Intercountry Adoption: Steep Declines in the US

Most Americans have been touched by adoption and many would agree that intercountry adoption is important and even an embodiment of our nation’s commitment to children and humanitarianism. Since World War Two, approximately one million children have been internationally adopted; leaving their country of origin and placed with adoptive families in other nations. Because US families have received at least 50% of these children we have been called an “Adoption Nation.” Children have arrived from a variety of countries, including Korea, Vietnam, China, Russia, Cambodia, and Guatemala. Recently, Ethiopia with at least 5-million orphaned and vulnerable children has become a popular source for adoptive children.

For many committed to intercountry adoption, it is unfortunate that since the year 2004 the practice has declined more than 50%. In sheer numbers, this means that we reached an all-time high of receiving 22,991 children that year and six years later, in 2010, we only had 11,058 children arrive in the US as international adoptees. The 2011 data indicates another decline to 9320 children sent to the US as adoptees.

An important question is: what is happening? The answer is complex. To begin with, the unfortunate reality is that intercountry adoption has a mixed history. On the positive side: many children have impressive developmental gains once they begin living in a family setting rather than a child care institution. Also, medical problems are may be addressed in the US and some children receive life altering if not lifesaving medical care. Overcoming disability and extreme deprivation is one part of the intercountry adoption story.

Even with so much good, there has been a dark side to adoption. It is a practice which has more than its fair share of scandals. The 2010 case of the young boy sent back to Russia unaccompanied with nothing more than a note requesting adoption “annulment” is a good example. Then, there was the Russian girl named Masha Allen who was adopted by a pedophile and he proceeded to sell her sexual abuse photo images into Internet pornography. Her case was eventually heard before US Congress when Masha testified about the abuse and asked “why didn’t anyone come to check on me?” Her question is a direct one for the adoption ‘professionals’ who handled her case. When you look deeper, those involved were anything but professional in practices. They flagrantly disregarded their charge with investigating the adoption placement to determine if it was appropriate and then in follow-up visits with Masha to verify her health and safety.

Other problematic history includes allegations of child abduction. It is hard to forget that during the 2010 aftermath of the Haitian earthquake that a faith or mission group from Idaho attempted to illegally remove or traffic children into the Dominican Republic for the purpose of intercountry adoption. International press eventually identified that most of the children were not ‘orphans’ and their families believed that the children would be cared for and that their families would be able to visit with them and retain relations. When you think about it, families living in extreme poverty could so easily be led to believe such a thing and in a moment of desperation and hope. Allowing your child to leave with a stranger from the US who promises of food and an education may be the only sense of salvation in the moment of disaster chaos. The desperate act eventually plays out as a decision made in haste and with a misrepresentation of intent. Legally such a scenario it fits international child abduction definitions when poor families are unable to retrieve children and then the children enter into adoption schemes.

There have been cases like Cambodia where an American adoption ‘facilitator’ orchestrated child ‘adoptions.’ Rural and mainly illiterate Cambodian families were often given a small sum of money and a bag of rice in exchange for their signature on critical legal documents. Again, these children were not orphans but they were desirable children—relatively young and healthy children who were easily matched with eager US families willing to pay $20,000 or more for the adoption. Investigators found that some of these Cambodian families were led to believe that their children were going to boarding schools overseas. The facilitator was eventually arrested by US Federal Marshalls and she served time in prison for tax evasion, among other charges. Before she was stopped, she earned millions of dollars with her child trafficking scheme and US families were devastated to learn that their children were not orphans.

More recently, the most notorious adoption nation with profound problems has been Guatemala. Approximately 30,000 children departed as intercountry adoptees from 1999-2007. Human rights defenders agree that abuses within this system were profound and while there were legitimate adoptions, there were also an unknown number of adoptions with serious irregularities and illegalities. Problems ranged from birth mother payments to induce adoption arrangements to actual child abduction for adoption. Recently, UN investigators found patterns of organized crime and the highest profile adoption attorney in Guatemala is now serving a 26-year prison sentence. She is linked to a range of problematic cases, including high profile child abduction cases (

Sadly there are three mothers in Guatemala who have taken to hunger protest for their individual daughters return from the US. One of those three women now has a Guatemalan court order for her daughter’s repatriation as a victim of abduction. The US family in question, living in Missouri, has thus far ignored the court order with the exception of making a nationally televised statement that they do not believe such a return to be in the best interests of their daughter. A resulting debate is brewing about rights, responsibilities, and the best interests of the child. No doubt it is difficult to remove a child from a family with which she has lived with for more than three years. In the long run, it may be even more difficult for the US family to one day justify how they became complicit in abduction by ignoring a desperate mother’s search and a Guatemalan court order.

At the end of the day, Interpol has reportedly been contacted and our diplomats have no choice but to get involved because as a nation we have signed the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. This international private law is implemented in the US with the year 2000 Intercountry Adoption Act which requires the US Department of State’s involvement in matters of child sales and abduction under the guise of intercountry adoption. To date, a resolution on this particular abduction case has been fleeting. Internationally recognized Guatemalan human rights defender, Norma Cruz advocates on behalf of this and other cases. Cruz reminds us that child abduction is the cruelest violence of all against a woman as it brings about “eternal suffering.” She has dedicated considerable time and resources to bring a resolution to this case and she reports that she will not rest until justice is served.

While we await resolution on these Guatemalan cases, we are ultimately left with an unfortunate history of intercountry adoption scandals which has led to the decline in the practice. Russian adoptions have slowed down considerably and a moratorium on Cambodian and Guatemalan adoptions is now in place. This is also true for Vietnamese adoptions as that country too has a history of fraud related to questionable child abandonments. Other countries such as China have slowed down considerably due to a variety of factors. And, while Ethiopia has taken off as an adoption nation, there are indications of serious problems in that nation too. In sum, the decline is significant and families who have hoped to adopt internationally are left an uncertain future. And, at the end of the day, this is unfortunate for all who stand to gain from family building via ethical intercountry adoption.

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This post was originally published at RH Reality Check, a site of news, community and commentary for reproductive health and justice


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