Controversial Questions for the International Adoption Community About Money. So Much Money.

Should the United States be spending millions of dollars to adopt a relatively small number of children from overseas?

Approximately 1500 children were adopted from other countries to the U.S. in FY2022. If the average amount of fees to the adoption service providers (U.S. adoption agencies) was $30,000 per adoption, Americans spent $45,000,000 to adopt those 1500 children.

Forty Five Million Dollars.

Adoption may have been the best and only choice for those children. I don’t know. I want all children to be safe and loved, and I realize that can be challenging.

Here’s the thing though. Who in the U.S. is adopting children internationally? Mostly upper-middle class white people—folks who have historically held loads of power and privilege. So millions of dollars are being spent by them, and then they get a fair amount of that back from the US government.

Most if not all of the adoptive parents can claim the adoption tax credit. According to The Tax Policy Center of the Urban Institute and Brookings Administration, “The credit has been repeatedly expanded, from an initial maximum value of $5,000 in 1997 to $14,300 in 2020. In 2016, taxpayers claimed total adoption credit of $290 million. The temporary availability of a refundable credit pushed the cost of the credit up to the dramatically higher figures of $1.2 billion in 2010 and $610 million in 2011 (including the refundable portion).”

The adoption tax credit was intended to be an incentive for folks to adopt from the U.S. foster care system, particularly for children with special needs. Much of that tax credit money though now goes for international adoptions; some goes for U.S. infant adoptions (folks who connect with an expectant mom and then take the newborn baby home from the hospital) and some for foster care adoption. However, a hefty portion—hundreds of millions of dollars—has gone for international adoptions, and often the adoptive parents would have pursued the adoption regardless of the credit.

Again, according to the Tax Policy Center, “The most recent year with data available by adoption type (2004) indicates that nearly half of adoptions for which the credit was claimed were for domestic children without special needs, with only 18 percent classified as special needs, and the remainder reflecting international adoptions.”

Here’s an eye-opening paragraph from the 2020 report “Adoption Tax Benefits from the Congressional Research Service:

“The legislative history of the current adoption tax benefits indicates that Congress enacted these incentives to encourage more adoptions. However, there is currently little evidence that adoption tax benefits are an effective policy tool to increase adoptions. Instead, data suggest that adoption tax benefits are often a windfall to families that would have adopted in their absence. In addition, the vast majority of adoption tax benefits go to upper-income Americans, even though data indicate that a significant number of lower- and middle-income Americans adopt. Finally, recent evidence suggests that adoption tax benefits have been difficult for the IRS to administer in terms of keeping both erroneous benefit claims and taxpayer burden low.” (boldface is mine)

A whole strong school of thought asserts that international adoptions, with their large amounts of money and the reality of who holds power (the adoptive parents, just to be clear), equates to child trafficking. International birth parents are generally impoverished, marginalized, and vulnerable. They hold virtually no power.

That’s one reason I would love to see both our Congress and the State Department welcoming international birth/first parents to their discussions about next steps in intercountry adoption policy. International adult adoptees should of course also be included in much greater numbers. Instead, it is the adoptive parents, the prospective parents, and the adoption agencies that are holding the microphone tightly in the conversations with the State Department. Adoptive parents, prospective parents, and the agencies should be demanding the presence and the voices of the birth/first parents and the adult adoptees in policy discussions and legislative hearings.

And no, I am not holding my breath on this.

I’d like to see adoption tax credit funding go, for one example, toward post-adoption services for international first/birth parents. They usually get absolutely nothing in terms of services or information, while adoptive families in the U.S. get tax credits, insurance funds, access to therapists and consultants, and, depending on their agency, an array of post-adoptive services in the language they speak and read in. Imagine what even a small percentage of that funding could do for international birth/first parents. They deserve counseling and support, after having lost their children to adoption. Some mothers grieve for the rest of their lives, in loneliness and isolation.

Iinternational adoption is not a solution to poverty, or if it is, it’s only for a tiny number of children (1517, this year) on whose ostensible behalf millions of dollars are being spent, just to get them here to the U.S.

The recent U.S. State Department report on international adoptions says that the Office of Children’s Issues requested the resumption of intercountry adoptions from the People’s Republic of China. State met virtually with the Central Authority of Honduras to clarify requirements for U.S. citizens residing in Honduras seeking to adopt Honduran children. The Special Advisor for Children’s Issues traveled to Indianapolis to attend the National Council for Adoption’s annual conference, and met with adoption stakeholders there and presented on the Department’s work to promote intercountry adoption.

(Note: I’d bet good money that very few if any of those “stakeholders” were international birth parents or adult international adoptees. I’d be happy to be wrong.)

An adult and a child are walking along the beach. The sky and beach look hazy.
Newport Beach, OR © Maureen McCauley

Further, the State Department report notes that “The Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Russia, and Latvia have established or maintained a significant law or regulation preventing or prohibiting adoptions involving immigration to the United States. The Department continued to engage foreign authorities in several of these countries to encourage resumed intercountry adoptions.”

Has the State Department also engaged the birth/first parents about this proposed resumption of adoptions? If not, why not? All of us, and perhaps especially our Congress, desperately need to hear the birth parents’ voices, and not keep them in systemic silence.

We in the United States also need to look at what other countries are doing to investigate international adoptions. Other governments—South Korea, the Netherlands, Norway, Finland, Switzerland, Australia, Chile, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, Guatemala—are putting time and money into investigations of illicit adoptions, ending adoptions due to corruption, and listening to birth/first parents and adult adoptees. It is a global movement, and the United States needs to get engaged.

I am ruminating here. I don’t have solid answers or strategies. I think it is time to set adoption on its head, look at it critically, say out loud who holds power currently, and then build a far better system. I’ll keep thinking.

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