Why Does It Take So Long to Get an International Adoption Referral?

It's time for us to readjust our notions about international adoption.

Elizabeth Curry May 30, 2016
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As a rule, people are not good at waiting. This is especially true when we are waiting for something that we very much desire. I certainly include myself in this statement. I really dislike having to practice delayed gratification. This is probably why the wait for an adoption referral is so very difficult. For those of us who have made the decision to adopt, our imaginations have already leapt to visualize an actual child, a very real person who will join our family. We discover it is possible to love and miss someone whom we have yet to even meet.

Yet sometimes, the wait to meet this long-anticipated son or daughter takes a frustratingly long time to materialize, especially when compared to the status of international adoption just ten years ago. Then, it seemed, people hardly had to wait at all. Many countries were open and many children seemed to be waiting for families. Even those potential adoptive parents waiting for a very young, healthy female didn’t have to wait all that long.

Just as with the other things of life, the world of international adoption is not static. It is an ever-changing process that follows the current socio-economic climates of the countries involved. Because the state of any given country is unique, it is impossible to definitively state why the numbers of children adopted via intercountry adoption are lower today than in previous years. Even so, I believe there are two over-arching reasons why we are seeing fewer referrals.

The first is that there is more external pressure on countries to protect children from unethical practices. The increased scrutiny has the effect of either closing countries completely to adoptions to the US or slowing the process down significantly. With fewer sending countries available to adoptive parents, there will be a corresponding decline in children adopted. It also means that parents who do not meet a certain country’s requirements may have no other options for adopting internationally.

While this has a certain dampening effect on referral numbers, I don’t believe it reaches the heart of why referrals seem to be down. In my opinion, the second (and single biggest reason) behind the perceived decline in referrals lies in the population of waiting children. The fact is, regardless of the country, the vast majority of children waiting for a family either have special needs, are older, are part of a sibling group, or a combination of all three. These waiting children are not healthy, female infants, the type of child the majority of potential adopters are seeking.

The fact is, regardless of the country, the vast majority of children waiting for a family either have special needs, are older, are part of a sibling group, or a combination of all three. These waiting children are not healthy, female infants, the type of child the majority of potential adopters are seeking.

Here we need to veer over to China as an example because that is where my current experience lies. It used to be that China’s orphanages were filled with young, relatively healthy girls, a direct result of the one-child policy. Over the years, different cultural, political, and economic factors have resulted in a vastly different population of children being abandoned . . . these children are more often than not male and have some sort of special need. Why this change has taken place is the interrelation of selective abortion, daughters becoming more valued in the culture, domestic adoption, the new two-child policy, a rising middle class, and a lack of affordable health care.

The truth is, there are not fewer children needing families, there are just fewer children of the typically desired demographic. If you were to look at China’s shared list, the master list of children who are available for adoption, you would see thousands of children. Thousands of children available right now. But these children are older, have special needs, and/or are male. This is the face of international adoption today.

The truth is, there are not fewer children needing families, there are just fewer children of the typically desired demographic.

There are still many parents who are interested in adoption. I watch them begin the process, with the popular idea of what adoption looked like ten years ago firmly in their head. It takes a while for the perception of adoption and the reality to fully align, and then it takes a bit longer to feel comfortable with it and see oneself adopting a child different from the child one first imagined.

I’ve also learned that the special need does not make the child. That special needs do not stop a child from loving and from being loved.

In a sense, minor (or perceived as minor) special needs have become the new healthy. But since fewer children lose their families due to minor special needs, there are fewer of these children waiting. Certainly not as many as the parents who wait for them. In the meantime, as long as the desires of potential adoptive parents do not match the demographics of the children waiting, referrals will seem to take a long time. I hope that as parents wait, they do research and consider the possibility of adopting a child with a special need that seems “scary.” I know it can be a stretch . . . I’ve been there. But I’ve also learned that the special need does not make the child. That special needs do not stop a child from loving and from being loved. That a family, a real family, can be created regardless of a diagnosis.

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Elizabeth Curry

Elizabeth Curry is mother to 12 children, five of whom were adopted: two from Vietnam and three from China. She hopes that by sharing the experiences of her family she can encourage others in the trenches. When she is not taking care of children, Elizabeth writes, home schools, sews, teaches piano, and loves reading. You can follow along with her loud and crazy life at her blog, Ordinary Time.


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