Minister examines UN reports pointing to concerns at Vietnamese adoptions
INTERVIEW:The Helping Hands adoption agency wants transparency in Vietnamese adoptions, which are suspended, writes CAROL COULTER,Legal Affairs Editor
SHARON O’DRISCOLL has the unenviable task of heading up an adoption agency liaising with a country from which adoptions have stopped, at least for the moment.
She is chief executive of Cork-based Helping Hands, which assists couples who are adopting children from Vietnam.
Since the lapsing of a bilateral agreement between Ireland and Vietnam last May, these adoptions have been suspended, though 20 applications that were in the system in Vietnam before the deadline are still in the process.
According to Minister for Children Barry Andrews, the Government is considering two UN reports on Vietnam before taking further steps towards a new bilateral agreement. These reports highlighted concerns about the adoption process in Vietnam, and one, a draft report from the UN’s International Social Service, seemed to criticise Helping Hands, describing its public information as “at least somewhat misleading and consequently disturbing in its implications”.
Ms O’Driscoll did not want to discuss this report as it was still in draft form, but said she had received a letter from its authors saying they were not alleging any impropriety on the part of Helping Hands.
Much of the concern in the reports centres on the autonomy of regional authorities and institutions with regard to adoption, and what happens to the “humanitarian aid” paid to these bodies by adopting parents. Last week 16 people were convicted in Vietnam for corruption in the adoption process.
Ms O’Driscoll stressed Helping Hands had nothing to do with the provinces where the abuses took place, and said the Vietnamese authorities were moving to centralise the adoption process, for which they deserved credit.
The fee to Helping Hands for an adoption is $11,100 (€7,580), of which $9,000 is “humanitarian aid” and is paid directly to the local authorities. Necessary documentation accounts for $153 , while $1,903 goes on local administration, transport, etc.
“The $1,903 is what we are accountable for,” she told The Irish Times. “We can account for that down to the last cent.”
She acknowledged she had no way of knowing how the $9,000 was spent, other than what she saw in improved facilities in institutions and income supplements for local families.
“I have seen changes on the ground. For instance I went to one of the care centres, which houses elderly people as well as children, and the people said, ‘you’re the woman who brought the music’, because the local government had bought them all radios.
“In our reports since 2006 we have been making recommendations around accountability and transparency in humanitarian aid,” she said.
She agreed $9,000 was an enormous amount of money in Vietnamese terms. According to the latest Vietnamese government figures, the minimum monthly wage ranges from $51.56 to $67.25, depending on area.
Ms O’Driscoll expressed doubts about these rates. “We pay $25 for a taxi into the city, and hotel rates are western rates,” she said. “The $9,000 is something that has to be sorted out. But Vietnam is still one of the cheapest countries to adopt from.”
Another area of concern in the reports was the issue of consents from the child’s natural family. “We made recommendations on the child’s dossier and consent in our reports to the adoption board and the Department of Health. We are recommending that all the consent documents are in place before a referral, so the children would come with a completed dossier and the adoption board could look at it.
“There is trust involved in any adoption. We have to put in systems to enable Vietnam to do the job. In the provinces we have been dealing with we have found them very trustworthy.”
So she has no unease about any existing adoption? “No. In our experience they have been stringent around the paperwork.” She acknowledged that record-keeping for children coming into institutions had not happened until now, but said Helping Hands had helped establish a system to ensure records were kept for every child.
With a background in childcare Ms O’Driscoll was a member of the adoption board for eight years. Helping Hands was set up in May 2006, and she was appointed chief executive. She then resigned from the board, as she considered her membership would be a conflict of interest.
The agency has received €1.6 million from the HSE since it was set up, and employs eight people, of whom four are in Vietnam. “We apply for funding on an annual basis and send in our audited books and reports.”
So what does she expect to happen now? “That is up to the Department of Health.”