By John Johnston, The Cincinnati Enquirer
24 July 2011
By Leigh Taylor, Gannett
“I see ’em! I see ’em!” he exclaimed as his parents, Chris and Jenny Romano of Deerfield Township, appeared in a walkway at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. Atop Chris’ shoulders was Tommy, a smiling 4-year-old boy they had just adopted from Ethiopia.
The Romanos, exhausted but exuberant after 16 hours on planes, soon were surrounded by their four biological children and more than a dozen family members and friends holding welcome signs and balloons. Somebody handed Tommy a small U.S. flag, which he waved enthusiastically.
“Welcome to America,” Chris Romano said as he bounced the boy on his arm.
Scenes such as this one, which occurred April 1, are becoming less common as the international adoption landscape shifts dramatically, the number of such placements plummets, and advocates and critics line up on either side of the issue.
In the United States, the number of children adopted internationally has fallen 52 percent — from a high of 22,991 in 2004 to 11,058 last year. In comparison, 25,000-30,000 children were adopted through private agencies and about 50,000 were adopted through the foster care system in 2009, the most recent year for which those numbers are available.
Elizabeth Bartholet, a Harvard law professor and international adoption expert, said those numbers are “pretty stunning. I see it as a crisis for international adoption, which I think is a crisis for children worldwide.”
But others say a needed transition is under way, and that international adoption should be the last resort for finding homes for unparented children. Loose regulations and the large sums of money changing hands have spawned corrupt practices, they say, and as abuses are exposed, many countries have shut down or severely limited inter-country adoption.
“Which is as it should be,” said Julie Gilbert Rosicky, executive director of the American branch of the International Social Service, a nonprofit active in 140 countries. “We should not be adopting children when children are being bought and sold or being stolen.”
Some 81 countries have ratified an international adoption protocol called the Hague Convention, aimed at protecting children and safeguarding both birth parents and adoptive parents. But of the top five countries from which Americans adopt, only China is a party to the convention.
Countries that have shut down their adoption programs because of fraud and corruption include Vietnam, Nepal and Guatemala, which a few years ago was one of the biggest sources of international adoption.
Ethiopia is now the No. 2 source country for children adopted by Americans (after China). In March, it announced a new policy, intended to decrease fraud, that could reduce the number of foreign adoptions by up to 90 percent.
“Some (country closures) just come out of the blue,” said Thomas DiFilipo, president and CEO of the Joint Council on International Children’s Services, a nonprofit that advocates for orphaned and vulnerable children.
Kurdistan, for example, had a system that was working well, he said. “They had a couple of allegations of paperwork corruption, and (three years ago) it just shut down, basically overnight.”
Impoverished countries also feel other pressures to curtail international adoption.
“It’s easy for those countries’ leaders to think it will be popular politically to decry (international adoption) as a modern form of colonialism,” Bartholet said. “And it’s easy to think it will be popular to stand up to the United States.”
And yet, “to close down a service to children is an inappropriate and damaging response,” DiFilipo said. “It’s abusive to the kids that are in the system (waiting) to be adopted, and it’s abusive to the ones who could have found a family and never had the opportunity.”
DiFilipo’s organization advocates for laws, funding and aggressive prosecution aimed at halting corrupt adoption practices.
“No one is saying that international adoption is the only or even the primary solution. The solution is in-country,” said DiFilipo, whose organization has promoted domestic adoption in Albania, Russia, China and Africa. “But until we get to that point, adoption internationally might be the most viable (alternative).”
Certainly there’s no lack of people willing to adopt children from other countries, DiFilipo said. “We could be finding homes for tens of thousands of more kids each year.”
UNICEF defines an orphan as a child who has lost one or more parents. It estimates there were 132 million such children in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean in 2005. Of those, 13 million had lost both parents.
“The next question is, do they have other family members?” said Rosicky. “That’s the heart and soul of our practice here in the U.S. — if someone doesn’t have parents to take care of them, what about aunts, uncles, grandparents?
“Inter-country adoption is not the first solution. It should be the last solution. Countries should come up with alternatives for permanency in their own countries first.”
But she acknowledges that it will take years to build such systems of care and realign priorities. In some African cultures, for example, people are stigmatized when they take in a child from another community.
“The problem is, what do you do with all those kids in the transition, who are in orphanages now, and may or may not be (able to) reunify with their families,” Rosicky said. “That’s a terrible, terrible place to be. There are no easy answers.”
Rosicky said that international adoption will continue to be in the best interest of some children. Meanwhile, for Americans seeking to adopt internationally, the ramifications of the changing landscape are profound.
“It used to be, five to 10 years ago, that people looking at international adoption had some degree of certainty that at the end of the process they’d be bringing home a child. It was pretty predictable,” said Cherie McCarthy, director of Amberley Village-based Adoption Connection, which does home studies.
“Now things have been changing so much, I don’t think they have that level of certainty anymore.”
Often, people who chose international adoption over domestic did so because of concerns about contact with the birth family. And some families preferred to go overseas because they could adopt healthy, younger children. But new adoption rules have changed the landscape.
“We’re seeing a lot of kids that are older, who have either been in institutional care, or who have been victims of some kind of trauma or neglect or poverty in their country. So the situations we deal with once the kids come home are more complicated than they used to be,” McCarthy said.
That trend magnifies the importance of local resources — such as Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center’s International Adoption Center — that can serve families as they deal with more complex adoptions.
For prospective adoptive families, one thing hasn’t changed, DiFilipo said.
“It takes a commitment to a child, whether you know who that child is today, or you don’t. The commitment is unbelievably important.”