Is International Adoption Bad for Kids

Dawn Davenport


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.

16/12/2008 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 27 Comments

27 Responses to Is International Adoption Bad for Kids

  1. Avatar TeenDad says:

    I’m now 19 and experiencing being a dad. I must say although it feels good it’s still hard. I knew it wouldn’t be easy but to be honest, the hard part is having to balance time. My daughter is great and makes managing her never dreadful. -Teen dad

  2. Avatar Lisa says:

    I was bio unwanted. Because of this I decided long ago I did not want to conceive and decided when it was time for family my children would be children who needed a family. I love and want my children and they are not biologically related to me. I care for them not out of resentful obligation but because they are lovable and wonderful and should be loved and cared for. I believe people should stop having children, improve and better themselves, and take in and love children who are already born rather than bringing more in. Why create a child to love when there are children needing that now? That does not mean all should adopt nor does it mean everyone should have children biologically or care for them if they are unwilling or unable to do so. Some families need help being able to do so but some stories are darker than that or we just need to be able to accept that they cannot instead of forcing the situation. You cannot make someone love or care for another human being through force. That goes for orphanages or institutions as well because people are involved and as long as people are involved we have to deal with the best and worst of the human condition along with what people want to do and are able to do.

  3. Avatar Lisa says:

    Families can be good, bad, or a blend. They may encounter storms where they just need help getting through or they may be poisoned. That is true regardless of whether the family is biological, foster, or adoptive.

  4. Avatar Lola says:

    Well, each story is different. My daughter, adopted internationally, had horrible and abusive birth parents. Her orphanage was a healing place for her, but she was in danger of aging out and they were motivated to find a parent for her. She was 10 when she came here. My son was in an orphanage that kept them alive, but it was not a loving place. He came home at 2. Some birth parents are good, some are not. Some orphanages are good, some are not. Some adopted parents are good, some are not. For those adult adoptees on here who have traumatic adoption stories- I am so, so sorry. That is simply not okay. I do believe that my children are better off with me, however. It would have been ideal if my son’s birth parents could have raised him, of course. Once India gets a handle on the poverty situation, all will benefit. I wish my daughter’s birth parents hadn’t been monsters. Life is truly unfair, but they are shades of grey all throughout, and no absolutes. Sorry if this was rambling and meandering. I don’t have the answers.

  5. Avatar kiu says:

    this post is so stupid its people like you that make this world awful and confusing why are you not supporting keeping familys together so many dumb people like you think fmailys should be not be together you make the world an awful and scary place to live and you could care less to listen to an adoptee who has experienced bad things about adoption I would rather been in an oraphnage than being adopted whats so bad about being in a an orphanage

    • Kiu, I’m so sorry for what you’ve been through. No one, and certainly no child, deserves whatever it was that happened to you! I hope you’ve found a good counselor. Also, there are forums online where adopted persons get together to talk and support each other. Check out a few if you aren’t already connected to one.

  6. Avatar lia says:

    you are dumb I was adopted and abused in my adopted home I had never lived any kind of instition or before I was adopted or knew my birth family its people like you that protect the system and not the children

  7. Avatar no says:

    your story is wrong you should not be taking about adoption when you no nothing about it i am adopted aND NOTHING YOU SAID IS WRIGHT TALK TO SOME ADOPTED PEOPLE LIKE ME BEFORE YOPU GO ANDF WRITE BULLSHIT POSTS

  8. Avatar sherry william says:

    this is really a nice website and i found some useful and informative material on it.

  9. Avatar The old coot says:

    You tell it like it is baby. As I previous commentor said before, adoption may not be the best, but it sure is better than lots of other alternatives. I’ll keep reading if you keep posting.

  10. Avatar Justine L. says:

    THe idea that adoption is anything but another way to build a family is stupid and destructive. Adoption is good for kids. Thank you for saying what seems to be obvious to me. I hate all this stupid and destructive talk. I think it is this talk that is bad for my kids. I sure as hell know they are better off with me than with their drug addicted birth family.

  11. Avatar Anna says:

    Parental neglect is bad for kids, not adoption. I think it is too easy to make a blanket staement that something is all good or bad. Not much in this world is that easy. I know my kids are better off being adopted. Tha’ts the sad truth.

  12. Avatar Regina says:

    I wonder if these people who attack adoption want us to go back to the good old days of kids being placed in orphanages or foster homes, while their bio parents are given lots of chances to get their acts together. That is more focused on parents rights, not kids rights. The same could be said for foreign adoption. Kids need parents now, not when the parent is able to afford to parent, or is off drugs, or whatever. Thanks for your reasoned response.

