In 2004, Americans adopted 22,991 orphans from other countries. That number has steadily declined to only 9,319 in 2011, according to State Department records. This decline is happening due to a set of complicated factors based partly upon different views regarding what is best for an orphaned child.
The Christian Post spoke to several international adoption experts to understand why the decline is taking place, and why adoptive parents have recently run into difficulties with the State Department when trying to bring their children home.
Part one of this series was about Becky Morlock, a missionary in India who has been living there for four years because she has been unable to get a visa from the U.S. State Department to bring her child home. Part two followed the Carrolls, Gerigs and Reeveses as they struggled with alleged falsified information and witness badgering from State Department officials when they were getting visas to bring their adopted children home from Ethiopia.
"It's an enormous collapse of a really valid service to children. It didn't just happen by accident. There's a reason that this all happened," Tom DiFilipo, president and CEO of Joint Council on International Children's Services, said in a Jan. 19 interview with The Christian Post.
Which is a priority: a child's need for a loving family or a child's race and ethnicity? How one answers this question drives some of the disputes over inter-country adoptions, according to Jedd Medefind, president of Christian Alliance for Orphans and former head of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in the George W. Bush administration, in a Feb. 2 interview with The Christian Post.
"Both internationally, as well as domestically in the U.S., there have been fierce debates over which is more important, a child's ethnic background, or their need for a family," Medefind said.
For those who place a high priority on keeping an orphan close to their country of origin and with families who share their race and ethnicity, an international adoption is a low priority.
"Most everyone is, theoretically, supportive of inter-country adoption," Medefind explained. "Some just place it as such a last resort that it effectively never would happen."
Though a diversity of opinions can be found, the United Nations and UNICEF, the U.N.'s program to help children, tend to be biased toward placing race and ethnicity at a higher priority than a family, according to Medefind.
The U.N. is an important player in international adoptions due to the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Inter-Country Adoption, which was designed to facilitate inter-country adoption and help ensure that every inter-country adoption is done ethically and in the best interest of the child.
In every country where the Hague has been implemented, however, inter-country adoptions have declined, according to attorney Kelly Ensslin in a Jan. 10 interview with The Christian Post.
Ensslin specializes in representing parents in international adoption cases and was hired by the Carrolls, Gerigs and Reeveses. She first got involved with inter-country adoption cases when she adopted a child from Vietnam four years ago and also ran into difficulties with the State Department.
"I'm a trial lawyer. I used to just fight about money. When my own kid got stuck, I realized there were not very many people in the country who could help me get her out. So, I had to figure out, on my own, how to fight the system, and when the system is your own government, it's damn crazy," Ensslin said.
Ensslin represented 25 families who had adopted children in Nepal in 2010 and is currently representing close to 20 families who adopted children in Ethiopia.
The U.S. State Department appears to take the position that all inter-country adoptions should, eventually, be done through the Hague Convention. Susan Jacobs was appointed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the newly created Special Adviser for Children's Issues in 2010. The Christian Post contacted her to get the State Department's view on these issues, but she has not returned our call.
A press release announcing Jacobs' appointment stated, "Secretary Clinton has created this new foreign policy position to address inter-country adoption and international parental child abduction."
Concerns over child trafficking, or child abduction, could also be driving some of the State Department's greater scrutiny of international adoptions. There was a case where a couple in Missouri had adopted a child from Guatemala in 2008. Three years later, the child's birth mother claimed the child was stolen from her and went to court to get her child back.
All three experts that The Christian Post interviewed believe, however, that concerns over child trafficking are overblown.
"The claims of child trafficking are definitely not rooted in fact," Medefind said.
The Christian Post also spoke with a source in U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) who confirmed that fraudulent adoptions are very rare.
There are so many truly orphaned children around the world that a potential child trafficker would have little to gain financially by stealing or paying for children. Those involved in adoptions still need to remain diligent, though, to avoid the possibility of child trafficking, Medefind believes.
"Poverty, in some cases, is so severe that the promise of a certain amount of money could lure a parent who is on the edge of survival to give up one of their children in exchange for money."
The most difficult adoptions do not have anything to do with fears of child trafficking. Rather, they have to do with figuring out what is in the best interest of the child when the mother is in a desperate situation.
