Homes Beyond Borders

Understanding the Drop in International Adoptions

Shirley Be from Nyack, New York carries her newly-adopted 10-month-old Chinese daughter waits in front of the United Airlines information counter at the Hong Kong airport September 14, 2001. Bobby Yip / Reuters

On April 1, the U.S. Department of State released statistics on Americans who adopted children from abroad in 2015. For the tenth year in a row, the total declined, reaching a 35-year low. Indeed, international adoptions in the United States have declined by a full 75 percent after peaking in 2004—a trend that can be seen elsewhere in the West. Globally, international adoption declined by half since 2004. How to interpret these figures, however, is up for debate. It is possible that there may be fewer children in need of international adoption. But it is also possible that the decline is due to political and cultural barriers that have left orphaned children behind.

International adoption is one of the world’s most successful child welfare interventions; it has helped children avoid turmoil in fractured families, orphanages, and inadequate foster homes. And so the fate of “gap children”—the approximately 111,000 children who would have been adopted by Americans if the 2004 rate had held steady—is far from certain. Many of these children live in countries where data is either uncollected or distorted for political purposes, making it impossible for experts to account for the would-be adoptees. 

It is possible that fewer children have been relinquished by birth families, or that domestic adoption levels in some countries have increased over the last ten years. But in the absence of reliable data, it is just as likely that gap children now languish in orphanages and foster homes, live on the streets, or have died due to inadequate care or untreated medical conditions. In any case, international adoption remains a crucial option for helping such children in need, so policymakers need to determine the real causes behind international adoption’s plummeting numbers. 


The physical, cognitive, and emotional benefits of adoption are well established, including for international adoptees. Internationally adopted children generally arrive in their new homes with significant developmental delays, owing to inadequate institutional care, neglect, or abuse. Many children quickly catch up with their peers

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