International adoption has its problems: unethical adoption agencies, unprepared parents, children who struggle to attach, but ultimately it is good for kids.
International adoption has its problems: unethical adoption agencies, unprepared parents, children who struggle to attach, but ultimately it is good for kids.

As those of you who read my blog regularly know, last week I wrote about the ABC show 20/20 The Toughest Call. The show followed the Mulligan family as they struggle with their three children who were adopted at the ages of 11, 8 and 4 from Russia. I received the following comment that I excerpt here.

In my experience, having been researching and working with members of the adoption community for about 40 years, writing presenting…the origin of the problem is twofold. You hit on one: expectations.

The deeper problem is MONEY and greed (isn’t it always?). Adoption is a $6.3 billion dollar a year international industry. Those whose job is it to redistribute children, and whose livelihood depends upon locating kids for eager parents willing to pay huge sums…are not vested in being supportive and hand-holding and certainly have no reason to scare off potential customers with the truth!

We need regulation of baby brokers and businesses called adoption agencies – even non-profit ones. We need to stop giving out adoption incentives that treat unscrupulous human traffickers on an equal plane with states who are trying to find homes for children who are truly orphaned or whose parents have been deemed unfit – right here in the USA…hundreds of thousands of them!

Why do people shy away from “special needs” older children and naively think that institutionalized children who do not speak English and may have been victims of FAS will fair better?….

Check with the UN. They state that adoption should always be a LAST RESORT! Taking children one at a time from their origins does nothing to ameliorate the poverty of their family, their village or their nation. There are far more humanitarian ways to help. More than a dozen children adopted from Russia have been MURDERED by their American adopters! Many others abused and abandoned. It MUST STOP!!

The Business of Adoption

The commenter is right that adoption is a business, even those agencies that are nonprofit charge for their services and most charge well. But being a business is not inherently evil, and charging money does not mean that an agency can’t put the needs of kids before the bottom line. The commenter lumps all adoption agencies together and claims that adoption agencies are not vested in providing parental support and are afraid to scare off prospective parents with the truth. She conveniently overlooks the fact that many many adoption agencies do just that and more. They invest in extensive post adoption services by having trained counselors on staff to help parents once home. They offer culture camps, groups for teen and young adult adoptees, and in person and online communities for adoptive parents. They give humanitarian aid to the birth countries to help alleviate the core problems and to provide for those children who will not be adopted. They forgo the quick buck by putting the needs of the kids first.

These good agencies regularly turn away prospective adoptive parents by placing restrictions on age, marital status, sexual orientation, and divorces that are more stringent than required by the law of either the US or the sending country. At times I quibble about whether these restrictions make for better parents, but the point is that the agencies believe they do, and are willing to turn away the money they would make from those that don’t meet these requirements. Good agencies have for years tried to present “the truth” about the potential difficulties by requiring adoption education for prospective adoptive parents long before it was required, and many require more hours of adoption education than the 10 hours specified in the Hague Treaty.

How to Find an Ethical Adoption Agency

Creating a Family provides a three-step process for finding a good adoption agency. In this post Hague treaty era, I think we’re going to see more adoption agency consolidation. It looks like the better agencies will flourish, and those solely in it for the money will go under. This may be a bit of wishful thinking on my part, and time will tell, but there is some evidence of this happening. Of course, this only applies to international adoption from agencies that place from other Hague countries, but we all hope that there will be a spill-over effect on domestic adoption agencies and international adoption agencies that place from non-Hague treaty countries. I’m not a complete Pollyanna; I know that it is still possible for money-centric adoption agencies to exist, and that many adoptive parents are choosing them because they are still more focused on finding a child than on the realities of raising that child, but we have made a good start.

Why Adopt Abroad When There are Kids Right Here in the US

I agree with the commenter that there are hundreds of thousands of children in need of homes right here in the US—actually there are over 500,000 children in state care, and about 100,000+ of them are currently ready and waiting for a permanent home. Many people are mistaken about the demographics of these kids, assuming they are all older black teens. While there are some really terrific older kids of all races, the average age of a child currently available for adoption from foster care is 8.2 years. Forty percent are under the age of six, although many of these are part of sibling groups. Of these waiting kids, 38% are white, 32 % are black, and 20% are Hispanic.

