International Adoption

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international adoption

The adoption of a child who is a citizen of one country by adoptive parents who are citizens of a different country.

U.S. citizens adopt thousands of infants and children each year from Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America. In fiscal year 1998, 15,774 children from other countries were adopted by U.S. adoptive parents. The children sometimes travel halfway around the globe until they meet their FOREVER FAMILY for the first time.

In almost all cases, the children involved have been living in orphanages or were considered abandoned by their parents. In some cases, they are biracial or physically handicapped, which is a great stigma in the view of some non-Americans just as mixed race or physical handicaps are a stigma in the view of some Americans.

Prior to World War II, few children and very few infants were adopted from other countries by U.S. citizens. It was World War II and subsequently the Korean War that brought home the plight of orphaned children to U.S. soldiers stationed overseas.

From 1935 to 1948, only about 14 immigrants per year in the category of "under 16 years of age, unaccompanied by parents" entered the United States. It is unknown how many of these children were actually adopted Americans generally adopted American children during the pre-World War II years, and agencies strongly emphasized the concept of matching the child to the adoptive parents as closely as possible so the unknowing stranger would presume the child was a birth-child of the adoptive parents. As a result, international adoption and the obvious distinctions between some children and their adoptive parents would have been viewed negatively during those years.

After World War II, when Americans first became very interested in international adoption, it was primarily U.S. immigration laws and quotas that held them back. Initially, the laws were changed to allow service members to adopt limited numbers of children.

In 1948, the Displaced Persons Act was created by Congress to enable over 200,000 European refugees to immigrate to the United States. The act also allowed 3,000 "displaced orphans" to enter the United States, regardless of their nationality. A sponsor did not have to promise to adopt the child but only to promise the child would be "cared for properly."

The orphan provisions of the Displaced Persons Act were temporary but were periodically renewed by Congress with expiration dates varying from one to three years.

During this time after World War II, American interest in and desire to adopt increased beyond the number of infants and children who needed families in the United States.

During and after the Korean War, many American servicemen became interested in adopting Korean orphans, and in 1953 Congress allowed up to 500 special visas for orphans who would be adopted by American servicemen or civil servants of the federal government. At this time, immigration was open to orphans from any nation: prior to that time, immigration of orphans had been limited to European orphans.

The Refugee Relief Act of 1953 was subsequently passed, allowing for 4,000 orphan visas over the next three years. Yet this act, combined with the earlier provisions for special visas, was insufficient to accommodate all the orphans that service members and federal employees wished to adopt.

In 1957 Congress lifted all numerical quotas from orphan visas, but this action too was limited in time because Congress perceived the need and desire to adopt orphans from other countries as a short-term situation. Finally, in 1961, the Immigration and Nationality Act incorporated a permanent reference to the emigration of orphans from other countries to be adopted by Americans.

The Vietnamese "Baby Lift" occurred in 1975 after the fall of Saigon, South Vietnam, and thousands of Vietnamese children presumed to be orphans were flown to Western nations. It was later discovered that some of those children had living parents who did not wish their children to be adopted but only wanted their safe removal from the country. As a result, U.S. immigration laws were tightened.

International adoption has continued to date, and tens of thousands of children from other countries have been adopted by U.S. citizens. At least half of all children adopted from abroad over the past 20 years have emigrated from Korea, although Korea began cutting back the number of adoptions in 1988. (There were 4,942 adoptions of Korean children by U.S. citizens in fiscal year 1988, and 1,829 in 1998.) Both Korean officials and adoption experts predict this number will continue to decline. (See KOREAN ADOPTED CHILDREN.)

International adoption is extremely changeable and highly driven by the policies of the foreign countries as well as by U.S. adoption practices and immigration law. Most of the countries that allow the immigration of their orphans to the United States have great difficulty with poverty and economic and social problems.

Some factors driving American interest in international adoption, as Elizabeth Bartholet wrote in her 1996 article, are similar to those in other Western countries, " .?.?. contraception, abortion, and the increased tendency of single parents to keep their children." Another factor, identified by a General Accounting Office (GAO) report prepared for Senator Arlen Specter, is the growing discomfort among American prospective adoptive families with U.S. laws and adoption practices. Fully 10% of those responding to the GAO survey said that one of the reasons they had gone abroad to adopt was that they were worried about the legal permanence of American adoption.

The increased interest of Americans and other Westerners in adopting internationally has been met by concerns about improper practices raised by a handful of highly sensational reports of wrongful or criminal activity connected to international adoption. These concerns, expressed especially through the organs of the United Nations, were already in place in the late 1980s, but became critical once the Romanian and other Eastern European adoptions began to increase.

