Adoption Agent Charged in Baby-Buying Case

An agent who has arranged hundreds of adoptions is facing charges in a US federal court for allegedly buying Cambodian babies from their families and presenting them as orphans eligible for adoption overseas.

Lauryn Galindo, 52, has funded several orphanages in the country since arriving in 1990 and claims to have close relationships with several high-ranking government officials. She recently arranged an adoption to US actress Angelina Jolie of “Tomb Raider” fame.

Along with her sister, Lynn Devin, Galindo was indicted in November on charges of visa fraud and conspiracy to commit visa fraud. Devin, 50, pleaded guilty to conspiracy last week in a federal court in Seattle, in the US state of Washington.

Galindo has not been arrested and denies any wrongdoing, according to a report last week in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper. She is at her home in the US state of Hawaii, the paper reported.

Seattle International Adoptions, a company Devin ran from her home and that employed Galindo as a so-called “facilitator” in Cambodia, is also named in the indictment, dated Nov 6.

Devin is scheduled to appear in court for sentencing in March, according to court documents.

The indictment alleges Galindo directed adoptive parents to pay biological mothers for children. In one instance cited in court documents, Galindo arranged the adoption of a 4-year-old girl and directed the adoptive parent to pay $100 to the mother.

An application for the child’s visa to the US falsely claimed that she had no living relatives, the documents state.

In another alleged instance, Galindo substituted a healthy child for a sick one, retaining the sick child’s biographical information on US immigration forms.

Galindo and Devin also required payments of more than $10,000 to process the adoption. There is no formal adoption fee in Cambodia.

Galindo has faced media scrutiny and criticism from human rights groups in recent years after a flurry of accusations of corrupt practices prompted the US to halt adoptions from Cambodia two years ago.

In an interview last year, Galindo defended her business as “humanitarian work.” She admitted to paying officials “tips” taken out of the fees she charged adoptive parents, but denied buying babies.

Galindo was known to claim many top officials as personal friends and received a government award last year for her service. Describing her relationship with Senate President Chea Sim in 2002, she said he was “like a father to me.” She also claimed close ties to Co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng and Bun Rany, the wife of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Sar Kheng said he was unaware of the specific charges leveled against Galindo and her sister and maintained that his relationship with Galindo was superficial.

“I don’t know whether [Galindo] took the children to sell or adopt,” he said Sunday by telephone. “I can’t say whether she is good or bad, because I only see her outside appearance.”

Chea Sim could not be reached for comment Sunday.

Galindo was known to work through several orphanages in the country, including the Women and Orphans Vocational Association, located in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. The human rights NGO Licadho said in 2000 it had uncovered several cases in which mothers had sold their children to recruiters from WOVA.

The Sihanoukville orphanage and “Kompong Speu Orphanage” are included in court documents as places where illegal adoptions took place.

WOVA director Chim Naly denied the allegations at the time, and, reached by telephone Sunday, she refused comment on Galindo’s case.

Licadho hailed Devin’s prosecution in a public statement Friday and called for further investigation into the named orphanages.

“We are very happy with the prosecutions in the US but we also feel that it’s time for the Cambodian authorities to prosecute Cambodians engaged in crimes related to adoptions,” said Naly Pilorge, director of Licadho.

But officials in the Ministry of Social Affairs contacted Sunday said they were unaware of the case or any impending investigation. The ministry oversees adoption affairs.

The ease of illicit channels and the appeal of rescuing an orphan from an impoverished country have made Cambodia a popular source of orphans for Western adoptive parents. Before a suspension was enacted in December 2001, more than 100 adoptions per month were processed through the US Embassy’s consulate, according to one Licadho worker.

Galindo has continued to work in Cambodia, processing adoption cases that had been filed before the suspension was declared, a second Licadho worker said.

Bribes and connections to high-ranking officials enabled quick adoptions that often bypassed the government’s official adoption policy, said one former Western adviser to the Ministry of Social Affairs.

“The problem is not just in the ministry…. Adoptions should go through the adoption bureau, but there have been a number of cases approved that never went through the ministry,” the former adviser said.

The draft of an adoption law, which treats the issue of foreign adoptive parents, is awaiting approval from parliament.

US Embassy spokeswoman Heide Bronke said Sunday that the suspension would remain in place until the Cambodian government installs “a transparent, accountable system to ensure that only official, legal orphans are adopted.” She could not say whether US agencies were continuing their investigation into the adoption business here.

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