Judy Miller and her husband knew they wanted to adopt long before doctors told her their first biological child would be their only biological child. They began researching adoption agencies and felt drawn to adopting from China.
Nine months after settling on an agency, Miller and her husband traveled to China to pick up their daughter. Six months later, they adopted a second. They later adopted a son from Guatemala.
If that sounds relatively fast and simple, it was. Parents who seek international adoptions today face a more difficult experience than the Millers did.
"The processes take much longer," said Miller, an author and educator who works with adoptive parents. "I understand why, but yet the length of time... and the expenses have more than doubled."
Many like Miller say the increasingly complex, lengthy and expensive process has caused the dramatic decline in international adoptions by American parents. The popularity of international adoption increased rapidly among American parents up to 2004. That year, Americans adopted nearly 23,000 children from other countries. Since then, however, adoptions have decreased by about 62 percent, to 8,668 last year, according to U.S. State Department numbers.
Transparency, for better or worse
There are many factors behind the decreasing number of international adoptions, but Adam Pertman, executive director of the Donaldson Adoption Institute, places them all under the same heading: transparency.
When the number of international adoptions was growing, part of the appeal was the relative ease with which international adoption occurred. American families that might have waited months or years to adopt from inside the United States looked to other nations for a simpler, faster solution. However, the lack of oversight had its share of drawbacks.
"Americans were running to Romania and literally picking up kids off the street," Pertman said. "It was like the Wild West."
The popularity of international adoptions eventually drew public scrutiny, and when it did, few liked what they saw. Stories of abduction and human trafficking emerged.
Much of this corruption resulted from demand for infants, said John Simmons, a father of nine adopted and biological children, who writes about adopting a large sibling group from Russia. Agencies had a motive when they spoke to birth mothers — they stood to make money if she gave the infant up for adoption. Some were coerced, mothers told the separation would not be permanent, that the child would be sent to America for an education, and then would return home. However, international adoptions are final almost immediately. Domestic adoptions from foster care, on the other hand, require a six-month minimum waiting period, during which the mother might change her mind about giving up her child.
"People are finally seeing the ugly side of this," Simmons said.
Concern about the potential for corruption in international adoptions led to the Hague Convention on Adoption, which called for global standards for international adoptions. Individual countries could establish rules that were strict or minimal, as long as they complied with it, said Susan Cox, vice president of policy and external affairs for Holt International Children's Services, which helps Americans adopt from 12 countries. The Hague Convention's targets were international adoptions that are "unethical, improper or illegal, wherever they occurred," she said.
Countries that were especially notorious for corruption — such as Guatemala, a country that frequently topped the charts for most children adopted by Americans — can no longer participate in international adoptions with countries that accept the standards, including the United States. They don't qualify.
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