SINCE World War II, many Americans and Europeans have looked abroad in their quest to adopt children. But while the practice remains a highly rewarding way to build a family, the source countries are shifting, regulations are tightening, and costs are escalating. The biggest factor is a changing attitude in South Korea, which has provided more than half the foreign children adopted by United States families. That country is gradually reducing foreign adoptions with the intent of bringing the rate to near zero (see chart). Reasons include a declining birthrate, increasing affluence, and a growing acceptance of adoption within the country.
``It's been a long time coming,'' says Susan Cox, director of development and public relations for Holt International in Eugene, Ore., the agency that pioneered Korean adoptions. ``Some agencies have ignored this all-too-apparent trend and made promises to clients that they couldn't keep. Now, they are facing a cold reality. But Koreans have nothing to be apologetic for. They've done a tremendous job of trying to ensure that every child has a family. In emphasizing national adoptions, they're on the threshold of a new era.''
``I don't think we'll ever see another country that facilitates inter-country adoptions like Korea did,'' says Susan Freivalds, executive director of Adoptive Families of America, a national support organization based in Minneapolis. ``For parents, the change will mean longer waits and stricter requirements: more scrutiny paid to applicants' ages, length of marriage, and income.''
In some cases, it will also mean more travel. Colombia, for example, is now one of several countries that require adoptive parents to make two separate trips while the paperwork clears, first to initiate the process and later to complete it. ``It's a wrenching process to meet your child-to-be, then relinquish him or her to a foster home for three more months,'' she says.
Although they are becoming more difficult, foreign adoptions remain an attractive alternative to their domestic counterparts. ``While parents can wait five or six years for an American adoption, the wait abroad is only about two years for a healthy baby girl,'' says Annamarie Merrill of the International Concerns Committee for Children, an agency referral service based in Boulder, Colo.
Mrs. Merrill believes that the changes in Korea will mean fewer ``physically perfect'' children available. ``In a way, it's a good thing. Children with birth anomalies - a missing finger, a cleft palate - will have a better chance of finding families,'' she says.
South Korea's policies have also increased the demand for available children from Latin American countries, and that is having unwanted repercussions.
``For the most part, these kids are being adopted legitimately, and the adoptions work out fine,'' says Francisco Pilotti, chief of the social affairs unit for the Inter-American Children's Institute in Montevideo, Uruguay, a specialized agency of the Organization of American States.
``But there are cases - their number is inexact - in which children are matched with inadequate parents or are sold outright. Undue pressure is sometimes placed on poor mothers to relinquish their children. Unfortunately, these incidents seem to be rising,'' Dr. Pilotti says.
Pilotti notes that intercountry adoptions can also tread on the sensitivity of the source countries, which see it both as a drain on their pool of young people and as an implication they cannot care for their own. ``Ironically, this controversy has had a positive effect by sparking interest in domestic adoptions, a practice that was not culturally accepted 20 years ago,'' he says.
Over the years, government regulations for intercountry adoptions have grown tougher as horror stories have surfaced. Reported incidents include El Salvadoran and Mexican children being kidnapped and sold to American parents, and questions about South American children being illegally adopted in Israel. Under Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu's harsh regime, babies were sold for hard currency to parents throughout Western Europe.
Richard Kenney, public affairs specialist for the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), cites an investigation in the Philippines that uncovered counterfeit birth certificates and release forms signed by unauthorized people.
``Kidnapping is one of the reasons the law is so strict,'' Mr. Kenney says. ``Adoptive parents sometimes complain about the paperwork, red tape, and inconvenience - but the law is designed first and foremost to protect the children.''
To comply with those laws, American applicants must satisfy state requirements that assure their fitness as adoptive parents, and obtain FBI and state fingerprint clearance. They must meet the demands of the child's native country and the INS, whose approval is required before the US State Department will issue an immigration visa. Because of these demands, experts agree that choosing a reputable agency is the most important decision an adoptive parent makes.
One of the ironies of legitimate intercountry adoption is that, while there are literally millions of children without families in the world, only a small percentage are available.
For example, the Bogota, Colombia, metropolitan area alone has an estimated 100,000 children living on the streets. ``But until they get into the system, typically by entering an orphanage, they're in a nether world,'' says Pamela Ward, executive director of Bay Area Adoption Services in Cupertino, Calif. ``Agencies like ours will only work with a child whose legal status is absolutely clear.''
Professionals involved with intercountry adoptions are loathe to speak of it in economic terms, but, in fact, the law of supply and demand is driving the cost up. ``I've had families burst into tears over what foreign lawyers charge,'' says Mrs. Ward. She notes that in the past two years, fees in Paraguay have gone from roughly $4,500 to $9,000, in Brazil from $3,000 to $9,000, and in Peru from $4,000 to $8,000. The total cost of intercountry adoptions often ranges between $12,000 and $15,000.
``Good, above-board adoption lawyers are a limited commodity,'' she says. ``There's nothing to stop an attorney from shopping for an agency that will pay his fee. And we in America are also competing for those services with families in Europe.''
Yet for all its hurdles, intercountry adoptions can offer rich rewards:
Norman Sheehan and Brenda Bautista of El Cerrito, Calif., for example, chose to stay nearly two months in Guatemala, rather than making two separate trips. ``You don't just adopt a child from another country,'' says Mr. Sheehan. ``You must also, in a sense, adopt the country itself.''
``Our visit enabled us to really understand where our son Oscar was coming from - to know his people, food, and culture,'' Ms. Bautista says. ``And it allowed us to meet and remain in touch with his birth mother, which we couldn't have done on a shorter visit.''
Norman and Harriet Klein of Seattle have watched their daughter Kim, adopted at age 5, overcome a difficult childhood in war-torn Vietnam and become a college junior majoring in European languages. ``She has tremendous drive,'' Mrs. Klein says. ``I give her a lot of credit.''
Thirty-two years ago, Holt International's Susan Cox was the 156th Korean child handled by that agency. ``Back then, people would acknowledge that these were delightful children, but questioned what would happen when they grew up - who would marry them, who would give them jobs? But 50,000 of us later, I think we've proven that the process works.''