THOUSANDS OF CHILDREN LOST THEIR PARENTS ON DEC. 26, INSPIRING MANY WOULD-BE FOREIGN ADOPTERS TO HELP. BUT GOVERNMENT RULES, RELIGION AND CULTURAL DIFFERENCES PRESENT OBSTACLES

The battle for the hearts, minds and bodies of the tsunami generation is underway. Most of the efforts are well-meaning. U.S.-based adoption agencies have been fielding hundreds of calls from generous Americans hoping to adopt a tsunami orphan into a loving home.

But they'll have to wait. Tsunami-stricken countries that already had strict adoption rules are now on edge, for fear of illegal trafficking. There have been reports of grief-stricken locals adopting children off the street in order to recreate a family. And police this week arrested a man in Sri Lanka who tried to sell his two granddaughters to foreigners after their mother was killed and their home destroyed by the deadly waves on Dec. 26.

Indonesia requires would-be parents to live in the country for two years, and requires orphans to be raised by people of their own religion, in part to prevent Muslim conversions to Christianity. Other tsunami-hit countries have similar rules: Sri Lanka allows only a handful of international adoptions, Thailand had 70 U.S. adoptions in 2003, India had under 500 in 2003, and Sri Lanka had only four in 2001, according to the National Council for Adoptions.

"The idea of adoption isn't embedded in Indonesian or Sri Lankan culture," says Eric Stowe of Faith International Adoptions, a secular adoption agency in Tacoma, Wash., which is being allowed into Sri Lanka next week to deliver medical relief and water purification systems, but not to address adoption issues. "The idea will have to be injected from the outside, but we can't push." It will also take a long time before officials know the actual number of orphans without an extended family to take them in. Various estimates have circulated: 13,000, 20,000 or perhaps more, but no one really knows.

Some of the relief efforts, if mixed with proselytizing, could potentially make adoptions of tsunami orphans more difficult. The State Department is concerned that relief actions on the ground don't backfire. "This is not the occasion for recruiting," says a senior official. "We need to have respect for these children and for their local culture."

The adoption of tsunami orphans "needs to happen when the children are emotionally and legally ready," says Thomas Atwood, president of the National Council for Adoption. "But eventually, national boundaries should not prevent children from having families." U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana has been working for years to streamline procedures for overseas adoptions, and recently visited Sri Lanka. She is worried that tsunami-afflicted countries may be overreacting to trafficking reports by shutting down the movement of all children out of the country. "When someone robs a bank you don't shut down the entire international banking system," she says. "You find the robber and you persecute them. Each time a child is abducted and you shut down the international adoption system you are making things worse for millions of orphans."

Adoption experts are hoping the outpouring of interest in adoptions from the tsunami disaster might translate into adoptions elsewhere. "The real tragedy is that the tsunami doesn't even dent the numbers of orphans worldwide," says Stowe. "The real numbers are unfathomable." Most adoption specialists say the number of orphans globally may be somewhere in the range of 40 to 60 million--13 million in sub-Saharan Africa alone due to the AIDS crisis there, and many more in Russia, China and Latin America. Only a fraction of those children are in official adoption pools.

"We are hopeful that the tsunami-affected countries will eventually have an open mind to international adoption," says Atwood. "But we're also hopeful that parents will look to adopt children in other parts of the world. There are thousands of children available for adoption right now. For those whose hearts have been tugged by the tsunami, perhaps this is a step in their journey towards another child."

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