The U.S. State Department just released a report revealing the continuing decrease in the number of international adoptions. Since the peak of 22,884 in 2004, the number of international adoptions has dropped to 7,094 in 2013.
China still tops the list of sending countries, followed by Ethiopia and then Ukraine, Haiti and Congo. Russia, once one of the most popular sending countries, is almost off the list completely, with just 250 adoptions taking place before it banned adoption to the US last year.
Chuck Johnson, National Council on Adoption CEO, cited the application of the Hague Convention on Inter-Country Adoption as one of the reasons for the decline in adoptions. As I have pointed out before, this is not a surprise. The rigorous guidelines that come with overregulation make it exceedingly more difficult to adopt today than it was 10 years ago.
The Convention requires countries to meet minimum standards in international adoption; meeting these standards requires establishing new entities and systems within government in order to be compliant.1
But lower income countries like many in Africa don’t have the resources to meet these requirements. Because these countries can’t meet the Convention’s standards, the US State Department refuses to carry out inter-country adoptions with them.
As a result, adoption rates fall, leading to devastating consequences. Children languish in orphanages or on the streets. They contract and even die from diseases that are treatable or preventable in receiving countries. They are abused, trafficked on the black market, or become sex workers to survive.
More important than the drop in international adoption rates is the respective rise in the number of suffering children throughout the world. These sad statistics aren’t surprising, given the regulatory framework that’s in place. The system needs to be de-regulated, and should instead function via public-private partnerships.
1The Intercountry Adoption Act of 2000: The United States’ Ratification of the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children, and its Meager Effect on International Adoption, by O’Keeffe, Kate, in 40 Vand. J. Transnat’l L. 1611 (‘November, 2007) at 1628-1629
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It's a basic economic principle that heavy regulation leads to corruption in the form of black markets and cheating. Complying with regulations is expensive, so if you can find a way to get around the rules and skirt regulations, you can increase your gains.
In Kazakhstan, regulation of international adoption has led to the absurd result of doctors purposefully misdiagnosing infants with serious illnesses like cerebral palsy or spastic quadriplegia so that they can be adopted internationally.
The Hague Convention on International Adoption was drafted to ensure that international adoptions are “made in the best interests of the child and with respect for his or her fundamental rights and to prevent the abduction, the sale of, or traffic in children and each State should take, as a matter of priority, appropriate measures to enable the child to remain in the care of his or her family of origin.”
Countries acceding to the convention, like Kazakhstan, implement standards that must be met before children from that country can be adopted internationally. One standard required of the Convention is that placement of a child in the country of origin must be sought before international placement may be considered.
Hence Kazakhstan's deviousness. By informing Kazakhstan citizens that a child is disabled in some way, adoption agencies can report that their citizens passed the child up, and offer it for adoption internationally, getting more money for the placement.
Kazakhstan's behavior is just one of many examples of how rigorous regulation leads to corruption rather than protection in the international adoption process.
People have a human right to parent, and children have a human right to live and thrive. By over-regulating international adoption, we are hurting and often outright denying those rights.
 ” International adoption: sick children are healthy?” by Altynai Zhumzhumina, in Tengri News, available at http://en.tengrinews.kz/people/International-adoption-sick-children-are-healthy-26236/
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Yesterday's article, “Want to adopt from Syria? Adoption agencies urge people to 'slow down'” is a great read if you're wondering about possibly adopting from war-torn Syria to help children who have lost their families. There are many causes of orphanhood, including the devastations of natural disaster and war. In 2010 the earthquake in Haiti orphaned tens of thousands of children.1 Today the civil war in Syria has affected over 5 million children. Millions have had to leave school or flee to other countries, and more than 10,000 children have died as a direct result of the conflict.
