Elizabeth Jacobs remembers some of the earliest red flags she noticed when she was trying to learn more about her adoption from Cambodia as a baby in 2000.
While the 22-year-old’s birth certificate stated Jan. 1 as her birth date, records kept by the orphanage indicated Feb. 2. Her surname, too, was listed in her adoption document as “Rath,” Khmer for state or government, and known to be commonly used in falsified birth documents. Then there was the fact that Jacobs had no information about her biological family.
But the brightest red flag of them all came when Jacobs found out who facilitated her adoption: an American named Lauryn Galindo. Galindo was convicted of fraud in 2004 after handling the adoptions of about 800 Cambodian children, some of whom were deemed to have been disguised as orphans, but were in fact sold by impoverished mothers for as little as the price of a bag of rice.
The more she dug into her adoption, the more unsettled Jacobs felt, grappling with the reality that she might not have been “rescued” as an orphan from Cambodia at all.
“I was freaking out. I had no idea about any of this,” Jacobs told VICE World News from her dorm room in Massachusetts, where she attends college today. “I texted my dad immediately: ‘Hey, did you guys know about this? Do we know how much, if at all, I'm involved in the scandal?’”
Jacobs is just one of many Cambodia-born individuals suffering from the lasting effects of decades of fraudulent intercountry adoptions, which at its peak in the late 1990s and early 2000s saw thousands of children, many under murky circumstances, removed from the country and sent across the globe. Fraud, corruption, and poverty formed a potent cocktail during this time, with impoverished parents persuaded by unscrupulous orphanages to give up their children for adoption; in other cases, institutionalized children were sent abroad without their parents’ consent or knowledge.
Today in Cambodia, there are long-suffering mothers still trying to get in touch with their children, snatched from them years ago in the midst of extreme poverty. Abroad, the effects of this unregulated era are just beginning to be felt by some of Cambodia’s “stolen children,” now young adults unearthing the shady circumstances surrounding their early years.
“These [fraudulent adoptions] have really deceived a lot of adoptive parents,” said Jacobs, who is currently producing a documentary investigating these cases, including her own. “They've tricked a lot of birth parents and I think that they’ve also stolen a lot of opportunities from these adoptees and really taken away from their true identities.”
But just as one cohort of adoptees begins to heal, a new cycle of anguish may just be beginning. In 2009, the Cambodian government suspended intercountry adoptions amid concerns about exploitation. While the ban was officially lifted in 2014, the practice seemingly resumed in earnest just last month, when it was reported that at least nine potential adoptions from Cambodia were being processed by Italian agencies. Rights groups and experts tell VICE World News that there aren’t adequate safeguards in place, with many concerned that the resumption could lead to children once again falling into corrupt networks.
“Cambodia's long history of fraudulent intercountry adoptions has caused deep and continued suffering,” Naly Pilorge, the Outreach Director of LICADHO, told VICE World News. The Cambodian human rights group works closely with mothers seeking to reconnect with their children.
“Cambodia today still ranks so low on rule of law and corruption indexes. In this context, there are simply no failsafe measures that could protect children and families against fraudulent and corrupt practices reoccurring. If children left Cambodia for adoption now, children would again be at risk of being torn from their families.”
Reeling from decades of civil war, genocide, and the destruction of society under the Maoist Khmer Rouge, followed by economic isolation under Vietnamese occupation during the 1980s, Cambodia ranked as one of the poorest countries in the world by the time UN-backed democratic elections were held in 1993. It was against this backdrop that housing children in local orphanages became a common way for desperate families to temporarily cover costs while providing their kids with an education.
After Cambodia became a sending country for intercountry adoptions in 1989, the popularity of Cambodian adoptees flourished in the late 1990s among American prospective parents. Applications rose from 249 in all of 1998 to 100 a month on average throughout 2001. At the heart of one of the largest Cambodia-U.S. adoption networks was Galindo, a prolific adoption facilitator who worked with agencies including Seattle International Adoption, run by her sister Lynn Devin.
Between 1997 and 2001, they made millions of dollars facilitating the adoption of about 800 Cambodian children by American parents, roughly half of all adoptions between the countries during that period. Among Galindo’s clients was Hollywood actor Angelina Jolie, who adopted her now-20-year-old son Maddox as a seven-month-old.
But concerns around child trafficking were sufficient for the U.S. government to ban adoptions from Cambodia in December 2001—though adoptions continued among other receiving countries. In 2004, Galindo was sentenced to 18 months in prison, having pleaded guilty to 17 cases of conspiracy to commit money laundering and visa fraud after falsifying the birth documents of children. It remains unclear how many of the adoptions she facilitated were fraudulent. Jolie, known for her philanthropy in Cambodia, has since faced scrutiny over Maddox’s adoption.