Sixty-six countries had sent representatives to The Hague to draft a new international treaty on adoption across national borders when dramatic changes took place in Romania. A flood of Westerners surged into Romania in response to the humanitarian concerns raised by media portrayals of children living in very bad orphanage conditions. (See ROMANIAN ADOPTIONS.)

Somewhat later, as a result of collaborative ties built at The Hague, nations with substantial numbers of children in orphanages (especially the Russian Federation, other countries formerly part of the U.S.S.R. and China) began to allow children in need of families to be adopted abroad. At the same time, the United States began to allow some of its children to be adopted by persons living abroad who were not U.S. citizens. The 1990s became the era of international adoptions.

It's also very important to understand that many nations do not share the philosophy or the understanding of adoption that most Americans take for granted. For example, in some countries, the birthmother of a child need not execute a written consent to relinquish her child. She may or may not receive any counseling, depending on the laws of the nation.

Richard R. Carlson described a variety of international adoption issues in his comprehensive article, "Transnational Adoption of Children," published in the Tulsa Law Journal. One issue Carlson discussed was the "convergence" of federal and state laws in the case of international adoptions.

United States citizens cannot adopt children from other countries unless they follow the requirements of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Although they are not a child welfare agency, the INS strives to determine if the prospective adoptive parents are suitable and if the child to be adopted is "adoptable." The INS sets requirements that are not always imposed on parents who adopt children from within the U.S.

The INS does require a HOME STUDY, even if the state does not require a preliminary home study of the adopting parents before placement, and sets 25 as the minimum age for prospective adoptive parents.

The INS must also consider whether the child is "adoptable" based on the age of the child, the child's orphan status and other criteria.

The final adoption, however, is subject to state laws and regulations. Even when the child is formally adopted overseas in a foreign court, Carlson recommends the adoptive parents readopt the child in their home state.

Problems with state laws may occur when the state legislatures fail to understand that laws in other countries may be very different from adoption laws in the 50 states of the United States and when the state legislatures create laws that cannot be fulfilled by international adoption agencies.

If a state court demands a written relinquishment from the birthmother, such a document may be unavailable. Carlson says it is also highly unlikely that the consent was executed in a court. In addition, the relinquishment will almost certainly not include special language required by a state law.

Why Some Americans Adopt Minority Children from Other Countries

Some have asked why U.S. citizens do not adopt more biracial minority members within the United States, where there are many infants and children needing families.

The answer is that TRANSRACIAL ADOPTION has been actively fought by such groups as the National Association of Black Social Workers, who state that transracial adoption is a form of "racial genocide." As a result, individuals wishing to adopt and to whom race is not a major factor have investigated international adoption, and many have successfully adopted children of all races from throughout the world.

It is also interesting to note that some international adoption agencies place black children from other countries, for example, Ethiopia and Haiti, with white families, believing that the children are far better off in a happy adoptive family than they would be living in an orphanage.

Some individuals have investigated international adoption because they do not wish to wait three years to adopt a healthy white infant; however, they should be aware that children from other countries may be perceived as belonging to another race or ethnicity and consequently may experience racial or ethnic slurs in school or later at work.

Families to whom SKIN COLOR is a very important feature of the child to be adopted probably should not adopt a child from another country. Children from many of the countries that allow emigration, including from Russia and Romania-the two leading "sending" countries as of this writing-are likely to be Asian, African or a mixture of races. The race of the child's birth family may be unknown, especially if the child was abandoned as a foundling to the orphanage.

Some adoptive parents who adopt children from other countries are OPTIONAL ADOPTERS, that is, they are fertile but believe in providing a home for a child who is "already here." (See FERTILE ADOPTIVE PARENTS.) They may also be individuals who are over 40 years old or who do not fit the criteria of the average adoption agency placing infants.

Individuals may also seek to adopt children from abroad because they are seeking to adopt a child of their own cultural heritage; for example, a couple of Russian or Chinese origin may wish to adopt a Russian or Chinese orphan. It should be noted that some countries require at least one of the adoptive parents to be of the same national origin as the child.

Countries that allow intercountry adoption may set numerous restrictions on adoptive parents beyond what adoption agencies set; for example, they may accept only married couples and prohibit singles from applying. They may have age limits and religious requirements.

Most countries require adopting parents to travel to their countries and stay at least a few days until various paperwork and legal requirements are satisfied. Such a stay can be difficult for some Americans, particularly those who have never left their own state or city. (See CULTURE SHOCK.)

Other countries have their own way of accomplishing bureaucratic tasks, and sometimes Americans can become very impatient and frustrated with foreign officials. As a result, international adoption should never be considered the "easy" way to adopt.

