While in the United States being available for adoption is often associated with having experienced parental maltreatment, this is typically not the case of children worldwide. Children in other countries are often available for adoption due to disabilities, parental poverty, or governmental policies limiting the number of children per family. In recent years, the number of children being adopted into the United States has been declining. After peaking at 22,991 in 2004, the number has shrunk to 8,668 in 2012, a decline of 62% (Swarns, 2013). The top sending countries are China, Ethiopia, and Russia. Ethiopia is the only nation to continue to increase its numbers in recent years (US State Department, 2011). The numbers of international adoptions from China, Russia, and South Korea have been declining primarily due to a greater emphasis on domestic adoption in those nations (Swarns, 2013). However, the relationship between Russia and the United States has been tense, and adoptions have received some of the backlash. There have been a few high-profile deaths after adoptions from Russia, as well as deteriorating discussions over human rights resulting in a ban on American adoptions passed at the end of 2012.
International adoption first began in force after World War II with the adoptions of orphaned children from Germany and Greece by US families. A second wave began after the Korean War with children from Korea (who were often fathered by US soldiers). From these beginnings as a child-focused phenomenon, international adoption has evolved to one that is more focused on meeting the needs of adoptive parents. As fertility has declined in Western nations, as well as the number of healthy White infants available for adoption, interest in international adoption has risen. However, international adoption is of concern not only due to illegal practices such as trafficking (discussed later) but also because of overall social justice issues. Hollingsworth (2003) questions whether social justice is served by international adoption by families in the United States. On the one hand, children are being brought from conditions that are at the best impoverished and at the worst harmful. On the other hand, the question remains whether it is the best method to remove a few select children from these circumstances and leave the circumstances unchanged.
In order to attempt to minimize unethical practices, international adoption is regulated by the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. Developed in 1993, its goal is to regulate procedure and set minimum standards for international adoptions in order to protect all parties—birthparents, adoptive parents, and the children being adopted. The Hague Convention requires governments to make it the first priority that children are able to remain with their birthparents and that international adoption is an option only after attempts at familial reunification, as well as domestic placement, have failed. There are currently 89 contracting states to this convention, including the United States.
In order to assure that the principles of the Hague Convention are being upheld, Family Group Conferencing has been promoted as a method for inclusion of the child’s extended family. As described by Rotabi et al. (2012), the family’s information is gathered from the birthparent(s) and they are invited to the meeting. If they cannot attend, they are welcome to information via a letter or another format. The situation is explained to the family by the birthparents and the social worker adds additional information as needed. The family then meets in private to determine the best course. In the Marshall Islands, this method has enabled the child to find a home within the country in 70%-80% of cases and is being promoted as a method in other countries (Rotabi, Pennell, Roby, & Bunkers, 2012). However, in some countries, international adoptions are perceived as favored over domestic adoptions due to the greater revenue they provide. For example, in China, each international adoption brings $5,000 to the orphanage; this is not true for domestic adoptions and creates concerns of trafficking (Custer, 2013; Johnson, 2012). Cases have been documented where children were kidnapped, brought to orphanages, and then adopted by US parents, but there is no information on how widespread this form of trafficking is (Custer, 2013).
Adoption trafficking has been a growing concern. In 2001, the United States halted the processing of adoptions from Cambodia due to reports of widespread corruption and trafficking. They were joined by France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, and Britain in 2004 and Canada in 2005 (Blair, 2005; Ministry of Children and Family Development, n.d.). In some cases, children in Cambodia were being purchased, or even stolen, from birth mothers for international adoption (Corbett, 2002; Mydans, 2001). In other cases, poor women, especially those who were widowed or divorced, were convinced to place their newborn in a “children’s center.” They were told that the placement would be temporary and they would be able to visit the child; they were also given a “donation.” However, when the mothers would try to visit the child, they were refused, and if they asked for the child back, they were told they would have to pay an amount of money several times the amount of the “donation” they had received. Fraudulent paperwork was then created stating that the child had been abandoned and the parents were unknown. Government officials appear to have been receiving large bribes for their assistance in the process (Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, 2002).