Galindo, for her part, denies any wrongdoing. Today a Hawaiian hula dancer, she told VICE World News over a call from San Francisco that it was “heartbreaking” to see her work represented in this light, saying the problem “did not start with me” and it was “the job of the Cambodians” to verify the identity of adoptees.
“I didn't ever try to commit a crime. My work was from my heart, and I feel proud of my work, and I'm open to speaking with any of the kids [whose adoptions I facilitated],” she said. “The U.S. accused me and cast these shadows on my work—my remorse is what they have done to instill doubt in the children.”
But even if Galindo was largely unaware of the full history of the “orphans” whose adoptions she facilitated, this doesn’t mean that corruption didn’t pervade the adoption processes she oversaw. Karen Smith Rotabi-Casares, a professor of social work at California State University, who has researched extensively on intercountry adoptions in Cambodia, calls this “willful blindness.”
“A lot of the adoption officials of these agencies didn't necessarily see the bribery. They had somebody else that was doing all that in the country, so they never actually saw it themselves,” she told VICE World News.
“My family was so poor at that time, I thought that the orphanage would be a good place for my children to study and get good knowledge… I did not think that my children would go abroad and not be able to come back.”
For many years, fraud was rife among some Cambodian orphanages, suspected of buying babies and selling them to American adoption agencies. A LICADHO report from 2002 described predatory orphanage workers who approached impoverished women in hospitals, soon after they had given birth and in an emotionally vulnerable state, enticing them with small cash “donations” for the temporary surrender of their children to the institution, where they said the babies would be looked after.
“If the mothers subsequently try to visit their children at the center, they are refused. If they demand their children back, they are told that they must pay several times the amount of the ‘donation’,” the report said. “The children end up in orphanages that are run by, or linked to, people who work as adoption ‘facilitators.’ The orphanages and facilitators are connected to adoption agencies in the U.S. and elsewhere.”
Neang Phol is one Cambodian mother caught up in this web of poverty, fraud, and bad actors. In 2008, struggling to raise her family with meager wages from a rubber plantation as her then-husband shrugged off household responsibilities, she placed four of her five children in an orphanage about six hours away in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh. It was meant to be a temporary arrangement for the children, or so the then 34-year-old thought.
Months later, when she went to check on her children at the orphanage, Neang found out that two of her daughters and one son, aged five to 12, had been sent to Italy a couple of weeks before her visit. She had not given consent, nor was she informed before her children were flown out. She didn’t even have the chance to say goodbye.
“My family was so poor at that time, I thought that the orphanage would be a good place for my children to study and get good knowledge,” she told VICE World News through a translator. “I did not think that my children would go abroad and not be able to come back.”
Horrified, she confronted the orphanage, only to be fed a dismissive response. “The staff at the orphanage said that if they told me at that time, I would feel terrified,” she said. “They also said that maybe I would not allow my children to go abroad.”
“I was angry, but it was already too late.”
To this day, Neang still has no idea how her three children are, nor any way of contacting them—all she is left with are unanswered questions. After 14 years of waiting, she is no longer holding out hope of their return, but only hopes they are living well and remember her.
“There’s no need for them to stay with me forever,” said Neang. “But at least my children should know that I'm their mother.”
Like Neang, Meta experienced the anguish of having her children snatched from her after she enrolled them in an orphanage in 2006. The 57-year-old, who has requested a pseudonym for fear of being targeted by authorities, has spent years seeking help from different governmental agencies, to no avail.
Originally from the southern coastal town of Sihanoukville, she had rented a room with her children in Phnom Penh to work in a garment factory, before enrolling them at a local orphanage to receive an education. Her husband, who was previously employed in Thailand, had fallen seriously ill soon after returning to Cambodia and wasn’t able to work.
It didn’t take long for Meta to develop a comfortable routine between work and weekly visits to her children at the orphanage. Each time, she would bring fruit and cut it for them as they chatted. But the staff at the orphanage soon grew tired of her regular visits, and she began to feel like a nuisance visiting her own children.
“The head of the orphanage said to me, ‘Why would you come so often?’” she told VICE World News through a translator. “If you come this often, how can your children forget your face?”
“It's an injustice because they took my children there without letting us contact them… there is no worse suffering than when I lost my children. It's so much pain.”
Within months of arriving at the orphanage, two of Meta’s children, aged six and seven, were sent to Austria without her knowledge—something she found out from her remaining children during a visit. When a distraught Meta arrived at the orphanage demanding the return of her children, she was escorted out by police summoned by the head of the orphanage, who said that she was accusing them of child trafficking.
“It's an injustice because they took my children there without letting us contact them,” said Meta, who still tears up when talking about that time. “There is no worse suffering than when I lost my children. It's so much pain.”
Both Neang and Meta sent their children to orphanages, struggling with finances and misled into thinking they would offer their children better care. Their experiences are disturbingly common, according to Rotabi-Casares.