I also agree with her that all children from abusive and neglectful pasts, or that were exposed to alcohol or drugs prenatally, are at about the same risk for future problems regardless whether they come from the US foster care, or from Russian, Ukrainian, or Colombian orphanages The one difference is that you usually have more information on these potential problems with US foster children, and you will almost always get a monthly subsidy to help you meet that child’s need. I join her in urging all parents, especially those considering adopting a child over the age of five, to strongly consider adopting from the US foster care system.

Abusive Adoptive Parents

I’m not sure what point the commenter is trying to make when she cites the number of Russian adoptees that have been killed or abused by their adoptive parents. I’ve seen this argument used before to suggest that international adoptions be curtailed, and it always seems to be twisted logic, at best. Obviously abuse and murder are horrible, and of course we need to do everything in our power to support struggling families post adoption and prepare them beforehand so that they can make an educated decision on whether they are equipped to adopt this child in the first place.

I have not seen any peer reviewed research on these cases, but I’ve read a lot of news reports, and many (most?) of these children had serious emotional problems likely caused by years of living in an institution or by pre-adoption abuse. Rather than suggesting a need for fewer adoptions, I think these tragic cases demand sooner adoptions to get these children out of abusive homes and institutions and into well prepared families before they are emotionally scarred. Countries should look locally for these families first and should create policies that promote domestic in-country adoptions. Only if extended family or domestic adoption is not an option, should children be placed for adoption abroad.

Abuse and Death in Orphanages

Absent in the commenter’s argument is the statistics of abuse and death in orphanages, or what happens to these kids once they age out of these institutions. I’ve seen the statistic that of the 15,000 Russian orphans aging out of state-run institutions every year, 10 percent committed suicide, 5,000 were unemployed, 6,000 were homeless, and 3,000 were behind bars within three years of leaving the orphanage. No child deserves to be abused or die an early death on the streets, and in my opinion, early adoption lessens this possibility.

The commenter lists suggested readings, and I’ve read them all, as well as many more that support the “adoption is bad for kids and birth country” argument. There are, of course, many articles that support the other side. I suggest that the commenter listen to the this Creating a Family show with a panel of adult transracial adoptees, and this  Creating a Family show where I interviewed a leading researcher on post adoption adjustment. But more important to me than anecdotal articles, is peer reviewed research, which unanimously shows that children do better in permanent families than in institutions or foster care. It also shows the most children, even children that have been badly abused and neglected pre-adoption, do very well once placed in loving and resourceful homes. And that is the real point.

Adoption as a Last Resort

The commenter states that adoption should be the last resort. Well, duh!! Of course it should be the last resort. In an ideal world there would never be the need for adoption. In an ideal world all children would be born to people who were ready and able to love, feed, clothe, educate, and guide them for 18+ years. In an ideal world there would not be extreme poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, emotional illness, and couples having sex without contraception before they are ready to become parents. But we don’t live in that world; we live in a world of poverty, addiction, and poor choices. And in this very real world, adoption can be and often is a life saver for children.

The Saving Grace of Adoption

I want to live in a world where we do everything in our power to make sure that every child that can not or should not be raised in their family of birth gets placed with a permanent adoptive family as soon as possible. First choice should be extended family, and if that’s not possible, then an adoptive family in their community or country. But if no local family is found, then every effort should be made to quickly find a family abroad. Adoption saves lives and psyches, and for adoption to continue to be this life giving option, we absolutely must control the cost. Money can and does contaminate the process; it removes any incentive to help birth families raise their kids and it subverts the order for finding a permanent family. Adoption is too important for kids for us to risk it being tainted by large sums of money.

The commenter is partially right that approaching the systemic problems one child at a time is not the most effective way to solve societal problems, but it is the most effective way to solve this child’s problem. The commenter and others she cites overlook that the alternative to adoption is often remaining in abusive or neglectful homes or institutionalized care. Even the most caring orphanage workers or foster parents are not an equal substitute for parents. My core belief is that all children need parents, and they need them as soon as possible.