Over the past several years, international adoption decline is a tragic reality in the adoption community. When my family began our adoption journey seven years ago, the landscape of international adoption was very different. We attended an adoption fair, completed a home study, and within a year, we were on a plane to China to meet our son. A few years later, we began the process again. Our agency made us aware that timelines were increasing, and some countries had changed the policies. Ethiopia was officially closed. Uganda had changed residency requirements making it difficult to complete an adoption unless we had three continuous months to live in the landlocked East African country. And India was now open to adoption. We decided to pursue an adoption in India and, though the wait was long, our daughter joined our family in 2018.

In 2018, the last year for which data is available, the U.S. Department of State lists a total of 4,058 completed intercountry adoptions. At the height of international adoption, in 2004, a total of 22,989 adoptions were completed. That means that in less than fifteen years, the international adoption rate in the United States fell 82%. Across the news, we know there are more children in need of forever families than ever before. According to UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund), worldwide there are approximately 153 million orphans. Not all of these orphans are eligible for intercountry adoption, but of the top five sending countries to the United States in 2018, the approximate breakdown is as follows:

-China – 0.5 million orphans. 1,475 adopted to the United States in 2018

-India – 20 million orphans. 302 adopted to the United States in 2018 (one of which was our daughter)

-Colombia – 11,000 orphans. 229 adopted to the United States in 2018

-South Korea – 17,000 orphans. 206 adopted to the United States in 2018

-Haiti – 1 million orphans. 196 adopted to the United States in 2018

Though the number of orphans worldwide seems to rise each year, the international adoption rate has fallen steadily since 2004. Conversely, as reported by the National Council for Adoption, within roughly that same period of time, in 2007 there were 18,078 non-kinship infant adoptions in the United States, and in 2014, there were 18,329 non-kinship infant adoptions. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that in 2004, there were 51,423 adoptions from foster care, and in 2018, there were 63,123 adoptions from foster care. In both cases, domestic infant adoptions and adoption from foster care, the numbers of those couples adopting in the United States have either remained steady or increased. But this not so with international adoption. Even from the adoption of our son in 2015 to the adoption of our daughter in 2018, the rate fell 28% (from 5,647 in 2015 to 4,058 in 2018).

The decline of international adoption is a tragedy. Worldwide thousands of children wait in foster care or orphanages or care homes for forever families. Anyone who has adopted internationally can paint a picture of what conditions are like for these children. Even when necessities are met, the best institutional care is still institutional care. And for many children, particularly those with special needs or those from indigenous or marginalized groups, the chance at domestic adoption in their relative countries is practically nil. There are several reasons international adoption has decreased. Some advocates blame the Hague Convention, some blame changes in foreign policy, others blame changing sentiments related to intercountry adoption, and still, others blame the U.S. government.

The Hague Convention

One of the biggest changes in international adoption came in 2008 when the Hague Convention went fully into effect in the United States. The Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption (Convention) first appeared in 1993 and was signed by the U.S. in 1994. The purpose of the Hague Convention is to ensure that intercountry adoptions are completed in the most ethical way possible and that no child is trafficked from one country into another. Per the Hague Convention, all countries who are signatories must demonstrate that a child is indeed an orphan and that every attempt has been made to place that child in-country before the child becomes eligible for intercountry adoption. Additionally, every country must operate with a central adoption authority (which in the U.S. is the U.S. Department of State) and every adoption agency must be Hague accredited.

While the sentiment behind the Convention is undoubtedly a good one, the necessary steps of becoming Hague Convention compliant have left many poorer countries unable to meet its standards. Countries need to create a central adoption authority and adoption agencies need to be registered as Hague accredited. This has led to increased fees, both by the U.S.-based adoption agencies and by the sending countries. In the Hague Convention’s short history, several countries, such as India, have closed for a time to revamp intercountry adoption policies and to create a central adoption authority. Becoming Hague Convention compliant is not an easy task. Even within the United States, though the U.S. signed the Convention in 1994, it was not until 2008 that the Conventions guidelines went into full effect. And even when countries do become Hague Convention compliant, as in the case of Vietnam, the United States may still rule that international adoption standards have not been met. In 2007, there were 828 adoptions from Vietnam to the United States. In 2018, there were 28.

Just as the cost of intercountry adoption has risen, so too have the wait times. For a child to be found eligible for intercounty adoption, the sending country must prove the child is indeed an orphan and that every effort has been made to find that child a forever home in-country. These two elements of the intercountry adoption process take time. As a result, those children eligible for intercountry adoption are older. This is a very different landscape than in 2004. In 2004, most children adopted internationally were under the age of 2. Today, most children are between the ages of 18 months and 7 years old. When considering adoption, some prospective adoptive parents may prefer to adopt younger children or infants, which may be one of the reasons fewer families are turning towards international adoption.

In addition to being older, almost all children available for intercountry adoption are special needs. Special needs may be categorized as minor/correctable needs (such as vision issues, mild hearing loss, and cleft lip/palate) while others are more lifelong complex needs (such as spina bifida, congenital heart disease, HIV positive, or Down’s Syndrome). Sometimes, a child’s special need is simply age (typically over the age of 4) and sometimes, a child’s special need is that the child is a member of a sibling group, as is common in adoptions from Colombia. Many hopeful adoptive parents may be intimidated by the idea of special needs adoption, which may detract a couple from pursuing an international adoption. But as a dear friend always says, these kids’ biggest special need is a loving forever home.

It should also be noted that the signing of the Hague Convention by the United States brought an end to intercountry adoption from some of the top sending countries. Guatemala, for example, stopped intercountry adoptions amid rumors of corruption. In 2007, 4,726 children were adopted from Guatemala to the United States. That same year, 5,453 children were adopted from China to the United States. But the country of Guatemala is 88 times smaller than China. That there should be that many children legitimately eligible for intercountry adoption is almost impossible. Though many critics may blame the increased steps and costs associated with the Hague Convention as the reason intercountry adoption is declining, it is important to remember that every adoption must be completed in the most ethical way possible.

Good Old Fashion Politics

Because international adoption is, well, international, the politics between nations has always played a role in the history of intercountry adoption. Most famously, in 2013, Russia banned intercountry adoptions as a result of the Magnitsky Act. Magnitsky was a Russian tax lawyer who had no dealings with intercountry adoption whatsoever. But his mysterious death in a Russian prison cell led to further investigations into corruption in Russia. The U.S. imposed sanctions based on Magnitsky’s death, citing Russia’s compliance in human-rights abuses. Putin retaliated by ending Russian-American adoptions. At the height of international adoption, in 2004, there were 5,862 children adopted from Russia to the United States. There have been no adoptions since 2015 and there are no plans to reopen intercountry adoption with Russia.

Another country that banned international adoption recently was Ethiopia. At the country’s height of intercountry adoption, in 2010, there were 2,511 adoptions from Ethiopia to the United States. But the death of a ten-year-old Ethiopian adoptee, Hana Williams, led to many Ethiopians calling for a ban on all intercountry adoptions. At the same time, other countries, such as Canada and Denmark, were implementing bans on adoptions from Ethiopia due to ethical discrepancies. The discrepancies echoed those seen in Guatemala–instances of children not really being orphans and payments to birth families–and the international community was quick to act. Ethiopia struck first and banned all adoptions in January 2018.

Changes in Country Sentiment

Though Ethiopia officially closed its doors to intercountry adoption due to the death of Hana Williams, another reason was a feeling of national pride. As John F. Kennedy once said, “Our children are the world’s most valuable resource…” In Ethiopia, a new “National Child Policy” stated that every Ethiopian child should have the right to grow up in Ethiopia. A child raised outside the country of origin would suffer from a life-long identity crisis, never knowing what it is like to fully be Ethiopian. Rwanda took a similar national pride stance as did Romania, shortly after joining the European Union in 2007.

Other countries, such as South Korea and India, are experiencing a changing sentiment toward domestic adoption. Economics has improved in both countries, and the stigma of being an adoptive family has lessened. With domestic adoptions on the rise, technically there are fewer children available for intercountry adoption. But in India, for example, there are long wait times for healthy infants. Older children and children with special needs are not as desirable and often it is these children who languish in orphanages.

Changes in U.S. Policy

Last but not least, some critics fault the U.S. government for the decline in intercountry adoptions. Under the Hague Convention, while the U.S. Department of State may serve as the central adoption authority, another entity must serve as the accreditation authority. For years, that position was held by COA (Council on Accreditation), but in 2018, COA stepped down and the IAAME (International Adoption Accreditation and Maintenance Entity) took over. While the results of IAAME have yet to be seen, many adoption agencies fear the new fees imposed by IAAME will further deter prospective adoptive parents.

Additionally, in 2018, the U.S. Department of State banned “soft referrals.” Soft referrals were referrals an agency sent hopeful adoptive families before couples completed home study and before the child was deemed eligible for intercountry adoption. Many of the soft referrals came from sites such as Rainbow Kids, and almost all of the soft referrals were for special needs children whose needs were deemed severe. One of my son’s closest friends, also adopted from China, was one of those soft referrals. Like me with my son, when my friend saw a picture of her son, *Drew, she knew it was meant to be. Accepting his referral was a leap of faith, and she then worked furiously to complete her family’s home study and dossier so she could travel to China and bring him home. Today, such a referral would not take place. The heartbreaking thing is that many of the more severe special needs are matched with forever families through just this process. With the elimination of soft referrals, many people fear that the neediest and at-risk waiting children will never be matched.

There is no question that intercountry adoption is a complex process. Laws and rules and regulations of both the sending country and the receiving country must be taken into consideration, and the process is never easy. Over the last 15 years, international adoption has become more complicated and more expensive. Some countries have banned intercountry adoption, others may soon open. The Hague Convention is a necessary step, though some may see it as a nuisance, and prospective adoptive families and agencies have to work within its parameters. Looking at such a landscape may seem hopeless, but the more we talk about international adoption and the more we raise awareness about the hundreds of thousands of children waiting for forever families, the better the outcome might be. If you are considering adoption, please think about international adoption. Yes, the process may be expensive, but there are adoption grants and adoption loans as well as the Adoption Tax Credit. Yes, the wait times may be long, but once your child is in your arms, that span of time will seem like a blip on the screen. For me, I can’t imagine my family any other way than it is–an American Chinese Indian household that I feel both grateful for and blessed by every day.

*Name changed


Are you ready to pursue adoption? Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98 to connect with compassionate, nonjudgmental adoption specialists who can help you get started on the journey of a lifetime.