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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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Today, few healthy Chinese girls are put up for adoption, and the decline is driven by adjustments in the one-child policy – including encouragement of domestic adoption and, in some regions, of higher birthrates – and an increase in prosperity that have made parents more likely to keep a girl.

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In 2008, the number of domestic adoptions, according to official Chinese statistics, had grown to more than 37,000 annually. There is high demand in China and the US to adopt, says Kay Johnson, an expert on domestic Chinese adoptions at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. “The bottom line is that the supply of healthy babies [in China] is down,” she says.

So nearly 50 percent of Chinese children adopted by US parents have special needs, such as congenital heart defects, cleft palates, and clubfeet, explains Chuck Johnson, chief operating officer at the National Council for Adoption, in Alexandria, Va. Half of these special-needs adoption cases come through a Chinese government-designed program called the Waiting Child Program, which seeks to find outstanding families for children diagnosed with special medical needs.

“Make no mistake, those of us who have been in this field for a long time knew that there would be a day like this, and it has happened,” says Melody Zhang, associate director of Children’s Hope International, an organization that has helped more than 100,000 Chinese children find homes with US families. Ultimately, it’s a good thing, she says, because more children – healthy or not – are being placed.

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The shift in adoption trends is felt nowhere more than at Detksi Dom No. 1 – Children’s House No. 1 – in the Moscow suburb of Vikhino. About 60 children, ages 3 to 7, call the squat concrete orphanage beneath towering apartment blocks home.

Though many from this orphanage were adopted in the past by European or American families, now almost all who are adopted from this facility are claimed by Russian parents and taken to new homes inside their own country.

The dramatic change is captured best in national statistics: In 2004, foreigners adopted 9,400 Russian children, and Russian citizens adopted 7,000, according to the Ministry of Education and Science.

By 2008, only 1,198 Russian children were given to foreigners for adoption, and Russian citizens adopted 7,683. Also, more than 100,000 Russian children were placed in temporary foster homes in Russia.

One of the main reasons for the dramatic change is that Russian lawmakers have made a concerted effort to put domestic adoptions first.

“Adoption to another country will be considered as an alternative only if the child cannot be transferred to a family in [the] country of his origin,” a spokeswoman for the Education Ministry said in a written response to questions.

And the government now pays families a bonus of $1,000 for taking in a foster child, with generous monthly payments for upkeep. Under a program started by former President Vladimir Putin in 2006, women can now receive up to $10,000 for bearing – or adopting – a second child.

In the recent past, a historic Russian reluctance to adopt children stood in irony alongside nationalist rhetoric against the idea of “selling Russian children abroad.” But both attitudes have largely disappeared, experts say.