During the early 2000s, the number of international adoptions reached unprecedented levels. At the same time, a number of high-profile celebrities adopted children born overseas, raising the visibility of a pathway that has provided loving, permanent homes to thousands of children since the 1950s.
In the years since, international adoption numbers have fallen
82 percent, with just 4,059 children joining families in the United States in 2018, according to a U.S. State Department report.
A host of complex factors have contributed to the decline. These range from the implementation of initiatives to help children remain with their birth families and increased domestic adoption in some countries, to changes in adoptive family eligibility in others. Some countries have closed their international adoption programs due to concerns about unethical practices — or for reasons of politics. In many cases, however, the process has simply become too difficult or costly for families seeking to adopt a child from overseas.
For children waiting for families, this is a devastating trend.
Across the globe, millions of children are growing up in overcrowded, underfunded orphanages. Many have never experienced the love and nurturing care of a devoted parent or caregiver. And many have special medical or developmental needs — needs that too often go unmet.
To truly meet the needs of children growing up without families, adoption agencies must take a broader and more comprehensive approach to child welfare — an approach that upholds international adoption as one proven way for children to experience the love, stability, and sense of belonging every child deserves. But not the only way.
Moving forward, there are three things agencies can do to ensure a stable, loving home for every child:
Champion efforts to strengthen, preserve, and reunite birth families. Far too often in the developing world, children end up in orphanages for one simple reason: poverty. These children are not orphans. In many cases, they have at least one living parent or family member who would care for them if only they had sufficient resources. Before ever considering adoption, every agency working in the field should have an ethical obligation to first explore the possibility of reuniting a child with his or her immediate or extended family. Agencies should also launch efforts to strengthen and keep families together so that children don't have to be placed in orphanages. By growing their philanthropic support, agencies can broaden their child welfare services and empower parents with the support and resources they need — things like job skills training, small business microloans, and low-cost day care — to become self-reliant and equipped to take care of their own children.
Advocate for in-country adoption. Leaders of adoption agencies must create an infrastructure for in-country adoption similar to the infrastructure and efforts they've created for international adoption. In-country adoption is advantageous for children for a number of reasons. In addition to receiving all the benefits of growing up in a nurturing family, children adopted domestically remain grounded in the cultural traditions of their place of birth. In every country where they facilitate international adoption, agencies should also establish initiatives and provide resources aimed at raising awareness about in-country adoption programs, conduct outreach, and coordinate efforts to find, vet, and prepare prospective adoptive parents. In countries that do not have an established system for in-country adoption, agencies should work with local governments to create one.
Remove barriers to international adoption. In communities across the U.S., families have come forward ready to open their hearts and homes to children who need a family. According to the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, 81.5 million Americans have considered adopting a child at some point in their lives. Unfortunately, few American families actually adopt. A study by the foundation cited the cost of adoption and restrictions put in place by countries overseas as the main factors preventing Americans from adopting. Where they can, therefore, agencies must work to remove barriers to adoption and advocate for policy changes at home and abroad. They must also work to make adoption more affordable by growing philanthropic support for adoption, encouraging employers to help cover the cost of adoption, and championing legislation that helps reimburse families who adopt.
International adoption must remain a viable option for children who cannot remain with their birth families. But to truly serve the best interests and needs of children, organizations focused solely on international adoption must evolve. Now is the time to embrace a more comprehensive approach to child welfare.
Phillip Littleton is president and CEO of Holt International and has led the organization's efforts to expand its services as a child welfare organization, nearly doubling, over five years, the number of children and families served. Littleton has also helped expand Holt's post-adoption services and strengthened its efforts to advocate for child welfare standards and adoptee rights in the U.S. and abroad.