Kate Tuttle: Western parents who adopt from the developing world often believe they're in the midst of a double blessing: expanding their families by bringing home deeply wanted children and at the same time offering those children - orphans! - a happier, better life than they ever could have led in their own impoverished countries. There's nothing wrong with this belief - these parents' hearts are in the right place - but a recent article suggests that in many cases, the facts of international adoption aren't what they seem.
Writing in the journal Democracy, E.J. Graff's article opens with the story of Katie and Calvin Bradshaw, a couple who brought home three Ethiopian girls they believed to be orphans. Upon learning English, the girls told their new American parents that they still had a father back home, as well as an extended family to whom they had always believed they would be returned. This is not, apparently, an uncommon story. Graff goes on to chronicle similar tales, including that of a Vietnamese mother whose children were taken from her after she had placed them in what she believed to be temporary care.
So how do such tragedies happen? The problem, according to Graff, is one of misperception and lack of regulation. The myth that the world is just full of healthy orphans in the developing world, just waiting to be taken home by Western families, is widespread, fueled in part by confusing statistics put forth by groups like UNICEF, which estimates that there are 163 million orphans worldwide - the problem is that most of these "orphans" have at least one living parent and/or grandparents willing to care for them. By far the largest number of truly orphaned children are those most Western parents wouldn't consider adopting: older, abused, ill. But because the supply of healthy infant orphans isn't enough to meet the demand of American (and other Western) prospective parents, a lot of shady characters have gotten into the business, "unscrupulous middlemen" who have no problem "buying, defrauding, coercing, or even kidnapping children away from their families to be sold."
Can the situation be improved? Who's supposed to be in charge here? There's an international treaty in place - the 1993 Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption - but fewer than half of the countries in the world have signed it, and Americans are adopting in great numbers from non-Hague countries (more than two-thirds of internationally adopted US kids these days come from such countries, which include Russia, Korea, and Ethiopia). And even when a child is adopted from a country covered by the Hague Convention, there are still agencies that operate outside the rules, with unethical cash transfers that reward those who simply provide babies, no questions asked. In some cases, horrifyingly, those babies had loving parents back home who were either duped or coerced into giving them up.
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Given the recent bad publicity surrounding children adopted from Russia - including the boy who was returned by his American mother after she found his behavioral problems were both worse than advertised and too much for her to handle - it would seem time for parents and policy-makers alike to try to improve the system.
As for what exactly should be done, Graff's article lists eight specific recommendations, and ends with the reasonable plea that in poor countries, just as in rich countries, the emphasis should remain on keeping families together. Barring that, children who need to find a home elsewhere should be protected from those who would profit from the desires of Western parents:
International adoption will never be the solution for all, or even most, of the world's vulnerable children. Tens of millions of children and their families, in desperate straits in their home countries, need and deserve assistance so that they can thrive in place. Defrauded birth families from Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia, Guatemala, and Ethiopia may never see their children again. But surely the United States can work harder to see that such losses don't strike other families. When done right, international adoption is a last-ditch effort-not induced at the intersection of hope, greed, and poverty, but undertaken in the best interests of children.