Once upon a time, international adoption facilitators were angels who braved the harsh climate of impoverished foreign lands to give poor abandoned orphans the chance at a better life with wealthy, loving new parents.
But the angels have fallen in recent years, with credible allegations of baby-buying and even baby-stealing emerging though human-rights groups, embassies and the media. Today, accused of being the middleman in a distinctly nasty business, facilitators might be expected to wear horns and breathe fire, like the most famous fallen angel himself.
Then you meet Lauryn Galindo, and you return to the ethereal realm again. Soothing guitar music seeps from Galindo’s stereo as she welcomes you into a fan-cooled riverfront apartment tastefully decorated with Khmer-style furniture. Silk pastel pillows tumble off a traditional “kdaa ngoeu,” or wooden bed. A wooden apsara dances on a chest, a ceramic dragon undulates on the tile floor and a little fountain murmurs in the background all day.
Galindo has light blue eyes and a gentle manner. Raised in the US state of Hawaii, she is a semi-professional hula dancer, which helps to explain her waist-length hair. She sits on pillows with a visitor as she leafs through one certificate after another: Awards and thank-you letters for her many donations for orphans and young children.
Late last month the government awarded her a special medal for national reconstruction at a ceremony attended by top politicians and dozens of children supported by her through fees paid by adoptive parents.
“When people ask me what I do, I don’t say adoptions,” she says. “I say humanitarian work.”
Whatever her label, Galindo is a pioneer in the field of international Cambodian adoptions, and is now likely the game’s biggest player. Since arriving in Cambodia in 1990, she has facilitated hundreds of adoptions, mostly to US parents. She was the facilitator this year for “Tomb Raider” star Angelina Jolie and her husband, Billy Bob Thornton. Two of her former drivers have founded their own orphanages.
But there could be another side to Galindo. She has been directly accused of baby-buying, and so has one of the orphanages which she uses and supports. Hounded by the media in the past, Galindo agreed to talk with a visitor to present herself as a benefactor, a scrupulous operator and reformer of the system.
“I didn’t come here to steal children of the nation,” she says. “I came here to do what I could to help.”
Galindo had already been an international adoption facilitator for several years when she accompanied Haing Ngor, the actor who played Dith Pran in the movie “The Killing Fields,” and a family friend, to Cambodia in 1990. The two accompanied top CPP official Chea Sim by helicopter to a site where the government had asked Haing Ngor to build a school.
The Cambodian leaders made a good impression on Galindo, and she has had friends in high places ever since. She describes Chea Sim as “like a father to me” and counts Sar Kheng and Bun Rany as friends. She notes that Chea Sim, Hun Sen and several ministers are all adoptive parents.
“I really felt like the leaders cared about their people and make themselves very available,” she said. “They wanted to know how they could help orphans.”
Galindo was moved by Cambodia’s predicament, and in particular the numbers of children orphaned since the Pol Pot regime. She took an apartment in Phnom Penh and began to compose the country’s first adoptions forms, including registration forms, release letters and certifications of orphan status.
As her adoption work grew, so did the number of services she supported through donations. She pays most of the expenses of five orphanages in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Sihanoukville and Kompong Speu. She recently built two schools by donating the construction money to a top politician.
For six years, dentists have traveled through the country examining children at her expense, 500 of them in the last year alone. She has funded literacy programs, justice programs, bought clothing and medicine. Last year, she says, she gave $600,000 to children’s causes, including $38,000 to Tibetan orphans—all of it donated by adoptive parents.
Many of the children she supports are not orphans, or are orphans who may never be adopted, she says. “My happiest day will be when there are no orphans, and children are reabsorbed into society,” she says.
The typical adoptive parent comes to Galindo through her sister, Lynn Devin, who runs the US adoption agency Seattle International Adoptions. Devin, a social worker, screens the parents for suitability, and Galindo chooses a child depending on availability and the parents’ desires.
The parents pay on a sliding scale depending on their income, she says; but her typical fee is $9,000. Of that, $3,500 goes for donations, including $400 directly to the orphanage for each child. Adoptive parents pay for their new child’s care, while donations pay salaries and expenses.
The other $5,500 goes for processing—this in a country with no formal adoption fee. Galindo is frank about the need to pay bribes, though she prefers to use a different term. “It’s okay to give tips. It’s fine because these guys can’t live on their salaries…I’m really happy to share the wealth.”
This job she delegates to her Cambodian staff, who do the processing for her. She claims the payments never get her special treatment. “I’ve never felt like, ‘it’s pay or else.’”
For whatever reason, however, Galindo gets results fast. US parents have flocked to Cambodia because, compared to other countries, fees are relatively low and adoptions can be processed quickly. To those who believe facilitators corrupt the system with their high fees, she points to the French, who are forbidden from using facilitators but must sometimes spend months in Cambodia finding a child and completing the process.
“There’s about 57 steps and it’s not a picnic,” she says. “It’s better to have someone in your corner who knows the ropes.”
Galindo says baby-trafficking did not become a problem here until about 1999, as political violence ended and the pace of international adoptions increased.
She suggests that several of her competitors are involved in the illegal trafficking of children, including one man, Sea Visoth, who used to be a driver for her. Sea Visoth’s Khmer American Orphanage Association has been associated with traffickers who are still awaiting trial. Sea Visoth denies the charges, contending many mothers bring children to his orphanage through a “neighbor.”