In Guatemala, an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 infants were being trafficked to the United States and Europe each year (UNICEF, 2009).
Guatemala had been sending such huge numbers of children to the United States that 1 of every 100 children born every year was growing up in the United States (“Adoptions,” 2008); overall, more than 30,000 Guatemalan children were adopted by foreign families between 2000 and 2007 (Rotabi et al., 2012). In September 2008, Guatemala announced that it was suspending international adoption in order to allow itself time to establish guidelines for accrediting adoption agencies as well as process transition cases. At the same time, the United States announced that although Guatemala had ratified the Hague Convention, it was not meeting its Convention requirements and therefore no new adoptions from there would be processed (US State Department, 2008). This was despite a new law in Guatemala passed at the end of 2007 that was designed to tighten the adoption system to reduce the widespread corruption (“New Guatemala adoption law,” 2007). Canada has suspended adoptions from Guatemala since 2001 (Adoption Council of Canada, 2006). Additionally, the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, Spain, and the Netherlands all filed objections regarding Guatemala’s adherence to the Hague Convention (Huntenburg, 2008).
A growing ethical issue tied to the decline in intercountry adoption is the use of intercountry surrogacy. In this scenario, people from the Global North who wish to be parents contract with a person in the Global South to bear a child for them using In Vitro Fertilization. This may be due to the fact that commercial surrogacy is banned in their home country or the drastically reduced cost by going to another nation (Rotabi & Bromfield, 2012). For example, in the United States, surrogacy is a complex legal procedure that can cost over $70,000, while in India, the cost is approximately $12,000 (Rotabi & Bromfield, 2012). Ethical issues arise, as in India, these surrogates are often recruited using fraudulent means, must sign documents they do not have the ability to read (due to illiteracy or because they are in another language), and then are kept guarded during their pregnancy. These means highly resemble the methods used by human traffickers (Rotabi & Bromfield, 2012). Legislation to regulate the procedure has been drafted, but it has not been introduced in Parliament for consideration (Lakshmi, 2013). In Guatemala, the agents who used to work in intercountry adoption have now shifted to surrogacy and are marketing their services as one might market a vacation (http://www.advocates- forsurrogacy.com/) (Rotabi & Bromfield, 2012).
Other concerns related to intercountry adoption are the conditions in which children live prior to adoption. In many cases, children available in sending nations live in orphanages prior to adoption as this is the most cost-efficient means of caring for them; however, the use of orphanages has been a controversial topic. Many children who live in orphanages are not truly orphans but have parents who are too poor to care for them, so they relinquish them to an orphanage. While some research has found outcomes for children raised in orphanages are equivalent as compared to children raised in the community (Whetten et al., 2009), most research has found worse outcomes for children who were raised in institutions (e.g., Norman & Bathori-Tartsi, 2010; Wilson, Weaver, Cradock, & Kuebli, 2008). Many of the former Soviet countries are working to close down their orphanages, due to these outcomes as well as the fact that conditions in orphanages in some countries have been found to be abusive. Extraordinary neglect and abuse have been documented in orphanages in countries such as Romania and China (the situation in China is discussed in this chapter’s Culture Box).
In Romania at the end of the Cold War, it was found that hundreds of thousands of children had been abandoned due to their parents’ inability to care for them. There had been a prohibition on birth control and abortion, causing parents to have more children than they could afford to raise. The conditions in these orphanages were squalid and the children were typically severely neglected (Hunt, 1990). As a condition of being able to join the European Union, Romania promised to move the children from orphanages without resorting to international adoption for them (Laffan, 2005). However, thousands of children were simply moved from orphanages to psychiatric institutions and other state-run facilities where horrific conditions persisted (Mental Disability Rights International, 2006). In an effort to reduce poor adoption practices in international adoptions and increase domestic adoption, Romania stopped all international adoptions, Currently, they are extremely limited and children may only be adopted by a relative, a step-parent, or a Romanian citizen living abroad (US State Department, 2012).