International adoptions by Americans get really tough

By Saly Kalson

March 15, 2009 / Pittsburg Post Gazette

Katie Houser tried to adopt a child from Honduras four years ago, but gave up when that country's government stopped releasing children.

Late last year, she shifted her focus to Ethiopia, where the process was taking about six months.

But in the few months since she filed the paperwork, the time frame to adopt a child there has expanded to a year or more, and she expects it will keep lengthening.

"I have friends who did three separate adoptions from Ethiopia in two years," said Mrs. Houser, of North Huntingdon. "Mine will probably take a year, if I'm lucky."

It's not as if she's childless in the meantime. Mrs. Houser and her husband, Dale, already have adopted 14 children from the U.S. foster care system.

Kristy and Bill McCorkle, on the other hand, have yet to become parents. When they signed up to adopt a baby from China, the time frame was one year. That was nearly three years ago, and the North Apollo couple is still waiting.

"We've heard a lot of different things on why it's taking so long," Mrs. McCorkle said. "They're doing more domestic adoptions, and things slowed down during Chinese New Year and the Olympics."

If the narrowed pipeline continues at its current pace, they should be on track to have a child assigned to them in the next few months. After the McCorkles receive a photograph and information about their daughter, they expect to wait at least two more months before traveling to China to finalize the adoption and bring her home.

"It's long, hard and frustrating and it pulls on your heartstrings," Mrs. McCorkle said, "but deep down we know it'll be worth it in the end."

These stories reflect the new reality of international adoption. Americans last year adopted 12 percent fewer children from abroad, according to the U.S. State Department -- www.adoption.state.gov.

The reasons include increased delays and red tape, crackdowns on baby trafficking and other unethical practices, moratoriums, fluctuating regulations and the tanking U.S. economy.

The drop occurred after the three most popular countries for child-seeking U.S. parents saw programs shut down amid allegations of fraud and corruption (Guatemala, the No. 1 program last year); imposed new restrictions or slowed the process to a crawl (China, No. 2); or launched incentives for domestic families to adopt internally (Russia, No. 3, and China).

As children from these places become less available, families are seeking alternative source countries, such as Ethiopia, which last year had the biggest increase of American placements (from 1,255 to 1,725), and South Korea (from 939 to 1,065).

The peak year for intercountry adoptions by Americans was 2004, with 22,884. Last year, the number fell by more than 5,000 to 17,438 -- down from 19,613 the year before. That total is the lowest since 1999.

Even as the number of available children declines, Americans find themselves lining up with citizens of other nations who increasingly want to adopt. At the same time, the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, an international agreement drafted to safeguard children, is creating new rules and restrictions for its signatories.

Meanwhile, millions of orphans worldwide have no permanent families. The situation in Guatemala is thought to be especially dire.

Guatemala signed onto the Hague Convention after allegations of baby selling, but has not been able to implement the treaty's rules. That country's program was run by Guatemala's private sector, which has dropped out of the picture during the moratorium.

Without a state-run system in place, the country has no place for babies to be safely relinquished, spurring reports that abandoned infants are dying.

"Adoption abuses have been a terrible embarrassment and cannot be tolerated," said Chuck Johnson, chief operating officer of the National Council for Adoption in Washington, D.C.

"Domestic adoption is always preferable, but the problem is that when you shut a country down, a place like Guatemala or Vietnam has no ability to take care of the children," he said. "You end up doing more harm than you've prevented by stopping the abuses. But the State Department takes another view. They say we need a moratorium until we fix the system."

As demand rises, new programs begin to take more time to deliver children, too.

"Ethiopia is exploding in terms of the amount of people getting on board to adopt," said Mrs. Houser, who works in Greensburg for the Pittsburgh office of Adoptions from the Heart.

"When a program first opens, people approach it with fear and trepidation because it's uncharted water," she said. "Once they get a reference from an agency about a successful adoption that went quickly, more and more people pile on.

"What was quick and smooth becomes like every place else -- longer waiting lists and a more drawn-out process. The programs get overwhelmed."

Over time, some countries of origin have come to see the outplacement of so many children as a blow to their national pride.

In an interview last year with The New York Times, Kim Dong-won, who oversees adoptions at his country's Ministry of Health, put it this way: "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."

With the foreign adoption picture in constant flux, a third of the U.S. agencies that specialized in international placements or related services have closed their doors or merged with others. Some had problems with accreditation. Others were hurt by availability of children and the economic downturn's effect on a costly process in which costs for adoptive families can run into thousands of dollars.

"Five years ago we estimated 600 agencies or facilitators doing intercountry adoption," Mr. Johnson said. "Now we believe that 200 have quit providing services. It's a pretty big hit, and we expect more to close. We've had four consecutive years of decrease, so it's not just the economy."

One such case involved the multisite Commonwealth Adoptions International. In 2007, its Cranberry office handled 181 adoptions from Guatemala, its biggest program. The agency has since shut down nationwide.

Other agencies, such as Adopt-A-Child Inc. in Squirrel Hill, are weathering the storm. The agency specializes in Russian adoption, and clinical director Amy Jonas said it continues to place an average of 70 to 100 children a year.

"Russians are being paid to adopt domestically now, so there are fewer children available for international adoption," Ms. Jonas said. "We can place a boy in less than a year but girls are in higher demand so it takes about a year and a half."

Still other agencies have refocused their efforts on placing domestic children, even though the trend toward open adoption -- in which adoptive and birth parents remain in contact -- makes many Americans leery.

"Not all families are receptive to domestic adoption because it seems riskier," said Debbie Cohen, local director of Adoptions from the Heart, which has increased its domestic adoptions.

"Some people aren't comfortable having ongoing contact with the birth parents, and 99 percent of [domestic] birth parents today want that."

Domestic adoption is also harder for singles, she said, because many birth parents want their children to have two parents. Even so, she said, she placed 166 domestic babies last year, compared to 131 the year before.

"One of the big factors is the economy," Ms. Cohen said. "You may have a birth mother already parenting one or two children who doesn't feel she can financially care for a third right now."

Mr. Johnson of the National Council for Adoption expects that to continue.

"About 22,000 infants are relinquished for adoption by birth parents every year," he said. "That number will increase as the economy worsens."

Still, he said, domestic adoption from the foster care system hasn't risen much. Of the 500,000 children in foster care at any time, about 129,000 are available for adoption, but only 50,000 are placed each year. And for every child who gets a permanent family, one or more enters the system.

As for international adoption, he said, the numbers are likely to continue downward. The 2008 total reflects cases from Guatemala and Vietnam that were in the pipeline, and those programs have since shut down.

"I think we'll see families reconsidering intercountry adoptions because of the expense and the drop in value of the dollar," Mr. Johnson said. "With the exception of Ethiopia, I think the days of a country like China allowing so many adoptions to take place are over."

Meanwhile, Ms. Jonas of Adopt A Child said, "Kids are waiting, people desperately want to parent a child, and there's a big gap in between."

Sally Kalson can be reached at skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610.
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