Images of children during times like these are heartbreaking. As Lisa Belkin described during the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, “they reminded me so much of my own 10-mont-old, except these orphans don't have food and water. … They sleep in the same position, play in the same way and cry in the same way as my baby, but I've been hearing stories of severe dehydration, lack of formula and
other basic supplies. … I can just drive to the nearest supermarket to provide for my baby, we have food in abundance, but the orphans in Haiti don't have even the accessibility to basic needs. It makes me want to adopt – something I never, ever thought would remotely enter my mind.”2
During times like these, international adoption is particularly vulnerable to corruption. Many children become separated from parents or relatives who are still alive and would not consent to an adoption. But amid the chaos of conflict, systems that might be in place during times of peace won't function to effectively ensure that a child is truly adoptable; that there is no family willing to raise her. Adoption “middle men” may see monetary opportunity in playing on Americans' sense of wanting to help through adoption.
One (undesirable) way to address this problem is through ultra-strict regulation, like the current system in Syria. Syria does not allow international adoption of Muslim children, effectively making it impossible to adopt from Syria. No adoption means no corrupt adoptions (ignoring for the moment the black market adoptions that surface as a result of a total ban on adoption at the state level). But it also means orphans who suffer as a result of hunger, violence, fear – needlessly dying from preventable and treatable diseases.
A better way to address the problem is by educating people who see heart-wrenching images of children and want to help. People need to understand that the most important thing these children need is not necessarily a new family; they may already have one that is prepared to care for them if they can only be reunited. People also need to know that adopting in the midst of a crisis runs the risk of an adoption being corrupt.
Ideally, one day there will be watchdog organizations to ensure that children who are adopted no longer have any family to go to in their countries of origin. But until then, people who are confronted with journalistic images of solitary children shouldn't assume that adoption is the best way to help.
1Haiti's Children and the Adoption Question, New York Times (Nov. 25 2007)
2Adopting a Child from Haiti, by Lisa Belkin, New York Times Blog (Jan 25 2010)
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Russia has hardly been the poster child of international adoption advocacy lately. It ceased adopting children out to the United States in early 2013, after having adopted out more than 50,000 children to American families since 1991.1 More recently than that, it banned adoption by same-sex couples.2
Pursuant to its latest bizarre policy stance, Russian officials are proposing banning adoptions to countries where it is legal to administer life-terminating treatment to children with terminal illness. As of February, Belgium is the first country in the world to allow this practice – the law states that the terminally ill child would have to face “unbearable physical suffering,” and make repeated requests to die, a decision that must be agreed upon by parents, doctors and psychiatrists.3
Russia should not be restricting its adoption program any more than it already has. In 2011, Michael Schwirtz reported that due to post-collapse social upheaval in Russia, there were more orphans in Russia than at the end of World War II. He noted that these children “languish in Russian orphanages,” where, with few Russian families willing to adopt, large government subsidies keep the orphanage system entrenched. In 2013, a video was released showing staff at an Amur orphanage torturing the children.
(The video has since been taken down).
It is incumbent upon countries to seize every opportunity to create a system where their children can thrive. In many cases this means creating a functional international adoption system so that children may grow up in a family rather than an institution or on the streets. The more bans countries put in place on international adoption, the more we allow children to suffer abuse, malnourishment, and sickness.
Millions more children will die this year because of the brutal reality of orphanhood than due to legalized euthanasia.4 I can only hope Russia’s proposal doesn’t become law.
1 “Pact on Adoptions Ends a US-Russian Dispute,” by Michael Schwirtz, New York Times July 13, 2011
3 “Belgium’s Parliament Votes Through Child Euthanasia,” BBC News Europe, February 13, 2014, available at
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4 I have estimated previously that approximately four million orphans die in the developing world every year. In 2012, there were 1,432 Belgium citizens who elected to receive life-terminating treatment.
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Medical services geared towards adoptees are an important means of advancing international adoption. For one thing, children from low income countries often lack access to comprehensive medical evaluations and healthcare, making them underimmunized and highly vulnerable to illness or disease. What’s more, children from abroad may be exposed to conditions that are not common in the US, such as tuberculosis, measles, or hepatitis. It’s critical that doctors screening and treating these children are aware of their special needs in these regards.
