Chosing An Agency|Ethics

Umbrellaing – an Overview

Have you heard the term umbrellaing used in relation to International Adoption? The term is used to loosely define any agency that does not, themselves, hold a license to conduct adoptions in a foreign country but, instead, works with a licensed agency in order to gain access to a credible license.

The word umbrellaing is an invented term of convenience; you won’t find it in the dictionary. As such, it also goes by many other terms and slight variations of definition. You will hear it being called “partnering”,  “inter-agency agreement”, “affiliation” or a host of other terms which generally all refer to the same practice. This can make researching and understanding the issue difficult. Being familiar with these terms and understanding what they really mean will help parents to thoroughly research their agency choices.

Some international adoption programs allow umbrellaing. However, Vietnam is not one of those programs. In fact, Vietnam is quite clear that they will only do business with agencies who are licensed “Adoption Service Providers” (ASPs).

From the US Department of State website (emphasis mine):

On June 21, 2005, the United States and Vietnam signed a bilateral agreement that laid the groundwork for intercountry adoptions between the two countries to recommence after a two-and-a-half-year hiatus. The agreement entered into force on September 1, 2005, and on January 25, 2006, the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi issued the first orphan immigrant visa to a Vietnamese child adopted by an American family under the agreement framework. As part of its implementation of the new agreement, the Government of Vietnam is requiring all U.S. adoption service providers (ASPs) desiring to operate in Vietnam to be licensed by the Vietnamese Ministry of Justice’s Department of International Adoptions (DIA). The DIA has indicated that, with extremely rare exceptions, it will accept adoption applications (“dossiers”) ONLY through ASPs that have received such licenses. Prospective adoptive parents considering adopting from Vietnam should consult the adoption page of the web site of the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi,, where the Embassy is posting the names of American ASPs that have received DIA licenses.

This is reiterated on the US Embassy’s website .

Why is this against the Bilateral Agreement?

Many believe there are already too many licensed agencies in Vietnam and there has been word that there will be a cap on how many agencies will be allowed to receive a license. The reason for this is simple: oversight. The more agencies there are, the more competition for orphans, the more oversight is required by both governments and the more likelihood and incentive for corruption to occur. 

For these same reasons, Vietnam does not want agencies to share their hard-earned licenses. This was one of a few major changes implemented after the recent moratorium on adoptions in Vietnam. Vietnam has experienced first hand the corruption that can occur when agencies are allowed to umbrella. They want to oversee the agencies working within their country and to ensure that each agency has met the very strict criteria and humanitarian aid requirements set forth by Vietnam. When an agency starts allowing unlicensed agencies to piggyback on their efforts, Vietnam loses a certain level of oversight and control in the process.  

Furthermore, there is the problem of the old telephone game. When a licensed agency plays middleman between Vietnam and unlicensed agencies, it is the breeding ground for all sorts of misunderstandings, miscommunication and abuses of the system. Legal questions about who is responsible should something go wrong – the licensed or unlicensed agency – are difficult to answer.

Transparency in adoptions is the goal of any ethical program. The more transparent the program, the less risk of corruption and unethical behavior. Umbrellaing encourages a lack of transparency. It adds another layer that need not and should not exist.   

Why do parents chose to use unlicensed agencies? 

I have been asking this question for a long time and generally speaking the answers seem to be pretty much the same. Usually the family has switched from another country program within their agency and does not want to also switch agencies so they stick with their unlicensed agency because it is easier and cheaper.

Another reason is that the unlicensed agency is local to them and they feel more comfortable using a local agency.

Another common reason is that their unlicensed agency facilitated a past adoption for them and they want to stick with “what they know”.

Probably the number one most common reason is ignorance. People don’t do their research, they don’t even realize the Embassy keeps a list of licensed agencies or that Vietnam requires every parent to use one of these agencies. 

Why do parents use agencies that are licensed but allow others to partner with them? 

Most parents who work with agencies like this and know enough to ask about the relationships with other agencies are often pacified by the explanations the agency gives as to why this is favorable, ethical and even “normal” or “common”.

But, by and large, most parents are unaware of the relationships their agencies have with other unlicensed agencies. Sometimes, when they find out, they are too invested in the process to change. Some believe that they are safe since their agency is licensed, regardless of their agency’s relationships with unlicensed agencies.  

