For the first time since international adoption began growing in
popularity two decades ago, so many countries have either shut their
doors to adoption, tightened their rules or increased domestic adoption
that it’s now far harder to adopt overseas. This is changing the course
of a "revolution"
in which Americans flocked abroad to bring home orphans in record
numbers and create a new and different community of adoptive families.
"Everything’s not closing down, but there’s no question
there’s a constriction happening," said Adam Pertman, author of
"Adoption Nation: How The Adoption Revolution Is Transforming America"
and executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a research organization. "I haven’t seen anything like this in 15 to 20 years."
Tom DeFilipo, president of the Joint Council on International Children’s Services,
which represents international adoption agencies, said that for the
first time in his organization’s 35-year history, there are more U.S.
families willing to adopt children than there are children legally
available for adoption. "This is a transformational period for
international adoption," DeFilipo said, "there’s no question about it."
Vietnam is the most recent country to pull back on adoptions, announcing
last week that it will close it doors to U.S. adopters once an
agreement with Washington expires on Sept. 1. Vietnam shut down
temporarily in 2003, after allegations of corruption and baby selling
plagued its program, then reopened in 2005 to a rush of new adoptions.
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Vietnam’s announcement came after the U.S. embassy in Hanoi released a report
detailing new corruption allegations, and citing a suspiciously high
number of children listed as abandoned, which makes it impossible to
prove they were truly orphaned or that their parents knowingly agreed
to relinquish them.
The Vietnamese government strongly denied the accusations,
it will shut down rather than deal with what it described as
disrespectful U.S. officials. The two countries remain at an impasse.
Guatemala, also a popular county for U.S. adoptions, said
on Tuesday that it would suspend the adoptions of 2,300 children by
U.S. citizens for at least a month to investigate whether they were
handled legitimately. On April 1, the State Department announced
a total halt to new adoptions in Guatemala, as its government works to
address longstanding problems with corruption and charges that women
were enticed to put their children up for adoption for money.
Other countries are changing their policies for different reasons. China
may deny travel permission for adoptions during the Olympics this
summer because of traffic congestion, and waiting times to adopt
children has increased from nine months to more than two years. In
recent years China has moved to limit
the type of families who can adopt, excluding from its program single
parents and people who are obese or take anti-depressants.
is working to encourage domestic adoption, and last year, for the first
time since it opened its doors to foreign adoptions, more Russian
children were adopted domestically than internationally, DeFilipo said.
Korea — the trailblazer
of international adoption after poverty engulfed the country in the
aftermath of the Korean War — also has fewer children available for
adoption as it has grown more prosperous and has encouraged Korean
families to adopt.
As a result of all the cultural changes, restrictions and shutdowns,
international adoption began to decline beginning in 2005, and its
numbers are expected to keep falling, Pertman said. Adoptions had grown
from 7,000 annually in 1990 to a peak of almost 23,000 in 2004, with
Americans accounting for about half of all adoptions worldwide. The
total fell to
19,411 in 2007. Last year, despite declining adoptions, China still
ranked as the top country for adoptions, followed by Guatemala and
The influx of adoptees comprised the "revolution" that Pertman spoke
of: playgroups for children from Asia, families with a mix of
biological children and babies from overseas, culture camps
to connect children with the heritage of their countries and the
greater acceptance and high visibility of adoptive families. Celebrity
adoptions only fueled the popularity, with New York magazine declaring
blended families with children adopted internationally hip and trendy, thereby offending many adopters.
But the very popularity of international adoption also drew greater
scrutiny to its practices and abuses, as wealthy Americans and
foreigners descended on impoverished countries with available children,
paying fees that could reach $30,000 or more — money that sometimes
wound up in the pockets of corrupt local officials and adoption
facilitators rather than orphanages in need.
Adoptions ended in Cambodia
after numerous scandals, some involving birth mothers placing their
children temporarily in orphanages so they could be fed and cared for,
then returning to find them "adopted" by foreigners. The Irish
Independent in 2006 caught
on tape a Vietnamese-American facilitator talking about how she forged
birth certificates, paid off local officials and passed off children
with parents as abandoned in order to put them up for adoption. She
grossed $1 million for handling 150 adoptions.
To Pertman, international adoption is now at a turning point. The next
phase of the adoption revolution, he believes, will be smaller
countries with fewer children opening up to adoptions, like Ethiopia,
while larger countries begin cutting back. He predicts fewer
international adoptions, and more adoptions domestically of children in
The scrutiny, Pertman explains, is a natural part of the growth of
international adoption and the process of moving to its next phase. "We want to get adoption to the point where it’s as
ethical, as thoughtful, as humane and as efficient as we can make it,"
he said. "We want to make sure that adoptions are done right, and done
for the right reasons, because kids need homes. We want to see that
adoption is done not because demand drives the process, but because the
need drives the process."
The changing nature of international adoption can be
for the good, as agencies open programs in countries where they haven’t
been before, DeFilipo said. Ethiopia has grown in popularity as an
adoption source, and other countries in Africa, Latin America and parts
of Asia are considering programs.
But the world still has 143 million orphans, and the fact that so few are available for adoption "is a tragedy for the kids," he said.
That reality is likely to prompt more international disputes like the one in Vietnam.
DeFilipo’s group and other adoption advocates are launching a campaign
next week to pressure the State Department to settle its dispute with
Vietnam and restart adoptions. He pointed out that Washington said last
December, prior to the embassy report, that it planned to end the
adoption agreement with Vietnam. Then it turned around last week and
leaked the report about corruption to the press.
He and other advocates contend the State Department is bullying Vietnam
and shutting down all adoptions, when it could work instead to end the
abuses while allowing legitimate adoptions to continue. Vietnam remains
open for adoptions from other countries.
"What the U.S. is doing is just another example of ‘The Ugly American,’" DeFilipo said.
He’s not the only one pointing the finger at the State Department. Thomas Atwood, president of the National Council for Adoption,
an advocacy group, contended that frequent turnover among State
Department staffers assigned to adoptions is behind some of the
In Vietnam, staff come and go every two to three years, and officials
don’t understand the psychology and culture of adoptions, he said. A
woman might list her child as abandoned on paperwork out of shame, not
because the adoption is tainted. "They’ll go through the paperwork and
find something nefarious there when it’s not," Atwood said.
The State Department has said it stands
by its findings. Steve Royster, spokesman for consular affairs, said
it’s just not true that the U.S. government opposes adoption in
Vietnam, or that it opposes international adoption in general.
The U.S. is working closely with countries to comply with the Hague Convention,
an international adoption treaty aimed at reforming adoptions and
ending abuses. Royster said the Hague agreement will put all countries
"on the same page" when it comes to adoption rules and regulations,
making the whole process more uniform and less vulnerable to
"We’re fully committed to international adoption when it’s the best way to get families for these kids," he said.
The fight over adoption in Vietnam is likely to be
mirrored elsewhere, as more countries work to comply with the Hague
agreement and as U.S. adoption agencies begin operating in countries
establishing international adoption programs for the first time. As
Atwood pointed out, "America is not exactly at the height of its
popularity right now," ensuring that longstanding charges of bullying
and "American imperialism" when it comes to adoptions in other
countries will persist.
Even as international adoption moves to a new phase, old controversies
will no doubt follow along. And that leaves the fate of the world’s
orphans as unclear as ever.