U.S. Still Suspects Fraud In Nepalese Orphanages

May 10, 2011

Last August, the U.S. government suspended adoptions from Nepal because it was concerned about fraud in Nepal's adoption system. The suspension left dozens of American families in limbo.

After months of investigations almost all of those American families have been granted visas for their adopted Nepali children.

But there's still concern about whether many of Nepal's orphans really are orphans.

Children Sold By Traffickers

The desire to be a mother was so strong for 45-year-old Dee Dee Milton that she went halfway around the world from Boston to Nepal to try and achieve it.

"I tried to adopt through the American foster system here and was not matched with a child and was told they had no idea when I would be matched and if I would ever be matched," she says.

In July, Milton was matched with a 4-year-old Nepali girl. Just after Milton landed in Nepal and took custody of her daughter Bina, the U.S. closed the program. It says too many children who are reported to be abandoned by their families may actually have been kidnapped or sold into the orphanage system.

Milton and 65 other American families were caught in the middle. Milton ended up living in Nepal and hiring lawyers and investigators to help prove Bina was legitimately abandoned. Milton had to take out a home equity line of credit to afford the delay.

"I was on an unpaid leave from my job, so I literally had no funds coming in the entire time I was gone and then came home to unemployment," she says.

Janice Jacobs, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, says while she sympathizes with what Milton went through, Nepal's child adoption system isn't trustworthy.

"They estimate — the NGOs with a lot of on-the-ground experience — estimate that perhaps 10 percent of the children who turn up in orphanages are in fact abandoned," she says.

That means as many as 90 percent of children in Nepalese orphanages may have been sold by a child trafficker under false pretenses. UNICEF estimates there are 650,000 orphans in Nepal.

Conor Grennan says that happens all the time. He's the founder of Next Generation Nepal, an NGO that has reconnected 400 trafficked children with their families. He says some of the children have been kidnapped. Other children have been sold by their families to brokers, who claim they will educate and care for them.

"And in the worst cases I've seen, is that they are actually forging death certificates for families and putting these children up for international adoption," Grennan says.

Grennan says the child trade continues because it's lucrative. Orphanages can make $5,000 a child from an international adoption — a lot of money in a country where more than half of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day, according to UNICEF.

Difficult To Prove Fraud

Five months after Dee Dee Milton went to Nepal, Bina got a U.S. visa after a government investigation found no fraud. Now Bina lives a typical life of an American little girl, attending preschool, visiting her nana and tormenting her cat.

Eventually, U.S. investigators determined there was no fraud in the cases of 65 of the 66 children waiting to be adopted by American families. Only one is still pending, which leads Milton to ask: Where is the fraud?

"I mean, the law of averages and the number of cases — [and] there was absolutely no fraud found?" Milton says.

But proving fraud is very hard, says Grennan. He says the only way is to travel to mountainous villages.

"There's no roads here," Grennan says. "You have to put on a backpack and you have to walk through the mountains and you have to get to the village and you have to say this is where the child is from, are the parents still alive or are they not? To me, that is the proof," he says.

The investigation of Bina Milton and the others was done by a government agency outside Nepal. Jacobs of the State Department says you can't draw conclusions about the adoption system in Nepal from those investigations. She says Nepal will have to make sweeping changes to its child welfare system if the U.S. is to re-open adoption.

"They have to work on a system that builds in better protections for these children and they also have to find ways to look for domestic solutions," she says. Copyright 2011 WBUR. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.