On November 19, 2004, Lauryn Galindo, a Seattle intercountry adoption facilitator, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for the child trafficking of hundreds of Cambodian children.

Galindo denied child trafficking charges but pled guilty to money laundering and visa fraud. She admits to falsifying children’s names, dates of birth, places of birth, and family history. She facilitated over 800 adoptions, taking $9.2 million dollars in fees. A portion of these fees was meant to go to the orphanages in Cambodia, but it seems very little of the money reached them. Much of the money went towards Galindo’s multimillion-dollar house in Hawaii and expensive cars.

Excerpts from court documents describe one child being taken from her village at the age of nine, to be placed with a family in the United States who was told she had spent four years in an orphanage. The child, understandably, was completely devastated, angry, hurt, and confused.  Her parents had no idea why. Once she learned to speak English, she did manage to explain to her parents what had happened.

Families also received children from biological parents they were told were the nannies. Birth parents were given money and told that they would be able to join their children in the United States later.

Court documents state that Galindo, “prepared, or caused adoptive parents to prepare, visa paperwork that falsely represented either (1) that the adopted child’s family history was unknown or (2) the names, date of birth, place of birth, current residence, relatives, and or physical characteristics of the adopted children. It is important to note that it was not only the names and dates of birth of the adopted children that were falsified, but also their family history, place of birth, current residence, and other factors that made it impossible for them ever to locate their Cambodian family members.”

Though Galindo constructed a complex web of bribery and corruption which involved government officials and offshore bank accounts, Galindo and her lawyers try to portray her as a simple person whose one aim was to “help children.”

Parents under pressure

The following is an excerpt from the court transcript where an adoptive mother describes her experience adopting her daughter in Cambodia:

“Galindo took from me $3500 in new US $100 bills. This was supposedly my ‘donation’ to the orphanage, to keep the children clothed and fed and cared for. Looking at the deplorable conditions of the orphan centre gave me the first feeling that something was not as it should be.  If Ms. Galindo was indeed donating $3500 from each American couple who adopted a child, then the orphanage should have been in much better condition than it was. American dollars go a long way in Cambodia, and it was very evident that this orphanage was not benefiting from the $3500 donation required of each parent.

My new daughter, Pheary, was waiting for me at the orphan centre, sitting next to a woman I assumed was her orphanage caretaker. Mr. Visoth said something to Ms. Galindo, whereupon she told me that the woman with my daughter was not a caretaker but her birth mother. I was numb, in total disbelief. Those words ‘She is your daughter’s birthmother.’ were just the beginning of a nightmare for our family.

I immediately expressed concern, and told Lauryn that Pheary’s paperwork indicated she was abandoned and her parents were ‘unknown.’ How then could her birth mother be here with her at the orphanage?  At the orphanage I learned that Pheary’s sisters and brothers were there, along with her father…. Being at that time the mother of a three year old daughter, I told Lauryn that I could never remove a child from her family. No matter how much I wanted to build a family of my own, I would never build it at the expense of another mother and child. I was crying. I was very distraught.  Pheary was crying. Pheary was frightened. I asked Lauryn why I was taking this child when it was obvious she already had a family?

Lauryn was irritated with me.  She said I should take Pheary back to the hotel and we could talk about it more the next day.  She said that if I did not take Pheary back to the hotel I might precipitate some negative consequences for Pheary and the adoption program.  I was constantly reminded that if my actions caused any of the Cambodian officials to lose face I might jeopardize the entire adoption program and cause trouble for many other families. I reluctantly agreed to take Pheary back to the hotel, though I was very upset and concerned…. By this time, Lauryn had told me that if I did not adopt Pheary, she might die or meet a worse fate (implying a brothel)….”

The Galindo cases will  be devastating for many adopted Cambodian children, their birth families and their adoptive families. It is likely many  will never regain their identities. They can not search for birth family or know any details of their birth history and some will learn that their adoptive families were accomplices to Galindo’s crimes.

What about Canada?

Though Canada has a much better regulated system for international adoption than the US, this does not mean that Canadian families are protected from situations like this, particularly if they are working with a US agency or with facilitators or lawyers abroad. BC agencies are extremely cautious about consultants they work with from other countries, but they can’t always know everything about the way an agency or facilitator thousands of miles away operates.

I asked Susan, a parent who has adopted internationally from a country now closed because of allegations of corrupt adoption practices, for her thoughts. She believes that parents should keep themselves informed about ethical issues in international adoption, and ask a lot of questions.

“I do think, though, that as prospective adoptive parents, we enter international adoption with little knowledge of adoption and a huge drive to reach our goal — the child that will join our family. This can make us reluctant to ask questions that could result in a slower or more difficult process,” Susan explains.
Corrupt practices in adoption commonly include things like lying on official documents, turning a blind eye to payment of birthparents, failing to make sure that donations are actually going to an orphanage and changing the identity of a child.

Many parents involved with adoptions through Galindo admitted feeling pressured, and even when aware that they were doing something unethical, continued with their adoptions feeling that the end justified the means. Susan feels that since parents often need guidance to understand and navigate the complexities of the international adoption process, it isn’t hard to see how an adoption facilitator can subtly dissuade clients from asking too many questions.

“The prospect of a baby in one’s arms is a powerful motivator. It’s worth bearing in mind though that that baby grows up and may ask if you did everything you possibly could to be sure they were not taken wrongfully from their birth family and culture. My daughter will someday want to know more. The simplest research will inform her of the corruption scandals which happened within a few years of her adoption, not far from her place of birth. I can imagine her reading about this as an adult. In the meantime, we are an interracial adoptive family — a visible adoptive family — and when people look at my daughter, they bring their impressions, right and wrong, from the media with them. Galindo worked in Seattle, a stone‘s throw away. In that sense as well, it directly affects my growing child’s identity.”

Ethics and action

Susan feels strongly that the fundamental problem with international adoption is the power and economic imbalance in the relationship between developed and developing countries. She also thinks that it is naive to believe that Canadian prospective adoptive parents are never susceptible to corrupt practices. In countries where there is little regulation of adoption agencies and where a cash payment of $100 represents a family surviving for months, corruption, somewhere, at some time, seems reasonably inevitable.

“I feel we are obliged to inform ourselves and do what we can to ensure this doesn’t happen to children, even if it didn’t happen to our particular child,” says Susan.

She feels the Internet is an important tool for dialogue about ethics in international adoption and to share information about experiences. “For me, the listserves were a great stimulus and support. They placed us in the position of sometimes having more current information than some of the professionals we dealt with during our adoptive process, and they have been invaluable since,” Susan explains.

The Internet has a dark side too. It houses many Websites advertising children available for adoption through photolistings, and there is unchecked potential for unscrupulous agencies to misrepresent themselves on the Internet. Lauryn Galindo advertised her agency largely through the internet.

The Galindo case is an overwhelming indictment of the American adoption system. It greatly supports the Hague Convention, soon to be ratified in the US, which will regulate and oversee adoption agencies, license the agencies and lessen the number of agencies operating in the United States.

It is also an important reminder to families considering international adoption that child trafficking is a reality and that Cambodia is not the exception — over the years several countries have been closed because of corrupt practices.

Families dealing with international agencies should consult closely with their BC licensed agency, talk to other families who have dealt with foreign agencies and facilitators and investigate the reputation of the agency they are working with.