Adoption Advocate Answers Your Questions

"20/20's" Elizabeth Vargas recently reported on an international adoption scandal stemming from the adoption of children from Cambodia. In her report, Vargas spoke with Trish Maskew, president and chief executive officer of Ethica: A Voice for Ethical Adoption, who advocates better regulation of both domestic and international adoption. received hundreds of questions from viewers interested in adoption and in helping the Cambodian orphans featured in "20/20's" story. Below is a selection of questions and Maskew's answers. For more information about adoption issues, visit Ethicanet on the Web at

Terry of Alpharetta, Ga., writes:

I saw the "20/20" special and would like to help the orphanage that was shown. Is there a way to send donation directly to them and communicate directly to them?

Trish Maskew


The orphanage profiled was in Siem Reap, home of the famous Angkor Wat. We are unaware of any formal programs for donations to Siem Reap at this time. After conferring with Judi Mosley, featured on the show, we agreed to accept donations here at Ethica for the Siem Reap orphanage. Ethica is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization and all donations are fully tax-deductible. You can donate by check or through PayPal. Instructions are available at

We'd also recommend two other organizations that viewers may wish to consider.

The Tabitha Foundation (, operated by U.S. parents of Cambodian children, builds houses and digs wells to keep birth families intact, and also provides school supplies and other needed items to the children of Cambodia.

The No Child Left Out organization ( has a rice program for Cambodian orphanages.

Karen of Brighton, Mass. writes:

I am the parent of an 11-year-old Chinese girl whom I adopted in 1995 from the Hunan Province, when she was 13 months old. I have never had any reason to think that there is anything amiss with adoptions from China. Do you know any differently? Thank you very much.

Trish Maskew


No, to our knowledge, allegations of solicitation and trafficking have not arisen in connection with Chinese adoptions. China's adoption system is different from Cambodia's in many ways. Perhaps the greatest difference is that China has an adoption system that is centrally run through the Chinese government, under strict regulation. The Chinese have developed a system which removes the financial incentives for solicitation and trafficking in children. This centrally operated adoption system is, in many ways, a model system for other countries. It does, however, require a significant governmental infrastructure that countries such as Cambodia do not have.

One thing that the Chinese children and Cambodian children do have in common is the lack of information on their birth families and origins. Most children in China are anonymously abandoned and have no identifying information.

B. Grace of Seattle writes: Could you please point out any good sources (other than yourself, of course) where we could research more about the potential problems and issues with foreign adoption agencies? Thank you.

Trish Maskew

Dear B. Grace,

While there are some resources available, there is not a central location from which this information can be obtained. We are aware of no other organization whose primary focus is adoption ethics and reform. A brief primer on choosing an adoption agency can be found on our site at:

Undoubtedly, the very best sources available to prospective adoptive parents are other adoptive parents. Those considering adoption should join the vast Internet adoption community. There are online communities for virtually every country. Many of these are found at Yahoo Groups ( The adoption Web site Comeunity ( also has a listing of online chat groups about adoption.

In the past there have been several sites that rated agencies, or provided questionnaires about agency experiences. Several have been closed due to lawsuits filed by adoption agencies, leaving a void in this type of information. There are, however, some privately run sites that provide personal stories and resources for parents such as

General information on adoption can be found at sites such as:

Yanny of Raytown, Mo., writes:

Has the Cambodian government made any progress in reforming the adoption process? If and when they do, is it hopeful that the moratorium on the Cambodian adoption will be lifted?

Trish Maskew


Unfortunately, there has been little progress since 2001 when the moratorium was imposed. There have been attempts to write a new adoption law. The passage of the law has been stymied, however, by the fact that until recently Cambodia did not actually have a sitting legislature. Cambodia has met with various countries, including the United States and France, to discuss ways to improve the system. Various nongovernmental organizations have also lent support. One of the biggest obstacles to progress seems to be that Cambodia has little interest in investigating or prosecuting those involved in trafficking or other illegal activities.

That being said, there is indeed hope that the moratorium would be lifted if the Cambodian government moves to address problems in adoption. We believe that a reopening is definitely possible. It will require concerted effort on the part of both the Cambodian and U.S. governments. We firmly believe that the U.S. government must play a proactive role in proffering ideas and solutions to the Cambodian government, and should consider providing the necessary resources to assist the Cambodians in developing a safe, transparent adoption system. Simply waiting for Cambodia to act is not an option that puts children first. Cambodia needs to reopen, and it must do so with additional safeguards in place. In order for that to happen, both governments have to make children a priority.

Inger of Wilton, Conn., writes:

Hi Trish. Thanks for the great work you do. Is it possible to feel confident EVER that an international adoption has transpired ethically, given how opaque the systems generally are? What is your counsel to prospective adoptive parents?