Despite spending over a decade in the country, Galindo can neither read nor speak Khmer and claims all her evidence of trafficking is circumstantial. But she says she has taken indirect efforts to prevent trafficking based on an understanding of Cambodian culture.
Cambodian dowry dictates that the groom move in with the bride’s family, making girls more valuable to parents in the long run. So the majority of abandoned children here are boys.
But most US parents prefer girls. (Nobody knows exactly why; perhaps they’re seen as cute or docile, or perhaps it’s what Galindo calls “The China Syndrome”—a reflection of the fact that most US residents believe that it’s Asian girls who need rescuing, because the Chinese are more likely to abandon girls.)
So it’s suspicious when a Cambodian orphanage has a majority of girls, as some do. Galindo claims that she does not “place orders” for children, but chooses from children who are already available. And she does not let childless adoptive parents choose the gender of their child: “My policy is, no children, no choice.”
Indeed, a visit to the Women and Orphans Vocational Association, where she pays salaries and expenses , shows that most of the orphans are boys. There is also a child with Downs Syndrome and two with HIV—children who are unlikely to be adopted. (WOV, however, has not escaped trafficking accusations in past years, as described later.)
Galindo claims to be a reformer. She asserts that abandoned children are very rarely left by the side of the road, or at the doorway of an orphanage; usually it is easy to establish whether a child is truly abandoned. As allegations of trafficking increased last fall, Galindo sent out her own investigators to check on her own cases.
They have discovered that some parents or relinquishing relatives have lied about the circumstances of abandonment, but not that babies have been bought or stolen, she said.
Devin, Galindo’s sister, has formulated detailed adoption reforms proposing a central registry for children being adopted from Cambodia. Adoption fees would be standardized. Facilitators would not be allowed to run their own orphanages, reducing the opportunities to acquire children “for order.”
And perhaps most importantly, most orphans would be randomly assigned to homes, drastically reducing the profit potential. Galindo said she has discussed her suggested “Safe Children’s Act” with Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Ith Sam Heng and other high officials.
While applauding the intent behind the US effort to investigate baby-trafficking, Galindo says the visa suspension left 114 of her families in the lurch. She contends that families with representatives in the US Congress who are more aggressive have been more likely to have their visas cleared earlier. None of her children slated for adoption have been denied visas so far, she said.
US officials say they are working with the Cambodian government to put in reforms that would allow adoptions to recommence. Galindo says it couldn’t be too soon. “When I give donations now, I say I don’t know whether this will be the last time.”
Galindo again mentions her friendships with leaders like Chea Sim. Few expatriates are as complimentary about the government as she is.
“I’m a pollyanna,” she said, referring to a colloquial US description of a woman who sees only the good in everything. “That’s how I got by here for these 12 years.”
One day in 1997, Meas Bopha says, she returned from errands to discover that the three infants she had recently adopted had disappeared. A nanny told her that a white woman had taken them away.
A few panicked minutes later, the woman reappeared with the infants, who she had just taken for HIV tests, a precursor to adoption.
It was Lauryn Galindo, Meas Bopha said.
“She told me that maybe she didn’t think I could support them,” said Meas Bopha, who now runs a Phnom Penh guesthouse. “She said she could help me find a home for the children. She showed me pictures of Cambodian children who were living in Hawaii.”
When Meas Bopha demurred, the woman made her offer. “[Galindo] said, ‘If I find a good home for the children, you can keep $700.’”
Meas Bopha denied the offer, but an impoverished next-door neighbor gave up a child that day for $100, she said. The woman, said to be living in Pailin, could not be reached.
It was a turbulent time in Cambodia, with factional fighting intensifying and foreigners fleeing the city. Days after then co-Prime Minister Hun Sen unseated his partner, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, a story in the US newspaper the Seattle Times appeared about Galindo’s “dramatic and moving” escape from the country on a charter flight with 19 orphans in tow. The adoptive families waited in a Bangkok hotel.
The Meas Bopha incident is the only publicly-known case to implicate Galindo directly, but it is not the first time Galindo has been associated with trafficking.
In cases uncovered by Licadho in 2000, mothers claimed that they had sold children to recruiters from WOV in Phnom Penh. Galindo takes WOV children and pays virtually all the orphanage’s expenses, including salaries.
“They were the first to get in trouble,” said Licadho Deputy Director Naly Pilorge of WOV.
In one case, a mother was promised that the adoptive family would send back money, but they never did; in another a mother claimed she never gave permission to send her child to the US; in a third the orphanage initially refused to return a baby after a mother changed her mind.
WOV Director Chhim Naly denies offering anything to abandoning relatives more than a token donation of rice and travel expenses. Earlier this month she proudly toured a visitor through a free daycare at the orphanage where neighborhood families could keep their children while they go to work. Such programs make it easier for parents to keep their children rather than having to abandon them, Galindo says.
Galindo denies all the accusations. The cases at the orphanage she attributed to misunderstandings or attempts at extortion by the birth mother. The Meas Bopha case, however, elicited a more vehement reaction—perhaps because it implicates her directly, or perhaps because Meas Bopha has already spoken about her to CNN and The New York Times.
It was a hot day, and Galindo invited a reporter to talk in her black, air-conditioned Mercedes. There were little squares of Oriental rug in the backseat footwells. A white Toyota Camry, full of what appeared to be bodyguards, waited across the street.
Galindo was obviously upset at the prospect of having her reputation injured, though she was not at all angry or threatening. She said Meas Bopha’s estranged husband, a US