Why shouldn’t parents chose an agency who is unlicensed? 

It is expressly against the law to adopt in Vietnam without contracting an Adoption Service Provider that is licensed in Vietnam. Without a licensed service provider to back up your adoption, you will not be able to receive a Giving & Receiving date. And it is extremely likely that you would never be granted an entry visa into the US for your newly adopted child if you even made it that far. This should be enough of a reason.

If it isn’t enough, also consider that you will be at the tail end of the old telephone game. Information that you ordinarily would have a possibly difficult time collecting will now be even more difficult as it will have to go through an additional party – the licensed agency – before reaching you. From conversations I’ve had with parents who have used unlicensed agencies, it is common to get extremely outdated information, completely bogus information or no information at all because of the route that information has to take to get to you.

Also consider whether your agency will be there for the long haul, what is their commitment to Vietnam Adoptions? I was in communication with one umbrellaing agency a year ago who has since completely disappeared! What happened to all of their families, waiting and completed? Who will submit commitment reports for years to come to Vietnam as required by law? With the license comes a firm commitment. It doesn’t ensure ethics but it is a step in the right direction. There is nothing to commit an unlicensed agency to Vietnam.

The adoption process is complicated enough without putting an unnecessary extra party in the middle. It can be difficult enough to get correct and timely information without waiting for that information to be disseminated from Vietnam, to the licensed agency and then to the unlicensed partner and finally to the waiting families.  

Why shouldn’t parents chose an agency who chooses to allow other unlicensed agencies to use their license in Vietnam? 

Aside from being against the bilateral agreement, a parent will find it very challenging to find out exactly what the wait for referral is looking like with an agency that has parents waiting at partnered agencies all over the US. How are parents wait-listed in those situations? Do they all go on one master list? Do parents through partnerships get preferential placement on the wait lists for the licensed agency? And of course if the agency is willing to overlook this aspect of the bilateral agreement, what other areas are they choosing to overlook as well? There is also a remote possibility that the unlicensed agencies working under your agency’s license will get into legal trouble in the US or abroad which could have a serious negative impact on your own adoption. Choosing an agency that does not allow others to use their license is part of choosing an ethical agency.   

Why would a licensed agency work with an unlicensed agency?

The reasons vary and are merely speculation on my part. But a licensed agency, especially a small agency without a large advertising or marketing budget, might like the no-effort “networking” to draw in clients from markets that aren’t local to them. In this way, an adoption agency works as a multi-level marketing scheme – the unlicensed agency brings in the clients with the money and only at that point does the licensed agency have to pay out (in kickbacks or other incentives) to the unlicensed agency unlike traditional marketing efforts that require money up front and no guarantee of successful results.

Some legitimate agencies work with unlicensed agencies for homestudy services either because the agency doesn’t provide homestudy services themselves or because they wish to oversee the quality of the homestudies being offered in outside states where the agency does not have office locations. However in these situations, the agencies often offer families a choice from a list of approved homestudy agencies and these homestudy agencies do not pretend to have a licensed Vietnam program but rather a familiarity with the homestudy requirements of your state and the Vietnam program.

Why would an unlicensed agency work with a licensed agency?

Because licensing in Vietnam is a timely and expensive process. It requires a great deal of commitment to humanitarian aid, it requires employing a facilitator and staff in Vietnam that are well-versed in the laws and well-connected with experience in adoption.  This is something that many agencies won’t have the resources to accomplish. These agencies still want to offer a Vietnam program to their clients particularly as Vietnam increases in popularity as a program. It is possible that some agencies receive kick-backs from licensed agencies for the partnership. At least one partnering agency charges significantly more than it’s licensed partner in order to “facilitate” adoptions in a country they are not licensed to work in.   

What does “work with” really mean? 

What does it mean to work with another agency? After all, each of us who hires a homestudy agency separate from our adoption agency expects the two to work together, to communicate, share information and help to facilitate our adoption. So where exactly is the line? 

This is a highly debatable question that has gone round and round on every email list and message board relating to adoption ethics in Vietnam.  

If a parent signs a contract with an unlicensed agency where that unlicensed agency agrees to facilitate an adoption in Vietnam, this is definitely bad news.

