Who Is Responsible for the Decline in International Adoptions?

The U.S. State Department lays the blame on adoptive parents and adoption agencies. The adoption agencies, per the National Council on Adoption, say the decline is due to overly restrictive regulations and anti-adoption advocates. The voices we are not hearing enough of in this discussion are the birth/first parents and the adoptees themselves.

Last week, the State Department released figures showing the ongoing decline in numbers of children being placed to the United States for international adoption: 5372 children in FY 2016. You can read the report here.

The State Department cited three main reasons for the decline: adoptive parents failing to send post-adoption reports to the children’s country of origin; the incidences of adopted children being re-homed; and unethical practices by adoption agencies.

Post-Adoption Reports

The reports are a reasonable requirement. Sending countries want to know the outcome of children sent abroad for adoption, and adoptive parents are supposed to send the reports. Different countries have different requirements, which are essentially unenforceable once the adoption is full and final. The adoptive parents may have an ethical obligation, but their compliance is subject to their willingness. “Several countries have conditioned the resumption of intercountry adoptions on receiving post adoption reports from parents who previously adopted children from that county,” according to the State Department.

I’d be curious as to whether State has statistics on compliance, or has done research on why parents do not send the reports in. I’d guess a few reasons: Parents have so much going on with family life that the reports fall to the wayside. The parents are mad at the agency and refuse to work with them once the adoption is done. The parents don’t believe the country will ever read the reports. The parents don’t care about whether their failure to send reports will affect future adoptions. The parents are struggling with the child (or have disrupted the adoption, or have re-homed the child) but don’t want the country to know.

Some international adoption agencies have suggested to adoptive parents that the reports would also be sent to the birth/first parents. The birth/first parents may have been told they would receive reports. When the agency failed to get the reports to the families, which anecdotally I have heard many times, parents may have stopped sending them. Some send reports directly to the birth/first family, but not to the government.

Another aspect is the country of origin’s ability to maintain the post-adoption information in an archival, accessible way. That is, a country like China, Korea, or Ethiopia would potentially have received thousands of reports over many years. Does the government have the interest and the infrastructure to file and maintain the reports? Do they scan them and keep them well-organized?  The reports from the US are in English, and I doubt they would be translated into national or local languages. It is unclear to me whether the birth/first parents would have any access to the reports. However, I would argue there is an ethical obligation for the country of origin to provide it to the birth/first parents.

Unregulated Custody Transfer (UCT)

Unregulated Custody Transfer is a benign sounding phrase, but is frightening in its manifestation. The State Department equates UCT with “re-homing,” where adoptive parents hand over their adopted children, with little or no legal process or safeguards, to other people. It has happened more often than anyone would like to think, sometimes making the news, sometimes conducted in an underground. Reuters produced a significant report on the problem. Many US states have begun enacting laws and policies to reduce re-homing. The State Department has a UCT Working Group focused on “strategic for preventing UCT and for responding to UCT situations when they occur.”

Prevention, of course, is the best approach: better pre-adopt preparation, and better post-adopt resources and services.

Internationally adopted children also end up in US foster care, a legal means of moving a child to a new family. Some are listed on Second Chance, a program of Wasatch Adoptions. Both of these (US foster care and Second Chance) are technically not “re-homing,” because they are done through legal channels. Still, a great deal of controversy exists around internationally adopted children ending up in US foster care or with Second Chance.

There is, of course, an important link between the post-adoption reports and UCT, foster care, and Second Chance. Parents probably do not send reports when their children are moved from their original adoptive placement, whether legally or illegally. “Foreign countries frequently raise concerns about UCT whenever information about a child’s whereabouts is unavailable. These concerns impact their willingness to maintain intercountry adoption as an option for children,” says the State Department.

Adoption Service Provider Conduct

This issue–illegal or unethical practices by some Adoption Service Providers (ASPs) and about countries’ ability to appropriately monitor adoption activities–is far-reaching in time and complexity. The US Justice Department’s indictment of International Adoption Guides, and the subsequent guilty pleas by the top staff, for bribery and fraud is a well-known example. Other adoption agencies have been under scrutiny as well, some closing suddenly, even with full COA accreditation (i.e., Christian World Adoptions). European Adoption Consultants, an international adoption agency in Ohio, was raided in February by the FBI, with allegations around fraud and trafficking.

Agency workers in both the U.S. and in sending countries have been accused of misconduct. Facebook has regular comments in adoptive parent groups about false information about their children’s histories; adult adoptees have traveled to their home countries and found parents they had been told were dead, or mothers who had been deceived into placing their children in an orphanage. There’s no question that adoption agencies and their staffs have been under greater scrutiny in recent years than ever before, in part because of more adopted persons’ and birth/first parents’ voices being heard.

The State Department proposed new regulations last September that would attempt to address some problems in international adoption, around accreditation and other areas. Adoption agencies have been actively opposed to the proposed regs, saying that they are unnecessary, expensive, and rigid. Chuck Johnson, the head of the National Council on Adoption, told the Associated Press in January that “it was possible that under the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump, the State Department might adopt policies more to the liking of the adoption agencies.” It’s still early in the Trump Administration to see exactly what direction adoption policy will take, though the State Department’s comments on the newly released adoption numbers give us some sense. Update: While the State Department refers to the proposed regs in the narrative about the statistics, including saying they are “reviewing comments from the public on the proposed regulations,” the regs were withdrawn by State in early April. I’ll post more information when I get it.

