State Department data show 6,441 children were adopted from abroad in fiscal 2014, down from about 23,000 in 2004
By Miriam Jordan
31 March 2015
Dawn and Jesse Seltrecht filed paperwork to adopt a Chinese baby in 2007. More than eight years later, they are still waiting.
“China had the most secure program and the shortest waitlist,” said Ms. Seltrecht, 39 years old, of Cedarburg, Wis.
Their experience is increasingly common for Americans adopting abroad, as the number of children available for international adoption diminishes and restrictions increase.
Foreign adoptions have plummeted to their lowest level in more than three decades, according to State Department data to be released Wednesday—to 6,441 in the 2014 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. That’s down from 7,092 the previous year and about 23,000 in 2004. This year’s total is the lowest level since 1982, when there were 5,749 adoptions.
Steep Decline in Foreign Adoptions by Americans
China remains the most popular country, with 2,040 adoptions from there. Still, that pales in comparison to the nearly 8,000 Chinese children adopted by Americans in 2005. Ethiopia ranked second at 716 adoptions, down from 993 in 2013. Ukraine and Haiti, two emerging sources, were No. 3 and No. 4, respectively. Russia, a major source until 2012, no longer allows Americans to adopt from there.
Adoption agencies say hundreds of thousands of children abroad need homes, and families in the U.S. are eager to take them in. They attribute the steep decline to policies intended to promote domestic adoption and foster care in countries such as Ethiopia; nationalist sentiment against adoption in emerging economies like China and South Korea; and increased U.S. scrutiny of some countries and individual cases.
“The State Department focuses too much on making sure children aren’t trafficked without seeing all the excellent things intercountry adoption can provide,” said Bill Blacquiere, president of Bethany Christian Services, a national agency.
Trish Maskew, the State Department’s adoption chief, said the U.S. aims to protect all those involved in the process. “It’s very troubling for families to adopt a child they believe is an orphan and then find out they are not an orphan.”
Many countries have ratified the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, designed to ensure ethical standards. Adoption advocates backed the treaty, which the U.S. entered in 2008, believing it would facilitate legitimate adoptions. Instead, they say, it has become an obstacle.
Some countries joined the treaty only to keep hearing from Washington that they weren’t compliant enough, said Chuck Johnson, chief executive of the National Council for Adoption, an advocacy organization. “It’s preventing countries with a large orphan population from working with the U.S.,” he said.
Ms. Maskew said that some countries, such as Cambodia, prematurely signed on to the convention before establishing necessary procedures to comply, including how to determine a child’s eligibility for adoption.
A few months ago, the U.S. allowed two agencies to resume adoptions from Vietnam, which it had stopped in 2008, under a pilot program focused on special-needs and older children.
As international adoption has slowed, some agencies, including Michigan-based Bethany, have begun expanding domestic programs.
But demand for infants born in the U.S. exceeds supply, and many families are loath to deal with the bureaucracy of the foster-care system, adoption advocates say.
The U.S. doesn’t compile national data on infant adoptions. The adoption council estimates that about 18,000 American infants were adopted in 2007, the latest year it conducted a study. Mr. Johnson said he believes that number has swelled since the recession, as financial hardship prompted more women to give up children.
International adoption to the U.S. nearly quadrupled between 1982 and 2004, to a record 22,991. China’s one-child policy packed orphanages there with abandoned baby girls, giving rise to an industry of American brokers that helped thousands of infants reach the U.S. each year. Russian babies also arrived in growing numbers.
In 2005, actress Angelina Jolie famously brought home a daughter from Ethiopia, a budding source. Then, global adoption began to sputter.
Washington halted adoptions from Cambodia and Guatemala, citing evidence of baby selling and document fraud, and restricted adoptions from Nepal.
In recent years, China began encouraging domestic adoption and steering mainly special-needs children with mental or physical disabilities overseas. It also began implementing stricter regulations for foreigners to qualify to adopt—although experts say that didn’t decrease demand.
Russia banned adoptions to the U.S. in 2013, after Washington sanctioned Moscow for alleged human-rights abuses and a high-profile case in which an American family returned a child to the country in 2010.
As the availability of foreign babies shrinks, some American families are giving up on adoption altogether; others are considering adopting foreign children with disabilities and still others are beginning to contemplate U.S. adoption, advocates say.
The adoption council said it would launch a campaign on radio and television next month to encourage women with unintended pregnancies to consider putting babies up for adoption. Starting in May, it will promote adoption of foster children.
“The number of Americans interested in adopting hasn’t decreased,” said Mr. Johnson of the council. “As opportunities close abroad, agencies and families are turning to domestic solutions.”
Meanwhile, the wait for a healthy Chinese baby is several years. The Seltrechts said they heard that couples who completed their paperwork a few weeks before they did are getting their babies. “The years go fast,” Ms. Seltrecht said. “We are hopeful we’ll have our child by the end of this year. If not, maybe the beginning of 2016.”
Write to Miriam Jordan at [email protected]