If the parents sign two contracts which both state this same goal – one with the licensed and one with the unlicensed agency – this is still bad news. They are still contracted with one agency that can not perform its duties.

If the parents sign a contract with the unlicensed agency for homestudy services only, this is no big deal, so long as they are also signing a separate contract with an adoption agency. In this case, a parent should still ask why their homestudy agency only refers parents to one adoption agency and if they will still conduct your homestudy should you chose another adoption agency from the Embassy’s licensed list. If they resist, it is possible that they are motivated by financial incentives.

I would go so far as to say that any agency that is claiming on their website, in print or over the telephone to have a Vietnam Adoption Program, without openly admitting that they are unlicensed and that the program is through a licensed agency, is guilty of unethical umbrellaing even if that agency does not require parents to sign contracts and later has them sign directly with the licensed agency.

There is a level of dishonesty in an agency that is claiming to be and do something it is not capable of providing, even if they later follow the letter of the law. 

How do I avoid using an agency guilty of partnering in this way? 

It is so easy. First, never use an agency that is not on the Embassy’s list. Do not listen to their explanation, just walk away. Even if you are invested emotionally, financially, etc. Even if they make great claims and promises. Even if they claim they will have their own license any day now, turn and walk away.

Next, ask whatever agency you are considering whether or not they partner with other unlicensed agencies to provide referrals or services. Some will lie when directly confronted, some will justify and some will be honest and up front. Consider the answers, consider the source.

If you are still in doubt or have questions, ask on one of the many great message boards or email lists or check the list here of agency websites that claim to have unlicensed adoption programs or partnering agreements.  

Remember ethics begins and ends with us, the adoptive families, and knowledge is power.


I adopted my daughter from Phu Tho province, Vietnam in the fall of 2006. I have seen, first hand, the corruption that can and does routinely occur both within agencies and within the government and I have seen parents held at the mercy of the corruption. I have also seen beautiful, ethical adoptions occur and these adoptions have inspired me to actively promote a more thorough education and understanding of adopting with integrity in Vietnam and worldwide.


  1. THank you for addressing this issue. It seems that many PAPs are unaware of the risks of using an agency that is not licensed.

  2. As usual, awesome and very informative post Nicki. You obviously did a ton of research to put this together, and I hope many PAP’s read this and increase their understanding of how to choose an ethical agency!

  3. Hi- I find your site incredibly useful. I have a question and I hope you can address it: Time between acceptance of referral and travel. Our agency has informed us that we should expect a 4-5 month wait between accepting and travel. I see other agencies whose time is sometimes as little as 6 weeks. Can you please explain why such a difference? Thanks.

  4. Just thought you might find this interesting- and may want to look into adding them to your list.

    Spence-Chapin, an agency in NYC that was recommended to us a couple years ago (when we thought we would adopt from China, before the VN programs opened up again), recently sent us a pamphlet advertising (for lack of a better word) their Vietnam program.

    Here are some excerpts from their web site:

    Spence-Chapin is pleased to announce that we are accepting applications for our adoption program in Vietnam. This program, offered in partnership with Adoptions Together in Maryland, is open to single men and women, and to married couples with no more than a 45-year-age difference from the youngest parent and the child they are seeking to adopt.

    In 2007, Spence-Chapin entered into a collaborative agreement with Adoptions Together to assist families living in the NY/NJ area to adopt children from Vietnam. Through this collaboration, Spence-Chapin and Adoptions Together will work closely with families to fully complete all aspects of the adoption process from Vietnam.

    There, of course, is much more on the site itself:

    Just thought you might want to check this out to add to the umbrellaing list.

  5. Great post. And I know this would be helpful to those PAP’s who have not yet chosen and agency. Unfortunatly many Pap’s (myself included) to not wise up to the ethical issues surrounding adoption untill it is too late. I think a wonderful addition to this post (and many others) would be: What can you do if… you are working with an “umbrellaing” agency?
    A few thoughts…
    *Insist your agency function as all they are legally allowed, as your homestudy agency.
    *Insist on writing your checks to the agency with the license
    *Ask to have your adoption formally handed over to the agency with the license
    …I am sure there are more!

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