Child trafficking is a tragic and serious problem that faces the world’s most vulnerable children. The United States is now a major stage where trafficking occurs, in that children are abducted within our own borders, and children from other countries cross our borders as well. There should be no tolerance for stealing children or bribing mothers to relinquish custody of their children, whether for adoption or other false promises. Yet there should be zero tolerance of children being left in orphanages or mothers trying to raise their children with no financial or social support.
Naturally, every adoptive parent wants to ensure that their child is a legal orphan in need of parents, and not unlawfully placed for adoption. Nightlight takes every possible precaution to ensure that the only time “trafficking” and “adoption” occur in the same sentence is to say “ADOPTION PREVENTS TRAFFICKING.” Contrary to the message Kathryn Joyce sends in The Child Catchers, agencies like Nightlight are actually preventing child trafficking.
Adoption prevents trafficking. Every year hundreds of thousands of children disappear because they are trafficked, conscripted for military service, or enslaved. Many of these abductions could be prevented if these kids lived in families. UNICEF estimates that there are 140,000,000 orphans, and that as many as 90% of these are “street children” who neither live in institutions nor with parents. These street children are prime targets for trafficking. For them, even an orphanage would be better protection against abduction. But once children age-out of institutional care, the threat re-emerges. Many teens who are forced out of the orphanage find that they have no employable skills. The young men resort to crime, and the young women resort to prostitution. For these young street children, and for the institutionalized teens, the best way to prevent trafficking is to place them in a loving family. For this reason, adoption prevents trafficking.
Nightlight follows Hague procedures. The US Department of State must review every intercountry adoption case, and give the seal of approval that strict standards have been met to prevent trafficking. One important criterion is that children placed for adoption meet the narrow criteria as an orphan. In order for a child to qualify, a child must have no parents. This means that the parents are either deceased or have relinquished their parental rights or the court has terminated their rights. For parents to relinquish their rights specifically for adoption, it must be shown that the parent(s) were unable to care for the child according to the standards of their local community. Of particular concern is to make sure that the parent(s) were not given any “incentive” to relinquish their parental rights.
One significant effort to prevent trafficking provided by the Hague process is the establishment of a central authority. Parents receive the referral of their child from the central authority, rather than from a facilitator, orphanage, agency, or lawyer. Close in sync with this provision is a rule that parents cannot adopt a previously identified child. The reason for these two rules is to prevent an adoptive couple from meeting with a facilitator, choosing a child, buying that child, and then pursuing the adoption process. Instead, the central authority identifies children in need of adoption, and then gives these referrals to adoptive parents (through their approved agency).
Nightlight’s staff participates in ongoing education about the threat and identification of trafficking or other abuses related to adoption. If our staff have any suspicions about the in-country representatives we suspend these programs, investigate the concern, and if necessary replace these representatives. Nightlight’s staff also participates in regular training on Hague compliance. The safeguards against trafficking in the Hague process have implemented enough hurdles to intercountry adoption to ensure that criminals will find other means to traffic children.
The children available for adoption. When people speak of child-sale for the purpose of adoption, they conjure the image of a black market for kids. In this discussion, we must take a realistic look at the types of kids who would conceivably make up this black market, and the types of kids available for adoption. The black market for children (for the purpose of adoption) is healthy infants (under 1 year old). These children most likely match the ethnicity of their adoptive parents. I do not doubt that some Americans would be willing to pay thousands of dollars to purchase a healthy infant. For that reason, adoptions of healthy infants ought to be more carefully scrutinized because these infants are at greater risk of being bought and sold.
But what types of children are actually being adopted? The typical child available for intercountry adoption is somewhere between 3 and 15 years old, has special needs, and has been institutionalized for several years. The children at Nightlight’s Uganda orphanage, for instance, are all older than 2 years. Some are HIV positive, one is blind, and others have an older sibling who must also be adopted. Some are healthy and relatively young, but nevertheless have been abandoned and were brought to the orphanage by the police. Despite every effort to locate their parents or an in-country adoptive family, these children linger in institutional care. When I hear critics of intercountry adoption speak about the black market, I sense that we live in non-intersecting universes. How could someone possibly think there is a nefarious market for these children? Nightlight does not attract parents who want to buy these children; we have the privilege of attracting parents who have a special calling to make a difference in the lives of these kids who would otherwise remain institutionalized until they are forced out of care.
When I hear critics speak about the facilitator who went into a village to purchase an infant from a mother for $50, I wonder, “Where are these kids? Who is adopting them? And which agency is placing these kids?” The statistics tell a very different story. Adoption agencies are placing older children with special needs, from orphanages, in sibling groups.
That is not to say that the placement of healthy infants constitutes trafficking. Placement of abandoned and abused children as infants is more ethically responsible than institutionalizing them. The emotional and behavioral problems that children face escalate with each passing month in an orphanage, so failure to place young children in adoptive homes results in other ethical issues beyond trafficking.
The definition of Trafficking. The media and politicians have lost sight of an important difference between trafficking and corruption, which has unfortunately drawn attention to the wrong problem. According to the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, the definition of trafficking is, “The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or giving or receiving payments or benefits to a person in control of the victim, or the purpose of exploitation.” Further, the definition of exploitation is, “The prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.” The US State Department has a simple chart that unites this definition with Process, Means, and Goal. In other words, trafficking must include a person who transfers a child by use of force with the intent to harm. Adoptive parents do not intend harm. Nor do the social workers, nor the judges, nor the adoption attorneys, nor the orphanage directors, nor the adoption agencies, nor the biological parents. So trafficking is an inappropriate term to use in relation to critique of intercountry adoption. A more pertinent phrase to describe the actual problem that parties involved in adoption want to prevent is “child sale.” There is a distinct difference, and focusing on the correct phrase will help solve the correct problem. It is not surprising that the terminology of trafficking in connection with adoption is pushed by those opposing intercountry adoption.
The “straw man” argument. In China it is estimated that 20,000 children are trafficked each year. Yet only about 3000 children are adopted internationally from China each year. Obviously, child traffickers are not bothering to go through the adoption process to get custody of these kids…they just take them. There are not more than a handful of substantiated cases where a child was legally adopted by adoptive parents who intended to traffic that child. The very notion is outlandish to think that a nefarious person would go through the expensive, time-consuming, and difficult legal process in order to commit a crime.
The world’s most vulnerable children have been in crisis for a long time, with the threat of unsafe water, insufficient nutrition, and the lack of parents due to disease and warfare. Now we are in the midst of an unprecedented additional crisis with trafficking. Instead of focusing media and political scrutiny on the adoption, efforts should center on the solution to trafficking that adoption provides. Nightlight cannot end the crisis of child trafficking for the world, but we can end the threat one child at a time by removing them from harm’s way, and placing them in a loving home.
Daniel Nehrbass, Ph.D.
President, Nightlight Christian Adoptions