While Dr. Jane Aronson has been screening and treating international adoptees for years in her New York practice, this specialized kind of service has now hit the west coast as well.
UCLA is now home to the new International Adoption and Travel Clinic, which provides medical services to adopting families and their children, from the pre-adoption stage all the way through to the completed adoption. Clinicians Dr. Yvonne Bryson and Dr. Nava Yeganeh, pediatric infectious disease specialists, will screen potential adoptees for physical, mental and behavioral development. During the weeks or months in which a family is in its child’s country of origin, when the family has close contact with their child, the clinic fields questions via email. Finally, when the child arrives in the US, the clinic physicians know to be on the lookout for afflictions that are endemic to the child’s country of origin.
The fact that these services exist is heartening. It shows that society is accepting international adoption as a legitimate means of family formation. In addition, doctors who specialize in international adoptees are a great resource for parents who are thinking about adoption but might otherwise not begin the process out of fear that it would be hindered by medical issues.
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Tina Traster’s piece in The Daily Beast, refers to Ukraine as “America’s New Adoption Mecca,” in the wake of Russia’s international adoption shut down. As you may know, Russia halted international adoptions to the US in early 2013, prior to which it had hovered at the 2nd or 3rd most popular sending country for international adoption.
Some families who were in the process of adoption Russian children are now turning to Ukraine to fulfill their goals of expanding their families. In her story, Traster profiles a family that adopted a baby with a congenital heart defect just 9 months after beginning the adoption process (Ukraine requires children to be at least 5 to be adopted in most circumstances; one exception is where the child has special needs).
It’s not that the process is easier per se – Ukraine requires post-adoption reports every 3 years until a child turns 18 for example – but Ukraine’s adoption process doesn’t seem to be as affected by intracountry turmoil or adoption politics as other countries. This means Ukraine can be viewed as a reliable source for international adoptions, where the process won’t be disrupted by the country closing its doors.
However, as Traster notes, when she adopted from Russia 10 years ago, she was “never afraid our efforts would be stymied by shifting political winds, or by anything at all. Like many other adoptive parents, we chose Russia because—though the adoption process was grueling and expensive—it was a sure thing, unlike the minefield that domestic adoption can be.”
An additional boon to adopting from Ukraine right now is that it is not party to the Hague Convention, meaning it is not bound by the type of bureaucracy or red tape that delays the adoption process and makes it more costly.
It will be interesting to watch the numbers of adoptees from Ukraine in the wake of Russia’s adoption shut-down. It will also be interesting to see how successful the country is in adopting its orphans out while keeping corruption at a minimum, in light of claims that being a non-party to the Hague convention engenders corruption.
Hopefully its adoption process doesn’t go the way of Russia’s.
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Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., is the chief advocate of a bill known as “Children in Families First,” or CHIFF for short. CHIFF calls for redirecting a $60 million portion of the $2 billion the US is spending on vulnerable children internationally towards exactly what I have been advocating on this blog: establishing a central body dedicated to building capacity and consensus around international adoption. The focus, according to the CHIFF website, would be on establishing a functional international adoption system that protects vulnerable children from abuses they face within the now-broken system.
The downside to CHIFF is that it places this body within the Department of State. I firmly believe such a central organization should be outside of the confines of government. Already, CHIFF has vocal dissenters within the House who believe establishing more bureaucracy to an already-slow system is not the answer.
A compromise between democrats and republicans who are concerned about balancing budget woes against distant, unseen children should not be the wellspring of progress in international adoption. Progress should spring from a group firmly grounded in the consensus that every child deserves a family because it is their human right.
The ideal solution would be a non-governmental, not-for-profit organization with both a think tank side and an active watchdog side that establishes standards for international adoption programs and reports on specific adoption agencies within countries who are or are not adhering to these standards. Not only could such an agency get grants like a portion of the $2 billion CHIFF wants to redirect, but it could get grants from other countries’ governments and wealthy individuals as well.
