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International adoption refers to adopting a child from a foreign country. This often involves transporting a child from one culture into another. Controversy surrounds both the positive and negative consequences of this transfer since these children are often not legally autonomous decision makers, and therefore do not have the ability to choose the adoptive parents or their ultimate destination. Additionally, because of the high demand for children and the often high potential for abuse in unregulated environments, children can become a commodity, so the welfare of the adoptive child must be the primary focus of all the parties involved -- the country of origin, the orphanage or foster family, the adoptive parents, and the country into which the child is being adopted.

In some countries, cultural, legal, and financial issues are carefully considered throughout the adoptive process, and the adoptive parents are screened by proper local entities prior to placement of an adoptive child in their home. But legal and ethical issues can arise when the adoption program is not sufficiently regulated both within the adoptive country and within the originating country. There is a continuing effort by some countries participating in international adoption to ensure that children are not being either stolen or bought and sold as commodities.

Process overview

The requirements necessary to begin the process of international adoption can vary depending on the country of the adoptive parent(s). For example, while most countries require prospective adoptive parents to first get approval to adopt, in some the approval can only be received from a state agency, while in others, it can be obtained from a private adoption agency.

In the United States, as a general example, typically the first stage of the process is selecting an agency or facilitator to work with. Each agency or facilitator works with a different set of countries, although some only focus on a single country. While some countries do allow independent adoption (i.e., an international adoption not done in coordination with an agency), and in fact this process may often be the least expensive option for prospective adopters, it is rare for them to go this route, especially with their first adoption.

A dossier is prepared that contains a large amount of information about the prospective adoptive parents. Typically this includes financial information, a background check, fingerprints, a home study review by a social worker and other supporting information. Again, requirements will vary widely from country to country, and even region to region in large countries such as Russia. Once complete, the dossier is submitted for review to the appropriate authorities in the child's country.

After the dossier is reviewed and the prospective parents are approved to adopt, they are matched to an eligible child. The parent is usually sent information about the child, such as age, gender, health history, etc. This is generally called a referral. A travel date is typically included, informing the parents when they may travel to meet the child and sign any additional paperwork required to accept the referral. Some countries, such as Kazakhstan, do not allow referrals until the prospective parent travels to the country on their first trip. This is called a "blind" referral.

Depending on the country, the parents may have to make more than one trip overseas to complete the legal process. Some countries allow a child to be escorted to the adoptive parents' home country and the adoptive parents are not required to travel to the country of their adopted child.

There are usually several requirements after this point, such as paperwork to make the child a legal United States citizen or re-adopt them under United States law. In addition, one or more follow up (or "post placement") visits from a social worker may be required -- either by the placing agency used by the adoptive parents or by the laws of the country from which the child was adopted. In the United States, citizenship is automatically granted to all foreign-born children when at least one adoptive parent is a U.S. citizen, in accordance with the Child Citizenship Act of 2000.

Policies and requirements

Adoption policies for each country vary widely. Items such as the age of the adoptive parents, financial status, marital status and history, number of dependent children in the house, sexual orientation, weight, psychological health, and ancestry are used by different countries to determine what parents are eligible to adopt from that country.

Items such as the age of the child, fees and expenses, and the amount of travel time required in the child's birth country, can also vary widely from one country to another.

Each country sets its own rules, timelines and requirements surrounding adoption, and there are also rules that vary within the United States for each state. Each country, and often each part of the country, also sets its own rules about what type of information will be shared and how it will be shared (e.g. a picture of the child, child's health). Reliability and verifiability of the information is also variable.

Most countries require that a parent travel to bring the child home; however, some countries allow the child to be escorted to his or her new homeland.

Waiting children

Children referred to as "waiting children" tend to be either older, healthy children or those with special medical needs. The parental requirements for adopting these children are commonly less strict, and the waiting time for the referral is usually shorter. Sometimes fees and expenses can be reduced for these children. As always, this varies widely by country and agency.