Most of the children adopted from other countries are infants and small children; however, older children and siblings are also available for adoption. INTERNATIONAL CONCERNS FOR CHILDREN in Boulder, Colorado, maintains a photolisting of schoolage children with handicaps (some correctable) and healthy normal children in other countries who need families, and most agencies maintain photolistings, sometimes on the Internet.

The International Adoption Process

A family (or single person) in the United States can adopt a child from another country in two basic ways: by adopting through a licensed U.S. adoption agency or through a form of INDEPENDENT ADOPTION called PARENT-INITIATED ADOPTION (if the state in which they live allows INDEPENDENT ADOPTION).

Parents who choose this second form of adoption usually do so because they may adopt a child younger than usually available through an agency, or they may wish to adopt a child from a country with which U.S. agencies do not work. Some adopting parents find themselves forming their own adoption agencies to facilitate further adoptions in the country they have penetrated. Even when the family identifies an attorney or intermediary from another country, they must still undergo a home study, based on requirements of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Subsequent to approval of the family, the agency or the family's intermediary attempts to identify a child for the family. Most of the children in other countries who need adoptive families live in orphanages; however, in some cases, a birthmother may relinquish her child directly to an attorney shortly after the child's birth.

After the agency or intermediary notifies the family of an available child, they must decide then whether to adopt the child. If the child is living in an institution, the agency will attempt to obtain a photograph of the child along with social and medical information. Often families report that they feel they "bond" to these photographs, which is a problem if, for some reason, the adoption does not occur.

The child is usually adopted in the adoptive parents' home state. The child later becomes a naturalized U.S. citizen, based on the parents' citizenship and the child's dependent status. (Important note: U.S. citizenship is not automatic to children adopted by U.S. citizens: it must be applied for. Contact the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service for further information.)

Immigration laws include a special provision for children who have lived at least two years with U.S. citizens. It could be used, for example, by military members or individuals living abroad who have adopted children overseas. In such a case, no home study by a U.S. agency is required.

Adjustment Challenges for Children Born Overseas

Most of the children overseas needing U.S. families reside in orphanages, and adopting parents need to try to understand what such a life was like in order to help the child adapt.

According to an Open Door Society of Massachusetts publication by Betty Laning and Mary Taylor entitled A Parent's Guide to Intercountry Adoption, parents should learn as much as possible about how their child was cared for abroad, for example, whether the child slept in a crib or on a floor mat, slept on his back or stomach, slept wrapped tightly in a blanket or loosely and so on. In addition, perhaps his formula was very sweet. The child may have been carried on the caretaker's back. Whenever possible or reasonable, the adoptive parent can try to create similar situations so the child will feel comfortable.

The authors also advise that parents learn some basic words in the child's native tongue before the child arrives home, such as "mother," "father," "toilet," "time to eat" and "I love you."

Laning and Taylor also describe "orphanage syndrome," which is survival behavior learned at the orphanage. Say the authors, "an orphanage child can become very competitive, always looking out for himself, pushing himself ahead of others to get the most food or attention .?.?. It takes a great deal of patience to teach sharing, being considerate of others, taking turns, and loyalty to the family."

Children may have dental decay, because bottles, propped up for hours at a time, are common in orphanages. Other medical problem are also possible.

The child adopted from another country will have plenty of new cultural experiences to absorb and assimilate; for example, most children who live in orphanages abroad receive sponge baths and may be frightened by their first sight of a tub full of water. They may also be initially fearful of flushing toilets, noisy vacuum cleaners and a host of experiences common to the everyday U.S. household but not common to the child from abroad.

The International Concerns for Children article on children raised in orphanages concludes, "A child in an institution has had a succession of caretakers. Even the most loving caretakers vanish for hours of each day or night. A newly adopted child usually assumes that you are just like his old caretakers. Watching a child blossom under the slow-dawning realization that he or she is the center of someone's life is one of the most exquisite joys of adoption."

One of the most troubling developments that took place in recent years was the realization that some of the children adopted from Eastern European orphanages were more negatively impacted by social and other conditions, in and out of the institutions, than similar children who had been adopted in previous decades from Asia and Latin America.

This was particularly true of children adopted from Romania and, to a lesser degree, from Russia. Among those addressing these new challenges are pediatric nurses, who have created a primer for health care providers confronted with this group of children. One unique barrier, addressed by Adoption/Medical News, is the language used in some foreign medical reports-language, that is indecipherable even when translated.

Some individuals have expressed concern that children displaced from their native land may experience adjustment problems as they grow into adulthood. Studies do not support this fear and indicate that most of the children integrate successfully. A study of severely deprived Vietnamese infants who were later adopted showed very dramatic improvements and revealed the children were not developmentally delayed despite the initial trauma they faced.

