N.J. couple's hope of Cambodian adoption snagged

Allegations surface that babies are being stolen in Southeast Asia

March 03, 2002|By Douglass Crouse | Douglass Crouse,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

HACKENSACK, N.J. - The international controversy that has embroiled Michael and Susan Leon O'Connor started small.

It started with Rath Kuntheang, who is only 13 months old.

The first part of the child's name means "orphan" in Cambodia's Khmer language - and documents in the O'Connors' possession indicate that's what he is.

Yet before the River Vale, N.J., couple can adopt their little boy and give him a home, they first must contend with the United States and Cambodian governments - and authorities who aren't so sure about the boy's status.

Officials from the two countries say Cambodian babies are being stolen. They say some have been called "orphans" when they actually have living parents desperate to get them back. In December, U.S. immigration officials suspended adoption processing in Cambodia over such concerns, the first time the United States had taken such a step in a foreign country.

Now the O'Connors - together with dozens of other families around the country - can only wait while Cambodia tries to shape up its adoption system.

Obstacles arise

"The whole process was completed," Michael O'Connor said, condensing 18 months into a few short phrases. "We were approved to adopt, we had a home study done, the baby was referred to us. We were at the last step.

"If they called us about a visa interview today, we'd be there in two days and home next week."

The O'Connors, who have a 19-year-old daughter through childbirth and a 3-year-old adopted boy from Vietnam, began trying to adopt a second Vietnamese child in September 2000. They faced obstacles, however, and switched to Cambodia five months ago.

For six weeks, they have been held up at the final stage of the process: visa approval for the child they plan to name Mychal Judge, after the New York City fire chaplain killed on Sept. 11. Nationwide, authorities say, there are 86 cases in which families have been matched with a Cambodian child but now must wait.

Waiver sought

The eleventh-hour plight of the O'Connors and five other New Jersey families has come to the attention of Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat, who has requested a waiver for their cases.

"It is extremely important that we investigate overseas adoptions to ensure that only legitimate orphans are being adopted by U.S. citizens," he said in a statement. "But it is unfair to hold these legitimate adoptions up in the process."

There are generally two ways in which children become eligible for adoption: one is when they are abandoned by their parents, and the other is a direct relinquishment, in which parents sign away rights and hand over the child's birth certificate.

The U.S. State Department first noticed irregularities with some Cambodian paperwork in October, about the time the O'Connors received a photo showing the little boy's chubby cheeks.

Processing suspended

After a field investigation, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service suspended all processing in Cambodia, where American families adopted about 400 children last year.

The main interest of the INS is ensuring it isn't contributing to a system that exploits children and their rightful parents, spokesman William Strassberger said.

"There are birth mothers out looking for children who have been stolen from them," Strassberger said. "And we would hope that parents interested in adopting overseas would not want to look the other way just because of their interest in having a child."

Yet Michael and Susan O'Connor argue that exceptions should be made for cases like their own - they say they obtained proper documents through a well-respected adoption agency in Seattle. That agency could not be reached for comment.

"The decision should be made on a case-by-case basis," Susan O'Connor said. "They know which adoptions are shaky. Our son has been in an orphanage for 13 months in a country where the mortality rate is one in five before the age of 5."

Strassberger said that the INS is meeting with Cambodian officials to speed reform, but that no system is in place yet. He described two documented cases of baby theft in Cambodia.

In each instance, he said, a woman claiming to be from a charitable organization duped a poor mother. The scam artist promised to help take care of the children, but never returned them, Strassberger said.

In September, after Cambodian police raided an orphanage, the two mothers recognized the woman who had taken their babies three months before. One of the two babies already had been approved for adoption by an American couple, Strassberger said.

That baby's referral was found to have been based on false documents, he said. Both children were finally returned to their mothers.

Adoption experts acknowledge that baby theft occurs in many countries, and at times with the complicity of American go-betweens.

Matter of accountability

"Accountability should come back to the American adoption agencies," said Mary Mooney, director of the Adoption Guide, an online resource for adoptive families. "You can't tell me these agencies don't know about what goes on. I think we have too many agencies who don't hold themselves above those practices."

Meanwhile, the O'Connors wonder when they will be able to hold little Mychal Judge in their arms.

"Everybody wants to resolve this, but we have to have a process in place that protects everyone involved," Strassberger said.

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