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.

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."

Less clear are the cultural hurdles a Vietnamese child faces once part of an American family. So far, all the Los Ninos parents who have completed Vietnamese adoptions have been Caucasian. The McAdams-Paces say they plan to visit Vietnam and teach Phuong her birth-country's history. But they've given up notions of learning Vietnamese, and are still mulling how to introduce Phuong to Houston's Vietnamese population.

"I've been told that we have to decide what part of the country [she should identify with]," Donald McAdams says. "The point was that there are many groups of Vietnamese in Houston, all with different customs and holidays." Not to mention politics. So far, though, the family has received no negative response to their adoption. In fact, they've gotten little special notice at all from both Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese acquaintances. And once, says Anne McAdams-Pace, when she was carrying Phuong in Hanoi, an elderly man gave her a thumbs-up sign.

Meanwhile Phuong, who now knows English, still muses to herself in a mountain dialect unintelligible to her new family. By the time she's old enough to express emotions, her father thinks, Phuong may have forgotten her previous life altogether. She already navigates her new house as if born there. That's almost how it feels to Anne McAdams-Pace. Despite the unknowns of Phuong's health and history, she says, bringing Phuong up is like any parenting.

"You just basically," she says, "go on faith.

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