Chosing An Agency|Ethics

Guest Commentary: Why are Vietnamese Adoptions so full of Corruption?

Written by Jena Miller, mom to 3, one brought home from Vietnam in April of 2007

Recently on a Yahoo Group that I belong to (and probably many of you do too) a question was posed about why “some” countries have so many problems with ethics and corruption. The questioner asked why, if there are thousands of children being raised in orphanages, is adoption not open to them. The examples given were Vietnam and India. While I have no experience with India, I do have some with Vietnam.

So why are Vietnamese adoptions so corrupt? They aren’t; at least not any more than any other adoptions. What I have found in my 2+ years of research is that there is absolutely no country free of corruption and major ethical concerns, including the United States; not Russia, not China, not Cambodia, not Ethiopia, not Guatemala, not Korea, and most certainly not Vietnam.

What then should we do, abandon our hopes and dreams of building our families through adoption? Throw our hands in the air and say, “Oh it is all hopeless, the world is an evil place.” I know that some PAP’s do just that, give up on adoption because it is all so dark and scary.

I don’t believe that giving up is the answer. Neither is ignoring the problem. I have heard many PAP’s state that they feel so powerless. I don’t believe that PAP’s are powerless at all. Indeed, PAP’s clearly have the most power in the adoption triad, and it is my belief that PAP’s, collectively, have far more power than agencies and even governments.

What would happen if we as PAP’s would choose only agency’s who first make every effort to make sure that the first family could care for their child through sponsorship programs and vocational training and subsidized day-care so that families could stay together? What would happen if we only chose agencies that first focused on domestic adoption and developing education and resources to help take away the stigma from adoption in Vietnam? What would happen if we chose agencies who told us the truth about the children that truly need to be adopted, that they have special needs-if only that most of the children that need to be adopted are not less than 12 months old. We would, truly, be the ones with the power to change how the system works.

The reality is that we as PAP’s can do all of those things, and some PAP’s, in fact, do all of those things. If all PAP’s would adhere to these standards then there would be absolutely no need for agencies that do not adhere to the highest ethical standards. I am not talking about “are they ethical enough?” I am talking about highest ethical standards.

When we brought our son home in April of this year, we stayed in a guest house located on the top floor of his orphanage in Saigon. By staying there for 2 days before his Giving and Receiving Ceremony we had the chance to freely walk around and observe the orphanage. We had a chance to visit with the 500+ children that were living and growing up there. Out of those 500+ children, 14 were healthy infants. 7 or 8 were healthy baby girls. The vast majority of the children in the orphanage were over the age of 3. Most of them have a physical, emotional or mental special needs as well as being older children.

When we asked why all these children were going to grow up in the orphanage, our agency’s Vietnam program director told us that Vietnamese officials and orphanage officials knew that this is not what adoptive parents were looking for. In fact, through her tears, she told us that she thought that they would never find a home for our son because of his special needs.

What I am talking about is a change in expectations on the part of PAP’s. I have found that in the world of adoption, in many people, there is a sense of entitlement. I, too, thought there were thousands of babies needing homes that were just waiting for me to adopt them. This is not the reality. There are far more prospective adoptive parents waiting for infants than there are infants available. We need to change our expectation from, “I want an infant because it is easier/less risky”, or “I want a girl to balance out my family”, to “I want another child in my family that needs a family”. If the case may be that there are a majority of girls that need families, like in China and that program works for our family, fantastic. If the case may be that there are thousand of infants waiting around to be adopted, great. But if that is not the case what then? Do we keep looking for a program that can give us what we want or do we change our expectations as the situation changes?

Call me naïve, but as I see it, when people continue to work with agencies who have employees or associates (in whatever capacity) who have been investigated for criminal activities and ordered by the government of the country they are working in to stop working in that country; when people continue to demand healthy baby girls (and boys) as young as possible; when people continue to work with agencies who have had a difficult time being licensed and had to pay for the licenses; when people continue to work with agencies who are umbrella-ing; when people continue to work with agencies who pay hospital workers to convince women in labor to give their babies up for adoption (and call these “hospital donations”); when people continue to work with agencies who require you to carry large amounts of cash for donations; that is what feeds corruption. On the flip side, if we stop using these agencies, we starve corruption. If you want to know if the agency you are using has done or is doing these things, ask them.