Sources of children and adoptive parents

The most common countries for international adoption by parents in the United States for 2005 are China (7,939), Russia (4,652), Guatemala (3,748), South Korea (1,604), Ukraine (841), and Kazakhstan (755). Other less common countries include Bulgaria, Colombia, Ethiopia, Haiti, India, Philippines, and Poland. These statistics can vary from year to year as each country alters its rules; Romania, Belarus and Cambodia were also important until government crackdowns on adoptions to weed out abuse in the system cut off the flow. Vietnam recently signed a treaty openings its doors for adoption.

China is the one major country where girls adopted far outnumber boys; due to the Chinese culture's son preference in combination with the official planned birth policy implemented in 1981, about 95% of Chinese children adopted are girls. Although India also has a noticeable excess of girls being adopted (68% girls), most other countries are about even. South Korea is the one country that has a relatively large excess of boys being adopted; about 60% are boys. This is a switch from the 1980s, when most Korean adoptees (about two-thirds) were girls.

Adoptions from South Korea were far more prevalent in the 1980s than today, and most young adult foreign adoptees are Korean. About one-tenth of all Korean-Americans are adoptees.

Adoption from Ethiopia has become an increasingly popular option for adoptive families in the US. According to the U.S. Department of State, there were 441 orphans visas issued to Ethiopian children in 2005, and 732 issued in 2006.

International adoption laws

The laws of different countries vary in their willingness to allow international adoptions. Some countries, such as China and Vietnam, have relatively well-established rules and procedures for foreign adopters to follow, while others, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for example, expressly forbid it. Some countries, notably many African nations, have extended residency requirements that in effect rule out most international adoptions. And some countries have been closed to adoption altogether.

Hague Conference on Private International Law

Recognising some of the difficulties and challenges associated with international adoption, and in an effort to protect those involved from the corruption and exploitation which sometimes accompanies it, the Hague Conference on Private International Law developed the Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption, which came into force on 1 May, 1995.

The main objectives of the Convention are:

  • to establish safeguards to ensure that intercountry adoptions take place in the best interests of the child and with respect for his or her fundamental rights as recognized in international law;
  • to establish a system of co-operation amongst Contracting States to ensure that those safeguards are respected and thereby prevent the abduction, the sale of, or traffic in children;
  • to secure the recognition in Contracting States of adoptions made in accordance with the Convention.

To date, this Convention has been ratified by 70 countries.[1] Several more countries are signatories to the Convention and are at various stages in taking steps to achieve full ratification.

The following is a quotation from the convention:

Intercountry adoptions shall be made in the best interests of the child and with respect for his or her fundamental rights. To to prevent the abduction, the sale of, or traffic in children each State should take, as a matter of priority, appropriate measures to enable the child to remain in the care of his or her family of origin. [2]

Consequences and problems

Negative consequences of international adoption

Child trafficking or child laundering

Child trafficking is a broad term that refers to the buying, selling or illegal transportation of children. Child laundering is a more precise term that refers to the stealing of children who are then sold to adoptive parents as "orphans." Often the pretence is that the child's parents are dead when in fact the child's parents are still alive. In some cases the children are stolen from the home; in other cases the children are left at orphanages, which sell the children using false papers; and in some cases the parents sell the children. [3] This trafficking can occur anywhere but is most prominent in poorly regulated countries or where local corruption is a factor. Currently, Guatemala, one of the top sources of adopted children, is being investigated for this sort of corruption. [4]

The problem is that in developing countries children can be sold to "rich" parents for a (comparatively) substantial amount of money. There is also a demand for these children, as infertile couples are often willing to adopt children from foreign countries in order to sever a child's connection to its birth. Other couples may be willing to adopt on the notion that they are doing it for humanitarian or religious reasons.

While not all international adoptions are tainted by child trafficking, it is a real problem. Some receiving nations have attempted to implement safeguards to prevent the adoption of stolen children. The U.S., for example, has suspended adoption from some countries in order to investigate and, where needed, require change from the sending country. [5]

The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption (short title for Convention #33) is one measure intended to further shield international adoption against child trafficking.

Loss of culture, family or identity

International adoption is a relatively new phenomenon when compared to domestic adoption. One of the debates in international adoption circles has been about the adopted child’s sense of belonging in their new country. Some believe that this is a particular concern for inter-racial adoptions. For example, the adoption of Asian children by Caucasians, who are obviously of a different race, and might be expected to have a harder time fitting in than, say, Russian children.