“There are many instances in which children are sent to homes because they're fed and they're educated there, and there's no intention of relinquishing or severing their legal ties to the child,” she said. “It is a result of poverty. It's not an adoption plan. However, many of these children have fallen into adoption networks.”
Are you an adoptee who’s having doubts about your own adoption story? A parent who adopted a child from overseas? Worked in the international adoption industry (or know anyone in it) and have tips to share? Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org
Since intercountry adoptions were suspended in 2009, Cambodia has worked with international organizations to strengthen its alternative care system for children outside conventional family units. Last year, the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation announced detailed guidelines for implementing kinship care and foster care, developed with UNICEF. Unethical orphanages, among them many that emerged around a previously thriving voluntourism industry, also became targets of a government crackdown in the mid-2010s.
These factors have seemingly set Cambodia up for a safe resumption of intercountry adoptions. But according to an alternative care expert in Cambodia, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals from the government, there remains a huge gap between policy and practice.
They said the potential for money-making tends to overshadow children’s welfare, especially in Cambodia, long ruled by autocratic prime minister Hun Sen and consistently ranked as Southeast Asia’s most corrupt country.
“The ramifications will be extremely serious for the children involved,” said the expert regarding Cambodia restarting intercountry adoptions. “[It’s] absolutely terrifying for the families who will lose their children to a corrupt system with a highly corrupt government.”
VICE World News reached out to Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan for comment on several occasions, but did not receive a response as of publishing.
Jacobs, potentially a victim of past corruption and negligence, has been having open conversations with her family about her adoption since starting her film project. She hasn’t stopped thinking about the possibility of her being “stolen” from her birth parents in Cambodia.
“After talking to more organizations, reading more articles, just educating myself and looking back at my documents, I think there is a pretty good chance that I might be one of the children that were supposedly having these fraudulent adoptions,” she said.
A couple of years ago, she started a feature film project, The Stolen Children. Originally meant to document her first return to Cambodia, the project has evolved into a documentary about intercountry adoptions and has garnered global attention, especially from fellow adoptees. Jacobs and her team are currently raising funds before filming in Cambodia later this year.
Sam Schmir, a 22-year-old studying in Maine, came across The Stolen Children while reading up on Maddox Jolie-Pitt. Finding out about the Galindo scandal also ignited doubts surrounding his birth story, especially after he saw Galindo’s signature on one of his adoption documents. He was also adopted in 2000, the same year as Jacobs, raising uncertainties that he’s still trying to process.
“It hasn't affected me all that much, and I think maybe it just hasn't hit me yet. Maybe it's just because I don't know the full answer,” said Schmir. “If we find out that I was fraudulently adopted, I don't think it'll really change anything with my current family. But I think it'll just be good to get just a solid answer, so I just know. It’s a kind of closure, in a way.”
Unlike Schmir and Jacobs, Cambria Gosch, a 20-year-old college student from Florida who was adopted from Cambodia in 2001 as a baby—also facilitated by Galindo—has been able to maintain some contact with her birth mother, who now has her own family in Cambodia. Her birth mother had her at only 17 and was convinced by a friend to put her up for adoption at an orphanage.
“It's just crazy to think that there's probably a lot of kids who were more or less forcibly taken, or their parents were bribed to give them up,” she said. “It kind of makes me feel better about my adoption story, when right now a lot of other adoptees don't have that comfort knowing.
“After learning about the scandal and after hearing about them opening borders again for intercountry adoptions, it made me really think… the reason why they kept it so closed off was concerns about corruption bursting at the seams.”
When she returned to Cambodia for a trip with her adoptive mother in 2014, 13-year-old Gosch saw firsthand the desperation that might have led her mother to give her up all those years ago. Walking around an open-air market, the pair was approached by a woman holding a baby out to Gosch’s mother in an attempt to sell him.
“She went up to my mum, saying something like ‘Baby, $30,’” Gosch recalled. “Then she was like, ‘$25,’ and kept going down until we walked out of range.”
“The pain in her eyes, I'm sure that wasn't an easy thing to be trying to do. But maybe she wanted to give her child a better life.”
The encounter still haunts Gosch today, a sharp reminder that among Cambodia’s impoverished are parents desperate enough to sell their children. For decades, intercountry adoptions have been intimately linked to this poverty, and now they are resuming, Jacobs, who’s just now beginning to unravel the mystery around her origins, is acutely aware of the exploitation that could be unleashed by a new marketplace for Cambodian babies.
“As a kid, I thought, ‘I want to adopt from Cambodia as well. When I have children, I want kids that look like me’,” said Jacobs. “After learning about the scandal and after hearing about them opening borders again for intercountry adoptions, it made me really think… the reason why they kept it so closed off was concerns about corruption bursting at the seams.”
“Once they open, everything is going to come rushing back.”