Sad advice from unicef to Vietnam on orphaned and abandoned children

There are many aspects of child rights I like to think about and write on. I am not mono-focused on adoption. However, lack of permanency seems to me–in light of issues like child labor, sexual exploitation, street life, drug abuse and so forth–to be often at the root of other life-threatening problems for children. I first launched into the adoption debate with what I still think is an important article–Making Legal Regimes for Intercountry Adoption Reflect Human Rights Principles: Transforming the UNCRC with the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, 21:2 Boston University International Law Journal (2003). I argue many points in the article, but I make one overarching argument to the effect that as we work to reduce opportunities for corruption in ICA via Hague, there is no child rights- based reason for the international child welfare bodies to oppose it.

In a later article, I argue that the UNCRC’s Articles 20 and 21 are seriously flawed and grossly inadequate, and offer my own draft protocol to the UNCRC on social orphans. See The Missing Link: A Social Orphan Protocol to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1 Human Rights and Globalization Law Review 39 (Fall 2007/Spring 2008). That protocol I wrote would make clear to states that foster care should not be given priority over ICA. I am shocked to see the manner in which unicef continues to present its view, as if it is self-evident, that domestic foster care (not limited to kinship care!) is better for children than international adoption. I mean, please!!!

See the following paragraph from the MOLISA (Vietnam’s Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs)–UNICEF report of 2009 Creating a Protective environment for Children in Vietnam: An Assessment of Child Protection Laws and Policies, Especially Children in Special Circumstances in Vietnam (

On page 40, the report states that “With respect to inter-country adoption, both the CRC and the Hague Convention on Inter-Country Adoption state that inter-country adoption should be considered as an alternative only if the child cannot be placed in a foster or an adoptive family or cannot in any suitable manner be cared for in the child’s country of origin.”  The report uses the highly misleading phrase “foster or adoptive family” when referring to in-country alternatives, as if these were even remotely equivalent.


Does the global public understand the implications of what unicef is doing here? Could any sensible person argue that a child is better off in ordinary foster care simply because it is the home country, as opposed to international adoption? Foster care is only preferable to institutional care–not to ICA!! Measure it in any way you like–how can there be any other conclusion, unless based on ideology alone? If that is the unicef argument, let’s really have the argument. Let’s not hide behind the very ambiguous and very flawed provisions of the UNCRC relating to adoption. Also, Hague says that foster care is better than ICA, too????

Ironically, Hague has proven to be a means of restricting international adoption, not what it might have been–and as I argued way back in 2003–a means of greatly increasing it, where family reunification or domestic adoption are not available. The hierarchy should be family reunification where possible (and strong efforts should be made)–domestic adoption where possible–then ICA, based on Hague principles–not Hague obstructions!


Deconstructing UNICEF

The great work on the true nature of UNICEF is yet to be written. Feeding and providing medicines for children is the traditional and positive side of that work–the “child welfare policy” side is murky at best. Why exactly does UNICEF spend so much time and money trying to convince countries to pursue foster care? I cannot understand this and no one has ever explained it to me. UNICEF is clearly trying to get the UN generally to sign on to its efforts in this regard.

See this really troublesome speech delivered in Vietnam recently:

See these comments by a UNICEF representative:

In Viet Nam, the number of children in need of special protection has been on the increase. Recent data from MOLISA indicate that the total number of orphans, abandoned children without families is around 168,000, of which about 15,000 are children living in institutions.  
Ladies and gentlemen,

Children placed in formal residential care systems for longer periods than needed are at a greater risk of being exposed to abuse and neglect and will face greater problems after leaving the institution including stigma, isolation, lower education achievement, delinquency and homelessness.

It is universally recognized that keeping vulnerable children in supportive and well regulated family and community-based settings is the most conducive for holistic child development. It is with consideration for the best interest and rights of the child that the international community has called for a swift move away from institutionalization towards prioritizing the development of alternative family and community-based care options.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child recognizes both the child’s right to be cared for by his or her parents, while also setting out States Parties’ obligations to provide suitable alternative care where this is not possible, or not in the best interest of the child, including foster placement. 

Against this background the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children has been prepared and submitted to the General Assembly for adoption by the end of 2009. The guidelines set out desirable orientations for policy and practice with the intention of enhancing the protection and well-being of children deprived of parental care or who are at risk of being so. A copy of the guidelines is being distributed to all participants at this symposium and I would like to take this opportunity to strongly advocate for the endorsement and application of these guidelines in Viet Nam.


With the Government’s Decision #65 on Community-based Care for Children in Especially Difficult Circumstances, we have already witnessed an important shift in Viet Nam from institutional care to alternative solutions. This commitment to promote the development of family and community-based alternatives and protective strategies is a key step forward in building a more conducive system in the best interest of the child.
UNICEF is committed to work in partnership with the Government of Viet Nam, as well as national and international organizations to support the development and formalization of a foster care system in Viet Nam to better meet the holistic development needs of vulnerable children, and in doing so provide them with a better opportunity to reach their full potential and a successful transition into adulthood.

We also acknowledge Viet Nam’s proud history of strong and cohesive communities, as evidenced by the widespread practice of kinship and informal foster care, whereby a child is cared for by either extended family or unrelated community members.

However, formal foster care as recognized internationally does not exist yet in Viet Nam.

There is a strong need for the Government to formalize and regulate these types of alternative care arrangements in order for the Government to provide adequate support and monitoring of existing arrangements, increase access of vulnerable children to these arrangements, and ensure the well-being the child.

I would therefore like to emphasize the importance of this two-day symposium in generating greater awareness, a common understanding and a shared vision on the potential role and benefits of promoting foster care as one of the family-based alternative care option for orphans and other vulnerable children in Viet Nam. I do hope that through this symposium successful foster care and best practices from other countries will be reviewed, as well as relevant policy and regulatory frameworks to support the introduction of foster care in Viet Nam.

It sounds as if UNICEF cannot wait until foster care–“formal” foster care–is set up in Vietnam and elsewhere. So, foster care is a good thing? Even though such care in the US and Britain has been shown to be a dismal failure?

I do not get it. Why do we contribute to UNICEF only to have them use funds in this way? What is UNICEF trying to achieve? Yes, foster care is somewhat better than group living facilities–but is foster care a good way to raise children? I think not!!!

You can call the paid, stranger foster care system “family based” if you wish–but that does not make it so. What country has a system of foster care to deal with the needs of social orphans that can demonstrate positive long term outcomes for the foster children? Better than the orphanage? Yes, in most cases, of course. Is that the end of the story?