laing kout, Kompong Cham province – When Chea Kim learned that an orphanage catering to international adoptions was looking for newborns—and would pay up to $100 for each baby she brought in—she gave up her own 3-day-old daughter.
Soon she started bringing other people’s babies—18 in total—claiming they had been abandoned and that their parents were unknown.
Others in Laing Kout village, most of whom earn less than $1 a day as contract laborers in rice and bean fields, recognized a good business opportunity when they saw one and also started bringing infants to the WOVA Cham Chao orphanage just outside Phnom Penh.
It was one of several used by the scandal-plagued Seattle International Adoptions, which placed at least 700 children in US homes.
Following a US investigation, SIA’s doors were shut last year and its director, Lynn Devin, 50, and her sister, Lauryn Galindo, 52, indicted on charges of conspiring to commit visa fraud.
Among the charges they faced were falsifying documents to make it look as if babies with parents were orphans, swapping at least one sick child with a healthy one in the middle of adoption procedures, and using the names of dead infants for the living.
Although illegal baby sales may have slowed since the US, France, the Netherlands and several other countries started suspending international adoptions from Cambodia two years ago—with complaints coming to a near standstill—the practice persists in poverty-stricken villages like Laing Kout.
WOVA Cham Chao stopped accepting babies, but another orphanage opened in nearby Kandal province’s Kien Svay district, allegedly run by a former employee, villagers from Laing Kout said.
Nop Phat, a farmer, who has delivered five babies to the orphanage, rattles off the names of pregnant women in and around the village.
He knows who is willing to sell a baby, and who is not. He had high hopes for Soum Savy, who had twins two months ago, but she changed her mind.
“At first I was going to give them away, because I was sick and had no milk,” said Soum Savy, 40, emerging from a wooden house with the babies, one weighing just 1.8 kg, his skeletal legs badly deformed.
“Now that I’m feeling better, I want to keep them,” said Soum Savy, who has seven other children and no idea how she and her husband will feed them.
Thirty-five-year old Chea Kim was disappointed by the news.
She first got involved in the baby trade five years ago, and has been especially hard hit by the US’ December 2001 suspension on international adoptions from Cambodia.
Many of the women who gave up their newborns were too poor to raise them—receiving as little as $20 for each child from intermediaries like Chea Kim. Some did so after being left by their husbands, out of spite or desperation, or in hope that adoptive parents, or the children, would send back money in years to come.
Though it is impossible to say how widespread the problem is, even King Norodom Sihanouk has expressed concern, describing the adoption issue as “a complex but very sad one for me.”
“Extreme poverty among a large number of our people…has pushed a non-negligible number of parents to sell their children to rich foreigners,” he wrote recently on his Web site.
Though some go to loving homes in the US and Europe, and are given education, “we are losing our dignity if we sell children.”
Cambodia has no long tradition of civil society and stories about selling children are not uncommon—whether for adoption, prostitution, or domestic service.
Decades of war have destroyed the social fabric, said Dr Sotheara Chhim, deputy director of Transcultural Psycho-social Organization.
Little has been done in recent years to rebuild institutions that traditionally foster a sense of community or build values and trust.
“[During the Khmer Rouge regime] we were not even allowed to cry if someone in our family died,” said Sotheara Chhim. “Without the tragedy all of us have experienced, people would have a broader way of thinking. They might still be poor, but I don’t think mothers would resort so quickly to selling their children.”
In Laing Kout, a Khmer Rouge stronghold during their bloody reign and today a hotbed for crime, most women gave up their children voluntarily.
But they miss their children and want to know if their babies are really better off. Many long for letters or photographs that never arrive.
Some mothers, however, say they did not realize they would never see their children again.
Main Dim, 40, was divorced with five children when she became pregnant again by a man from Laing Kout who later abandoned her. Angry and worried that she would not be able to care for another child, Main Dim agreed to give Chea Kim her month-old boy for $50.
But she thought that he was being taken to a center, and that she would get him back when she was on her feet again.
“He was crying when I let him go. So was I,” she said. “I think about him every day.”
Still, she is seen as “the lucky one” in Laing Kout and serves as inspiration to the rest.
Unlike others, she gets about $100 a year from the US family and has received dozens of pictures: The boy bundled in ski clothes, in a bath with his blond-haired sister and another Cambodian brother, eating breakfast in front of the TV.
And the US family promised her that when the boy was 18, he would come to Cambodia for a visit.
“I still miss him, but when I see the pictures I’m happy, because he does have a better life than any I could give him,” she said, showing off a radio given to her by the boy’s new family. “If they offered to give him back, of course, I want that. But at least I know he’s being taken care of.”
Sou Soam, 64, hopes that’s true for her grandson, too, but she has no way of knowing. She sold the day-old boy for $40 after her 43-year-old daughter died in child birth seven years ago.
“I just want to see how he’s grown, what he looks like,” said Sou Soam, who said she was left with no choice but to give up the boy. “I had no money and five other grandchildren to care for.”
Cambodian law limits adoptions to abandonment or the death of a child’s parents. To get around this, adoption agencies and facilitators have claimed children were abandoned with birth mothers unknown.
There are plenty of other loopholes in the system, and the UN Children’s Fund has been working with the government to draft a new adoption law.
Many Cambodian parents think they were doing the right thing, and in some cases maybe they were.
Run Chenda, sold by her mother into prostitution when she was 9 for $80, says children who were sold to rich foreigners are the lucky ones.
“If I could trade places with any of them, I would,” she said.
Now 16, Run Chenda spent five years in a brothel in Phnom Penh, then managed to escape. When she didn’t do as she was told, she was beaten with a belt. Other times, her genitals were squeezed with pliers, she says, tears dripping down her cheek.
Devin, of Mercer Island, Washington, pleaded guilty to visa fraud and conspiracy to launder money. She faces sentencing on Friday.
Galindo, of Hanalei, Hawaii, pleaded innocent and is scheduled to go to trial in June.
Neither they nor their lawyers would comment for this story. But supporters say the sisters were motivated by a desire to help those in need and to place them in good homes.
“The most important thing is to save these children from a lifetime of misery and poverty—if that means inventing or doctoring paper work to speed the adoption process so be it,” said a US woman who adopted a baby through the agency in 2002.
Critics, however, point out that while birth parents got as little as $20, the families who adopted the children paid up to $11,500—at least half of which went to SIA.
(McDowell is a contributing editor to The Cambodia Daily and a staff writer for The Associated Press)