Landrieau’s bill is a solid start. It’s the most progress we’ve made in this direction to date. I fear that if it fails, momentum towards solving the orphan crisis will sputter. But if it’s a success – it could make a meaningful impact. For that reason, I support the bill, and I think you should too.
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When a woman aborts based on the sex of the fetus, it is called a “sex selective abortion.” While the phenomenon exists in the United States, it is notable for its prevalence in parts of Asia and Eastern Europe where there is a preference for sons. In those regions, sex selective abortion has dropped the ratio of girl babies to boy babies from the usual rate of 100:95 (for every 100 boy babies, 95 girl babies are born) to as low as 100:86.
Governments aren’t ignoring the issue. The Indian and Chinese governments have enacted bans on prenatal sex testing.
But here’s what’s fascinating about sex selective abortion and the related bans. Sex selective abortion took hold as access to sex-identifying technologies (think ultrasound) increased. Without these technologies, women carried babies to term whether it was male or female, and then we ran into problems associated with “unwanted girls”… high rates of abandonment, contributing to today’s orphan crisis, and infanticide.
Traditionally, India and China have topped the list of the worst rates of female infanticide and abandoned girls. In the early 2000s, most of China’s orphanages were filled with girls. Today, the sex ratio seems to be evening out, with equal numbers of girls and boys entering orphanages. I wonder what the numbers look like in India.
Studies show that greater access to abortion means less infanticide. This must hold true for orphanhood as well – if an “unwanted girl” isn’t born, she can’t be condemned to an orphanage.
There’s no doubt that where selective sex abortion allows sex inequality to thrive we need to do something to eliminate it. It remains to be seen whether bans on prenatal sex testing are a good first step. But in the mean time, it’s worth exploring the link between selective sex abortion and the orphan crisis.
 “The mystery of China’s orphans” by Beth Nonte Russell, 2/1/2007, at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/01/opinion/01iht-edrussell.html?_r=0
 “The Changing Face of China’s Orphans” by Amy Eldridge, 1/14/2013, at http://www.lwbcommunity.org/the-changing-face-of-chinas-orphans
 “Does Abortion Cause Infanticide?” by Jay Livingston, PhD, 5/19/2013, at http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2013/05/19/does-abortion-cause-infanticide/
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Saturday's NYT article “Forget their Dad; Just Listen to Them” was a refreshing take on adopted families – because it wasn't a take on adopted families at all. Pictured were Theo and Sasha Spielberg, featured in a piece about their band, Wardell. The author described the duo as “the children of Steven Spielberg, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker and producer, and his wife, the actress Kate Capshaw.”
After hitting us over the head with the obvious description of Spielberg, I fully expected them to kick a dead horse with the fact that Theo is adopted. But that fact was refreshingly absent.
One might think that the piece had nothing to do with their heritage, and everything to do with their band, so why mention the adoption at all? The unfortunate answer is that society cares whether a child is an adoptikid or a biokid.
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This article about Sandra Bullock dressing up for Halloween with her son does not fail to mention, 3 paragraphs in, that Louis was adopted. This article about Charlize Theron mentions that “she ran errands with her adopted little boy in Los Angeles.” And here's article is just plainly titled, “Katherine Heigl's Day Out With Adopted Daughter Naleigh.”
If every time someone introduced or talked about you, they also mentioned some benign characteristic, you'd be self-conscious about it. You would feel set apart because of it. When the media portrays families as different because they are [fill-in-the-blank], it contributes to the a myth that that trait somehow has a stigma about
it. We don't say “Ellen's same-sex wife, Portia,” or “Elton John's gay husband David.” If you think marriage is different than reproduction, well we also don't say “Mariah Carey's in vitro fertilized twins.”
Let's work on celebrating and accepting the way individuals choose to form families by saying “daughter” instead of “adopted daughter.”
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