The Dark Side of Cleaning Up International Adoptions: Kids Are Left in Orphanges Longer

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Stricter criteria on international adoptions means more kids are left in institutions longer, which could be detrimental to their physical and mental health, says a new study from an adoption group.

Many parents looking to adopt internationally work from what seems like a logical, if romantic, playbook: we want a child, there are poor orphans overseas, so let’s help each other. Everybody wins.

The reality is now very different. Following highly publicized cases in which the adopted children were not actually orphans or willingly given up by their parents, and others in which parents found they could not manage the needs of the child they adopted—remember the woman who sent her son back to Russia?—adoption regulations have tightened considerably. Many countries, such as Russia, have closed off international adoptions altogether. Others, such as China, have restricted adoptions by parents from abroad to kids with special needs.

All of this, and the international treaty most countries signed two decades ago that regulated the process of inter-country adoption, has slowed the pace of international adoptions markedly. About 23,000 newly adopted children were brought into the U.S. in 2004. Fewer than 9,000 were welcomed into American homes last year. Globally, 30,000 fewer children per year are now being taken into new families in another country than were nine years ago. Families who in the past might have waited a year or two for a child, now have to wait many times that.

A new study by the advocacy group Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI) reveals that the slow-down in international adoptions has had unfortunate side effects, including, primarily, “more children  remaining institutionalized for longer periods, thereby incurring greater psychic and developmental harm and diminishing their prospects of ever moving into a permanent family.” While there has been some rethinking on orphanages, studies are pretty conclusive that institutionalization of very young children can contribute to a range of lifelong effects that are almost impossible to undo, including behavioral, psychological and basic health issues.

The DAI study also found that the kids who were available for adoption now were those who needed more behavioral and developmental help. “Many countries of origin, including the largest ones such as China, are increasingly allowing inter-country adoption primarily or exclusively of children who have special needs,” the study authors write. Since children with special needs who need families are in plentiful in the U.S., this makes international adoption that much less attractive, especially as the cost of international adoption has soared, to north of $50,000. And international agencies often can’t provide parents with much information about the medical issues of their prospective child, so parents are often less equipped to deal with their child when issues arise.

The stringent criteria have also inadvertently spawned a more disturbing practice, called “re-homing,” in which parents whose adoptions aren’t working out are putting the kids up for adoption on the internet.  People simply look for new parents in the same way they might find a new owner for a dog they needed to give away when they moved house. In such unofficial bazaars children are traded with little or no government oversight, bypassing an agreement among states that authorities be notified of any transfer of custody of children between states so potential parents can be evaluated for their ability to raise children. (Reuters/NBC detailed the trend in a sobering series available here.)

All of this tips over a domino-line of harm for kids who need parents. Stricter regulations meant to protect them mean they are likely to remain in institutions longer. Because they remain in institutions longer, they’re more likely to have behavioral, social and medical problems when they are adopted. Having problems after they’re adopted means it’s more likely the adoption will be what’s called “disrupted.”  And kids from disrupted adoptions are more likely to have problems in future families. Which feeds back into a disincentive to encourage international adoptions, which means countries are the less likely to loosen up their adoption procedures, continuing the cycle.