48 Hours: Tougher laws at hand for international adoption

At least 242,000 foreign-born orphans have been adopted by American families since 1999. The result has been tens of thousands of new beginnings. And each year, thousands of American families continue to travel overseas - sacrificing time, energy, and money - to save seats at this country's fabled table of opportunity for the many needy orphans in the world.

But as humane, generous, and loving as international adoption can be, if done right, it can also be driven by profit and cruelty, if done wrong. A “48 Hours” investigation explores the controversial world of international adoptions, in which some overseas facilitators walk a fine line between adoptions and child trafficking.

The role of government, through both federal and state laws, is to protect the orphans, their birth families and the adopting U.S. families without being overly restrictive and also helping to promote the ability of U.S. families to adopt. It has proven to be a difficult balance to strike.

International adoptions have all too often followed a predictable trajectory. A country’s adoptions suddenly take off, followed by a steady climb, but then a shocking crash and burn when meaningful, effective regulations are not in place. It has happened in Vietnam, the Marshall Islands, Samoa, Guatemala, the Democratic Republic of Congo and several other countries.

In the last decade, more than 20,000 Guatemalan children were adopted by American families. The business side of adoptions was bringing in tens of millions of dollars into Guatemala. Unfortunately, too much money ended up in the hands of unscrupulous baby brokers. And allegations of baby stealing and human trafficking kept surfacing. So in 2008, Guatemala put a sudden halt to all adoptions, leaving thousands of orphans and their adopting American parents in the lurch. At one time in the mid-2000’s there were more than 4,000 Guatemalan orphans coming to the U.S. annually, but now Guatemalan adoptions have slowed to a trickle.

For years, United States lawmakers have been debating what steps to take to ensure a steady, manageable flow of ethical, transparent international adoptions. The most recent answer is a piece of legislation entitled the Universal Accreditation Act. It was passed by the U.S. Congress in 2012 and goes into full effect in July of this year. What it does is hold all U.S. adoption agencies' feet to the fire when it comes to international adoptions.

By this July, these adoption agencies have to meet a stringent set of standards called the Hague Conventions if they plan to be in the international adoption business. Any U.S. adoption agency that does not meet those standards, and have Hague accreditation, will no longer be able to process international adoptions. No doubt, there will still be individuals in foreign countries willing to commit crimes to get a portion of the international adoption purse.

“Having one standard – and it’s a pretty high standard – I think that will be very beneficial,” Ambassador Susan Jacobs, Special Advisor for Children’s Issues in the U.S. State Department, told “48 Hours.” “And I think it will give people a lot more confidence.”

The new law will make it much harder for U.S. adoption agencies to work with unscrupulous baby brokers. But hasn’t that always been the case? Practically speaking, no.

U.S. adoption agencies are primarily regulated by state laws. Those laws, except for California’s, are too often inadequate or non-existent when it comes to international adoption. The new Universal Accreditation Act should fill in the gap.


home study standards

This law seems a good first step. Up until now, the two separate systems, one for Hague countries and one for non-Hague countries. This allowed the adoption industry to move their business to countries with less stringent regulation. The Universal Accreditation Act closes this loophole and brings all inter-country adoption into one system with one set of regulations.

A next step for lawmakers would be to harmonize screening procedures for prospective adopters at the national level. At the moment, there are no nationwide standards for home studies. Each state sets its own requirements for home studies. This should not have to be the case with respect to inter-country adoption. Federal authorities could, in principle, institute federal guidelines for home-studies for inter-country adoptions. As a positive side-effect, states will be encouraged to apply the same standards to domestic adoption, since maintaining two separate standards will be more costly and cumbersome.

Having nation-wide home-study standards makes certain that all inter-country adoptions are done according to the same ethical standards, and allows the field to respond more quickly to needed improvement.

Two years ago, the state of Washington, did an investigation after being confronted with the following abuse cases:

The state of Washington is not exceptional when it comes to  abuse in adoptive families, but it is exceptional in its response. Unfortunately the lessons learned will only be applied to one state.

Had there been a single system of home study standards, the lessons learned through an investigation like the one in the state of Washington, would have applied to the entire country, without the need to reinvent the wheel 50 times.

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