The reality is that corruption exists wherever people believe that if they have enough money (power), they can have whatever they want. Of all the people involved in adoption, (PAP’s, Adult adoptees, first parents AP’s) PAP’s have the most power over whether or not corruption continues. Corruption exists in every country where adoptions are taking place. But it does not have to.

What is my stake in all of this? My son. When he is a man and is able to look me in the eye and ask me for the truth, I want to be prepared to tell him the truth, all of it. I will tell him that there was controversy and corruption surrounding Vietnam adoptions (if he doesn’t already know). I will tell him that I did everything I could do to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we were meant to be a family, and that I did not steal or buy him from his first family, culture or country. I owe that to him.



  1. This is powerful, Jena. One of the things we (as a community) have been needing to address is the idea of what we want versus what is needed. Because we all have a stake in this system we do have to consider what is best, not just for ourselves, but for the Vietnam adoption system as a whole – for our children’s sake.

  2. Excellent essay, Jena, thank you. I would only add one more expectation that I’d love to see changed: from “I want an agency that will give me a referral as fast as possible” to “I want an agency that is as ethical as possible.” My pet peeve these days is the demand for fast referrals, with little regard for anything else about an agency (or a country).

  3. I really am not trying to be the supporter of unethical agencies here, but more a voice for PAPs who seem to get a beating when it comes to the whole ethical issue. HOW do you find these agencies? A great example of how hard this is comes from the web site CHEW…who would think the Great Wall of China is not an ethical agency? I know many people who have used them and who think they are the best and are doing second or third adoptions through them. So who do you believe-at what point does someones negative experience make an agency unethical?

    How do you find one of these ethical agences (I personally do not think every small agency is unethical) and whose opinion do you trust? I highly doubt you can call these unethical agencies and ask “do you bribe families to give up their babies” and they will say yes. I agree there are some things that would be verifiable (do they subsidize families to help them keep their children or do they have the daycare program you talked about). But no agency is going to admit to the unethical behaviour that is written about or speculated about on the boards (this one included)-how do PAPs TRULY know which ones those agencies are? The US Embassy will not tell you (I wrote to them 2x during my agency search when we adopted our son in April of this year). They wrote me back and said there was no “official” sanctions against any agency and to use one that is licenced (which would still include those that are unethical). I specifically asked about my agency (which I knew a lot of people did not like) and again I got back nothing negative from the Embassy. I called the DHS or whoever licences the agency in their state (I can’t remember exactly who now) and the lady actually laughed at me for questioning them. She said they had a very good reputation in their state and had been licensed for almost 30 years. So who-as a PAP- am I to believe? I did everything I could to check out my agency….do I believe the agency in their home state that oversees their adoption license and who is familiar with them…or do I believe the people who have not ever used the agency. MOST of the people on these boards are not experts, most (I believe) who speak out about certain agencies haven’t even completed their own adoption-so why should we believe what they say about any agency….they don’t know anymore than I do about an agency. My point to this is it’s not as easy as people make it out to be to use an “ethical” agency. We have to give PAPs credit for doing all they can because I think most are. And about the point of taking large sums of money into the country (we did not have to do this for my agency), but we carried $3000 for my China adoption (and I used Children’s Hope), so if I had been asked to hand carry money I personally would not have thought anything about it. I had done it before and it wasn’t a payoff to anyone. So people are coming from all different places in this quest to become parents. I see people all the time that speak out about unethical agencies but say “I know my agency isn’t one of them”, well unless you are using CHI, HOLT or one of the other MAJOR agencies (which constitute about 5 of the 40+ agencies licensed) I don’t know how you can KNOW that. None of us really know (even from the big agencies) what they are doing in-country. If they are greasing the wheels they certainly aren’t going to admit it to anyone.

    I think this was an excellent post (as was the one before it), but this issue is not as black and white as people are making it out to be.