Nowadays, however, the children and adoptive parents are encouraged to explore their origins of birth. From their birth parents, to their birth cultures exploration is almost expected. For example, Korea holds “cultural training camps” where Korean adoptees are able to explore their birth country for the first time. Until recently, Korean adoptees were seen as outcasts, and these training camps are the Korean government’s way of changing the view of these “outcasts” to “overseas Koreans.” It has slowly shown positive results, and a closer kinship of adoptees to their birth country.

The question still remains, is it detrimental to a child’s well-being to keep them from getting to know their birth origin? Or are more problems caused by encouraging and allowing foreign adoptees to explore their birth culture? As of right now, a critical mass of scholars, adoption professionals and community representatives are only beginning to explore these questions with the growing community groups made up of international adoptees (many who have finally now reached maturity). Anthropologists, for example, have very recently started to study the effects of kinship, belonging, culture, nation, and even genes and the roles they play in the upbringing of foreign adoptees. As Pauline Turner Strong said in an article in Relative Values: Reconfiguring Kinship Studies: "Adoption across political and cultural borders may simultaneously be an act of violence and an act of love, an excruciating rupture and a generous incorporation, an appropriation of valued resources and a constitution of personal ties.”

Scholarly accounts in journal articles, higher-degree studies and books by authors such as Toby Volkman, David Eng, Sara Dorow, Indigo Willing and Tobias Hubinette also suggest that adoption is a contested practice, with a variety of competing voices ranging from adoptive parents who not only adopt but also dominant published accounts of the practice, to those who have been internationally adopted and are now beginning to enter research fields focusing on adoption (such as members of the International Adoptee Congress Research Committee).

All these researchers do now have the benefit of drawing on populations of the "first waves" of internationally adopted people who have now reached adulthood, as seen in the rise of Korean and Vietnamese adoptee groups alone. At the same time, it is hard to determine any sort of best practice in adoption if only based on conflicting research agendas, paradigms and narratives presented by psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists alike. More serious consultation with a range of internationally adopted people from various professional and community-work based backgrounds needs to be included before the field of adoption study is more truly representative and rigorously informed.

Positive consequences of international adoption

In some cases international adoption results in a child whose birthparents were unable to parent him being raised within the nurturing environment of a family instead of an institution such as an orphanage. Economically a child almost always steps up into a higher class (based solely on the availability of material goods and comforts), which may or may not be a positive consequence. The child may also realize new educational opportunities.

After WWII, between 1945 and 1969, due to economic pressures, many German born children were adopted by US-Military couples. German Birthfamilies made a great sacrifice in "letting go" of their child, hoping that the adoptive families could provide the child with solid social structures and economic stability. German Birth Register [6] provides a German born adoptee with an efficient method of reuniting with his German Birthfamily.

American adoption

American citizens represent the majority of international adoptive parents, followed by Europeans and those from other more developed nations.

Reform efforts

Due to the appeal and otherwise obvious difficult issues presented by international adoption, the reform movement seeks to influence governments to adopt regulations that serve the best interest of the child and meet the interests of both the adoptive and biological family members. [7] This position is countered by both the economic viability of the child trade and the relative lack of interest shown by governments to address the serious problems with international adoption. While cursory measures have been made by international organizations, these agreements are often mere restatements of the boilerplate so often heard in elementary juvenile law, which includes the frequent use of the phrase "best interest of the child." The ultimate question in international adoption is who should decide what is in the child's best interest, and, not only that, how such a decision is even made.

See also

References & Bibliography

Key texts



Additional material



External links

International Sites

Government Sites


  • Adopting Internationally - Informational website created by law professor David M. Smolin that includes legal analysis and testimonials.
  • Asian-Nation - Article written by a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies that explores the history and cultural issues of Asians adopted by predominantly White American families.

Special Adoption links (Adult Adoptees)

  • ICASN - Informational website created by Lynelle Beveridge that deals with adult adoptee networks and their stories.
  • AVI - Informational website based in Australia that deals with Vietnamese adult adoptee networks and their stories.
  • VAN - Informational website based in America that deals with Vietnamese adult adoptee networks and their stories.
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