  13. Avatar Owen says:

    If only we did live in a perfect world! But until then, I like what you said and I agree that we have to put the needs of the kids first. I saw your post on the Creating a Family Facebook group about wondering about the role of poverty in children being placed for adoption. It is a sticky issue, but poverty can kill and maim, so it should be a factor, in my opinion.

  14. Avatar Piper says:

    I’ve been following this argument in the media and on the forums I belong to. I am a member of the Facebook grooup for Creating a Family, and I have also read your discussion on this topic over there. I haven’t adopted internationally, but have adopted domestically. I have to admit that I have been glad that we didn’t adopt internationally and was swayed by the arguments that international adoption exploits children and poor families and countries. Your response has made more sense to me than anything I’ve read. I recoemmend others go to the Creating a Family Facebook group and read your comments there as well. Thanks.

  15. Avatar Dawn says:

    Martha: Boy, you raise such an interesting point. I am so glad that I’m not in the job of deciding what’s in the best interest of kids. As you said so well, what standard do we use in deciding what is best. Money? Education? Time? Is it a middle class white standard that should apply, and would that standard favor stay at home moms and the ability to send the child to college. But the strong preference for extended family placement can result in kids being returned to troubled families not able to raise them.

    As interesting topic that I’m wrestling with is whether poverty is a legitimate reason for international adoption. This topic was touched on in the The National Public Radio show, Focus 580, interview with David M. Smolin, Law Professor and Director of the Center for Biotechnology, Law and Ethics, at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, and long time opponent of international adoption. (To get more info including a link, go to the Adoption in the News page of this website. If you want to join our discussion about this interview go to the Creating a Family group on

  16. Avatar Dawn says:

    Joanne: I agree that the existence of additional restrictions on prospective parents is not necessary and indication of ethical practices, but it does seem to me to be evidence that at least some agencies are willing to turn money away, which contradicts the original commenter’s disparagement of adoption agencies.

    I also agree with you that there are wonderful older kids available in every country—all deserving a good home.

    Jackie: AMEN!

  17. Avatar Martha says:

    I have to take a somewhat unpopular view about the “best” place for a child being with extended family if it is at all possible. As a public school teacher in an urban (translated ROUGH) school who is married to a CPS worker in one of America’s most crime affected cities….. we see on a daily basis how the “keep the child with family/extended family” philosophy often destroys children. Out on the front lines where we are we see that it perpetuates the cycle of dysfunction and leaves the children basically optionless when all is said and done. We would have loved to have adopted domestically, but like pp mentioned, the system in the US is in massive need of overhaul. If the best needs of the children are truly the heart of the issue, and I agree, this is a very complicated issue because ultimately someone/somewhere is setting the “standard” by which what is “best” is decided… but if it is indeed the best needs of the child that drive the decision, family/extended family is not always the “best” choice. That said, many PAPs end up loving a child that is ripped out of their homes to be reunified… only to end up in foster care later down the line. Talk about a broken system.
    And for the record… I have a unique perspective. I spent the first 4 years of my life in foster care only to be reunified with my birth family– a birth family that had no business raising a child. My biological parents might have conceived me, but that was about where their overall contribution to my life ended.

  18. Avatar Jackie says:

    Thank you Dawn – well said! I recently read the article the lie we love to tell.” I could feel my blood boil as I read the article. I couldn’t finish reading it. I find it troubling that someone would write such a strong negative opinion about something they obviously know little about. I witnessed first-hand hundreds of children living in an orphange, waiting to be individually loved. I saw first-hand children with disabilities tied to their potty chairs all day because the workers didn’t have the training and/or enlightenment about the value of children with disabilities. I acknowledge that in a perfect world my children and their birth mothers would have remained together. But unfortunately our world is imperfect from one-child policies to young mothers who are not ready or unable to care for their child due to societal stigma. Then I read ignorant neg. comments who’s only purpose is to slap the faces of birth and adoptive families. Sadly, in the end, who gets hurt the most? the children. The children who read & hear neg. stories about adoption. The children who live in countries where their gov’t is pressured by ignorance to decrease/end adoptions which diminishes their chances to be loved by a family. I try to remind myself the only opinion that matters are the opinions of my children, my husband. More importantly, I need to remind myself that God chose me to be the mother of my children. He created my family. He entrusted me to care for them. It is an awesome responsbility I see as a priviledge. I take solace in knowing He will give them the identify they need. Lastly, I find comfort in the realization that He is greater and more powerful then any negative pen writer.