In any case, adoption agencies frequently see administrative and regulatory policies to be more responsible for the decline in adoptions than the three issues cited by State.

Photo © Maureen McCauley Evans

The bottom line: A whole lot of work needs to be done, by a whole lot of folks (State Department, Office of Children’s Issues, adoption agencies, adoptive parents, state and federal legislators, international governments) if international adoption is going to continue in any meaningful way. Right now, there is a fairly strong current of anti-adoption momentum, via groups who view adoption as equivalent to trafficking as well as vocal individuals, primarily adult adoptees, who are demanding change.

And *if* international adoption is going to continue, adoption agencies and the U.S. State Department should make equity in pre-adoption preparation and post-adoption services to birth/first parents. Those 5372 children had families–we know that few children are actual full orphans, and many have grandparents and siblings. The birth/first families deserve excellent adoption services as much as U.S. adoptive parents do, to make sure adoption is the best option, and to encourage family preservation whenever possible.

12 thoughts on “Who Is Responsible for the Decline in International Adoptions?

  1. Pingback: Art Imitating Life in the Dystopian Delivery (Adoption?) of The Handmaid’s Tale | Light of Day Stories

  2. The reason for the decline is simple. It started with Romania closing down. Even though we saw some rise afterwards, thereafter all went downwards. Scandal, stricter Hague regulation, scandal, regulation etc.
    ( Watch now India – the country for ICA now, best regulated)

    Romania is actually the topic nobody likes to talk about. The first country which was forced by the EU to implement the CRC.
    …I could go on and on what happened thereafter…

    Regarding Ethiopia:

    ” However, I would argue there is an ethical obligation for the country of origin to provide it to the birth/first parents.”

    Irrespective of what i think:

    If the ethiopian families parents have an interest in the children, so they should have the post adoption information and if indeed the ethiopian adoptions are ” weak”, has the US orphan definition really being met ?

    Of course none of the post adoption reports are being digitalized. There is tons of work to do, to deal with the aftermaths of the adoptions.

    In our report ” Fruits of Ethiopia” we also wrote about the post adoption reporting.

    In India, in 2003 a study was done. The researchers checked around 1000 court files and whether the post adoption reports were on file. Often not! ” On their own” . Gita Ramaswamy and Amita Dhanda did the study.

  3. Pingback: Ethiopia Suspends Adoptions | Light of Day Stories

  4. The answer is ALL OF THE ABOVE plus MUCH, MUCH more has led to the declines. Ultimately, intercountry adoption has so many risks that the answer is far to complicated for a boiled down answer. Each country has its unique dynamics and risks–especially the functioning of civil society and the level of corruption that is taking place there, in general. WE MUST accept that when there is a failed state, like Democratic Republic of Congo, then an ethical adoption is impossible to guarantee or verify. And, anyone who knows anything about adoptions from DRC knows that those adoptions are beyond dodgy. When it came to Russia, it was an open secret that adoption agencies were telling American families to travel with crisp one hundred dollar bills–usually in excess of $10,000USD because bribery was an accepted reality. Agencies and families knew better but in service to themselves they decided that their ethical framework was oriented to their view of “saving a child” and worry less about the child buying that was clearly going on (bribery by a US citizens overseas is a federal crime!). In the case of Guatemala, the corruption was so rampant that it is know that children were literally stolen from their mothers and there were homicides of women whose bodies were dumped and found with C-sections. Prospective families wanted to hear nothing of that during the adoption boom there–even though human rights defenders were pleading for change (see Norma Cruz’s work). Again, the idea of child rescue and getting “my child” out was more important to prospective families. Now, Guatemalan adoptees are learning the awful truth that an unknown but significant number of adoptions there were illicit and the context of violence against women was horrifying–you SIMPLY CANNOT have an ethical relinquishment and consent process when there is an environment of impunity when it comes to violence against women. I can go on and on–and I’ve not even mentioned China with its unique issues/abuses. When it comes to Korea, there are more and more domestic adoptions there annually and they have capped/limited outgoing adoptions as their social service system is more poised to deal with the issues at hand and their economy has changed significant since their earlier days of being the #1 country of origin. Each country’s unique problems (or emerging systems in the case of Korea) has led to decline in the practice along with the issues outlined above. This is a culmination of issues and problems and any adoption service provider/adoption advocate who denies the above information that I have share OR is in this post–is simply not being honest. Distrust the proponents who will not have a forthright conversation about how to change and improve the system–their willful blindness is beyond ignorant at this juncture. If you want to know more, see our new book: From Intercountry Adoption to Global Surrogacy: A Human Rights History and New Fertility Frontiers (Routledge, 2017). The first chapter, which covers much of which I have described above, is available for free on google books at: https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=LCKtDQAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PT13&ots=iv7JPdA0fO&sig=XXW_W7QmmDRaO15pvI-X5kfCKcc#v=onepage&q&f=false
    –Karen S. Rotabi

  5. “Right now, there is a fairly strong current of anti-adoption momentum”

    I think it’s more accurate to call it “criticism about the adoption industry” or “momentum that is more friendly or respectful of children and families”.

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