US State Department Seeks Information About Complaints Against Adoption Agencies

The U.S. State Department seems to be looking for ways to improve the process by which adoptive families file complaints against adoption agencies. That could suggest State has concerns that complaints are not being handled well, and that agencies are retaliating against families.

International adoption is a long and complicated process, entangled with a lot of money and bureaucracy. The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption was established, at least in part, to reduce illegal practices in adoption. In the U.S., if an agency wants to provide adoptions internationally, and in particular in countries who are signatories to the Hague Convention, the agency needs to be accredited. The only accrediting body is the Council on Accreditation.

From COA’s web page:

As a status, Hague Accreditation or Hague Approval signifies that an agency meets the standards founded in the Convention, the Intercountry Adoption Act, and the Universal Accreditation Act.  This status indicates that COA has concluded that the agency or person conducts services in substantial compliance with the standards, and that COA monitors and oversees its performance, but is not a guarantee that services in any specific adoption were or will be provided in full compliance with the standards. (Emphasis mine.)

So–no guarantees.

From COA: “We are honored to work with the U.S. Department of State to make certain that adoption service providers (ASPs) have put in place safeguards to ensure intercountry adoptions take place ethically, in the best interests of children.  Since 2006 COA has served as the only national accrediting entity authorized by the U.S. Department of State to provide Hague Accreditation and Approval. Currently COA accredits around 200 adoption service providers.”

When adoptive or prospective adoptive parents have complaints about their ASP, they have some options. They can start, of course, with the agency itself. They can contact the state licensing board. They can contact COA to report concerns about an ASP who is Hague-accredited by COA.

They can also file a complaint with the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoptions Complaint Registry at the State Department. “The U.S. Department of State is committed to upholding the ethical standards, professional practices, and principles set forth in the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, the Intercountry Adoption Act of 2000 (IAA), and the Federal implementing regulations. The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoptions Complaint Registry will forward your complaint to the appropriate Accrediting Entity for action, and the Department will monitor complaints about accredited agencies or approved persons after receiving information from you.”

Recently, the State Department has reached out for more specific assistance, it seems, in handling complaints about agencies.

Did you file a complaint with the Council on Accreditation regarding an adoption agency (Adoption Service Provider) between October 2013 and December 2016? If so, the U.S. State Department would like your feedback. If you fall into that timeframe of having filed a complaint with COA, you can fill out their survey here.

I am not sure why State is looking into that particular timeframe. It does include the years when the U.S. Justice Department was investigating the fraud and corruption crimes committed by International Adoption Guides, whose indicted staffers are now awaiting prison sentencing. Many families filed complaints with COA about IAG. It also includes the time when the Democratic Republic of the Congo suspended adoptions and families in the U.S. protested widely, when the Joint Council on International Services closed, when Hana Williams’ adoptive parents were convicted of her death (and whose agency Adoption Advocates suddenly closed due to bankruptcy), when the number of adult international adoptees being deported has increased, and when more adoptive parents have become aware that the stories told to them about their children’s histories (and reasons for needing to be adopted) were false.

The survey itself is fairly straightforward, focusing on the behavior of COA when complaints were filed, how easy it was to file the complaint, how helpful COA was, how long the process took, that sort of thing. Two questions stood out to me: Did the agency retaliate after the complaint was filed? and, Knowing what you now know, would you file a complaint on the Complaint Registry?

Many adoptive parents don’t complain during the process, probably because they are concerned about provoking the people who may provide them with a child. I think it’s important that adoptive parents know that there are options to complain, and, that by complaining, perhaps some change will occur.

In recent decades, I would guess that the number of complaints (justified and unjustified) against adoption agencies has increased, for many reasons: we are an increasingly litigious society overall; adoptive parents who felt since they were paying so much money they could make unrealistic demands and ignore laws/policies that they found unsatisfactory; agency workers cut corners or failed to take the time to complete due diligence in the U.S. and in the countries where they were working; the belief by agency workers that they were doing God’s work and thus could gloss over legal requirements; adoption agency staff in sending countries who were not properly trained or supported by their agency; adoption agencies who lied to their clients (the adoptive parents); and adoption agencies that stopped returning client phone calls, later abruptly closing. There are no doubt more reasons.

In the future, I would not be surprised if adult adopted persons will complain or litigate as a class with the State Department and/or the Council on Accreditation. And imagine if first/birth parents were allowed a role in voicing their treatment before, during, and after an adoptive placement. Imagine a complaint process registry, in their global and local languages, were available that prompted an inquiry into the actions of an agency, accrediting entity, or government.

For now, I hope many people will respond to the State Department survey, and that State will share the results as soon as possible.

 

 

 

 

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.