Meet the Parents
After hours hunched behind the wheel of a rented Kia, flying past cornfields and small-town churches, I’m parked on a Midwestern street, trying not to look conspicuous. Across the way, a preteen boy dressed in silver athletic shorts and a football T-shirt plays with a stick in his front yard. My heart thumps painfully. I wonder if I’m ready to change his life forever. . . (Read the story at Mother Jones)
Between 1999 and 2002 dozens, if not hundreds, of children were kidnapped off the streets of Chennai by a corrupt orphanage and sold into the international adoption stream. In August, I reported on the story of Zabeen who had been picked up by an employee of the orphange Malaysian Social Services, and wisked away and held until she was ultimately sold to an adoption agency in Australia. A few days after I met Zabeen’s parents, I met Nageshwar Rao and Sivagama, in the Puliantope slum on the North side of Chennai. Their story bore distrubing similarities to what happened to Zabeen. On February 19, 1999, according to my investigation, their son was snatched away from them while he played at a nearby waterpump and sold to an unsuspecting American family who believe they were adopting, not buying, a child. In October I followed court documents and leaked files from police sources to the American mid-west where I found the pre-adolescent boy who seemed to be the spitting image of Nageshwar Rao.
That story, which appears in this month’s issue of Mother Jones, is my first attempt and understanding the vast and lucerative market in kidnapped children. These incidents are not confined to a few corrupt orphanages and officials. They are part of a global problem fed by first-world parents’ desire for children and the handsome fees that they pay agencies to arrange adoptions.
It is difficult to know for sure how far the corruption goes up the ladder. Do American adoption services know when the children they bring to America have been ripped away from their birth parents? Or do they simply not ask the right questions when confronted by suspicious circumstances? In some cases, such as when the French agency Zoe’s Ark attempted to smuggle 103 children of Chad, the charges of kidnapping stick without much problem. But in others the orphanage director’s commitment to doing good puts blinders on their eyes when things start to go awry.
In the case of Nageshwar Rao and Sivagama’s child Subash, the adoption agency in America is at least implicated in not trying to rectify the situation once they learned of the allegations against MSS in Chennai. They didn’t even bother to notify the adoptive families that there could have been a problem despite admitting to knowing about the scandals when they first surfaced a decade ago. In fact, my subsiquent investigation of their case shows that at least two other suspicious adoptions handled by that agency. In the story that appeared in Mother Jones we chose to disguise their identity, but in the coming weeks as I sort through more documents, we may decide it is in the public interest to reveal that agency’s name for other journalsits and enforcement authorities to follow up on.
Nageshwar Rao (center) spent so much money on finding Subash, that he wasn’t able to afford an education for his daughter Sasala, 17 (right)
Underneath their reluctance to tackle the issue of smuggled children is the disturbing underlying assumption that as long as adopted children are put in good homes, they are better off living in America than they would be growing up in a third world slum. The crime of kidnapping is easy to overlook when the so-called “victim” gets the benefit of a Western education, health care and a loving family to watch over him. This logic has allowed the FBI and attorney general’s office to drag its feet in processing an INTERPOL request to collect DNA samples that could conclusively prove the child’s identity. It has also let State Authorities in charge of policing adoption irregularities look the other way.
But ignoring the problem only makes matters worse. Children who need adoptive families are crowded into orphanage dirty cribs two at a time, and are often malnourished and dying. However, western families don’t want sick children. They want cute kids who won’t cause them problems. So the orphanages look outside their walls for a fresh supply. The children kidnapped off the streets of Chennai had homes and loving parents and are exactly the sort of comodity that will draw in substantial adoption fees. The adoption industry has done little to help India’s actual needy children, rather it just treats adoption as a business, and tries to source the best possible products for its customers.
Previous reports in America on child kidnapping an adoption irrecularities have fallen on deaf ears. They have been relegated to the realm of urban myth in the same way we tend to think that kidney thieves don’t exist. But other countries are taking notice. After reports in TIME magazine and ABC, The Australian government is taking issue seriously. Officials have begun investigating the role of MSS and other orphanages in illegal adoptions and are currently looking at 30 possible cases of kidnapping and adoption fraud form Chennai. Lawmakers are informing adoptive families who have fallen victim to predatory adoption practices and will likely encourage reunions with the stolen children.
I’m hoping that this story in Mother Jones is a first step in raising awareness of the problem faced by internaitonal adoptions and kidnapping. At some point we need to stop looking the other way, and ask tough questions about our own complicity in creating incentives to support kidnapping rackets.