A 1988 Ph.D. dissertation by Lois Lydens studied Korean children at both adolescence and adulthood and found them to be well adjusted and successful. She also found the children adopted in infancy or early childhood experienced the least anxiety or questions about their racial or ethnic heritage. Said Lydens, "The findings suggest that most early and later crossculturally adopted children develop normally and adjust positively to a socially arranged interracial family situation."

A 1990 doctoral dissertation by Eulalio Gonzalez compared the effect of the age of placement on children adopted from within and without the United States. Gonzalez studied 275 children adopted from abroad and 47 children adopted within the United States. Using parental ratings, he found that, in general, the earlier the age at placement and the longer the time the child had been placed, the higher the parental satisfaction rating. (This finding tracks many other studies that reveal early placements of children have the highest rates of positive outcomes.) Gonzalez found that parents rated their children comparably, despite whether the child was adopted internationally or from within the United States.

He also found that children adopted internationally identified more strongly with their adoptive parents' ethnic backgrounds than with their own birth cultures. In addition, Gonzalez did not find a difference between the adopted children's ethnic identity and their "psychosocial" adjustment.

The research generally continues to reflect the findings of earlier experts, confirming that most children adopted internationally fare well. The longitudinal research of Simon and Alstein and the essays collected in the book they edited on international adoptions, were generally quite positive. So also are the findings in unpublished research by Marietta Spencer, formerly of the Children's Home Society of Minnesota, on longitudinal adjustment of children adopted from Korea. The most troubling findings come from research on children adopted from Romania, but those data are not surprising, given the horrendous conditions of that country's orphanages at the time the former dictator was deposed.

What seems clear is that continuing changes, whether having to do with child welfare and social service policy, reproductive rights issues, politics, warfare, economic difficulties or climatic cycles, will result in a constantly changing international adoption picture. The two leading countries Americans at the turn of the century adopted from only opened their doors to humanitarian interests in adoption during the 1990s.

Unless there is some dramatic policy change, the combination of the Hague Convention being widely ratified and implemented and the factors described above may well mean that international adoptions will one day exceed the number of "domestic" adoptions in the United States.


Disinformation is propaganda that is purposely untrue and/or misleading and has a hidden negative agenda behind its perpetuation.

Sometimes competing governmental groups or foreign-based groups plant or leak disinformation about international adoption. For example, it has periodically been alleged that Americans and other affluent Westerners are adopting children from other countries in order to secretly use them as sources of "body parts" and "organ transplants" for domestic medical experiments or to use children as vehicles to smuggle drugs into the adoptive parents' countries.

When these stories are investigated by reputable journalists (or agency directors), no basis in truth whatsoever is found. Virtually all Americans adopt children from abroad because of their desire to love a child. They have no evil or secret motives behind the adoption.

Yet such disinformation is sometimes believed, particularly by sending countries, because they do not understand why Americans or persons in other receiving countries wish to adopt. The result can be violent attacks on Americans, as happened in Central America.

Their orphanages may be overcrowded, much of their population may be mired in poverty, and they do not have a frame of reference to understand why people from another country would desire children that their own country cannot provide for and who are sometimes devalued. It may be especially difficult to understand why older children or handicapped children are adopted by Americans and other Westerners. As a result, negative propaganda is more readily believed.

Partly because of such basic fears and suspicions generated or believed by various nations who use disinformation, adoption agencies who place children from abroad urge adoptive parents to mail the sending orphanage or agency photos of their children periodically, without their name or return address, so orphanage directors, agency staff, government officials, the media and others can see the children are healthy and thriving. See MEDICAL PROBLEMS OF ADOPTED CHILDREN for a detailed discussion of medical issues in international adoption. (See also INDIA; KOREAN ADOPTED CHILDREN; LATIN AMERICAN ADOPTIONS.)

Elizabeth Bartholet "International Adoption: Propriety, Prospects and Pragmatics," Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 13, no. 2 (winter 1996): 181-210.

Richard R. Carlson, "Transnational Adoption of Children," Tulsa Law Journal 23 (spring 1988): 317-377.

John Gittelsohn, "Film's Adoption Horror Tale Angers Koreans," Boston Sunday Globe, February?25, 1990.

Eulalio Guadalupe Gonzalez, "Effects of Age at Placement and Length of Placement on Foreign and Domestic Adopted Children (Foreign Adoption)," Ph.D. diss., University of Akron, 1990.

Jerri Ann Jenista, M.D., "Russian Children and Medical Records" Adoption Medical News 7 (July/August 1997).

Lois Adele Lydens, "A Longitudinal Study of Crosscultural Adoption: Identity Development Among Asian Adoptees at Adolescence and Early Adulthood," Ph.D. diss., Northwestern University, 1988.

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