A sprite wrapped in pink blankets, 1-year-old Chiranan stood up in her crib at the government orphanage on Monivong Boulevard on a recent afternoon to survey her surroundings. Sprawled on blankets nearby were two infants, while two more stared back from the arms of women who work at the center caring for children before they leave for new homes. Chiranan was one of the lucky ones last September: a US couple was asking about her. They wanted to adopt. A first world life with a solid education and health care seemed within reach.
That changed when a US investigation of baby trafficking lead to the suspension of adoptions. The US couple stopped communicating with the orphanage, said the orphanage director. No one has called since, she said.
The French government, for its own reasons, suspended adoptions at about the same time, meaning that two of the most popular destinations for Cambodian orphans are now closed off.
The US suspension may not last long US officials say they want to resume legitimate adoptions soonÑbut for children like Chirnan, a few months can make all the difference.
As each month passes she becomes less likely to be the sort of baby couples would adopt. Mostly they want infants, the director of the center says.
“I am worried that the US suspension will reduce the number of parents coming to adopt children,” said Yuon Sovanna, director of the orphanage, also known as the Nutrition Center. “We need the foreigners to adopt these children because we cannot keep them all here.”
US officials say the adoption suspension should be temporary to avoid penalizing legitimate orphans for the actions of unscrupulous baby traffickers.
“As w’ve always known there are plenty of real orphans in this country, so adoptions are a good thing for everybody,” said US ambassador Kent Wiedemann. “Valid adoptions are in everyone’s interest,” he said, adding that a permanent ban on adoptions would be “inhumane.”
Last year, 51 children left the Nutrition Center with families: Eighteen went to Canada, 13 to France, 8 to the US, 1 to Singapore, 1 to Britain, and 10 were adopted locally.
A fifth of the center’s orphans are healthy, one-third of the center’s children are HIV positive while another third are disabled. The remaining children suffer from tuberculosis, liver problems, problems caused by food shortages before they came to the center, or conditions caused by inadequate care.
Many of the children were abandoned. One who arrived two months ago lost his mother when she died giving birth; another was left behind when his mother began a 15-year prison term.
The burden placed on the center is helped only slightly by Cambodia’s razor-thin budget for social services. A government fund provides $4 a month per child to pay for meals and 24-hour care, according to Yuon Sovanna. That translates into about $6,000 a year. A separate payroll fund covers the 74-member staff.
Some of the 127 children who live at the Monivong Boulevard orphanage 51 of them are girls are sponsored by foreigners or foreign institutions that send monthly checks to the center for food, medicine and clothing.
Foreign adoptions began in large number four or five years ago, according to Yuon Sovanna. Stories of problems within the center sometimes surface, and it’s not hard to find people in Phnom Penh who believe that some employees at the center may be involved in baby trafficking.
But a woman at the center recently to meet her adopted baby and take her to France said she suspected nothing.
She arrived in January, paid $200 to the Ministry of Social Affairs and $500 to the center to help pay for repairs to the building and medicine for the children.
“It’s the best,” she said of the orphanage. “It’s very clean. They smile a lot.” She said no evidence of trafficking has appeared and she was simply waiting for paperwork. Couples who have adopted say the process was delayed while they waited for signatures from four government bodies: the Council of Ministers and the Ministries of Interior, Foreign Affairs and Social Affairs. One adopting father who asked not to be identified said he was told to pay $300 for each of the four signatures to complete his adoption.
The French woman at the government center said she had not been asked to pay bribes. She said her government suspended adoptions for nearly two years before allowing them again in May of last year, only to suspend them again in December.
“We had to wait and wait,” said the woman. “So when adoptions were allowed a lot of people put forward their applications.”