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.

“The Economist” Editorial: Blind to the Realities of International Adoption

The Economist, the British-based weekly news magazine, missed a valuable opportunity to present much-needed solutions for children without families. Instead, it glossed over recent history and current realities around international adoption, sounding uninformed and starry-eyed.

All children deserve safe, loving families. International adoption is one means of helping, but there are many other much-needed actions as well. Too often, people romanticize the notion of adoption without understanding its realities. Think “Annie.”

The Economist recently published two articles on international adoption. I was among many folks interviewed for Sarah Esther Maslin’s article, “Home Alone: Fewer Families Are Adopting Children From Overseas.” She addresses the issues of fraud and corruption in Romania and Guatemala, among other countries, noting the frustration that some folks have with the bureaucracy around the adoption process: “Such sluggishness infuriates overseas parents. But many sending countries say critics underestimate the difficulties of building a robust adoption system—and ask why, if people in rich countries really care about poor children in poor places, they do not fund domestic programmes to keep families together instead.”

Indeed.

Maslin’s article explains why international adoptions have decreased so significantly in recent decades, and it’s important that this information get out into the world at large. (I wrote about the issue in this post: “Lamenting the Decline in International Adoption? Take Action.”)

In addition to Maslin’s article, The Economist also published an editorial, “Babies without borders.” The editorial was superficial at best, failing to speak out to its 1.3 million readers about genuinely effective ways to help children have families.

Adoption can benefit some children and families. However, there is a bigger picture around child welfare advocacy that must be addressed.

Here is the Letter to the Editor I sent to The Economist:

In urging that international adoptions be made easier, The Economist’s editorial “Babies without borders” is naïve, clichéd, and shallow. It includes the following:

  • A stunning amount of faith that the Hague Convention has rooted out fraud and corruption, and thus it is now safe to move faster in processing adoptions.
  • A failure to mention how many adult adoptees have discovered the extent of deception in their adoptions.
  • A cavalier dismissal of the loss of culture and history when children are internationally adopted.
  • A noticeable silence about several countries’ efforts to promote in-country adoption and to reduce the cultural stigmas around it.
  • An astonishing exhortation that U.S. evangelical Christians specifically should not be stopped on their happy way to adopting.
  • A lack of awareness about the current paucity of post-adoption services which has led to tragic re-homing situations, as well as to international adoptees being placed, for example,  in the U.S. foster care system.

As an adoptive parent, I know the power of adoption. International adoption, though, helps very few of the children who genuinely need help. Increased family preservation efforts and child/family sponsorships via reputable organizations are only two of the possible  solutions to ensuring that many more children have safe, loving families.

Unfortunately, The Economist was busy humming Little Orphan Annie’s “Hard Knock Life,” and quoting it, rather than examining realities and proposing thoughtful solutions.

 

 

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Please read both Sarah Maslin’s article and the editorial, and share your thoughts with The Economist. You can e-mail letters@economist.com. Include your mailing address and a daytime telephone number.

 

Moving From TV Shows to Legislative Reforms in International Adoption

TV shows and media reports often create a big emotional response with calls to action. The recent Dan Rather show “Unwanted in America” is no exception. Since the show aired on December 2, there have been 3 Gofundme sites, dozens of Facebook posts, a Facebook page “Unwanted in America,” a big meeting at the Ethiopian Community Center in Seattle, and no doubt many other events. I wrote yesterday about the Convergence of Concern Around Seattle Adoptees. Per that post, Julie and Rich Hehn, the adoptive parents of the Seattle adoptees featured on the show, declined to comment regarding “Unwanted,” so their views are not available.

Beyond efforts to help the young people featured in the show, there has also been much outcry to reform international adoption policies. This interest is not new in itself. In recent years, there has been a huge demand for change, from many different quarters: adult adoptees, Congress, adoptive parents, governments around the world, adoption agencies, family preservation groups, first/original parents, and concerned advocates. The outcry has reached a critical mass as everyone shares many of the same concerns, but sees solutions very differently. The Children in Families First act (CHIFF) is just one example of legislation that sounded good but fell far short, for many reasons.

“Unwanted” is the latest media event to use the stories of various adoptees to shed light on several troubling occurrences in adoptive families. I will describe 4 practices here. All are happening with increasing frequency.

One is a practice called re-homing, where adopted children are moved from one family to another without a full legal and transparent process. A Reuters series detailed the problems with re-homing, and many state and federal legislators have begun looking at possible legislation.

It’s deeply troubling that a child could be transferred via a Yahoo group to strangers, with maybe a notarized letter about power of attorney. What sort of help did the adoptive parents seek and receive, before letting their children go? What legal protections does the child have in these circumstances?

Some states have already taken action. Louisiana and Wisconsin have passed laws already. Rhode Island, Ohio, Colorado, Florida, and other states are moving in that direction. The federal government has held at least one hearing on re-homing, and more will be happening next year. This is all good news. That said, any actions in response to re-homing will, I hope, insist on increased resources and services for struggling families and children.

Another area of concern to many involved in adoption is that far too many internationally adopted children are being re-placed into new adoptive homes. This process may be arranged by an adoption agency or through lawyers, and is essentially the same as the first adoption: the (first adoptive) parents’ legal rights are terminated, and new parents become the (second set of) legal parents. On the Dan Rather show, author Joyce Maynard spoke extensively about her decision to dissolve her adoption of two Ethiopian girls who now live with a new family. I have written about internationally adopted children who are now available for adoption through our US foster care system.

While this has legal transparency and protections, there is great concern about why these second adoptions are needed. Was there insufficient preparation of the first adoptive parents? Was information about the child incomplete or inaccurate? Were there resources provided to help the child and the parents? What is the responsibility of the adoption agencies?

A specific concern raised by the Dan Rather show was the size of the adoptive family. of which 3 children are homeless now. Seattle-area’s Julie and Rich Hehn have 25-30 children, depending on what news article you read. Most of the adopted children (20?) were from Ethiopia. Some of the children had/have special needs. Some were placed with the Hehns after having been adopted and then given up by other families.

Regardless of those realities, I don’t know anyone whose jaw hasn’t dropped in response to the number of children adopted. Common reactions I’ve heard are these: How were the Hehns able to adopt 20+ children? How does that fit with best practices of child welfare? Is that a family, or a group home? Children with defined special needs, with serious medical and/or developmental issues, and with histories of loss and trauma absolutely need families. These children might also especially need more individual parental time and attention, and lots of it. In terms of adoption practice, placements of 20+ children require many resources and supports to be successful.

Large families have of course always existed, and many thrive. A big family can be a positive situation for children who have spent time in an orphanage, used to the rigors and camaraderie of being surrounded by others. Still, one hopes that any family taking in dozens of children is adequately prepared and supported in raising adopted children.

A note: many people have wondered why adoption agencies don’t follow up with families after the placement. Here’s the reason: once the adoption is finalized, the adopted child is the family’s child just like any other child. The family has every right to ignore an agency’s inquiries after the child is legally with the family. Some families want nothing to do with the adoption agency after the placement. Some call on the agency for help and support. This is why pre-adoption preparation is so vital, so that families can anticipate challenges and feel comfortable in seeking help. 

A fourth area of concern is adopted children who are thrown out of their adoptive families, and who sometimes end up homeless. That has been the case for at least 3 of the children adopted by the Hehns, according to the Dan Rather show. Among other heartbreaking parts of the show was the information about how many adoptees are at a homeless shelter in Minnesota. I have no doubts that additional research will show that this is true at other homeless shelters as well.

And, yes, I know that homeless shelters are filled with people from biological families. But there has been a definite uptick in adoptees being displaced from their families as minors or as legal adults. We need to understand why this is happening.

In response to some horrific cases of abuse and worse of foster and adopted children, in 2012 Washington state produced a powerful report with many excellent suggestions for reforms in adoption practice. Regrettably the state legislature has not yet approved the needed recommendations, but advocates are hopeful that there may be progress next year. Other states and the federal government are considering legislative improvements as well.

Bottom line: Let’s watch the TV shows and read the articles about tragedies happening in adoptive families. Then let’s put far greater energy, attention, and funding to pre-adoption screening and services for prospective families, to being open to the experiences and insights of adult adoptees, to including first/original parents in adoption policy discussions, and to providing viable, effective post-adoption resources.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dan Rather’s Show: “Unwanted Children–The Shameful Side of International Adoption”

Dan Rather hosted an in-depth show on AXS TV called “Unwanted Children–The Shameful Side of International Adoption.” To view the show, which is available here, you will need this password: danrather.

