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Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare

Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare

Fewer international adoptions - behind the numbers

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AsGirl_000004802916Medium.jpgFull Disclosure: I have been asked to appear on MPR to discuss international adoption, in part as a response to criticism that the discussion on Monday was not inclusive enough of adoptee perspectives. This post was written earlier this week and scheduled to publish yesterday. More information will be provided about the show and where you can listen in.

Since the State Department released its report on international adoption, there have been a lot of news stories about the fewer numbers of international adoptions occuring in the United States. In Minnesota, the news that one of the oldest and best known adoption agencies, Children's Home Society and Family Services, had merged with Lutheran Social Services due to the economic ramifications of this decrease in international adoptions, created quite a shock in the local adoption world.

Over the past month, several local news stories focused on the topic of fewer international adoptions. In the StarTribune article published July 2, 2012, reporter Jean Hopfensperger details the merger between Children's Home Society and Family Services (CHSFS) and Lutheran Social Services (LSS) as a result of restrictions and/or closures on the part of sending countries and implementation of the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Cooperation in respect of Intercountry Adoption.

On the Minnesota Public Radio Daily Circuit show that aired on July 9, representatives from CHSFS and LSS reiterated those two factors, as well as the emphasis on in-country care that many sending countries are focusing on, such as domestic adoptions and domestic fostering programs.

This blog post is a critique of how the media writes about international adopton. In all these articles or stories aired or published in the past few weeks, the decline in international adoptions has been framed as an "Oh no, the sky is falling!" As a result, the reader is set up to believe that any decrease in international adoptions is a bad thing.

For example, Tom Weber, in the MPR story, kept referring to the "precipitous drop" and "huge drop." The StarTribune said international adoptions were "crashing to its lowest level in 15 years" and called it a "precipitous decline." And Madeleine Baran in her MPR report described international adoptions as having "plummeted."

However, this rhetoric conceals the whole story. Yes, the numbers are declining. Unfortunately there is a lack of emphasis on examining why this may actually be a good thing.

For example, on closer inspection we learn that part of the reason for the decline in numbers may actually be attributed to positive things—for example, that countries are now building and supporting their own domestic adoption programs, or are working on family preservation. In other words, some part of the cause of the drop in children available for international adoption may be as a result of better care, better support for families, and better interventions for children in their home countries. Why would better care, supported by stable families and communities, be a bad thing for children?

Second, we learn that many countries have shut down, restricted, or postponed their adoption programs in light of unethical practices that have harmed birth families and children. By now most of us know that there have been many instances in which chlidren were unethically or illegally taken from their birth families for the purpose of international adoption. International adoption programs in a country that is poor and has no self-governing infrastructure to manage the care for their children and families in need often provide an economic benefit to that country. As a result, children may become commodities because of the money that international adoption brings to an impoverished area.

As both Ms. Harpstead and Ms. Warren stated in the MPR report, the "re-set" on adoption in light of responding to these unethical and illegal adoption practices in many countries is a good thing. Compliance with the Hague Convention is necessary for the protection of children. Again, a good thing.

Yet, articles in the media continue to portray these delays and/or closures as burdensome on waiting adoptive parents, and as evidence of government bureaucracies infringing on the rights of adoptive parents. The articles rarely look at the issue from the point of view of the adopted child, or what it would be like to be a child who learns they were illegally placed for adoption by these unethical adoption agencies. In fact, the point of view from the adopted individual altogether is almost never included in these stories (as a result of the response by adult adoptees on social media networks about the lack of adoptee perspective on the MPR piece, on July 10th MPR added a new section to their website asking for adoptee feedback. The responses that adult adoptees left in the comment section reveal the frustration that many adoptees feel about the lack of inclusion in the discussion).

Finally, what we learn when we dig deeper is that there are still many children who actually still are in need of a permanent home. These kids are typically older, may have a disability, or are part of a sibling group. Those children still exist; yet they wait. If all those children were to be adopted by families in the U.S. would the numbers of adoptions be so low? And what about all the children in this country who are waiting for adoption? And why don't any of these reports discuss that the U.S. is a sending country, not only a receiving country, and those numbers of U.S. children adopted by families in foreign countries have been fairly steady for the past five years?

I can't help but wonder if the "Chicken Little" language so often used (i.e. "the sky is falling") in stories about international adoptions actually reflects a more unpleasant reality—that international adoption is actually a business based on supply and demand. Rhetoric in media stories that reflect on such hyperbolic descriptions of dwindling supply (of adoptable children) in the face of still heavy demand (by adoptive parents) should be looked at more closely.

Overall numbers of international adoptions should not matter; what should matter is that the quality of each and every international adoption that takes place is ethical, in the best interest of the particular child, and is done with the utmost care and concern for that child's well-being. The numbers of international adoptions, however, do matter if money is attached. And that's one of the most problematic aspects of the adoption profession: that as much as we want to think of it as a service, in many ways it feels like a business.

When it comes to adoption, there are two clients: prospective parents and children. Many of us working in adoption have a very clear understanding of this. Adoption is supposed to be about finding families for children - not children for families.

Adoption is complex. Like all other areas of child welfare, it is fraught with complicated ethical dilemmas at all stages of the process. Adoption is not merely about the adoptive parent's burden; at heart, it is about a child in need of love, safety and security.

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