adoption agreement with Vietnam. According to the Department of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, adoption cases will not resume unless a new agreement is made and Vietnam is recognized as a Hague compliant.
"When it all comes down to it, if you are trying to eliminate corruption, you can't simply go into another country and regulate their rules for adoption," said Foster. "Where we can make change, however, is within our own government system. Change has to start here."