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. 

IMPERFECT SOLUTIONS

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 in terms of physical, emotional, and intellectual development, including the acquisition of language skills. On average, moreover, adoptive families invest more in their children and are less likely to abuse them than other families are. 

The alternatives to international adoption have questionable outcomes. First, domestic adoption might seem like a potential solution for helping the gap children, but it too has pitfalls. Adoption carries a social stigma in many countries where international adoption once thrived. Cultural beliefs in some countries, such as those of the former Soviet Union, hold that children available for adoption are mentally or physically deficient. Other cultures, such as in South Korea, place tremendous importance on a family’s bloodline, which can make adoption unpopular. Children from minority ethnic groups tend to be infrequently adopted within their countries of origin, as are children with disabilities. Families in low-resource countries rarely have the social or financial support to raise children with special needs, who are disproportionately represented among international adoptees.

Two substitute mothers assist babies in the Los Piscingos orphanage in Bogota, Colombia, June 22, 2002.
Two substitute mothers assist babies in the Los Piscingos orphanage in Bogota, Colombia, June 22, 2002.
Daniel Munoz / Reuters
Research suggests that institutional rearing—which is the primary form of care for orphaned children in many countries—can cause significant developmental trauma. Children living in institutions are at risk for high rates of physical abuse, malnutrition, and the transmission of infectious disease. Children raised in orphanages do not typically receive the kind of nurturing care that is critical for healthy childhood development, even if these institutions do provide them with adequate medical and nutritional support. Large-scale studies, such as the Bucharest Early Intervention Project, have found that previously institutionalized children placed in family homes in Romania develop higher IQs, better language skills, healthier attachments to their caregivers, fewer emotional difficulties, more normal reactions to stress, and more typical brain development than those who remained in orphanages. In fact, the study linked time spent in orphanages with increased stress-related effects at the cellular level, measured by accelerated deterioration of the ends of chromosomes within cells. In other words, the earlier a child can leave an orphanage, the better.

Although foster care, generally defined as a temporary rather than permanent home for a child, can be better than institutionalization, not all foster systems are equal. Even some foster systems in high-resource countries, such as the United States, leave children without adequate support. Further, one study of Romanian orphans demonstrated that state-sponsored foster care yielded more cases of anxiety and depression disorders in children than a competing program designed by the researchers that included resources, training, and a support staff to help foster parents raise their children. It is no wonder that, in countries with less robust foster care systems, such as Russia, foster children are returned to institutional care at alarmingly high rates, affecting thousands of children per year.

A French woman holds a Haitian child who is to be adopted in Port-au-Prince December 23, 2010.
A French woman holds a Haitian child who is to be adopted in Port-au-Prince December 23, 2010.
St-Felix Evens / Reuters

Family preservation is another goal of many child-welfare programs around the world, including efforts to avoid out-of-home placement in the first place, and to reunify children with their birth families. Few would argue with the notion that children should remain with birth parents whenever possible, so long as they are not abused or neglected, yet this may not always be the best outcome. Russian researchers found that previously institutionalized children fared better when placed with adoptive Russian families than they did after being returned to their birth families. This may be due to the persistence of risk factors that led to the initial relinquishment of the children in the first place, be they poverty, substance abuse, or neglect. Moreover, many child relinquishments arise in scenarios where reunification may be culturally impermissible or unrealistic, such as a teenage pregnancy or a pregnancy arising from an illicit relationship. In these cases, the mother’s life may be in danger if her pregnancy becomes known, and reunification is therefore not possible. 

GETTING IN THE WAY

International adoption is an important option for children without parents able to care for them, so it is important to determine what is behind the free fall. It seems that a combination of nationalism, misinformation, and fear are to blame, even in countries that have more unparented children than the system can afford to support.

One of the major impediments to international adoption is political policy. Russia instituted a ban on U.S. adoptions on January 1, 2013, despite having hundreds of thousands of institutionalized children throughout the country. The ban is thought to be retaliation for Washington’s passage of the Magnitsky Act, which banned some Russian politicians from entering the United States or using its banking system after Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky died in police custody in 2009. Since 2004, more than 23,000 Russian children have been adopted to the United States, but the 2013 ban put that practice to a halt. Russia’s statistics are unreliable, so it is not possible to determine how many children would have been adopted if not for the ban.

Another impediment to international adoption is the concern that a child’s sense of ethnic, national, or cultural identity will be harmed as a result of the adoption process. Research has shown that this concern is overstated. Adopted children may face challenges as they develop identities that incorporate their unique histories, but studies show that they can do so, and that their self-esteem is just as high as in non-adopted people. In fact, one study found that equal numbers of Korean-American and white American adoptees raised by white families reported feeling comfortable in their respective ethnic groups. Other research has shown that the self-reported well-being of adopted children is not tied to strong ethnic identification. Rather, it is linked to whether or not adoptees feel that their birth and adopted cultural identities can coexist peacefully.

Lastly, fears of corruption in the international adoption process have proved to be the most vexing challenge of all. In Cambodia and Guatemala, for example, reports of kidnappings of children from their birth homes raised alarms. These events have led some adoption critics to conflate international adoption with child trafficking. This comparison, however, fails to distinguish between the kinds of questionable activity that have been observed in the international adoption system. The difference between trafficking (involving kidnapping or coercion) and bribery (where officials receive cash gifts in order to expedite adoption paperwork) is vast. But their conceptual conflation has led some governments to set unrealistic expectations of transparency in adoptions, such as expecting official birth certificates, formally signed relinquishment reports, detailed police reports, and DNA evidence of parentage before they allow children to be released for adoption. Such standards may be well intentioned, but they are often impossible to meet in the low-resource countries in which most international adoptions occur. The Hague Adoption Convention has established safeguards against child abduction and trafficking, but has made legal international adoption more difficult as well. In other words, the pendulum may have swung too far toward bureaucratic oversight, which has contributed to delays that have kept children from leaving state-run facilities to live with loving adoptive parents.

There is no perfect way to help children at risk of abandonment, abuse, and neglect around the world. Every option comes with its own risks, and they all have room for improvement. But given the demonstrable benefits of international adoption, it is imperative to preserve and support the international adoption system, while at the same time including reasonable safeguards against fraud. Children waiting for homes and loving families deserve no less.

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