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International adoption: A big fix brings dramatic decline

International adoption has fallen sharply under tougher scrutiny caused by issues like Haiti's post-quake orphan scandal as well as stricter global regulations.

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“We are in a period of adoption history where growing transparency is having a significant impact in various ways: Many of them are very good and some of them are very complicated,” observes Adam Pertman, author of “Adoption Nation” and the executive director of the Evan Donaldson Adoption Institute.

“Now that everyone’s watching, it’s incumbent on us to get it right – the short-term consequences clearly are leading to a decline in international adoptions,” Mr. Pertman adds. “But hopefully, if we really get it right now, the decline will be a blip, and more kids, not fewer, who need homes will wind up getting them, in their own countries or, if necessary, in others.”

As shown by the recent arrest of American missionaries in Haiti – accused of child trafficking for trying to take 33 Haitian children out of the quake-stricken country – the world’s intercountry adoption system needs to be fixed, agree children’s advocates and adoption agencies.

“Haiti magnified and amplified the issue that we deal with in over 180 countries,” says Susan Bissell, chief of child protection for UNICEF in New York. The earthquake – and the media attention that followed it – simply exposed the multitude of problems that many developing countries face and that drive the supply of orphans: extreme poverty among families, weak social welfare systems to find alternative family arrangements closer to home, and corrupt legal systems that operate on personal deals rather than legal principles.

Instead of finding families for every child in need, the present system is set up to find a child for every family that wants one. Navigating the unfamiliar and wildly varying rules of foreign courts has created a huge industry of adoption agencies and adoption-law specialists, who command large fees – often $20,000 to $40,000 per child. And while many adoption agencies do their work legitimately, the lure of such large fees has created powerful incentives for less legitimate agencies to procure children.

In Guatemala’s case, for example, “the government had lost control of the system,” says Marilys Barrientos de Estrada, a director of the governmental agency created to oversee the new adoption process. “It was purely in the hands of the lawyers and agencies. And it wasn’t about the children, it was about the money.”

To ensure that a child’s interests are put first, the 1993 Hague Adoption Convention gave countries a legal blueprint to help them make adoption a transparent, predictable, and legitimate process. As implementation of the treaty by the United States and 81 other countries progressed over the past few years, the number of intercountry adoptions dropped dramatically.

“The intention of the Hague convention is not to slow down adoptions,” says William Duncan, deputy secretary-general of the Hague Conference on Private International Law, which oversees implementation of the Hague Adoption Convention. “In the last few years, the number of adoptions has tended to drop, but my impression is that has to do with a lot of specific conditions in specific countries.”

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