Trish Maskew


Thanks. While it may be impossible to know, with 100 percent assurance, that your adoption was completed ethically, there are ways you can improve your chances.

Become a savvy consumer! Many people hesitate to treat adoption like a business transaction, but hiring an agency to perform professional services IS a business transaction. You must treat it as such, and use all the same consumer wisdom that you would in other transactions. Some people object to that by pointing out that children are not cars, for example. That is true. But children are more important than cars and thus you should be even more aware of the potential problems, not less!

Prospective adoptive parents are emotionally vulnerable and, unfortunately, some adoption agencies prey on this. When parents ask tough questions, the agencies may respond by telling parents, indignantly, that this is not a business or that if you cared about your child-to-be you wouldn't ask such questions. Do not fall into this trap.

Here are a couple of things that families must do to protect themselves:

1. Ensure that your agency is licensed. Call the state licensing office for the state your agency is located in to check on its credentials. In doing so, be sure to ask how many complaints they have had that were not acted upon because they were for offenses not covered by licensing regulations. Also, ask if you can receive more information by filing a "Freedom of Information Act" request with the state. Everyone should do so. It may add a couple months of time to your adoption, but you could save yourself heartaches.

2. Find out who the agency works with overseas, how much control it has over that person, and how that person is paid! Some agencies refuse to give the names of their overseas contacts, citing "trade secrets." Do not agree to this! Would you buy expensive art work from a store with an overseas provider without checking out the person's credentials? If not, why would you ever considering adopting a child through such a scenario? Demand full disclosure of fees, identity and procedures. Then, take the information and ask other adoptive families what experiences they have had with the overseas contact. Do not rely only on the reputation of your local adoption agency! Find out if the overseas person is paid a standard wage, or is paid by the number of children he or she places. If they are paid per child, they may have a strong financial incentive to "find" children for adoption.

3. Virtually all problems in adoption have money as the common denominator. Families are often asked to pay $20,000 or more with no details on what the funds are used for, and to whom they are paid. Demand the answers, and do not accept vague assurances that it is going to help children. Find out how children are located for adoption. One country we know of has a system through which attorneys pay locals to locate birth mothers who wish to place their children for adoption. These "child finders" are paid to transport the mother to various appointments, etc. A closer look, however, shows that these "child finders" are sometimes paid as much or more than the attorneys themselves! Such a system creates grave risk that birth families are being paid for their children. Get to know the country you wish to adopt from, know its adoption practices and ask tough questions. You'll be glad you did.

4. Finally, add your voice to the demand for adoption reform. There are very few protections in the adoption system for families or children. Licensing requirements for agencies do not typically address the real issues of how children come into care, where the money goes or who the agency is employing overseas. No federal regulation currently exists. Even more shocking, the United States does not have laws that make child trafficking for the purposes of adoption illegal. Ethica is working to ensure that necessary regulation is enacted. Your support is vital!

Adoption is one of the most unregulated industries in America today. Children deserve better.

Bonnie of Deptford, N.J., writes:

Dear Trish Maskew, I am a single woman who desperately wants to adopt a child and give him or her a loving home. Ms. Maskew, can you recommend some reputable domestic and international adoption agencies that would allow a single woman to adopt a child? Once I start the adoption process, how long would it take to finalize adoption? Ms. Maskew, how is "orphan" defined by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration? Thank you for answering my questions, and helping me start my journey of becoming a mother. Thank you again, Bonnie

Trish Maskew


I'm sorry, but we don't recommend agencies. You can, however, find recommendations on agencies from other adoptive parents by using the resources noted above. The average length of time for an adoption depends on the country, the age and sex of the child being adopted, and other factors.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration definition of an orphan is a bit complicated. Children do not have to be "true orphans," without parents at all, but there are a myriad of restrictions that apply. For detailed information on the Orphan Definition, please see the article on our Web site titled, "An Orphan by Any Other Name" at

Terri of Ohio writes:

Are there independent agencies that families can contact to find out if their potential international adoption agency is ethical?

Trish Maskew


Unfortunately, no. There are currently no independent or governmental regulatory agencies or consumer protection entities that serve this function. The Better Business Bureau has few reports on adoption service providers and State Licensing Entities are only able to act upon complaints that directly implicate licensing standards. Even when action is taken, it is often not made public.

A detailed report on the lack of typical consumer protections in adoption is available on our Web site at: One of the recommendations we make in this report is the establishment of a Consumer Protection Office for Adoption. Optimally, this would occur through a government office. More limited services could be provided by an independent, private entity. Ethica has been exploring this function and has preliminary plans to open a Consumer Protection Office if funding is obtained.