    Here is an idea-why doesn’t someone make out a list of questions that an agency should have to answer YES or NO to-appropriately on every one- for them to be considered ethical (and that an unethical agency can not answer correctly). At least that way PAPs would have somewhere to start and wouldn’t have to feel so guilty about their agency choices. Lets give them something concrete to work with other than just “use an ethical agency”.


  4. Great post, Jena. I hope there is a way to disseminate this information to a wider audience…you’re preaching to the choir when it comes to my views! I totally agree that PAPs should ask which agencies are the most ethical, and not for the ones that *just* provide the fastest referrals. I would be happy to discuss my agency withe just about anyone through email. I think a lot of other PAPs would be willing to do the same, even if they were hesitant to share that info in a public forum.

  5. Actually Tracy,
    When it comes to the list idea, right after we got back from Vietnam this spring I came up with a list of 10 thing a PAP should ask angency to know if they are ethical or not. They are worded in a way so as to be discreet when they are asked(i.e not “do you bribe families to give up their babies?”)
    I posted this list here, on this site in May, and I linked to it in the article I just wrote, since it may have been missed, here is the link again:

    To answer the “how do you know if your agency is unethical?’ question, I think it is important to look at what the agency is doing well in the country it works in, not just what some agencies are doing wrong. The agency we used was small(only 7 children brought home to date).
    Here are some signs to me that this agency was ethical-
    1.The very fist conversation that I had with them I asked them about their track record in Vietnam. They had been in Vietnam operating as an agency since Operation Babylift. They have built schools, run sponsoship programs for children to stay in their first families and change the course of their families history by providing educations for children who would never be able to have them. They provide training for small business management as a part of one of their country programs. They provide vocational training for orphans who are aging out of the orphanages by providing sewing machines and training in this and other areas.
    2.When I asked about when/why the pulled their adoption program out of Vietnam, the answer was 1997. Well before most other agencies pulled out. THis is not to say that some agencies were able to continue to operate in ethical ways, but our agency, since they were small, were simply unable to continue to opereate ethically in the culture that surrounded adoptions at that time. They did not even want to be remotely connected with corruption by continuing to operate. At the same time all of their humanitaruian programs contued, the child sponsorship, the program sponsorship and they retained an office both in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City through the moratorium.
    3. They do not have facilitators or “baby finders”. They have full-time employees who run all of the country’s programs, not just an adoption program.
    4.They are primarily an education and humanitarin organization, with adoption operating as a small part of their organization. Adoptions are not their primary undertaking, they are seen as one part of a comprhensive plan to care for children world wide.
    They have continuing Education with concern for best practices monthly available for adoption workers, parents, and adult adoptees.
    5. They provide birth parent search/reunification services.
    6. They have a track record of working in/being committed to countries whether or not adoptions are open at that time.
    7. When it became clear that allowing parents to select gender contributed to corruption, they disallowed this practice for Vietnam.

    I am very happy to share documentation with anyone who would like to have it, and well as a more personal account of our experience, if anyone would like to email me.

  6. Jena,
    I e-mailed 2 agencies a list of your exact questions and here is what one wrote back (the other hasn’t responded yet)….so from an ethical agency standpoint where would this one fall from these answers (because this is what a PAP would have to go on if using your questions as a guideline). To me it looks good and bad considering what you had written after each of these questions on your original post. To me this is a perfect example of why this is not such a black and white issue. Anyone want to take a guess as to which agency this if from?

    1. Do you pay unpublished cash fees to the orphanage in any way (donation or otherwise)?

    2. Do you pay the hospitals in the area of the orphanage(s) you work with “humanitarian support” or any other kind of financial contribution?

    3. How old are the children at referral?

    Anywhere from 4 weeks to 12 months old.( this is for infants only) we also place older children.

    4. Was the agency active in Vietnam during the shutdown doing humanitarian work? What kind and how much?

    We worked in Vietnam during the entire moratorium and continued all the projects we already have agreements with. We continued to do about $150,000 each year in humanitarian aid.

    5. Does the agency permit adoption of 2 unrelated children at the same time?

    6. What is the agency’s position on keeping birth families intact? How do they work to provide for this?

    We do not work directly with the birth families. We are for family preservation but we are not involved with any programs currently.