  19. Avatar JG says:

    Thank you for responding Dawn. I agree with almost everything you stated as well as the commenter, Joanne.

    I do want to point out that there are many prospective adoptive parents that DO first look at the US foster care system. However our system is in serious need of an overhaul. There are massive complications and varying degrees of competition. The US foster care system, is more often, than not looking for foster parents, not adoptive parents. Agencies have stated that if you go through the adopted only certification that your wait will be more extensive than if you chose the foster/adopt certification and even then there are no guarantees. I have been told that many agencies in my state will not assist prospective parents to find children outside of their state… ICPC is too complicated and time consuming for them. Private agencies will do ICPC however you must find the child yourself. I’ve been told that there are children that can dictate whether or not they want to be adopted or even adopted out of state. It’s heartbreaking and discouraging to say the least.

    I agree. The best place for ANY child is with their biological parents or extended family. However when neither are not possible, there has to be an option for them.

    Many people assume that prospective adopted parents do not look at the US system. However that is not the case for some (may be for most and I do understand that). However many of us weigh our options heavily and carefully.

    Just my 2 cents!

  20. Avatar Ali says:

    Thanks so much for this post Dawn! Your book is one of my favorites, and I always appreciate your insight.

  21. Avatar JoAnna says:

    I agree with much of what you wrote here Dawn. I just want to push back on a couple of points. First, I would disagree that the “good” agencies are the ones placing more restrictions on prospective adoptive parents. It could be an agency’s philosophy, religious orientation, or prejudice that drives these rules. I would not use these types of restrictions as a barometer of an ethcial agency.

    Also, there are many deserving and wonderful older children that are living in orphanages in other countries that need parents. Any prospective adoptive parent could/should consider US adoption/foster kids, not just those considering older kids. Some older kids in other countries are simply orphaned by disease or poverty – not abuse or neglect. My own older adopted child was loved and treasured by her first mom before she succumbed to her illness. My daughter is not damaged in any way except for the grief of losing her parents.

  22. Avatar Alexandra says:

    My husband and I are in the process of adopting internationally. Before we decided to adopt, we researched domestic adoption and international adoption for several months. We also researched adoption agencies and with Dawn’s suggestions in her book, we looked at their ratings with the Better Business Bureau and read about them in blogs. We also found references that were not provided by the agency. We were told up front about all of the issues associated with adoption in our Home Study with our social worker, which included reading books and articles on our own. We also had mandatory training with our agency. This training included resources for families after they came home with their adopted child if there were issues (fetal alcohol syndrome, attachment and bonding issues and the whole gamut). You have to go into adoption with your eyes open because adoption like having a biological child, it is a decision that will affect the rest of your life and the child’s life more importantly. And in either circumstance you do not know what issues or sickness your adopted or biological child will have or develop.

    With that being said, it makes me really sad that people feel the children would be better off in an orphanage or remaining in their birth country… if they had an opportunity for a better life. A chance to have loving parents to teach them to be the best person they can become, to nurture there spirits and love them unconditionally. I do whole heartedly believe that keeping the child with their biological parent if that is a healthy and viable option and will promote the best life for the child is the best thing to do. But I do not believe that the children should remain in institutional care if there is a family who is willing to adopt them and provide a loving and stable environment for them.

    One more thing, adoption is not easy. Perspective adoptive parents have to go through several tests before they can adopt…..

    Home Study…. being interviewed by a social worker, having your house approved as a safe environment, fire and baby proofing inspection, FBI background checks, you have to proved your financial and work stability history, criminal history check, have a psychological evaluation, and have a complete medical evaluation. That is just a small list of what you have to do to be approved to adopt internationally.

    I am thankful that perspective parents have to go through that because the children who are being adopted deserve to have someone who is going to take care of them and be their advocate. When I was going through all of the checkpoints it was irritating and uncomfortable, but it needs to be done without any exceptions. Thankfully someone is watching out for the children and honestly they are all innocent victims of our society (domestically and internationally) and they should be given the best possible chance at life that is offered to them especially if it means that they will be adopted in their birth country or abroad.

  23. Avatar randi says:

    OH, I’m so glad you posted this response. I read last week’s blog with interest and noticed the comment you are responding to. It is so hard to put into words why this comment seems illogical, but you’ve done it. Thanks.

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