Rachel Garber always knew she wanted to adopt a child. Besides having grown up with five adopted siblings, in 2007 she made a memorable trip to the Chinese city of Xi’an, where she spent a month volunteering at a home for abandoned babies. “During this trip my feelings on adoption were solidified,” she says. “I met my husband Ryan in 2010, and he knew right away that if we got married, we would end up going to China for a child.”
While those plans were temporarily put on hold after their son Nixon was born with special needs, in 2017 the Garbers were finally matched with a little boy in China. After committing to his file, they learned that he was from the very city where Rachel had previously volunteered: Xi’an. “It was meant to be,” she says.
Rachel and Ryan brought their second son, Nolan, home from China to Wyoming last year. Today he is 3 1/2 years old and thriving. His mom describes him as “very loving and yet very strong-willed!” A nearby doctor happens to be the foremost authority in Nolan’s area of medical need. “From the moment we met our son, he has been a joy,” Rachel says. “We have had many hard days, or days where I question my ability, but I can’t imagine our life without him.”
In a nation where tens of thousands of families have adopted children from overseas, the Garbers’ story may sound familiar. But it is a story that is growing increasingly rare. International adoptions to America have been falling dramatically for the past 15 years, and a recent report shows that the decline hasn’t slowed.
The U.S. Department of State’s annual intercountry adoption report to Congress, released in March, shows that Nolan Garber was one of just 4,059 children adopted from overseas in FY 2018. This represents a 13 percent decline since the prior year, an 82 percent decline since intercountry adoption’s peak in 2004, and a new historic low.
Why Is Adoption Disappearing?
In its report, the Department of State (DOS)—which functions as the U.S. authority over international adoption—offers a few explanations for the latest decline. It notes that the largest decrease last year occurred in China, where the communist government has been suppressing the activities of all foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
DOS also lays heavy blame on U.S. adoption agencies and the families they represent. The department spends nearly half its report summary discussing foreign governments’ concerns about the conduct of agencies and adoptive families, from their failure to submit required post-adoption reports to disrupted adoptions to allegations of unethical practices. The DOS report paints a picture of foreign governments who doubt Americans’ integrity and are therefore reluctant to work with them.
Adoption advocates dispute this portrayal, criticizing DOS for failing to acknowledge its own role in the steep decline of intercountry adoption.
“DOS has chosen to focus almost all of their attention on the regulation of intercountry adoption and not its advocacy,” the National Council For Adoption (NCFA) said in a press release. “This is what happens when you only impose overbearing regulations that make it increasingly difficult to facilitate intercountry adoption.”
Jedd Medefind, president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans (CAFO), agrees that U.S. policy has certainly shifted toward an abundance of caution. “Any time we try to respond to complex human needs, there will be a real tension between speed and precision, between minimizing risk of error or unethical practices in adoption and maximizing opportunities for children to reach families,” he said.
Medefind cited ambulance accidents—which happen more than 4,000 times per year—as an example of this tension. A severely reduced speed limit for ambulances would eliminate these accidents, but would also prevent many sick and injured patients from reaching a hospital in time. “I would say U.S. [adoption] policy right now sets the speed limit for ambulances around 25 miles per hour,” Medefind recently told a public forum on international adoption. “It’s doing a solid job of guarding against risk, but it’s certainly not maximizing the potential of children to reach families in a timely manner.”
Regulators Thrive as Adoption Dies
Last year, the conflict between DOS and the adoption community reached a boiling point when the Council on Accreditation (COA), the long-time independent accrediting body for adoption agencies, announced it would leave the field by year’s end. In its announcement, COA blamed its exit on new requirements from DOS that were “inconsistent with COA’s philosophy and mission.”
DOS scrambled to replace COA with a brand-new organization, the International Adoption Accreditation and Maintenance Entity (IAAME). Unsurprisingly, IAAME has proven to be far more aligned with the State Department’s vision. Adoption agencies have noticed an immediate increase both in fees and oversight. “We have paid IAAME almost as much in 12 months as we paid COA for four years of services,” says Lucy Armistead of All Blessings International, a Kentucky-based adoption agency.
Reporting has also increased significantly, draining agencies’ staff hours. Where Armistead previously exchanged an average of 7.5 emails per month with COA, her contact with IAAME is requiring 25 emails per month. “We have not even started on re-accreditation yet,” Armistead says. “I cannot imagine what that will look like. I do not see any way that a small or medium-sized agency can afford or manage this for the long term. It is truly death by a thousand cuts.”
“It’s not that we don’t want oversight,” says Robin Sizemore of Hopscotch Adoptions in North Carolina, “but there is a cost to the minutiae of oversight. I’ve had to raise my agency fees for two programs already, and more will follow. There is also the personal toll of these arbitrary, excessive new interpretations of regulations and standards. Morale is low. I’ve been told by five other agency heads that they are planning to close or let their accreditation expire.”
According to COA, there were more than 200 accredited American adoption agencies in 2012. Today, there are fewer than 150. Of those, fewer than 100 do international adoption placements (the rest merely perform home studies). These numbers are likely to keep shrinking.
With dramatically fewer adoptions and agencies to oversee, I was curious to learn whether the numbers of adoption regulators were similarly shrinking. At the accrediting entity, it’s easy to see that the opposite has occurred. While COA had four full-time staff dedicated to adoption oversight, IAAME’s website lists 15 staff and executives.
Numbers for the State Department are harder to come by. DOS responded to my request for staff numbers in its Office of Children’s Issues Adoption Division with a single sentence: “Staffing levels have remained relatively consistent over time.” However, my unofficial inquiries suggest a staffing increase.
A source who worked at the State Department for several years told me that when intercountry adoption was near its peak, the division employed 10 to 15 staff. Armistead reports that at a November 2018 meeting with DOS, she was told there are currently 21 staff in the adoption division. It may be worthwhile for members of Congress investigating adoption’s decline to obtain concrete numbers, as well as an explanation for the inverse ratio of regulators employed to children adopted.
With Advocates Like These, Who Needs Enemies?
Beyond the issue of overregulation, adoption advocates are disappointed that DOS has failed to act as a reliable advocate for adoption overseas. One example is the nagging issue of missing post-adoption reports. Many countries require adoptive families to submit regular reports, via their adoption agency, for a certain number of years following their child’s adoption. While DOS frequently highlights the problem of families failing to submit these reports, Armistead says they won’t work with the adoption community to find solutions.
“A lot of countries are increasing the number of years of required reporting,” Armistead told me. “China requires five years, but Haiti recently raised their reporting requirement to nine years. It’s a ridiculous and unenforceable amount of reporting. I didn’t collect the money to cover nine years of reports back when I first signed contracts with these families. Who’s going to pay for it? We’re spinning our wheels just trying to get families to self-report, and the State Department does nothing to help. They need to encourage countries to have reasonable post-adoption reporting, and engage with providers on how to solve the problem.”
Another exacerbating factor: with so many agencies being forced to close, their former clients have no mechanism for continuing to send reports. “If another agency closes down and they’ve got a post-adoption commitment, I’m not going to take it anymore,” Armistead told me. “I just can’t afford to do it.”
Beyond simply failing to advocate for intercountry adoption, DOS appears to be casting the practice in a disproportionately negative light, even going so far as to cite media reports it knows to be inaccurate. Last year, in response to a lawsuit filed by three adoption agencies, DOS staffer Kjersti Olson submitted a written declaration in federal court. In her declaration, Olson cited several CNN stories about alleged child-buying in Uganda, as an example of the exploitation and harm that can occur with under-regulated adoption.
However, as I reported a year ago, DOS’s own internal documents—case notes from embassy interviews with the Ugandan birth mothers—directly contradict the CNN story. The fact that DOS continues to publicly cite this story, with no mention of its own evidence to the contrary, is telling.
Our government’s anti-adoption bias is having a chilling effect abroad, affecting real children and families. Armistead says five recent cases in west Africa, which she had taken over from another agency, were delayed for a year by vague concerns the State Department expressed to local officials. “They need to say what these nebulous concerns are,” Armistead said. “I hounded them about it for months and couldn’t get answers. I traveled to Africa to investigate the cases—I spent a fortune and busted my tail. I kept trying to find out: what does the State Department know that I don’t?”
“This fall all those cases were approved,” Armistead concluded. “They did this massive investigation for about a year for six kids. They found no reason to deny those cases—they had nothing. But now, the government in that country is terrified to do anything. I know of a pair of twins that has been in state care for over three years—they have a family that wants them. I can’t get the foreign government to move on that case. They’re scared to death to make the match. These kids have spent another year in state care because the ministry is scared. You could go to jail if you get labeled as a child trafficker. It’s so much easier to just not do anything.”
What’s at Stake
This is the heart of the matter. For the millions of children growing up without parental care, it’s so much easier to do nothing than to engage with complex human needs, risking suspicion and scorn as a “child trafficker” or “white savior.”
“Really, we have the choice that if we want to keep things very neat and tidy and serene, we could wash our hands of those things and go back to maybe sending checks from a distance,” says Medefind. “Or we could wade into it, knowing that we’re not ultimately going to bring a full and perfect and flawless solution, but that hopefully we can make things better than they are.”
In making this choice between action and paralysis, we can’t forget the urgent reality that children without parents face. “Our son was abandoned as an infant and institutionalized for years in one of China’s flagship major-city orphanages,” says Jay (not his real name), an adoptive father of two young boys. “He came home with serious malnutrition, a pneumococcal infection, parasites, possible burn marks, tuberculosis exposure, a terror of seat belts and stroller restraints—we can guess why—and an array of ailments attendant to all that. And he is one of the healthier ones from his particular ward. There are children right now suffering far worse than he has. The only solution for them isn’t money, and it isn’t reform: it is parents.”
Some Americans shrug off concerns about orphans abroad by suggesting that domestic foster care and adoption should be our sole priorities. Medefind disagrees.
“I think it’s a mistake to imagine that international adoption and local foster care are competing in a zero sum game, where one must go down for the other to go up,” he says. “I actually see the opposite. Often, families that have become passionate about the needs of vulnerable children through intercountry adoption become champions for children locally, too.”
“We don’t have to choose between international and domestic adoption,” agrees Ryan Hanlon of NCFA. “We can and should increase both. We currently have many thousands of parents who would be willing to open their homes and hearts to children without parents. It’s bureaucracy and poor public policy that serve as a significant barrier for more adoptions happening.”
On the whole, the American people remain overwhelmingly pro-adoption. It is a fundamental value of our culture that children belong not in systems or institutions, but in families. The dramatic decline of international adoption appears to be yet another case where a federal bureaucracy is radically out of step with the American people. While ensuring that adoptions happen ethically is an undisputed imperative, we cannot allow overregulation to choke out this vital option for tens of thousands of children.
“I very much believe that if the deep American commitment to the ideal of family were to be fully expressed in our foreign policy priorities—by ambassadors, by USAID, by the U.S. Department of State Office of Children’s Issues,” Medefind says, “then we could help make family a priority for millions of children who today live without one.”
“Those of us who have seen the conditions in orphanages abroad know what’s at stake here,” says Jay. “The difference between a family and an institution for many children is literally the difference between life and death.”