"The place where the hardest ethical decisions are made," Medefind explained, "are when there is a parent, who is still alive, that potentially could still care for this child, but that parent has chosen to give the child up. And the decision of whether to accept that child for adoption or to force the birth parent to keep the child, and to do all you can in supporting them in that, can be a very difficult decision."
While DiFilipo, Ensslin and Medefind all support the concept of a properly functioning Hague Convention, they all agree that is has not worked in practice.
DiFilipo put it this way: "A good law that can't be implemented is a bad law."
One of the issues with the Hague Convention is that many developing countries do not have the resources to implement it. The Hague Convention requires a plethora of documentation to prove that a child is an orphan before she can be adopted.
"One of the complaints in Ethiopian cases," Ensslin said, "is that the police don't adequately document their investigation into abandoned infants. Well, you go to these police stations and they are essentially lean-to sheds with a desk and a cot and 64 officers. No computers, no filing cabinets. What would we have them do?"
The issue then becomes, how much should be demanded to ensure that a child is an orphan before allowing them to be adopted? The more that is demanded, the more orphans there will be without a chance to be adopted by a loving family. The less that is demanded, the more the possibility that children could be adopted for whom adoption is not the best option.
The U.N. and UNICEF also tend to be biased toward making inter-country adoptions more rare, Medefind believes, because officials at these agencies generally believe that orphans are better served by reducing poverty and government corruption than by inter-country adoption. The two approaches to caring for orphans do not need to be exclusive, however.
"Many in the foreign aid world see a zero-sum game between a focus on investing in programs and an openness to inter-country adoption. It doesn't need to be that way," Medefind said.
The recent events in Ethiopia and elsewhere suggest that the U.S. State Department may also share a bias against inter-country adoption.
"What you're seeing is a clear position by the U.S. government," DiFilipo said. "There is a strong preference for international adoptions to be completed through the Hague Convention. And, countries that are not party to the Convention, you're seeing a lot of push, and a lot of criticism, and a lot of accusations about corruption and poor practice."
Ethiopia decided this past October, just a few weeks before the backlog in adoptions occurred at the U.S. embassy in Ethiopia, that it would not sign onto the Hague Convention.
Governments and NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) also tend to favor solutions that can be delivered on a mass scale, such as food aid and rooting out corruption in government.
"Adoption cannot be delivered by governments, so, those seeking to solve problems through large scale programs naturally would emphasize the types of solutions that they are best at delivering," Medefind explained.
Domestic politics can also be a source of reductions in the number of adoptions, according to Medefind. A party out of power may criticize a party in power by pointing to the number of adopted children leaving the country as evidence that the government is not working well. The party in power may respond to the criticism by reducing the number of inter-country adoptions.
The USCIS official said there are no current plans or discussion of plans to stop inter-country adoptions from Ethiopia. They also said that they were working closely with officials at the U.S. embassy in Ethiopia to alleviate some of the problems the embassy had processing the adoptions, and they are satisfied with the progress made thus far. The Christian Post also discovered from a congressional source that a meeting was planned for mid-February among the State Department, USCIS and members of Congress or their staff to work out some of the difficulties in the inter-country adoption process.
In the Ethiopian cases investigated by The Christian Post, the problems that the Carrolls, Gerigs and Reeveses faced were not simply a matter of the embassy being more diligent or applying greater scrutiny. They were problems that could only have been created by either incompetence or an intentional desire to reduce adoptions.
"What we're finding, in every [Ethiopian adoption] case," Ensslin said, "is that the children are orphans. The indicators of fraud are nonexistent and are really the product of sloppy work, at best, by the embassy."
DiFilipo offered suggestions for improving inter-country adoptions out of Ethiopia and making the Hague Convention more workable.
The U.S. embassy in Ethiopia should have more resources to deal with the number of inter-country adoptions from that nation. Plus, the embassy should have a USCIS officer on site to help process the visa applications.
Also, if a developing country is encouraged to sign onto the Hague Convention, there should be resources offered to help that nation implement the convention so that there is not a sudden drop in adoptions.
"Partnerships must be brought to bear. Resources must be brought to bear. Not just encouragement. Not just criticism. There needs to be partnerships and financial assistance," DiFilipo said.