When Judith Mosley decided to adopt a Cambodian child, she thought she was offering a better life to an orphaned child in an impoverished land. She later learned that the woman who arranged the adoption, and hundreds of others like it, failed to share vital information about her daughter -- specifically, that she had family members in Cambodia.
The American woman who arranged the adoptions, Lauryn Galindo, is now facing an 18-month prison sentence for visa fraud and money laundering. "20/20's" Elizabeth Vargas traveled to Cambodia to investigate and meet the women and children at the heart of the story.
"They were commodities to Lauryn Galindo, she created the very market that existed, and she's responsible for that. There are enough orphans in this world to go around without recruiting children that are from happy families," said Mosley, who adopted her daughter, Camryn, through Galindo.
Galindo, an adoption facilitator in Cambodia for 13 years, admits to poor recordkeeping but insists that she was not involved in trafficking children. "I have never been involved or charged with anything other than paperwork errors. And that's what I pled to, that's what I'm going to go to prison for," she told Vargas.
But the U.S. government insists it was more than simple errors, citing what it says is evidence that her adoption business paid Cambodian mothers for their babies, sometimes for as little as the cost of a bag of rice.
Last year, Galindo pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit visa fraud and money laundering in 17 cases. She denies baby trafficking but admitted falsifying documents that wiped out the identities of Cambodian children in those cases.
From 1997 to 2001, Galindo facilitated 800 adoptions for American families -- more than half of all Cambodian adoptions. No one knows how many of those orphans were in fact real orphans. Galindo insists it was the responsibility of the Cambodian government, orphanages and her own staff to make sure children were legally abandoned. She says she never checked to make sure they were really orphans.
Galindo told Vargas, "I never wanted to hurt anyone. You have to understand my motivation was pure in helping these children."
"What I pled to was knowing that there was additional information elsewhere to be had. And indeed, I did. And as I said, I made some mistakes," she said.
But her actions caused wrenching emotional pain to women who are grappling with the idea that they are raising another woman's child.
"I went in to adopt an orphan. I didn't go in to adopt a purchased child from a vulnerable woman," said Carol Rauschenberger, who adopted her son, Sam, using Galindo's services.
By all accounts, Galindo's work started with good intentions. In 1990, she traveled to Cambodia. Decades of war and the genocidal murder of nearly 2 million people had destroyed Cambodia and left it one of the poorest nations on Earth. Stories of selling children were common -- whether for prostitution, slave labor or adoption. With thousands of children in need of homes, Galindo set up the first U.S. adoptions from Cambodia. And American couples turned to Galindo for a quick adoption.
Michelle Goff of North Carolina also adopted a child through Galindo. "We got a phone call that said we've got referrals of some little girls out in Cambodia. And our daughter was one of them," Goff said.
But when these adoptive parents arrived, eager to meet the child they had only seen in pictures, they sensed something was wrong.
Rauschenberger said she was rushed straight from the airport to the orphanage, and then brusquely given the child. "They ran out to the car with my son in the nanny's arms and just handed him to me. And they told me just to get in the car and go to the hotel," she recalled.
Mosley had a similar story. "You're whisked in and whisked out of places," she said. "If you want to get home with your child, then just do as you're told and question nothing."
Parents passed the days waiting in hotel rooms for their babies' exit visas and for Galindo to show up to collect, in cash, what she called an orphanage donation fee.
Galindo directed some families back to the orphanage if they wanted more information about their child. At Sam's orphanage, Rauschenberger was told Sam's mother had relinquished him because she had five other children and no husband.
But on the paperwork Galindo had given her just before they left the country, Sam's birth parents were listed as "unknown." Rauschenberger thought it was odd, but she believed that Sam was a legitimately abandoned child and left Cambodia with him.
Then last year, Rauschenberger read a newspaper article that described a guilt-ridden birth mother in Cambodia who told how she was coerced into giving up her baby boy, and she realized the boy referred to in the article was her adopted son, Sam.
"At first, you know, it's almost like your blood runs cold. So I have another mother's baby, that I didn't mean to have. I have the worst-case scenario," Rauschenberger said.
Rauschenberger struggles with feelings of guilt over the adoption, "I think that I was part of a process that I'm not proud of," she said.