J. Bailey writes:

Would you please offer some advice to prospective adoptive parents on what sorts of questions to ask. Should one ever consider adopting from a country that does not subscribe to the Hague Convention? I know that at least one of the top five countries that American families adopted through in 2004 has not signed the Hague. Is there any way of knowing if it is common for birth mothers to make an adoption plan with the belief that her child will grow up to financially support her family or bring them to the States? Do you recommend contact with the birth mother? Under what circumstances?

Trish Maskew

J. Bailey,

The Hague Convention, an international treaty designed to improve international adoption, is a good first step. The convention provides a framework that countries can use to implement strong child protection policies. Currently, there are over 60 countries who are parties to the convention. The United States is not yet a full party, although it is a signatory. It is expected that the convention will enter into force in late 2006 for the United States. When it does, new rules regarding adoption will be in place for all adoptions that take place between two Hague countries. That means that even when the United States becomes a party to the Hague, it will not automatically apply to all adoptions.

As to your question about Hague countries, at this time, with the United States not yet being a party, it does not matter whether or not you use a Hague country, per se. The only difference it could make is that presumably countries which have implemented the Treaty have better systems in place than those who haven't. This is not, however, necessarily true. The two countries considered to have the most stable programs, for example, are China and Korea and neither country is a party to the Hague. Furthermore, as the Hague only provides the basic framework, the country can implement whatever structure it wants around that framework. Some countries have had more success than others have in developing systems with strong protection for children and families.

The only way to really determine cultural beliefs about adoption is to become familiar with the culture of the country involved, and to speak to others who have had contact with birth families after adoption. They may be the best source of information about what birth families tend to expect after an adoption from any particular country. It should be noted that promises such as those made in Cambodia -- that an adopted child would bring the extended family to American after reaching adulthood -- are empty ones. The child's birth family is not allowed to immigrate through a child that was placed for adoption.

Open adoption -- contact with birth families -- has been proven to be beneficial to the child in many ways. I, personally, recommend open adoption, both in international and domestic adoption, if it is possible. Some families maintain contact through an intermediary, often the agency. If you plan to do so, you should ask other adoptive families about their experiences in this regard. Some agencies are better at maintaining contact than others. Some families choose to maintain direct contact.

Chris McGinnis writes:

I just finished watching your program this evening. We adopted in Cambodia in 1999 from the state-run nutrition center in Phnom Penh. Both the parents' names of our child are also recorded as "unknown" on the documents.

We are interested in how you found Mrs. Goff's daughter's grandmother, i.e., sources of information for the research, etc. That and whether or not the book mentioned with the photos was at the state-run orphanage in Phnom Penh.

Any information is appreciated.

Thank you

Trish Maskew


Information on the identity of the searcher would have to be obtained from ABC. Adoptive parents have used several different individuals to perform these types of searches in Cambodia. It is my understanding that the book that contained the names of birth families was from the Cham Chou orphanage. To my knowledge, it is the only one proven to be in existence, although many believe that such information is available elsewhere.

Ellen of Fenton writes:

As the adoptive parent of two girls from Cambodia, I want our government to look in our own back yard at families paying $30,000 and up for a baby. While I don't approve of buying children, it clearly happens in the United States. When will our government begin to investigate baby trafficking in the United States? The moratorium is causing suffering beyond belief for the children who remain waiting for their permanent families. What is the United States doing to help the orphans of Cambodia?

Trish Maskew


We would agree that officials need to begin investigating the payment of exorbitant fees in domestic adoption as well! In the United States, it is common for birth parents to be paid thousands of dollars in "living expenses" prior to the birth of the baby. Some states attempt to limit these types of payments because of the concern that they serve as inducements to birth parents. It is not uncommon, unfortunately, for agencies to then move the pregnant woman to another state that does allow expenses to avoid these limits.

On the other hand, it is impossible to directly compare the two practices because even when expenses are allowed in the United States, there are accompanying protections for birth parents. For example, almost every state has a law that expressly states that the acceptance of money for expenses does not obligate the parent to place the child for adoption. Coupled with laws that prohibit solicitation, and that mandate that all fees paid must be disclosed to the court at the time of adoption, these laws provide a framework of protection for birth parents. Such laws almost never exist overseas. Therefore, the presence of such payments in the United States should never be used as a justification for similar payments elsewhere.

Further, Ethica believes that the payment of expenses should be limited to medical and legal expenses that are paid directly to the service provider, i.e., the doctor, hospital or lawyer involved, even in domestic adoptions. We find that the paying of pre-birth expenses tends to be coercive, at times causing adoptions to occur that may not have occurred in the absence of such payments. The payment of money should never be the deciding factor when a parent is making a life plan for their child. We would not necessarily find the payment of medical and legal expenses in foreign adoptions to be a problem either -- if they were paid directly to service providers with strict controls to ensure that the money was not being funneled to birth families.

While differences exist between the practices in domestic and intercountry adoption, we wholeheartedly agree that coercive practices employed in the United States need to be thoroughly investigated as well.