Along with Sen. Mary Landrieu and members of a Congressional Delegation, Acting Assistant Secretary George Sheldon visited Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia to explore how best to strengthen adoption processes in those countries and ensure compliance with international protocols on child welfare.
As our Korean Air flight touched down at the Inchon International Airport in Seoul, Korea, I thought about how much of America's past and future is tied to this region of the world—from the Korean War to the current crisis over North Korea's push for nuclear weapons, and from the Vietnam War to our efforts to collaborate with that emerging nation on climate change and economic growth.
This week I am with a congressional delegation focused on another issue of common concern: child welfare. Led by Senator Mary Landrieu, D-La., this delegation is exploring ways we can assist the region on child welfare reform and international adoptions. We have met with leaders from government and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Seoul and Hanoi. Next, we will visit Cambodia to meet with child welfare and adoption leaders there for two days.
As the United States works to improve our child welfare system, I have come to recognize just how much we have learned about the negative impacts of long-term institutional care on children, particularly young children. Asia is just now coming to grips with these lessons.
Particularly in Vietnam, long-term institutional care has been in place for decades. Children, usually abandoned because of disability or teenage pregnancy, wind up in orphanages throughout the country.
As we toured orphanage after orphanage you could see the bright, clear eyes of smiling infants turn gradually dimmer as those children aged with little emotional stimulation. Staff, while many of them loving, have little training in early childhood development.
Dr. Charles Zeanah from Tulane University, also with the delegation, has done extensive research on the effects of trauma and long-term institutional care. Charlie's best known, long-term study was on Romanian children. His research there lays out the case against long-term institutional care for young children.
In Vietnam, children stay in institutions for an average of 10 years. It is not unheard of for children to remain institutionalized until their 18th birthday. NGO's, like UNICEF and Holt International, an adoption and children’s services agency, are working there to educate providers and modernize the system.
What these children need more than anything is a loving family, hopefully through reunification or placement with a relative. If neither of those is possible, then adoption--domestic or international--is the next best thing.
During meetings with government officials, U.S. Ambassador David Shear joined us for a meeting with the Vietnamese Minister of Justice Ha Hung Cuong. In the formal conference room where we met, there was a large bronze bust of Ho Chi Minh overlooking our discussion. I reflected that by 1973, the end of hostilities between our two nations, many thousands of soldiers from both nations had lost their lives in that protracted conflict.
Today, these former enemies are engaging in a lengthy civil discussion of the dangers of institutional care for young children and our mutual efforts to improve child welfare.
Several years ago, our State Department suspended inter-country adoptions with Vietnam. The system was broken. Data was woefully inadequate, legal procedures were sketchy and there was no way to ensure a child who had been put for adoption was actually an orphan.
Since then Vietnam has signed the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoptions, the National Assembly passed new laws on adoptions, and the government has moved to assure compliance.
During our meetings we discussed how best to move forward and re-establish intercountry adoptions with the United States. A goal Vietnam urgently desires. In a broader sense our discussions represent the developing relationship between our two countries.
Sixty percent of Vietnam is now under 30 years of age. Young restaurant staff I spoke with have no memory of the American War, as it is know in Vietnam.
What I saw was only the desire to live fruitful, happy lives, advancing their nation in science and technology and economic growth.
Vietnam has a long way to go. It struggles with corruption, poverty, and pollution, but you could see a hopeful future in its young people.
Our plane is now descending into Phnom Penh, Cambodia, our final leg of a week-long effort. In a few days, I will blog again on the close of our trip.
George Sheldon is the Acting Assistant Secretary for the Administration for Children and Families under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Prior to joining ACF, George Sheldon served as the Secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF).