Why Is the U.S. State Department’s New System For Accessing International Adoption Stats So Terrible?

The U.S. State Department had changed its International Adoption Statistics page so that it is unwieldy, time-consuming, and frustrating.

Terrible optics: it’s almost as if the Department were trying to make information about adoptee immigrants difficult to access.

There are two descriptors, both somewhat misleading: “All Years Adoption Statistics” and “Total Adoptions.” Both are shown as 278,745.

However, and this has been the case for many years, State publishes its international adoption stats only from 1999. Adoptions began in significant numbers after the Korean War, in the early 1950’s. I don’t know why the thousands of adoptees in the 64 years between, say, 1955 and 2019 are not included by State in the “All Years Adoption Statistics.” It means that tens of thousands of adoptees are simply not included, contributing to the invisibility of adult adoptees and the silencing of their voices.

A bold new feature on State’s site is a vaguely interactive map, as if the hemispheric location of a country of origin is the main point of interest. On brand for the State Department, I suppose, but not so much for understanding the complexity of international adoption. When you click on a country name, it shows up on the map with a blinking pink outline that then fades. The color of the country depends on how many children were placed for adoption from it. There is an alphabetical listing of sending countries, each of which has a little sorta quadrilateral shape next to it that ranges in color from yellow to orange to brown. What does that signify, you ask? Click on the house shape at the upper right of the map to find out. (Spoiler: The legend explains that the colors correspond to the number of children adopted, greater/equal to 81637, then greater/less than 6421, then greater/less than 235, and so on. Yes, those are the actual numbers used.)

Anther new feature about that alphabetical listing of countries (and whether they are Hague signatories or not) is that you must go through the entire list EACH TIME you are looking for a piece of data, say adoptions by year in Guatemala, or, heaven forbid, Zimbabwe. You will start each time with Afghanistan (sometimes Albania). This will be true if you are looking at 2015 stats for China, then want to switch to 2016 stats for China. Start with Afghanistan… and keep on scrolling.

Another option as a source of the numbers of international adoptions is a non-governmental site, the Johnston Archives. with loads of footnotes and a caveat from the researcher William Johnston: “Data are from multiple sources, sometimes using inconsistent methods or reporting periods (e.g. fiscal year vs. calendar year) such that time series may not be uniform. Some data are incomplete.” It’s a fascinating list nonetheless. As you scroll down the pages, you see how international adoption exploded globally in the 1980’s onward.

And that brings us back to the unfortunate fact that the Adoption Statistics page of the U.S. State Department only shows the past 2 decades. There are tens of thousands of adoptees now in their 40’s, 50’s, and older. But they appear nowhere on the stats page. They should. There are ramifications on citizenship issues, for example. (More on that soon.)

There are links to the State Department’s Annual Reports, which began in 2008. That’s the year (on April 1) that the Hague Convention on Inter-Country Adoption went into effect for the U.S., and the annual report became mandated. The FY2008 report is filled with adorable photos of children, plus about 4 pages of a list of adoption agencies. The FY2019 Annual Report is 10 pages of text and tables. One blurry cute kid photo.

In the FY2019 report, there is no list of agencies, though there is a link to the agency info on the sole accreditor (IAAME, the International Adoption Accreditation and Maintenance Entity) page; the list of agencies is 176 pages. It’s not that there are thousands of agencies; they space out the list of the countries where each agency works plus the addresses of the offices.

Interestingly, on the same link as the list of agencies, IAAME also has a “Substantiated Complaints and Adverse Action Report” which is 188 pages.

Adoption is a complex set of numbers. I am no statistician nor historian, yet I find this information fascinating. It’s quite a rabbit hole, as we say in the U.S., a path of information that if followed leads to more and more things to follow. Information is power, after all, though it’s what we do with it (learning context via interviews, research, and reports; critiquing and citing sources; double checking!) that is vital. When what should be public information is difficult to access or even find, we do a disservice to the people involved.

I’ll close with another controversial point: I realize that the State Department has information/reporting mandates which it meets per the Hague adoption convention. Still. Information on iU.S. international adoption should include statistics on birth/first families as well as on adoptees, and they (not only adoptive or prospective parents) should be involved, encouraged, and welcomed to comment on not only the statistics but the policies over a lifetime.

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