Goff became suspicious when the documents of her 16-month-old child showed the birth parents as "unknown." But at the orphanage, she was shocked to learn that for a price she could look into a book of records that contained photos of children and the names of mothers and fathers. Goff saw more details about her daughter's background in the book -- names of her parents and the village where she was from. Goff took her concerns to the U.S. Embassy. But, despite the appearance of fraud, an official cleared Goff and her new daughter to leave Cambodia.
Goff acknowledged she had reservations. "It's like being split in two. You want to be a mother, but you don't want to do something wrong," Goff said. "When you look in the eyes of a child that you think needs to have a parent, and you want to be a parent so very badly again, you can't separate the heart strings."
"20/20" visited Liang Kout, a remote and desperately poor border village, to learn more. Villagers there told "20/20" that reports of babies being mysteriously abandoned were false. Instead, they had been sold to an orphanage funded by Galindo in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh. The children were located by what U.S. authorities call "baby recruiters," who offer young mothers cash for their children -- often as little as $15.
"20/20" spoke with one of the recruiters, Chea Kim, who said she brought about six children to the Phnom Penh orphanage.
Posters showing pictures of happy Cambodian babies adopted into American homes, were used to entice families to offer up their children. Chea Kim said mothers in her area knew they could receive money for their children. She convinced some them that they could not take care of their children; others brought their babies to her. She never told mothers that their babies would be going to America. The orphanage would pay Chea Kim $50 for a baby. She, in turn, would give a mother about $15 for a child, she said.
One of the mothers who was given $15 for her child was Main Dim, whose child became Rauschenberger's son. He was the youngest of five children and his mother was desperate to feed her family.
"Someone came and told me that if I give the baby to the orphanage, they give you money. I cried when I gave away the baby. I cried," she said. She said she was told her child would stay at the orphanage.
"20/20" also found Moung Thy, a former orphanage director, who claims Galindo's assistant paid him more than $300 for each of the 10 children he delivered.
Galindo claims that none of her staff ever approached women to purchase their children. But the U.S. government uncovered receipts that it says lists the expenses for the trafficking of babies. One cost was $200 for "nurse care." A U.S. investigator told "20/20" he interviewed two Cambodian baby recruiters who worked for Galindo. Both independently said the "nurse care" fee was code for paying off birth mothers.
Galindo said the fees were paid on her behalf to ensure that the children were well cared for. U.S. agents also found a note in Galindo's home, in her handwriting that says "freelance locators are in the countryside." And just above it, Galindo had written "who brings kids in."
Galindo says she was simply documenting her concern and planned to report this to authorities. "I was, in fact, the watchdog and trying to do my best to help bring the problems to the attention of the Cambodian government," she said.
But a young Cambodian mother, Meas Bopha, told "20/20" Galindo came to her home in 1997 and tried to convince her to sell her three babies for $700. Galindo says she is a liar.
Mosley and her daughter, Camryn, today know the painful truth that Camryn was never the orphan she was alleged to be, but a child recruited from a poor, yet happy family. Although her parents had died, she was living with a sister and had an extended family.
Recently, they made a pilgrimage to Camryn's hometown. "I just miss my country and just want to go back and see my family just to visit," said Camryn.
In 1999, Mosley arrived in Cambodia to adopt what she was told was a 6- or 7-year-old orphan named Songkea. Mosley met her new daughter for the first time at Galindo's apartment in Phnom Penh. When Mosley asked to visit the orphanage where the girl she renamed Camryn had supposedly been living for four years prior to the adoption, she says Galindo discouraged them from going.
Against Galindo's advice, Mosley says, she took Camryn back to the orphanage at Siem Riep. Once there, Camryn suddenly ushered her mom back to the car and in her native tongue directed their driver down dirt roads and out into the countryside.
"And so I just followed along," Mosley recalls. "And we pulled up outside of a house. And down the stairs came a lady who had a baby in her arms. And the translator said, 'This is Camryn's sister. And, that's her nephew." This was the first time that Mosley realized that Camryn had a family.
The scene was surreal. How could Camryn have a family if she was an orphan? Returning to Phnom Penh, Mosley says she confronted Galindo and told her Camryn had a family. Galindo, she says, responded, "Oh that's nice."
Mosley says it wasn't until she was leaving Cambodia with Camryn that Galindo handed her the English translation of Camryn's documents. On the plane, Mosley was surprised to read that the documents stated that Camryn had lived in an orphanage for four years and oddly, listed her parents as unknown. The information did not match what Mosley had just witnessed.
Later, Mosley would learn the truth -- that Camryn was recruited and that a baby locator was allegedly paid $300 to deliver her to Galindo. Galindo says that she regrets "anything that has been done that brought any pain" to the Mosley family. And insists that to her knowledge Camryn had been properly abandoned. Mosley was the one who continued with the adoption despite her concerns of wrongdoing.
It's been five years since Camryn, 14, has been in Cambodia. But Mosley felt the time was right for her and Camryn to return to Cambodia to visit the orphans left behind and reunite with her family.
As "20/20" followed the Mosleys to the orphanage in Siem Reap, Mosley was shocked and saddened by the conditions she saw at the orphanage where Camryn had once lived. She questioned where each adoptive family's cash "orphanage donation" of $3,500 had actually gone.
"They are living day-to-day with no money for medicine, barely enough money for food. Where did all that money go?" she asked.
That's exactly what U.S. investigators wondered when, three years ago, they inspected several orphanages sponsored by Galindo and found deplorable conditions. According to the U.S. government, Galindo received approximately $2.8 million in orphanage donations.
Galindo showed "20/20" an extensive list of humanitarian causes and programs she claims she generously funded. But Galindo's list was based on her memory. She was unable to supply sufficient proof to the government or "20/20" to back up her claims. Galindo says she regrets not keeping better records.
U.S. prosecutors say Galindo used part of that money to buy beachfront property in Hawaii and other luxury items. They found off-shore bank accounts and that she even paid for a child of a Cambodian official to go to college in America.
No one knows how many of the hundreds of adoptions Galindo arranged were fraudulent. Adoption advocates like Trish Maskew, who promote ethical adoptions, are outraged.
"We have hundreds of children who've had their identities erased. They can't find out who their birth families are. They can't go back and trace them. They have nothing. They've erased their identities," she said.
Maskew also noted that Galindo wasn't charged with child trafficking because the United States doesn't have a child-trafficking law. While there are laws against trafficking for the purpose of sexual and labor exploitation, they don't apply to adoption.
Despite the pain the families involved in the adoptions expressed to "20/20," Galindo said she feels she was simply helping children. "If I could even save one child from the fate of being in a pedophile ring or ending up on the street sniffing glue, then everything I've done is worth it just for one child. And I have done that for hundreds of children. Hundreds," she said. Nearly two dozen adoptive families offered video testimony to the court, insisting Galindo has been made a scapegoat for a foreign adoption system riddled with corruption.
And if the Cambodian women weren't forced to give up their children, were the adoptions perhaps in the children's best interest? Maskew told Vargas, "If Bill Gates came to your door tomorrow and said, 'I can give your kid everything you can't,' would you hand your child over to him? That isn't what makes families."
Goff wants to know if her daughter, now 4 years old, was a true orphan or a victim of baby trafficking. So with only fragments of information, "20/20" was able to track down her daughter's birth parents. Both of her daughter's biological parents had died of AIDS. Her paternal grandmother gave her up for adoption when her son become very ill and couldn't care for the baby.
The grandmother says she never received money from the orphanage.
Goff was saddened but relieved. "I feel bad for the grandmother. But at least I know it was done out of love, and that Lauryn didn't purchase my daughter," she said.
Since 2001, the United States and other countries, responding to trafficking allegations, have imposed a moratorium on all adoptions out of Cambodia.
Dr. Nancy Hendrie, who runs the Sharing Foundation, says the effect has been devastating for true Cambodian orphans awaiting homes. "I think for many children all over Cambodia, it has almost been a death sentence. There are children who deserve homes who probably will never have homes," she said.
Maskew acknowledges the moratorium's negative consequences. "I think for children, moratoriums are damaging. But sometimes they're the only thing that keeps more damage from happening," she said.