Baby Boom

For parents seeking adoptive children, Vietnam may be the new frontier

Ever since the United States began edging toward normalizing relations with Vietnam, U.S. businesses have itched to work on deals there. By the time embassies were green lighted this July, executives from companies as diverse as Mobil Oil, Baker Performance Company and Anderson International had already lined up for their business trips. But they weren't the only ones: also eager for a chance to enter the formerly restricted Southeast Asia country was Houston-based Los Ninos International, one of America's largest international adoption outfits. The nonprofit Los Ninos needs what Vietnam has: eligible infants. And like many businesses now busily investing in Vietnam, Los Ninos is prepared to spend some money, if that's what it takes, to set their relations with Vietnam in motion.

At first, says Los Ninos director Heino Erichsen, the path to Vietnam appeared smooth. After he visited the country in February 1994, the Vietnamese government offered Erichsen a contract to build a $15,000 state-run orphanage. In return for this investment, Los Ninos would be allowed to conduct 25 Vietnamese adoptions annually. The idea, Erichsen explains, was that the orphanage would house any abandoned and orphaned children from the province it was in, and Los Ninos would draw from that pool to bring adoptable children to the U.S.

Depending on how you see it, the tradeoff can look like either extortion or common sense. After all, the Vietnamese might argue, why shouldn't an American company with money help a large number of Vietnamese orphans rather than just the few it wants for adoption purposes? But there is some question as to whether the money for the orphanages all goes where it should. And according to some international adoption experts, the orphanage clause is a Vietnamese innovation, one not a part of any other country's adoption program. While a spokesman for the Vietnamese embassy says that orphanages aren't mandatory, international adoption workers say that virtually every U.S. adoption agency operating in Vietnam has funded at least one. (So far, only about a half-dozen U.S. agencies, including one consortium, arrange foreign adoptions in Vietnam; altogether, they arranged 165 adoptions there in fiscal year 1994).

By the time Los Ninos' orphanage got built, the cost had escalated from the original $15,000 to $30,000. And instead of the compound the money was supposed to buy, the finished orphanage, Erichsen complains, consists of just one building, and that houses a single baby girl. So far, Los Ninos has completed only 12 Vietnamese adoptions, and Vietnamese officials are still asking for more money, says Erichsen. His previous thousands, he assumes, are mostly lining someone's pockets. Yet even though Los Ninos' orphanage appears to have been a debacle, Erichsen still believes that Vietnamese adoptions can flourish.

He may be right. Since the 1994 lifting of the trade embargo, which allowed Americans to travel freely there, adopting a child from Vietnam has gotten much easier. And some were even pioneering adoptions before then, despite the fact that prior to last year any foray by an adoption agency into Vietnam had to be approved, regulated and limited by the U.S. Commerce Department. In 1993, for example, a Houston adoption agency called Caring Choices, an agency much smaller than Los Ninos, began a Vietnamese adoption program with the help of International Family Services.

Houston-based IFS, which assists adoption agencies nationwide, paid $24,000 plus monthly expenses for an orphanage in northern Vietnam's Thai Binh province. In contrast to Erichsen, IFS managing director Richard Price calls his group "delighted" with the results, which include 33 adoptions in the past 18 months.

Meanwhile, Erichsen, a tall, blue-eyed German native who has been an American citizen since 1958, is scouring Vietnam for other prospects. Last year, in a goodwill gesture that was also a knowing business move, Los Ninos donated $10,000 to a large, thriving Danish orphanage in a Vietnamese province different from the one where Los Ninos' orphanage had been established. Now, for a sum that Erichsen guesses will be about double that of the first gift, the Danes may give Los Ninos access to their own Vietnamese orphans. All this goodwill, Erichsen says, has just about drained Los Ninos' financial reserves. But if Vietnam turns out to be as fertile a source of adoptable children as China -- a country from which Los Ninos has arranged 167 adoptions in the last three years -- Erichsen feels the investment would be worth it.

To some, the talk of countries as "sources" of infants sounds distasteful -- as if children could be traded for like wheat. But in the world of international adoptions, the simple truth is that there are more parents seeking children than children to be found, and for adoption agencies, finding nations with available babies is how they serve their clientele. Where someone else might see cultural or economic imperialism, those who partake in international adoptions see simply parents who want children, and infants who might otherwise grow up in orphanages or on the streets.

If the advantage for the child is a more comfortable life, the advantage to the prospective parent may be more lenient adoption guidelines. People who, due to age or marital status, may have trouble adopting in the U.S. often find other countries more willing to help them form a family.

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