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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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The new rules of adoption combined with fewer available children have caused the slowdown, says Pertman. The Hague convention “caused a real shake-up” because a lot of social agencies in developing countries simply can’t comply. And scandals in Guatemala and Romania, and China’s rethink of its pro-adoption policies, dramatically reduced the supply of adoptable children. The result, he says, is “a very long wait period.”

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Guatemala’s scandals resulted in the moratorium on international adoption. Likewise, while Haiti deals with the postquake tsunami of international requests to adopt orphaned children, and as it processes the case of the arrested missionaries, it has become acutely aware of the weakness of its documentation process. (“If a child isn’t registered, the child doesn’t exist,” says Jennifer Bakody, UNICEF communications officer in Haiti. “Then there’s no way to protect the child, he/she is really lost from the system.” And that’s how good intentions can turn into scandal.)

So the Haitian government has announced a shutdown of all adoptions, partly out of caution but partly out of necessity – its main adoption judge was killed in the quake and government documents have been lost in the chaos. But international adoption officials in Port-au-Prince report that irregularities continue in the chaos: The Haitian government declared that adoptions in process could only be signed off by the prime minister, but it’s clear that some adoptions continue with other ministers signing off.

International authorities are encouraging Haiti not to attempt adoptions at the moment. A country like Haiti needs to rebuild before it gets into the business of helping find individual homes for adoptable children, Ms. Bissell argues.

And once it can focus on adoption again, Haiti’s priority should be less international adoption than sorting through the chaos that may reveal many so-called orphans do have family. One complication unique to Haiti, say observers, is its informal “gifting” of children to better-off families with the hope the child’s lot will improve and the child will be better cared for (sometimes it has been called a form of slavery). This restavek system (from the French rest avec, rest with), broke down in the earthquake, says Carol Bakker, UNICEF subregional adviser for child protection, and hosts are leaving these children behind. Adoption authorities are trying to register them so that they can be returned to families, placed in interim care, or – as a last resort – put up for international adoption.

“Ideally,” says Donald Moore, the US general consul in Port-au-Prince, “the government has to vet the best solution for every child. In most countries, adoption is not the first solution. You want to reestablish the child on the ground before you look for external solutions.”

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China, Russia, and Guatemala have been, until recently, the biggest source countries for adoptable children. But each for its own reasons has drastically reduced the number of children available for international adoption.

In China, the number of children sent abroad plummeted from 14,500 in 2005 to 5,942 in 2008, according to figures collected for UNICEF by Peter Selman, an adoption expert at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, in England.

Great changes in social and economic policies, say experts, have affected the availability of children for international adoption.

In the past, the one-child policy – blamed for the current demographic bulge of boys, which have been seen as more valuable than girls – caused an influx of unwanted, healthy Chinese girls to orphanages.