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What's still unclear, though, is just how many Americans want to adopt Vietnamese infants. So far, the demand is low. While Los Ninos has placed about 1,500 children from South America, Eastern Europe and China during its 15 years, their present waiting list for Vietnam has fewer than ten names, says Erichsen.
One reason for this may be that prospective parents don't yet know they can adopt from Vietnam. But the hesitation may also stem from memories of the Vietnam War. "Oh yes, yes," Erichsen says. "I know people here that thought I was nuts [for pursuing Vietnamese adoptions]. They'd ask me, 'What about the MIAs?'"
Yet Erichsen, a Quaker who opposed the war in Vietnam, feels he has compelling reasons to cultivate the recently opened nation. For Erichsen, it's a moral issue: the United States has an obligation to make its peace with Vietnam, and to assuage its poverty in whatever way possible. And at the Los Ninos offices, numerous photos of the Erichsens' three biological sons and three adopted South American children make it clear the couple believes sincerely in the ideal of international adoptions.
To be sure, there's some profit motive; even though Los Ninos is nonprofit, it needs to break even, and its salaries and resources presumably derive from the $4,000 agency fee each family pays for an adoption. But, says Nancy Gibbons of the Texas Department of Regulatory and Protective Services, no one could call international adoption an arena for high rollers. Although anyone who runs such an agency is required to have a master's degree, he or she will likely make the same, or less, as someone with a similar education in a different occupation, Gibbons says.
In fact, says Gibbons, foreign adoptions are usually cheaper than domestic ones: the roughly $12,000 a parent pays for a Vietnamese adoption is about half what a U.S. adoption would regularly cost. "We're talking about resources and business as if [the subjects] were not people, and that bothers me," Gibbons says. "But in many ways it's true. We're looking at a dwindling resource [in the United States]."
Especially given the increasing complexity of interracial adoptions, Caucasian parents, who do the majority of the adopting in the U.S., "are looking at places they wouldn't have dreamed of 30 years ago," Gibbons says.
To Houston attorney Anne McAdams-Pace, access to Vietnamese children came in the nick of time. McAdams-Pace was single in 1990 when she adopted a Peruvian toddler named Laura; four years after her 1991 marriage to Donald McAdams, she decided to adopt a second child. A tall, fair-skinned woman, McAdams-Pace always assumed she would adopt at least one Latino child ever since her own childhood in Venezuela.
But when it came to bringing a second child into the McAdams-Paces' high-ceilinged Bellaire home, the wait for a South American child proved daunting, stretching beyond a year. Then McAdams-Pace heard about the availability of Vietnamese children, and about how few parents were adopting the Vietnamese infants. She and her husband quickly switched their nationality preference, and six months later, in April 1995, McAdams was boarding a Hanoi-bound plane to meet her three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Phuong.
Today, marching through her new house in a mottled Dalmatian costume, Phuong looks sturdy and intelligent; it's hard to envision the state in which she arrived in Houston. But photos taken during the Vietnamese giving-and-receiving adoption cere- mony show a child blotched with boils and puffed up by parasites.
Phuong's condition was not rare in an international adoption, McAdams-Pace says, and while visits to pediatricians quickly cured the ailments, the cures had to come with minimal information about Phuong's medical history. This is what she knows: "Her papers said that she lived in an agricultural commune," McAdams-Pace says. "I take that to be a rice paddy. Her mother was dependent on her own parents, who were old and disabled .... Phuong sometimes plays at breast feeding, so I think she was breast-fed for a long time, then her mother ran out of food for her."
In retrospect, says McAdams-Pace, she wishes she'd received more information, that the Vietnamese orphanage staff had told her more, and that the Los Ninos translator hadn't had to help five other families at the same time he was helping her. Such paucity of information, says Gibbons, is one major drawback in adopting from countries such as Vietnam. It's also a typical complaint adoptive families level at agencies, including Los Ninos. "Any agency that's been operating for any period of time is probably going to have these complaints against it," Gibbons says. "There's always additional risk [in international adoptions]."
Recent U.S. regulations have tackled some of the worst problems, including the baby-selling that became notorious with Romanian infants. "What can happen in these foreign countries is, Westerners come over there and wave around $400 or $500, and that can be a year or two's livelihood for a peasant family," says IFS official Price. "[It's easy] to say, 'We can just pay you for that child.'" But beginning last September, the United States required that to be adopted, a foreign child had to be in the custody of the foreign country or an agency of that country. "I think," adds Price, "that's a direct response to the unethical passage of money from individuals, from Americans, to poor farmers in order to adopt babies."