According to the National Council for Adoption, globally, intercountry adoptions hit a peak in 2004, following a steady rise in numbers beginning in the early 1990s. Since then, annual numbers have steadily declined. In fact, by 2008, the total number was lower than it had been in 2001 and by 2009 lower than it had been in 1998. Following a similar trend, the number of intercountry adoptions in the U.S. dropped to 8,668 in 2012 after hitting a high of 22,884 in 2004.

These numbers have followed shifts in cultural views on adoptions, with intercountry adoptions growing in popularity after World War II, and also, political and social shifts worldwide including the impact of the one-child policy in China and the break-up of the Soviet Union and aftermath for Russia in the 1990s. In later years, China instituted more rules for foreign adoptions. We have yet to see the impact, if any, of China’s decision to end its one-child policy, although some speculate it will have minimal impact on adoptions from there. A number of countries including Vietnam, Haiti, Ghana, Guatemala, Kazakhstan, Russia and Rawanda have suspended international adoptions at one point or another, some opting to allow them again and others not. Many of these countries have cited concerns about child wellbeing, safety and corruption as reasons for doing so, although politics seem to play a significant role in these decisions.

Yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on “National Adoption Month: Stories of Success and Meeting the Challenges of International Adoptions.” Witnesses included Michele Bond, Assistant Secretary at the Bureau Of Consular Affairs in the Department of State. The Bureau of Consular Affairs oversees intercountry adoptions and is the U.S. Central Authority under The Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Cooperation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption (Convention). The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption provides both sending and receiving countries with guidelines to support an ethical, transparent intercountry adoption system that adheres to international standards. The Hague Convention is also intended to facilitate and promote adoptions for children in need of families.

Assistant Secretary Bond’s testimony was followed by a panel of adoptive parents, including Katie Horton and Christine Hutchins who spoke of their experiences and challenges adopting from countries overseas, including Russia, Sierra Leone, Haiti and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

According to Assistant Secretary Bond, over the past 15 years, U.S. families have adopted more than 250,000 children from over 100 different countries. Families pursue international adoption for different reasons. In listening to the testimony of the parents on the panel, what is clear is that taking the path of international adoption is not an easy one. While their stories and outcomes varied, the parents who testified yesterday shared a few common themes in their adoption journey’s including: experiencing some (and often significant) delay in uniting with their children, pushing through considerable bureaucratic red tape, and having to commit significant financial resources as well as time and effort to bringing their children home.

In her testimony, Ms. Horton shared the heartbreak she experienced when her efforts to adopt a little girl from Russia were disrupted. As she explained, she traveled to Russia to meet Polina, signed the notarized Russian petition to adopt and other commitment papers declaring her intent to adopt and returned to the U.S. She was told a court date would be set shortly and that Polina would be home soon after. Soon after, in December 2012, Congress passed the “Magnitsky law,” meant to punish Russian officials responsible for the death of a Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, in a Moscow prison. In response, the Russian parliament passed a bill viewed as retaliation for the Magnitsky law. This law banned all Americans from adopting Russian children – a ban that remains in place today. Since then, Katie has not been able to continue contact with Polina and no longer knows of her whereabouts.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) provides another example of a challenging bilateral adoption relationship. Sadly today, hundreds of children with finalized adoptions in the DRC are unable to leave the country to join their adoptive families. As Assistant Secretary Bond explained, nearly 400 children legally adopted by U.S. parents are awaiting permission to leave the DRC, with no idea of when this permission will be granted. A two-year-old exit permit suspension for legally adopted children stands in the way of uniting these parents and their children. In some cases, children have died waiting for this permission to be granted. Many others are languishing in institutional care when they have loving and permanent families waiting for them.

The State Department continues to press Congolese officials to allow these children to exit and has expressed a commitment to continue dialogue with Russia – a non-Convention country – on intercountry adoptions although there is little hope that its ban on adoptions will be lifted. It is also focused on engaging countries that have announced their intent to ratify or accede to the Convention and to find ways to engage those that are not party to the Convention.

The hearing yesterday provided an opportunity for many who know little about the arduous and often heart-wrenching process of adopting from abroad to hear from parents in the trenches.  Testimony and opening statements from yesterday’s hearing can be found here.

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