Virtual land of the baby broker business

This article was published on 16.12.2004 in the Sidney Morning Herald.

Tough new restrictions could soon slow America’s insatiable demand for overseas children.

Since March 1996 when the first internet-assisted overseas adoption took place, the United States has earned its reputation as the online child trading hub of the world.

That reputation was boosted in September 1999 by the $US155,000 ($210,000) starting price put on an unborn boy, the first to be offered for sale on the online auction site eBay.

Then in late 2000, a British couple paid a US broker £8200 ($19,300) for six-month-old twin girls they found on the internet. And last year a Melbourne woman also offered her unborn child for sale for $10,000. None of the deals went ahead, but it is possible other overtly commercial deals arranged by so-called online „baby brokers“ did.

However, things may be about to change. Amid growing concerns over child trafficking in Cambodia, Vietnam, Guatemala and other countries, the US is finally considering legal implementation of the 10-year-old Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, a move Australia made five years ago.

As the US is claimed to adopt more overseas children than the rest of the world combined – 20,000 of the estimated 30,000 children adopted worldwide each year – the introduction of tough rules there could mark a global shift in the practice of inter-country adoption.

Typing „internet“ and „adoption“ into Google.com today will produce roughly 4.7 million listings. Among them are scores of American adoption agency web sites that have thrived under a system that is far less regulated and more competitive than our own.

Adoptanangel.com promises children from Guatemala, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Russia and Peru, while Across the World Adoptions includes in its photo listing of „waiting children“ three-month-old Cindy, from Guatemala, marked „new“.

Although it is illegal to buy and sell humans in the US, as in Australia, these searches inevitably lead to a detailed breakdown of the fee structures charged by the US broker and the overseas country. It is hard not to feel that the child is being bought.

The Hague Convention specifies that

all agencies must be non-profit. They must also be accredited by a central authority and regularly audited. The central authority must ensure there have been no illegal payments. What’s more, children can be adopted by overseas families only if no suitable family can be found in their own country.

Honourable intentions, no doubt. But there is also fear that the rules will radically reduce the number of children available for adoption. And it could be that Australia is a ready-made demonstration of that.

Aside from ratifying the Hague Convention in 1998, NSW also introduced a new Adoption Act in 2000. Among the numerous restrictions of that legislation is an outright ban on internet advertising, with potential fines of $2750 or a year in jail.

The result is that while the US National Adoption Information Clearinghouse points to a dramatic increase in overseas adoption in America over the past decade – up from 6536 in 1992 to roughly 20,000 now – in Australia in 2002-03 there were 61 overseas adoptions, compared with 50 in 1998.

Ricky Brisson, of the Australian Intercountry Adoption Network, claims the Australian „bureaucratic squeeze“ has restricted the number of overseas adoptions available to Australian families compared with the „more progressive“ system operating in the US. She has previously described Australia as being close to inhumane in its application of intercountry rules.

On the other side of the debate is Diane Welfare, chairwoman of Origins NSW, set up to support Australian mothers whose children were taken for adoption illegally in the 1960s to mid-’80s.

She describes the US market as a „$US1.4 billion business in baby trafficking“.