    7. What is the agency’s position on Vietnamese domestic adoptions? How are they working toward this end?

    There is still a stigma against domestic adoptions. There are really no programs promoting this in Vietnam and the country is still a long way away from having an active domestic program. There are a few here and there but the country in general, still does not support domestic adoption.

    8. Does your agency “partner” or “umbrella” with another agency?

    9. Have any of their employees or anyone “helping” the agency ever been under investigation by the US or Vietnam ?

    Yes we received one NOID (Notice of Intention to Deny) from the US Embassy in 2000. We severed our relationship with this facilitator immediately. We have been actively working in Vietnam since 1998.

    10. Did you agency get their license on the first try, or did it take them several months, and several tries to get their license?
    First try

    P.S. when I wrote the agency I just said I was doing research on agencies and that I had gotten these questions from this board, so I think it’s OK to post the answers-I would think they would tell anyone the exact same thing.

  7. Before we asked questions we found via the list on this site months ago (thanks to Jena), we started with some simple ones:
    What have you done as an agency for Viet Nam?
    Who are your staff incountry (names, contact info, background)?
    What support do you lend the people of the province not related to adoption?
    Where exactly is our money going?

    2 agencies couldn’t answer, the one we finally chose could. And when we asked more detailed questions, we were satisfied with what they said. They also didn’t try and sell their services to us or fluff up the process, guarantee a ‘fast’ referral, etc. They also made it clear that if we specified gender we had to explain why (we are not specifying). What worked for us was to gather up as many questions for as many scenarios as possible and ask them, simple as that. The first thing we did was eliminate any agency that advertised ‘quick referral time’, and focused on what kind of people ran the agency and what their commitment is to Viet Nam.

  8. Kerry-
    Your additional questions are great! They sould be added especially to “my” list of questions! And I appreciate you comment on how 2 agencies could not answer these questions to your satisfaction, but the one you finally chose could. There is something to be said to adoption agecy that doesn’t “court” your “business”.

    Actually, to me the answers that the agency you contacted are very black and white to me. When I said to ask the quesions, what I meant was that the agency should have appropriate responses to ALL the questions in order for me to consider them. So the fact that the agency didn’t have appropriate responses to #3, #6,#7(there certainly ARE programs promoting adoptions within Vietnam) #9.
    That would be 4 out of 10 questions that have less than best responses, to me even 1 response that was less than the best would have been far too many.

    There are agencies operating in Vietnam that do all of this and more, so in my mind there is absolutely not reason to go with an agency who isn’t.

  9. I believe the best mark of an ethical agency is if they have an active family preservation program and also work to some degree to facilitate domestic adoptions. This, to me, largely takes away the financial incentive of servicing foreign adoptive parents. What a wonderful practice to actually try to reduce the number of children available for referral! If family preservation and domestic adoption are an agency’s top two priorities in dealing with needy children — with international adoption being the third and last resort — then they are likely in the “business” to help the children first. Keeping Vietnamese children with their first parents and helping to have them adopted within their birth country should be an agency’s top priority; that is, if they are truly trying to serve the kids, and not just adoptive parents.

    As far as the agency Tracy contacted trying to justify their program by saying domestic adoption is stigmatized and there are no good programs in place for that in Vietnam, that is bunk. They say that because they don’t do it and don’t want PAPs thinking they are bad for not doing it. Hey, if the country still has a long way to go in supporting domestic adoptions, as the agency states, then why isn’t the agency on the bandwagon to make the practice more common?

    Bottom line, agencies should be doing all they can in-country to keep the kids in-country. Unfortunately, very few agencies actually do this.

  10. Tracy,

    I hear what you’re saying; that it’s not super black and white. But I think there are lots of instances where people hear negative information about an agency they’re investigating–real negative information from people who have first-hand information–and they move foward anyway, perhaps because that agency is promising things they want gender-wise, or timeline-wise. As I’ve mentioned before, I personally have emailed dozens of people about a specific agency that I initially worked with, who lied to me about using as an in-country facilitator someone who has previously been investigated by INS. Many, if not most of those people (who I risked being honest with) proceeded to move foward with that agency, in part, I assume, because they promised quick referrals for infant girls. However, that promise–in fact, to me they promised a referral before my paperwork was done–was one of the major warning signs for me. Still, plenty of PAPs are ignoring those warning signs, as I see people posting their referrals from that agency all the time. That’s what’s disheartening.

