The recent instances of international adoptions gone awry -- the suspected abduction of Haitian children after the January earthquake, followed by the case of a Russian boy sent home by his adoptive mother in Tennessee -- have once again focused the public's attention on the lopsided relationship between adults in the West and children in the developing world (and in emerging markets). In both of the above examples, questions of adult morality -- and, indeed, sanity -- became mixed up with the dictates, obligations, and vagaries of international law, with children caught in the confusion. This need not be the case: as I first argued in Foreign Affairs in 2003, the world's children deserve a stronger safety net of global rules on adoptions.
To be sure, such extreme cases are hardly representative of the international adoption process. In 2009, for example, parents in the United States -- who adopt the largest number of foreign children -- took in more than 12,500 children from abroad. This number is down considerably from almost 23,000 children, partly because of a backlash against international adoptions in some countries, as well as "alerts" issued by the United States for adoptions from several nations, including Guatemala and Nepal. Still, outlying cases do happen, and they can reveal fundamental problems.
In both the Haitian and the Russian case, it is important to note that neither country has ratified the Hague Adoption Convention (HAC), the international agreement that aims to protect the rights of the child in cases of cross-border adoption. The treaty requires sending countries to determine that a child is "adoptable," meaning that he or she is considered orphaned under national law, and that no payment has been given in return for a child. It also requires all intermediaries in the process -- most often an orphanage or adoption agency -- to disclose pertinent medical and family information to prospective parents. Finally, national bodies must oversee and provide accreditation of adoption agencies.
Although all the facts are not yet clear in