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In our opinion: Understanding adoption key to encouraging public support for this vital institution

Published: Sunday, June 22 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

This December 2013 photo provided by Justin Carroll shows adopted children in Kinshasa, Congo whose parents are awaiting exit permits to bring them to their new homes in the U.S.

Associated Press

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The past generation has witnessed dramatic changes in the social and cultural landscape regarding the adoption of children. The experience of birth mothers has changed, and so has the experience of adoptive couples. Yet in spite of changes and some challenges, adoption in the United States remains robust. It remains the best option for the lives of children who — for a countless variety of reasons — need a family and a home.

Every adopted child lives with the question of why he or she was adopted. At some point that child will wonder, “What caused me to leave the care of the mother and father who gave me birth?”

And while there are as many answers to that question as the number of children who are adopted, it remains vital to preserve and strengthen the institution that permits a child to be legally adopted into a new family.

In understanding adoption, it’s helpful to look at differences among the key three categories: domestic adoptions within the United States, international adoptions and adoptions through public child welfare agencies.

U.S. domestic adoptions numbered 133,737 in 2007, the most recent year for which numbers are available, according to the National Council for Adoption. Of those, 76,489 were to non-relatives — the highest percentage in more than 40 years. Over the decades, adoption has gone up, down and up again. The total number of adoptions rose from 72,000 in 1951 and peaked at 175,000 in 1970. It declined to 108,463 in 1996 until rising to its current number.

According to the council’s Adoption Handbook V, “Unrelated adoptions as a percentage of total adoptions have comprised half or less than half of all adoptions since 1971, but rose to 57 percent in 2007. The substantial increase in unrelated adoptions may reflect a larger U.S. population, greater acceptance of the adoption message, more childless couples, and/or other factors.”

The numbers of international adoptions didn’t become significant until the mid-1990s, the same time as a sharp decline in domestic adoptions. The 2003 total of 21,320 was the largest in 36 years. It’s dropped dramatically since then: only 12,753 immigrant-orphans were adopted in 2009, the most recent year for which data is available.

Finally, there are adoptions through foster care and the involvement of state public child welfare agencies. But these numbers are hard to come by because of differences in state practices. The National Council for Adoption estimates an annual total of 50,000 for the last decade, up from 26,000 in the mid-1990s. There have been further increases over the past few years.

Although there have been recent declines in the number of teen pregnancies, and in the rate of abortion, the percentage of children born out of wedlock remains as high as it has ever been: 40.7 percent in 2013, according to the National Vital Statistic Reports.

Yet from the perspective of a birth mother, the decision to make an adoption plan hasn’t been as compelling as it was in previous years. Less than 1 percent choose adoption, versus 53 percent who choose to raise the child, and 45 percent had abortions.

Birth mothers who decline to abort their unborn children, and who make a plan for their child’s future, now have the opportunity to play a significant role in selecting the family that will adopt the child. Agencies and counseling services play an important role in supporting these birth mothers. The interconnectedness of our world today means that adoptions in which the birth parents meet and know something about adoptive parents has become the norm. This openness provides important benefits for all parties — birth parents, adoptive parents and children who are adopted.

No matter how much adoption changes — whether domestic, international or through foster care — we must never forget that its benefits need to be measured against the best interests of the child. That standard is the guiding principle undergirding the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child: governments “that recognize and/or permit the system of adoption shall ensure that the best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration.”

Given the strong benefits to children, and the continued need to find loving mothers and fathers for children, we urge policymakers and all people to continue to support a robust system of legal adoption. When it comes to adoption, there is no right to adopt: just the responsibility to care for those children with whom we are entrusted by nature or by law.

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