  11. Jena,

    My comment about things not being so black and white did not refer to how that agency answered its questions (I agree they were very honest and upfront), but that choosing an ethical agency based on your questions is not a black and white issue. First of all, the above agency is ethical and I doubt one person would be able to refute that. So that being said, if this agency could not pass the stringent “ethical” standards that are being put forth I doubt many could. My main point with all of this is that it is hard to know exactly which agencies are supposedly ethical. PAPs get bashed so much for the choices they make and its things like this that make it a no win situation. If Children’s Hope Intl (the above agency I got these questions from) can not pass your guidelines then who do people turn to? Just because an agency is not supporting domestic adoption does not make it an unethical agency. Who are you (or me or anyone) to say that domestic adoption (or any other project) is a more worthy cause then whatever else they are putting their $150,000 towards. And does an agency that puts say $10,000 towards domestic adoption rank above an agency that spends $50,000 on developing programs within the community that benefit more than just orphans (I don’t know what their money goes toward, I am just using that as an example). I do think PAPs should be asking questions and not just going with the agency that can get them a child the fastest. And I do think that now any agency that said you could get a baby girl immediately would be suspect. But there are over 40 agencies to choose from and some may meet the needs of PAPs while others do not. Maybe one agency puts its money towards ensuring the health of the children; some people may feel that is what is important to them. That doesn’t make that agency worse than one that supports domestic adoption and it certainly does not make it unethical.

    I really believe the thinking needs to be changed on this whole subject. The Vietnam program has become so hostile towards PAPs and it’s making people defensive. Just because you personally do not LIKE an agency, does not mean it does not meet the needs of some PAPs. I have heard over and over “how many NOIDS does an agency have to get before it’s too many for people not use them, one is too many for me”. Well, are the people that have been saying that going to pull out of using CHI? Or did they (CHI) see a problem and react appropriately to it (at least it looks like that from the response they gave). To me that is the sign of an ethical agency- one that continued to use that facilitator and received more NOIDs would be something to look at. So maybe that can be part of the criteria for an ethical agency, how they responded when issues presented themselves that were not ideal.

    I’m not in any way saying this isn’t an important subject, but let’s not pit people against each other. First let’s recognize that there are many ethical agencies out there and probably only a few that are not. Lets define what makes an agency unethical (and I personally believe it should be something that is indisputable since UNETHICAL is a strong word to use)….or define what an ethical agency is, but if you are going to do that make sure the ethical agencies can pass the test because if they can not you loose credibility (IMO). You can’t have it all ways; you can’t make PAPs guess at which agencies are unethical and post questions that supposedly make up an ethical agency when most of the agencies can’t pass your test. People are being vilified right now and it’s just not fair. The same guidelines should be able to be applied to all agencies across the board. You can’t say “well, CHI didn’t answer the way I thought they would but they are ethical” and Agency X answered the same way but we think they are one of the unethical agencies. That isn’t fair to the agencies, the PAPs or the AP who have used those agencies.

    This debate is causing a lot of division within the Vietnam adoption community and I personally do not think people should be able to decide for others what is ethical or not based on personal opinion. If you want to decide for your own personal adoption and adhere whatever criteria you want then obviously that is your right, but it’s not anyone else’s right to impose their standards about which programs are the most worthy onto other PAPs and then criticize them for not following your moral code.

    I do believe there are agencies that are not operating in an ethical manner; I don’t think there could be this much smoke without there being fire somewhere. But I think so many people on this board have jumped on this band wagon and they refuse to step back and see that this is not an easy answer for anyone. I am not trying to give PAPs a way out and let them turn a blind eye to shady dealings, but this should be a community and a forum where you can come to get support and information, not hate mail and made to feel like you are a selfish horrible person for the choices you make.