It’s a tough and important 2 hours to watch and ingest. Much of the focus is on Ethiopian adoptions, and children who have been “re-homed,” moved to new adoptive families with little oversight, assistance, or regulation. Reuters did a series on re-homing; information is available here.

“Unwanted Children” sheds light on some terrible child welfare practices in adoption. The idea that children can be internationally adopted to the United States, and then moved to new adoptive homes with less oversight than occurs with dogs, is deplorable.

Kathryn Joyce wrote powerfully in Slate in November 2013 about some of these adoptees as well. Her detailed, insightful article “Hana’s Story: An Adoptee’s Tragic Fate and How It Could Happen Again” was part of the impetus for the Dan Rather show.

This show, on the heels of E.J. Graff’s incisive report “They Steal Babies, Don’t They?“, is an explicit call to action for change in Ethiopian adoptions. I have spoken out about this; many, many people are deeply concerned around the globe. I hope to see a response soon from organizations such as the Joint Council on International Children’s Services, the National Council for Adoption, the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, and Both Ends Burning to demand changes in oversight and regulations, as well as solid improvement in services provided to adoptive and first/birth families.

Because: enough. I am so proud of groups like Ethiopian Adoptees of the Diaspora, and of Ethiopian Adoption Connection, who are speaking out and working hard to give voice to those who are too often left out of adoption policy discussions: the adoptees and the first families.

As an adoptive parent, I hope to see more eyes opened to some of the realities of adoption practices today, so that the rights of all children and parents are safeguarded, and all adoptions are done with transparency and integrity.

Please note also that a “GoFundMe” campaign has been set up to help the 9 Ethiopian adoptees who “are now homeless after being pushed out of their adoptive home,” according to the fundraiser. Information is available here.

 

 

Re-homing: Treating Adopted Children Like–No, Worse Than–Dogs

Source: Reuters article "The Child Exchange" Sept. 9, 2013

Source: Reuters article “The Child Exchange” Sept. 9, 2013

Have you heard of re-homing? It’s kind of nice-sounding, usually used for dogs and cats to find new homes.

Recently, though, “re-homing” has been used in the human adoption community, to describe moving an adopted child from one adoptive home to another. There may be good reasons for moving a child. But it should never be done lightly, never without exhausting all other resources (respite, therapy, counseling, etc.). Never via a Yahoo group.

That said, in too many places, post-adoption services (never mind high-quality post-adoption services) may not be available. While there are some parents who give up easily on children, there are many who struggle mightily, financially, physically, emotionally, for long periods of time, trying to find help for their children.

Surely though the transfer of a child shouldn’t  be arranged over the Internet, with no real legal, adoption agency, or government oversight, with children essentially being handed off to strangers in a parking lot. Right?

Read this Reuters/NBC News article: Americans Use The Internet to Abandon Children Adopted From Overseas.

If you ever wondered if the international adoption process needs more oversight–better screening and rigorous training prior to adoption, plus accessible, thorough post-adoption services, plus genuine legal protection for children–this article should convince you.

Send the article on to your state and federal elected officials, asking if they are okay with children being “exchanged” with no oversight, potentially to people who have been convicted of child pornography, to people who will tell a child to dig her own grave, to people who will disappear with the child, ending in who knows what fate.

Insist to our elected officials that (at a minimum) more legal oversight is needed for the safety of children.  Ask them to support increased funding for pre-adopt and post-adopt services.

If you have been moved by the horrific trial for homicide, manslaughter, and assault of the adoptive parents of Hana Alemu and her adopted Ethiopian brother, read the article, and send it on with your comments to the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Information on contacting your federal elected officials is here for the House and here for the Senate.

You can also contact the Joint Council on International Children’s Services, and the National Council on Adoption, both of which work with adoption agencies and with federal and state governments.

Ask the US State Department’s Office of Children’s Issues what public and comprehensive action they will take to protect children, since that’s their job in overseeing international adoptions. Here’s a quote from their web page:  “In this work, we are fully committed to protecting the welfare and interests of children.” That must include an oversight and enforcement role after the children arrive here. 

State Department contact information is available here.

As an adoptive parent of two sons from the US and two daughters from Ethiopia, I am deeply saddened and outraged by the information in the Reuters article–but not surprised. These tragic stories have been happening for far too long, though they haven’t received the attention they deserve.

We don’t want bad things happening to dogs. Surely these tragedies should not ever happen to children.