Since the end of World War II, families wishing to adopt children have been increasingly willing to look to foreign countries as a source. Between 1953 and 1962, some 15,000 children were adopted into the United States from foreign countries. Numbers rose dramatically in ensuing decades, peaking at 22,900 children in 2005. Though numbers have declined since then, reaching only 12,753 in 2009, interest in international adoption remains high.
Although international adoption is seen as a means of providing loving, stable homes and families to children who would otherwise grow up without them, it also raises concerns. Some see the practice as predatory, citing evidence that, in some countries, children are kidnapped and placed for adoption without their families' knowledge, or that mothers are bribed to relinquish their children. Whether it is in the child's best interests to be adopted, or instead to be supported in his or her birth country, is another matter of controversy. Questions have also been raised about the difficulties that adoptive children may face growing up in a culture that differs from that of their birth.
In the 1950s proxy adoptions were the most common kinds of international adoptions. Proxy adoptions allowed U.S. citizens to designate a proxy agent to obtain an adoption in a foreign court. Thousands of children, many from Japan, Korea, and Greece, entered the United States as adoptees this way. But proxy adoption was almost completely unregulated and did not meet minimum standards to protect children. Prospective parents, for example, were not investigated. Child welfare advocates pointed out that adoptees from foreign countries often had special needs relating to neglect or abuse and that adoption practices should be regulated to ensure that these needs would be met. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1961 was the first law to establish provisions for international adoption to the United States.
Social changes since the 1960s created conditions that made international adoption increasingly attractive to U.S. families. The legalization of abortion and the de-stigmatizing of single-parent families contributed to a decline in the number of infants released for domestic adoption. Consequently, there is often a long waiting period before a domestic adoption can be processed; sometimes, the number of prospective parents who are approved to adopt is larger than the number of available children. In many cases families in this situation choose to adopt from a foreign country where, because of poverty, large numbers of children are in need.
Global changes, too, have made international adoption both more feasible and more urgent. China's one-child policy, for example, resulted in a growing number of children being abandoned by parents who would suffer harsh penalties for bringing up a second or third child. The vast majority of these abandoned children were girls, whose plight attracted international notice. In 1991 China relaxed its adoption laws to allow international adoptions, and since then U.S. families have adopted more than 55,000 children from that country.
Since 2005 the countries from which most children are adopted to the United States have been China, Guatemala, Russia, South Korea, Ukraine, and Ethiopia. In 2005, when total adoptions to the United States numbered 22,734, some 7,903 children were adopted from China; 4,631 were adopted from Russia; 3,783 were adopted from Guatemala; and 1,628 were adopted from South Korea. This pattern remained the same in 2006, but in 2007 Ethiopia came fourth, supplying 1,254 adoptees to the United States. Adoptions from South Korea fell that year to 938.
In 2008 Guatemala overtook China as the chief source of adoptees, with some 4,122 children being adopted to the United States. China was second that year with 3,911 adoptees, followed by Russia (1,857), Ethiopia (1,724), and South Korea (1,065). But in 2009 China was again the chief source of adoptees, which numbered 3,001. Ethiopia came second with 2,277 children, followed by Russia (1,586), South Korea (1,080), and Guatemala (756).
Between 2005 and 2009 smaller numbers of adoptees have come from Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Colombia, Philippines, Haiti, Taiwan, Nigeria, Poland, Thailand, Ghana, Uganda, India, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, and Nepal. In 2010 the State Department reported that it was not currently processing new adoptions from Guatemala.
A large number of children adopted into the United States since the 1950s have come from South Korea. Since 1953 some 230,635 children from South Korea were adopted overseas, with 70 percent of that number going to American families. In recent years, however, South Korea has become reluctant to let this pattern continue. Kim Dong-won, adoption administrator for the South Korean Ministry of Health, told a reporter from The New York Timesin 2008 that "South Korea is the world's 12th largest economy and is now almost an advanced country, so we would like to rid ourselves of the international stigma or disgrace of being a baby-exporting country. It's embarrassing." Although many welcome this shift, some adoption agencies question whether the South Korean government has the best interests of adoptees in mind. Some have pointed out that new policies favoring domestic adoptions over international ones might slow the adoption process for children unlikely to be wanted by South Korean families, such as older children or kids with disabilities.
Many critics of international adoption say that the practice exploits poor families in poor countries. They argue that adoption agencies, posing as legitimate organizations, engage in abductions and bribery to procure children for orphanages. According to a Mother Jones article, "the promise of lucrative adoption fees motivates orphanages [in India] to create a steady supply of adoptable children. (It costs about $14,000 to bring a child to the United States from India, not including the standard $3,500 fee to the orphanage.) In the most egregious cases, once-respected agencies get wrapped up in child trafficking, and well-meaning American families never realize they're not adopting a child—they're buying one."