    All agencies are not equal and it makes it hard to choose one since Vietnam does not have a standardized program as of yet. Why not recognize that this is not an easy decision, that (most) people are doing the best they can and that most of us do care about the children we are adopting and those left behind. Let’s give PAPs the benefit of the doubt and offer support and education and not condemnation for their choices. It may not change that PAPs choice of agency, but it may affect 10 more people reading and keep them from using an agency that really is potentially harming the system and not working in the best interest of the children.


  12. Tracy-
    I have absolutely no experience with CHI and could not begin to say if they are ethical or not. From my research they seem to be doing some things really well.

    I guess what I am saying is that, for me, I am not speaking for VVAI or Nicki or Chris or Rachel(or any other contributor, guest or not), I would not and did not use them. Like I said before, there are agencies doing all of the things I mentioned and more, so it makes no sense to me to use one that isn’t. If anyone would like to know which agencies, please, please email me(as one person already has).

    I really appreciate your perspective and all the effort you are putting into the comments here because it does help anyone reading this site to see all the different sides, I really do believe that is important.

    I think we can all agree that there are a few uber-ethical agencies operating in Vietnam, and a few extremely shady agencies, and there are obviously a whole bunch in the middle.

    I guess it is up to each individual and family if they want to settle for middle of the road or not.

  13. Tracy, you asked, “Lets define what makes an agency unethical (and I personally believe it should be something that is indisputable since UNETHICAL is a strong word to use)….”

    I agree that there is lots of grey area when it comes to criteria for what constitutes “unethical.” But some things are pretty cut and dried, and it’s not just limited to one or two agencies.

    As I’ve mentioned, I have personally emailed anyone who asked about the agency we started with about the fact that they lied to me about using an in-country facilitator who was investigated by INS. Many, if not most, of the people I took the risk and shared this first-hand (not hearsay) information with, went ahead and used them anyway. I’m sure it was tempting because they were promising fast referrals. (In fact, they offered me a referral even before my paperwork was done. Another huge red flag). Yet they continually are listed on other lists/groups as a “great agency.”

    Tracy, I understand that you’re trying to stop the negativity, the assaults against PAPs, and bring some sense into what can become a crazy conversation. But util this agency (referenced above) and others like it are having a hard time finding PAP clients, I think the real problem is PAPs not knowing or ignoring warning signs–not that they’re being needlessly beat up on.

    And unfortunately when you focus on the latter rather than the former, some PAPs find it easier to ignore red flags they might see (“Oh, I heard on that adoption integrity site that it’s really only a few agencies, so it can’t be mine.”)


  14. This post and the comments have given me so much to think about, and I don’t quite have my thoughts together, but wanted to comment while it was still fresh. I continue to be amazed by how ignorant I was going into this process, and the more I learn the more I realize I still don’t know! I think Jena’s list of questions is an excellent way to find out about what an agency’s priorities are. I do think that obviously the choices made based on those answers are very individual.
    Based on Tracy’s comment, for example, I don’t think I would rule out an agency that had 1 isolated NOID in 2000. I would try to find out more details about the situation, and I think that it is extremely rare, but possible, that an ethical agency could be issued a NOID. I would be interested in how they handled it and the support they provided to the family in question.
    Regarding support for family preservation, and for promoting adoption domestically, absolutely those are important. I would add support for orphans who will most likely not be adopted, such as those with special needs.
    My particular agency is new to Vietnam, so they do not have a history of humanitarian aid in the country. But I firmly believe that are committed to making a difference for the children and families in Vietnam, not just for the children who will be adopted. My family has already decided that we will support this agency’s efforts in these areas, and while it is a new program, I think that they can make a difference in the lives of the families and children in the provinces they work in. I know that as the program progresses there will be full accountability for funds raised and how they are distributed.
    I think there are agencies doing wonderful work in Vietnam, i.e. Holt and FTIA (E. at Looking for George linked to an FTIA program that sounds fantastic.) But I also believe there is room for new agencies without an established history to make a difference. The need is so great.
    I feel like you could get a 4 yr. degree in adoption and still barely scratch the surface, and I appreciate the effort to continue the discussion so I can keep learning!

  15. Jena – thanks so much for sharing this with all of us. We need more positive empowering voices! It isn’t hopeless, thanks for that poignant reminder.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *