Recently, international adoption has been making a few headlines again. Ethiopia just closed its international adoption program totally. News reports come out fairly frequently about adoptions that have ended in tragedy. There is concern over disrupted and dissolved adoptions and what happens to those children. The number of children adopted internationally has declined significantly over the past few years. There are fewer accredited adoption agencies processing international adoptions than there were eight years ago. And the Council on Accreditation (COA) recently quit in protest over new regulations proposed by the State Department.

While international adoption is an extremely complex issue, some themes are running through all of these recent news items. Everyone involved says that the goal is to protect the children involved. Everyone wants ethical adoptions of children who genuinely need families to continue. The points of disagreement arise when it comes down to the details. How is the Hague Agreement to be interpreted? How should the US best implement the regulations set forth by the Hague Agreement? What role do the agencies have in policing themselves? Do adoptive parents have a role to play in all of this?

It’s messy and the answers are not always clear.

I’ve been in the adoption world for a while now. I don’t have the answers in regards to broader intercountry issues, but I think there is quite a bit that can happen on the individual and the agency level that could make a difference.

Across the board, one of the biggest concerns stated by sending countries is for the fate of the children who are adopted. Since good news doesn’t really make interesting news, the stories of intact, healthy adoptive families who are thriving aren’t heard very often. Instead, it is the tragedies that make the headlines, and when these tragedies happen more than once, other countries sit up and take notice. Can you blame a country for not wanting to send its children to a place where they very well might be abused and/or killed?

This is where we need to clean up our act if we want to push for adoption numbers to rise again. Here is my personal take on things we need to address.

1. Agencies, both placing and home study must take the job of educating adoptive parents seriously. 

If they really care about the children they are placing, as they profess to do, they must do their best to ensure that the parents are as equipped as possible for what they may face. I’ve heard far too many times over the years, as parents are in shock and are afraid, that no one ever told them it could be like this. Sadly, it is often the case that what they are experiencing is fairly typical behavior from a terrified and grieving child. Agencies need to set up support systems for their clients as well so that the new parents have experienced people to call on with their concerns.

The fields of neuroscience and psychology have made huge strides in learning about the effects of childhood trauma and the best way to help children heal. Much of this does not look like traditional parenting, and traditional parenting methods may actually make the situation worse. Yet, so many parents have not heard of this information. Agencies need to be proactive in making sure clients have the most up-to-date information.

Front line social workers also need to be trained and fully informed on trauma and grief and older child adoption as well. They ought to be the link between the new parent and the help these parents need, yet it so rarely plays out that way.

2. We adoptive parents are not off the hook, either.

If we truly care about the well-being of children and the future of adoption, we cannot sit back and figure, “Well, we have our child, we’re done.” Our responsibilities do not end there. We must absolutely, file the post-placement reports which are required. To not do so can give the sending country cause for alarm, and the potential to shut down the program. We must be vocal in sharing stories of unethical agencies. We must be prepared to make unpopular statements when new potential adoptive parents arrive on the scene and want young, female, and fast. We must not let our own desire for a child override our knowledge of questionable practices of an agency . . . no matter how nice they sound on the phone. The only way unethical agencies survive is because they tell people what they want to hear, and people keep giving money to them. We cannot be silent but must clamor for ethical practices on the part of agencies.

3. Everyone, agencies and parents, need to work to make disruptions and dissolutions rare, and when they do happen, keep the best interests of the child foremost.

Agencies can first be more careful in where they place children. It’s not popular, but there is great wisdom in not placing an older child in a family that has not parented that age yet. It’s not popular, but first-time adoptive parents should probably also not be allowed to bring home more than one child at a time, either. Both of these can have a significantly higher rate of disruption and dissolution. Sure there are positive stories as well, but are these enough to justify potentially risky practices? Would the children who experience yet one more loss in their lives agree?

If an adoption does dissolve, the placing agency then needs to step in and do the right thing. They need to seek out a new family for the child, ensuring that all laws are followed and the health and well-being of the child are held foremost. The family who is dissolving the adoption should lose all rights to say who then gets to parent that child. I’ve heard it suggested that every child enduring a dissolution should be assigned a guardian ad litem to protect their interests, and I think that would actually be a very good idea.

4. The broader societal help that would make a significant difference would be better mental health care options.

Some families do stick it out with some profoundly hurt children, but their options for finding their child much-needed help are extremely limited. There are long waiting lists and few spaces for residential facilities that offer more intensive treatment. For those who do find a space in one, the costs can be more than a family can manage. Truly, some families are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They love their child, but the child has been so hurt that they cannot safely live in the family. If we are serious about adoption . . . from anywhere . . . we as a society need to provide a much better mental health safety net.


Adoption can be beautiful. Adoption can also be hard and messy. Too often everyone involved wants to focus on the beautiful aspects and try to forget the hard parts are there. I’ve heard it one time too many, “If you spend too much time sharing about the hard, then you will scare off people and a child won’t get a family.” I’d rather have a family who has heard the hard and is willing to move forward anyway. A family who would be too frightened by hearing about hard realities is not the best choice for a grieving and traumatized child. If we can all work together to put the child first, and our interests or our profit second, perhaps other countries will be comfortable in cooperating with international adoption.



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