The Half-child

4716269165_2527776b18_mThe Half-Child (Angela Savage, Kindle, or click on the book-cover) takes on a high-profile subject: inter-country adoptions. The ABC, for example, has a piece headlined “Foreign adoptions ‘make children commodities’, NGO challenges definition of human trafficking”.

The NGO is called “Against Child Traficking” (or ACT for short), and the gist is that the exchange of a human being for money is human trafficking, and the exchange of babies for money is child trafficking. It’s an argument that’s hard to counter.

And money is indeed being exchanged. And because “Inter-country” always means the adoption of children from poor countries by childless couples from rich countries, the scope for bad things to happen is obvious – just a few thousand dollars can be big money in countries like India or Thailand. A story from Brandeis University’s Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism (headed, rather cheekily, “Where Do Babies Come From … and where do they go?“) looks at the ugly side of such adoptions:

Western adoption agencies, seeking to satisfy consumer demand, have poured millions of dollars of adoption fees into underdeveloped countries. Those dollars and Euros have, too often, induced the unscrupulous to buy, defraud, coerce, and sometimes even kidnap children away from families that loved and would have raised them to adulthood.

Buy, defraud, coerce and kidnap. That’s what The Half-Child is about. But with a twist.

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Dusit Thani Hotel, Pattaya – no connection to The Half Child, but a typical tourist-class hotel

The story stars Angela Savage’s Bangkok-based PI, Jayne Keeney, who has been hired by an Australian whose daughter fell to her death from the roof of a Pattaya hotel. The police concluded it was suicide, but the girl’s father is not convinced – he knows his daughter, and she wasn’t suicidal. Jayne goes to work at the orphanage where the girl had been volunteering, and discovers that something sinister is going on.

What I love about this book, and Angela Savage’s other stories (Jayne is the heroine of two other novels), is the realism. Jayne is real. She has a sex life. PIs don’t normally have sex lives, they have encounters. That’s male ones of course. Yet it’s a funny thing, but the readership of detective fiction is overwhelmingly female. Which means, perhaps, that Angela Savage’s marriage of det-fic and chick-lit might be tapping into an untouched need.

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Kim Kardashian meets Thai orphan girl. “After leaving the orphanage, Kim can’t stop thinking about the little girl.” But then she’s told the devastating news, “You can’t adopt in Thailand!” And Brody Jenner gets into a fight in a bar when some guy inappropriately touches … photos photos photos! (Click on the pic for the link).

Returning to the Schuster story: In 1998 some two dozen babies were adopted out of war-torn Sierra Leone (and whenever you see that phrase “war-torn” you know your reading journalese – real people don’t talk like that) to loving homes in the US. And yes, they really were loving homes – adoptive Western parents really want children, and these believed they were giving homes to war orphans. But the babies weren’t orphans, and the birth families say they’ve been searching for their children ever since. “What happens when it appears that international adoption hasn’t saved an orphan but, rather, created one?”

In The Half-Child the scenario isn’t that the child is an orphan (although there’s a hint that the unscrupulous men behind the orphanage won’t hesitate to create a genuine orphan if necessary), but that the mother has voluntarily given him up. Signed the papers. All legit. As Jayne’s good-guy Thai police friend says, there are stringent laws in place to make sure that inter-country adoptions are all above board. And that’s true, but there’s also a lot of money involved.

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Cambodian orphanage, 2010 – CNN.com

In 2013 CNN had a story called International adoption: Saving orphans or child trafficking? It gives two contrasting experiences, the first a Khmer girl adopted by a Long Island family, the second an Ethiopian girl adopted by an Arizona couple who were told her parents had died of AIDS. Both girls had loving American families, but while the Cambodian was a genuine orphan, the Ethiopian wasn’t – she’d been sold by traffickers, without her parents’ knowledge.

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Ethiopian girl trafficked by adoption racheteers aged 13 – “My sisters and I had a father, a brother and older sisters, plus a large extended family that cared for us and loved us. We were middle class by Ethiopian standards, not poor.”

Not surprisingly, inter-country adoptions are increasingly controversial. Adoption rates are in steep decline – “Americans adopted 22,991 international children in 2004, but the implementation of The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption brought about a precipitous drop to 9,319 adoptions in 2011” (Harvard Political Review, “International Adoption’s Trafficking Problem”, 20 June 2012).

It’s impossible to see the problem in black and white terms. Deborah-lee Furness, wife of Hugh Jackman, campaigns for international adoptions as part of the international rights of children. In 2008 she established National Adoption Awareness Week, and in 2014 she was named an Australian of the Year. She campaigns for the laws surrounding adoptions in Australia to be reformed so that would-be adoptive parents won’t be forced to look to countries like India and Thailand and Cambodia. She also points out that in 2013/14 there were just 339 children adopted in Australia, 129 from overseas and 210 locally.

The Half-Child is a cracking good read, with a nice mix of plot and character-based action. Jayne is a thoroughly appealing hero-girl, with a delightful sense of wry humour: “Everyone has something they’re good at – [for me] drinking, smoking, and inappropriate relationships.”

Angela Savage is currently researching a novel about international surrogacy. Her blog here.

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