For months, Jeff and Karen Fleming had been dreaming about the little girl in a Cambodian orphanage who they planned to adopt as their own. They went to Cambodia in early October to pick her up, and they thought they'd be home in Altoona, Pa. within a week.
"We fell in love with her right away," said Jeff of the 2-year-old whom they had seen in a photo from the adoption agency, "this little girl with her big brown eyes."
With all the necessary paperwork completed, they had just one more stop to make before flying home: a meeting with the U.S. Embassy to get Isabel's visa, a mere formality, they thought. But when they arrived at the embassy, handed authorities the application and money, they were shocked. "'Are you aware that your adoption is fraudulent?'" Karen said an embassy official asked.
Now, 2 1/2 months later, they are still in a Phnom Penh hotel room with Isabel, waiting for her to be issued a visa. A case of red tape has prevented the Flemings and 11 other families from returning home with their newly adopted children. The U.S. government has denied the children visas, claiming there are problems with their documentation indicating they may not be orphans. The families are frustrated not only that they came to Cambodia with no warning of any complications, but they also claim the investigation being carried out by the Immigration and Naturalization Services has been inadequate.
Allegations of Fraud
Years of war, genocide and political violence have contributed to a surplus of infant orphans in Cambodia, making it a popular place for Americans to adopt babies. Also appealing to American couples is that the paperwork to complete an adoption can be done in as little as three months, a shorter time frame than other international adoptions.
None of the families had any indication of problems before they arrived in Cambodia. They had hired reputable adoption agencies in the United States, and used a recommended Cambodian orphanage and facilitator, going through a process that cost, on average, $15,000.
The U.S. embassy told them only that allegations had surfaced that some orphanages were possibly involved in coercing, buying or even stealing babies from birth mothers to be put up for adoption. It's called baby trafficking, and it's a serious charge, if true. But was it? And were their own babies involved? If the embassy knew, it wasn't telling, only adding to the pain for the newly adoptive parents.
Making the situation even worse, Karen said, "The behavior on the part of the consular officials was just so abusive and so threatening. There just didn't seem to be any rational explanation for anything they told us. They just couldn't even make sense of their statements."
Bewildered, yet determined, the families hunkered down with their babies in hotel rooms to wait for an investigation by the Immigration and Naturalization Services to be completed. They say one embassy official told them quietly that it would take only a week or 10 days.
"They told us there was a problem with the paperwork," said Kim Woulfe, who had come to Cambodia with her husband to adopt a baby girl they named Chloe. "That there were some allegations of baby trafficking, and that they couldn't give us any information because it was confidential."
A Waiting Game
With every day that passed, the families grew more attached to their children. They also grew increasingly nervous about the investigation that was still a complete mystery to them. And the bills began to mount, as they paid for hotels, food and transportation in Cambodia.
Several of the 12 families simply couldn't afford to stay at all. They were forced to place their children in foster care with Cambodian nannies, going back to the United States not knowing if they would see their babies again.
It wasn't until nearly the sixth week of their ordeal in Cambodia that they were finally told their visas were not going to be issued. But even then, they were given minimal information about what was wrong. They were told that under U.S. law the children were not considered orphans.
"These children are ours legally and the United States government is basically just prohibiting us from bringing them back to our country," said Karen Fleming.
"I can't believe this happened to us," said Kim Sferes, who, after 13 years of failed attempts to bear a child, had come to Cambodia with her husband Greg to pick up the little girl they had adopted.
The INS’s Investigation
Asked why the families weren't told there were suspicions about the orphanage before they flew to Cambodia, Ambassador Ken Wiedeman said, "It's only after they've showed up at the embassy with their child … that we have the opportunity to raise the question."
Wiedeman added that there was no malicious intent, and that INS regulations prevented the embassy from warning the families with further details. In hindsight, he admitted the families should have been given a general warning about possible adoption fraud before they came to Cambodia. There were suspicions about the orphanage and its director in seven of the cases more than three weeks before any of the families got on a plane, he said.
That suspicion focused on Serey Puth, the director of an orphanage. In early September, police raided a medical clinic to find 11 babies and a 9-year-old girl. It was suspected that the babies were bought or stolen, and then taken to the clinic to be tested for AIDS. If they were healthy, authorities believed they would be funneled to orphanages for adoptions overseas.
But Puth came to court to say the babies all legally belonged to him. He said the children were living in his orphanage, and had only been sent to the clinic temporarily to be treated for diarrhea.
Puth was not charged with anything — but unbeknownst to him and the American families who had selected babies from his orphanage — he had become the target of suspicion at the U.S. Embassy.
The families believe they were used as pawns so the INS could investigate Puth. Even worse, they say, is that the U.S.'s decision to deny their visas is based not on proof, but on suspicion.
In none of the 12 cases have birth mothers been located, according to Yvette LaGontrie, a deputy director at the INS in Washington. The INS's intent to deny the visas, she said, was based entirely on faulty paperwork.
"We did a thorough investigation and we were able to find in many cases that the documentation was not valid," said LaGontrie. Signatures were forged, she said, and details about where the babies were born and how they were abandoned couldn't be verified.
But 20/20 found that in what they call a thorough investigation, INS investigators never talked to anyone with ultimate responsibility for the documents. They went to the orphanage for instance, but Puth, the target of the investigation, was not there. So they interviewed his assistant and caretaker of the property. Puth said investigators never came to his office, where all the records for babies in his orphanage are kept.
20/20 interviewed Puth with no problem. He readily defended the birth certificates and other documents in question.
The INS also failed to speak with a key village chief, the man who signed documents stating that several of the babies had been found abandoned in his village. When the INS showed up, he wasn't home, so they spoke with his wife. She said she had not seen any abandoned babies recently, and that's what officials wrote in their report.
Asked how, on nothing more than unproven allegation, the INS could deny the children a better life in the United States with families who love them, LaGontrie answered: "What we haven't proven is that their birth parents intended to release them for adoption and emigration, and their rights also have to be protected in the process."
Rep. William Delahunt, D, Mass., who adopted a baby from Vietnam, has called for congressional hearings to look into the matter. He said the State Department and the INS have a lot of explaining to do, starting with why, if the INS is so concerned about what the birth parents intended, they didn't even attempt to find them.
"The investigation, at best, was inadequate," said Delahunt. "The children are the victims, the parents are the victims and it would appear that it's their own government that's victimizing them."
In the meantime, three of the families are still in Cambodia, waiting while they appeal the U.S. government's intent to deny them visas for their newly adopted children.
This week, they say, the INS told them it would not even look at their appeals until next month. Still, they are vowing to keep their families together.
"That's my daughter and I'm not giving her back," said Kim Woulfe, whose husband and son have gone back to Chicago, while she stays with Chloe in Phnom Penh.
If their appeals are not granted, the families have one last option: They will be issued a visa if the child is in their possession in the child's country of origin for more than two years.