October 2, 2017

Why are international adoptions on the decline?

Each year when the US Department of State issues a report on the previous year’s intercountry adoption figures, the media covers the story of the decline in adoption.  From 2008 to 2017, the number of intercountry adoptions declined from 24,000 to about 4,700 completed cases.  That represents more than an 80% decline in nine years.  Many people ask (and theorize), “Why the decline?”  We think it’s important for adoptive parents to know the answer to this question, and what is not the answer to the question.   Below are the top reasons that we have identified as contributing to the decline in international adoption:

False Narrative

The truth is, Adoption Prevents Trafficking.  Children who go un-adopted, however, are often trafficked.  In the United States, 60% of victims of trafficking were former foster youth, according to the FBI.  The instance of children in foreign orphanages who age-out and become victims of trafficking is even higher, and estimated to be as high as 90% in some countries.  But the false narrative has emerged among the intelligentsia.   People who oppose adoption, for a variety of reasons, have successfully linked the idea of legal adoption and trafficking in the public narrative.  This is despite the fact that the US Department of State cannot point to a single case where a child was adopted for the nefarious purpose of trafficking.  And the notion that such a case exists is absurd.  Traffickers wouldn’t go through the legal process of adoption…it’s too cumbersome.  The US Department of State defines Human Trafficking as the transport of children for the PURPOSE of exploitation.  The US has never issued an adoption visa for a child who was adopted for the PURPOSE of exploitation.   Another false narrative is “The agencies just snatch kids.”  The reason the false narrative persists is that there are some instances of corrupt practices in adoptions, such as forged documents or extortion payments.  Yet there is a substantive difference between corruption and trafficking.  The specific existence of a corrupt practice does not negate the fact that the child is a real orphan in need of adoption, and that the family adopting plans to provide a permanent loving home.  While every instance of corruption should be addressed, it is inaccurate and unfair to link those practices to trafficking.

Hague requirements

Some of the policies in the Hague Adoption Convention have reduced the number of children who could legally be adopted (regardless of whether they need to be adopted).  For instance, the convention requires a “paper trail” to establish the identity of children and their history of legal custody.  This would require the presence of a birth certificate, and court decrees regarding custody.  But many children who live in developing nations do not have birth certificates or court decrees.  While the requirements make sense, they do pose an insurmountable hurdle for some children to be adopted.    Another requirement of the Hague Convention is to make every effort for a child to be adopted in their home country. This means that in most countries the length of time a child stays in the orphanage is extended by an entire year!  The children are one year older, but almost none of them get adopted in their home country.  As a result, children experience the negative effects of sustained institutionalization.  Additionally, some individuals are less likely to adopt since the age of children who are adoptable is increasing as a result of this requirement.

Naïve policy

There is a notion among professors and political elites that “children belong in their country of birth.”  This notion has affected policies in foreign countries that have restricted the number of adoptions, or put in place requirements that make adoption practically impossible.  For instance, in 2016, Uganda enacted a 1-year residency requirement.  In order to adopt from Uganda, you must live there for a year.  This obviously reduces the number of parents willing or able to adopt.  The policy was intended to be in the best interest of children. But it is hard to see how children are better served by living in orphanages instead of families.  This naive policy includes the notion that children should be adopted domestically in their foreign country.  Our foreign worker in Kyrgyzstan said about this policy, “Very good on paper.”  It is naive because, as our Uganda foreign worker said, “There is not a family in all of Uganda who is not already taking care of multiple family members.  True, Ugandans are great about taking care of their extended family, but now we are already taxed to the breaking point.”  A further element of this naive policy is that we should always pursue reunification.  Those who work with abandoned and neglected children know otherwise.  One of our foreign workers attempted reunification and the birth mothers said, “Do you think we abandoned in ignorance?”  In cases of abuse and neglect, reunification is often not desirable. Yet naive policy makers miss this point.

Another element of this naive thinking is that “Children should not be robbed of their native culture.”  No child’s native culture is an orphanage.  Our daughter spent her first 5 years in an orphanage, without ever leaving the grounds.  She had never sampled Kyrgyz food.  She didn’t go to Kyrgyz festivals or celebrate Kyrgyz holidays.  She had never been to the national landmarks, such as Isikol or Ala-Archa.  Interestingly, she didn’t even speak the native Kyrgyz language, though she is ethnically Krygyz.  Instead, she spoke Russian since her caregivers were Russian immigrants.

Some people argue that the money spent on international adoption would be better spent if the adoptive couple simply gave their tens of thousands of dollars to the birthparents.  This is naive for several reasons.  Obviously, "Suspending international adoption will not raise the income of any village or family" (Montgomery and Powell, 173).  If an adoptive couple has no connection to a community or orphanage, they will have no inspiration to give financial support to that cause.  On the contrary, when a couple adopted from the Tender Hearts Baby Home in Uganda, they returned to their small town in Nebraska.  The whole town fell in love with their new son, and by extension fell in love with the orphanage in Uganda.  Dozens of people (not adoptive couples) from the town went to Uganda and began supporting the baby home to the tune of $200,000 in one year.   Intercountry adoption makes the world smaller, connects people, and causes charitable giving to flow.  One of the effects of the Hague convention, unfortunately, is that the relationship between families and orphanages is severed.  As a result, these connections are not built, and communities in the US  don't "fall in love" with communities abroad, so they have no inspiration to give.

Nationalism or Political Games

In the book Saving International Adoption by Mark Montgomery and Irene Powell, the authors speak of the decline in adoption due to “National Pride and Prejudice.”  Without any pretense for the “best interest of children,” several countries have shut down adoption for nationalistic reasons. The shutdown of adoptions from Russia is the result of a political game.  Russia retaliated against the US after congress passed the Magnitsky Act in 2011.  The Magnitsky Act implied that Russian officials were human rights violators.  In order to save face, or to retaliate, Russia immediately banned adoptions to the United States.  This resulted in thousands fewer adoptions each year. Montgomery and Powell attributed the decline of adoption in many countries to national pride, national interest, or national resentment.

Faulty Ethical Framework and Over-reaction

In the April 2018 issue of Adoption Advocate, Ryan Hanlon (from the National Council for Adoption) demonstrates that if intercountry adoption rates had remained steady over the prior decade, more than 100,000 additional children would have found permanent families.  Given the difference in infant mortality rates between those sending countries and the United States, that represents over 1000 lives that could have been saved if those children had been adopted by foreign families (Montgomery and Powell, 23).  Yet this line of thinking is never allowed in discussion about intercountry adoption.  The prevailing ethical framework never allows for a cost-benefit analysis of adoption…the categories are always black and white.  Adoptions in Guatemala came to a halt amidst allegations of fraud.  Yet, decades into the investigations, only there are only five confirmed cases of fraud (Montgomery and Powell, 120).  And in no case did an adoption occur where the parties involved had a nefarious motive; therefore, not a single case fits the Department of State definition of trafficking.  Nevertheless, due to five cases of fraud, adoptions came to a stand-still.  Clearly, there as an over-reaction to the problem in Guatemala.  The ethical framework behind the push to reduce intercountry adoption was expressed at the 2012 National Adoption Conference by the Special Advisor for Children’s Issues in this way, “As long as the possibility of one child being trafficked exists, there should be no adoptions.”  This is the wrong ethical framework.  By shutting down intercountry adoption, thousands MORE children are trafficked as they age out of orphanages and are sold by their caretakers into prostitution.

Ironically, when it comes to domestic adoption in the US, there is a completely different ethical framework that is publicly acceptable.  It is acceptable to most Americans if a birthmother in the US states that she placed her child for adoption because she was unable to provide for that child’s needs. Economic reasons are sufficient justification.  Yet imperialistic, ivory-tower thinkers impose their “we know what’s best for you” ethics on foreign birthmothers by telling them that economic reasons are not sufficient.  I wonder if these same liberals would tell a woman that economic reasons are not sufficient for an abortion?  Adoption has actually provided naive thinkers a new forum for colonialism, where they can tell foreign countries what policies they should hold, even if these policies are not held (or working) in developed countries.  Within the prevailing naive narrative, poor foreign families do not have a right to self-determination about their children, unless they are going to abort them.

Another faulty ethical framework has been the failure to define the phrase “best interest of children.”  The phrase has no meaningful definition and is, therefore, not helpful in establishing policy.  In the Adoption Advocate article referenced above, Hanlon notes that the Hague convention on adoption, over the last decade, has proved to serve the interest of parents.  It has provided them slightly more assurance that their money has not been used for bribes in the adoption process.  Yet the rapid decline in adoption has not served the best interest of children.  There are more than 100,000 children who could have had permanent families but remained in institutions.  If the phrase “best interest of children” is going to be invoked, it must be coupled with the understanding that the best interest of children means placement in a permanent family, as soon as possible.


All the progress in the United States over the decades since the Civil Rights movement seems to be forgotten when some Americans speak of intercountry adoption.  In the 1950’s it was almost universally accepted that interracial adoption was not in the best interest of children.  The Civil Rights movement taught us to place less emphasis on race, and best practice came to include acceptance of trans-racial placements.  Today, it would be publicly unacceptable for someone to say, “White children belong in white families.”  Yet for some reason, the public acceptance of projecting these racist notions when speaking of adoption from abroad persists.

Some might argue with the above example that despite racial difference, we are still speaking about children being raised in their country of origin (United States).  So perhaps the Indian Child Welfare Act is a better example of how we have made domestic strides in our thinking about race but have not applied this progress to the way we think about foreign countries.  The purpose of ICWA was to do exactly what the naive opponents of intercountry adoption want: keep children in their native environment.  Looking back since ICWA was passed, numerous examples illustrate that the law put the rights of the tribe over the rights of the child (to have a permanent family).  ICWA was passed to right a wrong, and it was wrong for tribes to be excluded from child welfare decisions.  But ultimately, the place where children belong is in families.

Longer Processing time

If each adoption used to take one year, and now it takes two years, then rather quickly we will see the number of completed adoptions each year decrease.  With the advent of the Hague Convention, and other accreditation requirements (by the Department of State, or by foreign countries), we have seen the length of time it takes to adopt double.  As a result, fewer adoptions occur each year.  One way that foreign nations could decrease the wait time, while remaining compliant with the Hague convention, is to create a database registry of children in care.  Limiting the wait time to one year, children could be made available for domestic adoption or foster care, while their legal documents and case is compiled.  At the end of that year, these children would be immediately available and legally ready for international adoption.  This would prevent children from spending years in institutional care.

Cultural Differences

Larry Taunton, a historian of soviet society, wrote a book called The Grace Effect, where he looks at the price these nations paid by removing God from their culture for nearly a century.  One effect of the decidedly atheist society was a change in how orphans are viewed, and how altruism is viewed.  In many former soviet countries, orphans are considered the lowest “caste.” They are treated with contempt.  It would be a mistake for Americans who adopt from abroad to think that the workers from their child’s orphanage would be blessed and pleased to see how much these kids are thriving in their new homes.  On the contrary, the reaction of some people abroad to the new lives of adopted children is one of jealousy and anger.  And for others, the reaction is pure suspicion.  It is unfathomable for some people why Americans would take an orphaned child into their home.   Since this type of altruism is so outside of their worldview, they can only envision nefarious motives.  So, suspicion, contempt, and jealousy are factors that make some foreign countries develop a negative policy and attitude toward adoption.

US Department of State Restrictions

The United States Department of State has identified certain countries from which it will not accept adoptions. These countries include Cambodia, Guatemala, and Nepal.  Each of those countries is willing to cooperate in adoption, and for Americans to adopt their orphaned children.  The prohibition, therefore, is one-sided.  The rationale from the US government is that those countries do not have a sufficient system to ensure that adoption cases are free of corruption.  For fear that some cases may be suspect, the Department of State has halted ALL adoptions cases.

Not money

Money is sometimes blamed for the decline in adoption.  We have not seen this to be the case.  The increasing cost of adoption, and the recent recession are both supposed to have affected adoption numbers.  But adoption professionals understand that people who have a clear calling to adopt abroad, or who are struggling with infertility, are more concerned about building their family than they are about money.  The cost imposes a frustrating or difficult burden, but not an insurmountable one.  Families are so driven to adopt, that they make a way.  We have not seen a reduction in the number of inquiries or applications we receive throughout the decline of adoption.  We have only seen an increase in the length of time that it takes to adopt, which means fewer cases per year.

Not the cost and difficulty of accreditation

The number of accredited agencies has declined by 30% in just the last five years.  This is a result of a drastic increase in the cost of Hague accreditation, and the increasing difficulty to meet accreditation requirements.  While these barriers have put agencies out of business, we do not think that directly affects the number of completed adoptions.  It is possible for adoptive families to switch agencies, and that would mean a longer wait time.  But ultimately, it is the number of children who meet foreign or US adoption requirements which determines the number of adoptions.

People mistakenly liken adoptions to language involving markets, such as “supply and demand.”  But the true answer is policy.  The number and trajectory of completed adoptions rises and falls on policy.

Daniel Nehrbass, Ph.D. | President of Nightlight Christian Adoptions


Talk with our experts:
© 2023 Nightlight Christian Adoptions | Sitemap