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!


Ireland, ISS and Vietnam–“Curiouser and curiouser”

I had not been following the situation with the ISS report on Vietnamese adoptions until very recently. I simply cannot believe my eyes–Is the Irish government really accepting the voice of an organization that has long been relentlessly hostile towards intercountry adoption as the basis on which it will decide whether to allow adoption from Vietnam to continue?


This represent a glib, facile approach to the problem and a lack of understanding of the careers of at least one of the authors of the report. 

The role of Unicef in intercountry adoption also continues to astound me. There needs to be an outside, independent, impartial body to assess these matters in all their social complexity. I have long argued that Unicef, whatever their other good work in health and nutrition, forfeited its right to claim objectivity in international adoption. The definitive work on this role has yet to be written. Hopefully it soon will be! But in the meantime, could someone please tell the Irish government to do seek out a wider variety of opinions on this? What is really disturbing in children’s rights is that simply invoking “rights” provides the appearance of being Always Right–absolutely not the case here. Have there been problems in Vietnam’s adoption system? Of course! Is the world as presented by ISS and Nigel Cantwell? Absolutely not. THere is a long history of applying the same yardstick to every situation–adoptive parents relentlessly seeking healthy infants, communities ready to raise these children lovingly if only the big bad American agencies would stay out of things. I simply do not accept this simplistic view, and neither should the Irish government.

The Irish Government Posts WHAT Report As Authoritative??

The Irish government has posted on the website of the Ministry for Children a report on international adoptions from Vietnam, written and presented by the ISS–International Social Service based in Geneva–This report purports to be objective and independent!! Not only have I lived and worked in Ireland for many years; I know the context in which such a report would be received. I have also researched the work of the ISS and the ubiquitous Mr Nigel Cantwell (one of the authors) for many years–both the ISS and Mr. Cantwell have a long record of strident opposition to international adoption and should not in any way be seen as objective on the issue. (By way of comparison, look at the report on Ukrainian adoptions in which Mr Cantwell was a central figure, designed to impugn the motives of adoptive parents and essentially cast a pall over the adoption process–Do note the current grim situation of children in Ukrainian institutions….It is so sad that this report on Vietnamese adoption by ISS and Cantwell is receiving any credibility at all.)

The fact that the Irish government is using this report as objective evidence of anything is completely astonishing! It is also, in my view, completely irresponsible! Why doesn’t the Irish government carry out its own research?!

Here is the way the report opens–does it sound objective to you?? More anon on all this–

The level and nature of intercountry adoptions (ICA) from Viet Nam are essentially influenced by foreign demand. Thus, the availability of children who are “adoptable” abroad corresponds more to the existence of foreign prospective adopters than to the actual needs of “abandoned” and orphaned children. As a result, the overwhelming majority of adopted children are under 1 year of age, the age-group most sought by prospective adopters.  Since only a relatively small and ever-decreasing number of other “countries of origin” are currently making children of this age “adoptable” abroad, foreign actors have proved willing to accept conditions put in place by Viet Nam for processing these adoptions. There is also considerable pressure from abroad for Viet Nam to continue as a “source” of very young children.


The circumstances under which babies become “adoptable” are invariably unclear and disturbing. Declarations of so-called “abandonment”, which is notoriously difficult to investigate, are intriguingly frequent, but with unexplained “peaks” and “troughs”. Procedures for verifying the child’s status and, inter alia, for ensuring free and informed consent to adoption are inadequate and inconsistent. Decision-making on the availability of a child for ICA as opposed to a domestic solution (including return to the biological family) seems to take no account of the subsidiary nature of adoption abroad, with little or no effort being made to establish the child’s real need for the latter or to identify in-country care opportunities.


The ICA procedure is influenced by a remarkably unhealthy relationship that can exist between agencies and specific residential facilities. It involves compulsory and sizeable financial contributions by agencies in the form of “humanitarian aid” to facilities that they themselves have identified as potential “partners” in ICA. The question of “aid” generally seems to be given far more importance than ensuring that ICA is resorted to as an exceptional measure on a case-by-case basis. Agencies compete with each other to secure children and tend to expect that children will be “indicated” to them for ICA processing according to the amount of humanitarian aid provided. Agencies are subject to little or no monitoring, and neither they nor the residential facilities they work with have any incentive to address or notify problems, since the way the system presently functions is to the advantage of both.