In Guatemala, considered the country with the most egregious violation of adoption policies over the longest period of time, parents reported having their children stolen from them at gunpoint. According to a Slate article, some 98 percent of private adoptions from Guatemala—the vast majority of them to the United States—were handled by private attorneys who allegedly witnessed the birth mother's consent to adoption and also legally assigned the child to adoptive parents for a fee of approximately $35,000 per child.
In 2007 members of the organization Zoe's Ark, a French charity, were arrested trying to fly out of Chad with 103 children they claimed were orphans from the war in Sudan. Authorities discovered, however, that most of the children had been kidnapped from their families in Chad. Similar abuses have been uncovered in China, where, between 2002 and 2005, a group of orphanages bought almost 1,000 children for about $300 apiece. "This is an industry to export children," stated UNICEF official Sarah Crowe in Mother Jones. "When adoption agencies focus first on profits and not child rights, they open up the door to gross abuses."
Such legal and ethical violations have been addressed by the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Inter-Country Adoption (Hague Adoption Convention), which the United States signed in 1994 and which went into effect in the United States in 2008. The convention aims to prevent the abduction, sale, or trafficking of children, and to ensure that their best interests are paramount in the adoption. The convention recognizes international adoption as an acceptable means of providing permanent homes for children when suitable placements in their birth country are not possible and when the birth country deems them legally eligible to be adopted. Each country that has signed the convention is required to establish a central authority to manage inter-country adoptions. In the United States, this authority is the State Department.
A central focus of the convention is protecting the rights of the child and his or her birth family. A child can only be deemed eligible for adoption, the convention's text states, if consent of the parent or guardian is given without any financial inducement. It also states that consent of the mother, when required, must be given "only after the birth of the child."
The convention also offers protections to prospective adoptive parents when they go through countries that have signed the document. The convention requires that adoption service providers meet strict licensing and accreditation standards and clearly list all adoption service fees prior to initiating proceedings. It also requires a minimum of ten hours of parent education. In addition, the child's detailed medical records are made available to prospective adoption parents, who have a minimum of two weeks to review them.
Despite these measures, some say the convention has been ineffective in protecting children and birth families. As David Smolin, a law professor and father of two children adopted from India, said in Mother Jones, "The Hague itself has the weakness of relying on [the] sending countries to ensure that the child was properly relinquished. Receiving countries cannot afford to simply take the sending country's word."
Others, however, say that media attention has exaggerated such abuses. Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, said in an ABC News interview that most adoptions to the United States are legal and ethically proper. Acknowledging some problems with the system, Pertman said that "American parents are often saving children from poverty, pestilence and war and we should not let the bad guys taint the good work many agencies are doing. … I can't speak about every adoption … but the majority are above board."
Life in a New Country
Concerns have also been raised about the pressures that children encounter when they are adopted into the United States, where most adoptive parents are white. While any adoption carries emotional challenges for parents and child, families involved in international adoptions also face issues related to race, ethnicity, and culture. Most international adoptions, for example, are also interracial adoptions that create racially diverse families. The largest number of transracial adoptees in the United States are from South Korea. A report on the first generation of these Korean adoptees, who are now in middle age, found that most were raised in predominantly white neighborhoods and had experienced racial discrimination at school, often from teachers. Only a few who responded to the survey said they felt welcomed by other Korean Americans. In the 1950s, when this wave of adoption from South Korea began, families were told to help their children assimilate into mainstream culture. Even in families that made an effort to celebrate their child's birth culture, adoptees were often uncomfortable seeing themselves as anything other than white. It was not until they reached their thirties, the study found, that these adoptees wanted to feel more connected with their birth culture. But though many have researched their heritage and even traveled to Korea, the question of identity can remain problematic.
As the United States became a more diverse culture, attitudes about raising international adoptees changed. Families often take great care to celebrate the child's birth culture, for example, by observing special holidays, wearing traditional dress, cooking traditional foods, or even sending the child to classes in his or her birth language. But some advisors believe that this is not enough. "It's one thing to dress children up in cute Chinese dresses, but the children need real contact with Asian-Americans, not just waiters in restaurants on Chinese New Year," said social worker Jane Brown in an article in The New York Times. "They need real validation about the racial issues they experience."
Allegations of abuse in the international adoption process have led some advocates to encourage would-be parents to consider other ways to help children in need. Financial sponsorship, for example, can make it possible for a destitute family to provide for children whom they might otherwise consider putting in an orphanage. An Australian family described in a Slate piece chose a similar path after learning that two children they had adopted from India, thinking they were orphans, had actually been stolen from their mother while she was sleeping and then sold. The children's own father was the culprit. Though the children still live with their Australian family, their adoptive parents support their birth mother and take the children to India each year to visit her and their half-siblings.