Why the Decline in International Adoptions?

There has been a 74% decline in international adoptions since 2004. Who's to blame?

Elizabeth Curry April 14, 2016
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Recently the U.S. Department of State released its Fiscal Year 2015 Annual Report on Intercountry Adoption. The biggest reason this particular report made the headlines was the fact that the number of intercountry adoptions which took place last year (5,648 adoptions) was the lowest number since 1981. The highest number of adoptions (22,991 adoptions) occurred in 2004. That is a 74% decline between 2004 and 2015, and a lot of people are unhappy and looking for someone to blame.

We first began our adoption journey in 2005, coming home with our first adopted son in 2006, just past that high water mark of 2004. When we started, there were many countries open, including Guatemala and Vietnam (where two of our sons are from), though Cambodia had just recently closed. Having adopted from a country that closed twice due to ethics challenges, and having watched the tumult that typified those years, I have very mixed feelings about these numbers. Like most things in adoption, the low numbers have a more complex meaning. It isn’t just that fewer children are coming to the US to their permanent families; the numbers tell a much more complicated story, and not a story where we get to blame just one entity. Everyone has their own part to play in this story. The story I want to tell about these numbers represents my observations and opinions, rather than scrupulously researched historical fact.

First, to set the stage, we have to remember that the face of adoption is changing. This is particularly true in China, where the demographics of available children are very different than in 2004. Twelve years ago, there really were a lot of young and physically healthy girls. Today, that has changed. There are far more boys available than girls, and the vast majority of waiting children have some degree of special need. Starting the process to wait for a healthy infant is not even an option anymore. Since not everyone feels equipped to parent a child with special needs (though I can say with confidence that it’s truly not that difficult), the number of adopted children decreases. Sadly, the number of waiting children has not decreased and thousands still wait for families.

Act 1: Let’s talk about those healthy girls.

In 2004 and the surrounding years, if you spent any length of time on adoption list serves, you saw the phrase “healthy female, as young as possible,” over and over. And more often than not, it was also paired with another word: “fast.” Potential adoptive parents wanted healthy baby girls and they didn’t want to have to wait. If they didn’t meet China’s requirements, or didn’t want to adopt an Asian child, there were other options . . . Cambodia, Vietnam, Guatemala, Kazakhstan, Ethiopia. And one by one, those countries closed (Ethiopia being the current exception), because where there is great demand, there is always someone around the corner willing to make a buck.

Act 2: Those very nice people lurking around the corner.

They would be the agencies and facilitators and lawyers who saw the dollar signs potential adoptive parents were willing to spend on “young,” “healthy,” “female,” and “fast,” and they met these perceived needs. Babies were found. Or “found,” if you prefer.

That’s the nice story.

The not-so-nice story is that children were bought and sold. Parents and relatives were lied to about chances for education in America. Children lost families and pasts and histories. Those of us watching could begin to predict the future . . . potential adopters flock to a country because young, healthy, and female babies were available. Because of the amount of money flowing into the country, facilitators start “finding” more children, the paperwork becomes sketchier and sketchier, raising concerns in the US embassy or US consulate about whether these children were truly orphans. NOIDs (“Notice of Intent to Deny” in regards to visas for adopted children) begin to be issued. US parents began to get upset that they could not bring their new children home, and they pushed back against the embassy.

This is the time in the story when the US embassy puts on the black hat and becomes the bad guy to much of the adoption world. Accusations along the lines of, “They just don’t want our children to be US citizens” were frequently heard, as parents conveniently forgot all the red flags that were flying previously. Feeling the heat, the US government would suggest to the government issuing the adoptions that a better job of policing adoptions would be nice. The other government would often take this amiss and relations would become chilly. The chill would grow and ultimately adoptions between the two countries would close.

Act 3: Enter the Hague Convention.

In 2008, the US entered into the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption with the intent to facilitate more ethical adoptions between countries. If both parties were signees to the convention, then each country was making assurances that the children would be put first.

In reality, I have no way of knowing if this laudable goal was achieved, but I do know it achieved something else. It lengthened the time necessary to complete an adoption in US, adding another layer of paperwork and costs on all levels. Agencies either closed or had to increase their costs to cover the new licensing requirements. There are now some states that have very few, if any, Hague licensed adoption agencies that can do home studies.

I now watch as some families try to bring home critically ill children or children who are about to age out of their respective system, adoptions in which time is of the essence. Because of the layers of bureaucracy that are now in place, it has become impossible to gain visa approvals in a timely manner for these children. This means there are children who have either died or aged out while waiting for the wheels of government to grind out their approvals.

I’m all for the more questionable agencies being weeded out and for appropriate paperwork being submitted for a child to show they are indeed an orphan, but I’m not entirely convinced that this is what has been accomplished. It has also failed to fulfill the promise of opening up adoptions between the US and other Hague signees, as even some of those countries still do not have any type of adoption agreement with the US.

Epilogue: The side action.

As well as the main action, there are two other side stories playing out on the sides of our stage. The first is in Russia, providing some significant pieces of drama to our little play. One of the hard truths of adoption is that parenting hurt children can be very difficult, and the education provided to families before adoption about trauma, as well as the support offered to families after adoption, is significantly lacking. Sadly, some of the most tragic stories of parents reaching the end of their rope and doing unthinkable things to their children happened to involve children adopted from Russia. As a result (and not doubt this was just a piece of larger political maneuverings), Russia banned all intercountry adoptions in 2013. Since the numbers of children adopted from Russia had always been fairly large, this heavily affected the total number of adoptions.

The other country we need to take a look at is South Korea. South Korea was the first country to send large numbers of adopted children to the US. It had a stable and clean program with relatively easy requirements. Over time, as South Korea’s economy and infrastructure has improved and moved from the category of developing nation into developed nation, intercountry adoption began to be seen as a hold-over from a troubled past. As a result, there has been a concerted effort on the part of South Korea’s government to phase out intercountry adoption and, while children are still being adopted, the numbers are nowhere close to what they had been.

So there you go, a story to go with the numbers. Is it a good thing that they are lower? If it means that fewer children were trafficked, yes. No child should have to lose their family, culture, and language just because a richer family has decided they can give that child a better life. This is exactly what happens when facilitators procure children for a desperate adoption market.

I know this is not a popular sentiment, and I know that it appears to implicate all adoptions in unethical actions. But wishing something weren’t what it is doesn’t change it. Until we in the adoption community are able to look at the ugly things that have been done in the name of something purportedly good, we have no hope of changing it. Yes, children without families need families and the love of a family knows no international or cultural boundaries, but let’s make sure that a child really does need a family.

And for the record, these numbers do make me sad and angry. I am saddened that there are so many children who will not ever know the love of a family. While many countries do have burgeoning domestic adoption programs, they are not increasing at a rate that will help these children now.

And I am also angered. I am angry that so many people did not do due diligence when considering adoption. I am angry that they thought of themselves first and the children and country their actions were affecting second. I know that there are many children living in countries closed to international adoption who have little hope. They are true orphans, the ones who could have benefitted from intercountry adoption. But they will never have a chance at a family because others chose to pursue their dreams at all costs, little considering the ramifications of their actions.

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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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