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The Downturn in International Adoption

by Elisa Rosman, Ph.D.

In 2004, U.S. citizens adopted 22,991 children who had been born abroad, an all-time high. In the eight years since, such adoptions have fallen off sharply, with only 9,319 in 2011. According to Tom Difilipo, Executive Director of the Joint Council on International Children’s Services (JCICS), JCICS is predicting that the numbers will be 8,200 in 2012 and 7,000 in 2013. What accounts for this downturn? What's happening in the sending countries? What might the future be for intercountry adoption?

What's Behind the Numbers?

A large part of the stark decline can be explained by the fact that the vast majority of international adoptions in recent years came from a small number of countries. As adoptions from China, Ethiopia, Russia, South Korea, and Guatemala have decreased, so has the total.

For many years, China led all other countries in the number of children adopted internationally. While it remained in the number-one position in 2011, numbers have dropped from a high of 7,903 in 2005 to 2,587 in 2011. At one point, as many as two months' worth of dossiers were being matched in one month; now only a few days' worth are matched each month, leading to dramatically longer waits for "healthy" children. Due to the slowdown in matching, families that had their dossiers logged in in China in September of 2006 were just receiving their referrals at press time. The Chinese government has also announced a push for more domestic adoptions.

The Waiting Child (special needs) program is a bright spot in China, with wait times that are typically much shorter than the traditional program. In 2011, more than half of adoptions from China were of Waiting Children.

Ethiopia has seen rapid changes in recent years, jumping from 731 adoptions to the U.S. in 2006 to a high of 2,511 in 2010, then falling to 1,732 in 2011. As reported in The Wall Street Journal, "The country lacks infrastructure and personnel to regulate a process that usually begins deep in the countryside," and adoption agencies fund the orphanages they process adoptions from. In 2009 and 2010, U.S. embassy investigations found instances of adoptees with inaccurate paperwork and orphanage recruitment of children for adoption via financial incentives for birth families. Ethiopia responded by increasing oversight and, in March of 2011, announced an intentional slowdown, reviewing five rather than 50 cases a day. By October 2011, the country had closed about two dozen orphanages. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, however, the rate of processing new cases returned to its previous level this past August, so numbers may begin rising.

Adoptions from Russia reached a high of 5,862 in 2004 and fell to 962 in 2011. The slowdown for Russia began in 2005, by which time several Russian children had died at the hands of U.S. adoptive parents. Since then, Russia has tightened restrictions for prospective parents, and there have been periods of slowdown and shutdown. Domestic adoption has also increased. Although there have been five rocky years for Russian adoptions, the process may become more stable. On July 28, 2012, Vladimir Putin signed into law a new bilateral adoption agreement with the U.S., one designed to provide additional safeguards. U.S. Ambassador Jacobs reports that the State Department is sending a team to Russia to work on implementing the agreement; she expects numbers to begin to increase.

South Korea, which has played a significant role in international adoption, has also seen decreasing numbers, perhaps due to an increase in domestic adoptions. In 2011, the Korean government announced its intention to end international adoption by the end of 2012. As this issue went to press, a State Department team was headed to Korea to discuss with the government whether there is still a need that international adoption can fill for Korean children. Ambassador Jacobs suggests the possibility of an increase in special-needs adoptions.

The Hague Adoption Convention, completed in 1993, was designed to apply safeguards to international adoption, making the process more transparent and free of corruption. The U.S. became a full member in 2008. The Convention did not affect the process in some countries, like China, which already had a Hague-compliant process in place, or non-member countries, like Russia and Ethiopia, but its rules led to slowdowns or shutdowns in other countries. The Hague requires a central authority, with oversight into the ethics of adoption, that many countries were unable to establish. Additionally, according to a new documentary entitled STUCK, a 2010 Hague Commission Report revealed that the Hague has not eradicated corruption. In the film, Senator Mary Landrieu, one of the Hague’s biggest proponents in the U.S., expressed regret at the Convention's effects.

Guatemala, which sent 4,726 children to U.S. families in 2007, ratified and became a full member to the Convention without having a Hague-compliant process in place. Adoptions had been processed through private children’s homes or lawyers’ offices rather than a central authority. Allegations of corruption and birthmother coercion had become frequent by the time the country shut down international adoption in 2008, with roughly 3,000 U.S. adoption cases in process. There are still 150-200 pending cases. Talks with Guatemala have continued, though, in recent years, they have mainly focused on wrapping up all of the pipeline cases.

Prospects for the Future

In 2004, the top-three countries (China, Russia, and Guatemala) sent 16,164 children, accounting for 70 percent of all international adoptions to the U.S. In 2011, the top-three countries (China, Ethiopia, and Russia) sent just 5,281 children, 57 percent of the total. While a handful of countries still send the majority of children, a new pattern may be emerging; we may be moving into an era in which overall numbers are smaller but more countries are playing a role.

While Africa accounted for only five percent of all (worldwide) international adoptions in 2003, that percentage had increased to 22 percent by 2009. Lesotho recently joined the Hague, and South Africa has authorized two U.S. adoption service providers (ASPs) to start accepting applications. Other African countries that are seeing an increase are the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Kenya, and Côte d'Ivoire. Ambassador Jacobs stressed that all of these countries will start small, and that is a good thing. The numbers are not as important, she said, as completing every adoption properly.

It seems likely that several other countries will reopen. Adoption from Vietnam to the U.S. ended in late 2008, when a bilateral agreement expired. Amid suspicions of corruption, the agreement was not renewed. Now that the country has joined the Hague, however, adoptions may resume. Cambodia, where international adoption was banned in 2009, in response to proven corruption, has joined the Hague and is working to reopen. Kazakhstan joined the Hague and began authorizing agencies, though adoptions remained suspended at press time.

The demographics of the children who join U.S. families are changing, as special-needs adoptions increase. In China, where more than 50 percent of adoptions have already shifted to Waiting Children, more families are adopting boys, older children, and children with medical needs, including many with minor or correctable needs.

Ambassador Jacobs highlighted two Office of Children’s Issues initiatives that should improve international adoption. A new process for non-Hague countries, called Pre-Adoption Immigration Review (PAIR), means that our State Department will investigate orphan status and identify potential problems as soon as a petition is received, not at the end of the process. PAIR should be of great benefit in Ethiopia. The Universal Accreditation Act, which is expected to pass after the election, will mandate that all ASPs meet Hague standards.

While the history of international adoption has involved cases of corruption, the vast majority of stories are about the creation of loving families. Numbers may never again reach 2004 levels, but there is still hope for the many children in orphanages around the world, who deserve to grow up in families.

Elisa Rosman, Ph.D., is a consultant on early childhood and adoption issues. She is a mother of four, including three children adopted from China.

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