International Adoption Becoming Difficult Amid Treaties, Regulation

July 1, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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International adoption has been a popular practice for American couples, with adoptions reaching as high as 20,000 a year. This process is becoming more difficult as barriers increase, with international organizations and foreign countries alike enacting increasingly stringent regulations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Since the early ’90s, Americans have adopted more and more children from overseas. In fact, international adoptions in the U.S. have tripled over that time, to more than 20,000 a year.

But over the past three years, that growth has begun to slow down, and it may drop even more. That’s partly due to disputes over a global treaty known as the Hague Convention on International Adoption. It creates new protections against child trafficking and stricter requirements for adoption agencies.

The U.S. has signed on to the treaty, but since then has reached an impasse with Vietnam. As of today, Vietnam is not accepting new adoption applications from the U.S.

That’s not the only problem: Troubles have arisen with adoptions from Guatemala, Russia, and a few other countries. All of this is of great concern to the thousands of American families looking to adopt from overseas.

We examine the state of international adoption with Susan Soon-Keum Cox of Holt International, Children’s Services, an international adoption agency; and Kathleen Strottman, she’s executive director of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, a bipartisan caucus focused on adoption issues.

Thank you both for being with us.

Kathleen Strottman, to you first. What has happened with regard to these adoptions from Vietnam?

KATHLEEN STROTTMAN, Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute: Judy, over the last five years, I think both the U.S. government and the government of Vietnam have been actively engaged in conversations about how to better protect the families that are adopting the children in Vietnam and the children themselves.

And I think they both agree that there’s a need for reform so that they can ensure that every adoption that is taking place is an ethical one. Where we have reached a level of disagreement is about how to achieve that reform and how to move forward post-September of this year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Susan Cox, what’s your view? Why this impasse with Vietnam?

SUSAN SOON-KEUM COX, Holt international, Children’s Services: Well, one of the things that happened just recently when the prime minister of Vietnam was in Washington, D.C., he and our president agreed that they both are very committed to doing what’s necessary to ensure that adoptions don’t stop between now and September.

And one of the things that Vietnam is going to do is begin working only with Hague-accredited adoption agencies. And that provides a level of protection that really hasn’t been there before.

Hague agreement to protect children

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, Susan Cox, I saw that there were only, what, about 800-some adoptions from Vietnam last year. So who is hurt by this?

SUSAN SOON-KEUM COX: Well, most of all, of course, the children are hurt. The families who are waiting, they certainly are affected, but it's the children themselves that really are impacted the most.

One of the things that I think it's important to make clear is, while people look at the Hague convention and all of the things that have happened, and then believe that perhaps the Hague is the problem, in fact, what the Hague convention has done is to perhaps highlight the fact that there are abuses and problems in adoptions that are not done ethically and properly.

So the Hague, in fact, will help to promote ethical adoption practices on a global scale.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kathleen Strottman, you were involved in writing and drafting this Hague agreement back in the late '90s. What is the bone of contention here about the language in this treaty?

KATHLEEN STROTTMAN: Well, it's actually surprising that anyone would say that the language itself is overly restrictive, because, as Susan was saying, it really is intended to be a set of principles that the governments agreed to in making sure that adoptions moving forward would have minimum standards put in place and that they could engage in practices that were meant to stop corruption and not necessarily promote it in any way.

And so what you see now is governments engaging in cooperative agreements in order to make those principles realities in their governments and to make sure that the processes between the two countries respect the rights of both the children and the parents that seek to adopt them.

Questionable practices sidelined

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you do, Susan Cox, you hear people say that, in some ways, the language in the treaty, the message sent by the treaty has been so restrictive. I saw that someone today was quoted as saying, "It's gone overboard." They've, quote, unquote, "thrown the baby out with the bath water." They've gone so far that some countries that were willing to have their children sent to the United States are now pulling back.

SUSAN SOON-KEUM COX: Well, I disagree with that. In fact, there were countries who were saying, unless the United States ratifies the convention, they were no longer going to work with us, in terms of placing children. So I think that that is not necessarily an accurate statement.

One of the things that the convention has also done is to elevate the idea of inter-country adoption and has said that it is more important than long-term foster care and it's a fundamental right of children to have a family. And if there cannot be a family in a child's birth country, then a family abroad is an appropriate alternative for children.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, aside from Vietnam, Kathleen Strottman, there are a few other countries that have had problems, where there's been a slowdown in adoptions. Guatemala is one of them. Tell us about some of the issues in those countries.

KATHLEEN STROTTMAN: Sure. And Guatemala is another good example of a country that's trying to put in place procedures. Up until most recently, it was a system that was not regulated at all by the government in Guatemala.

And so, as a result, you had practices that were put in place by many of the attorneys that were involved in adoption there which were questionable. And so the government has now taken action and is moving towards implementing the Hague treaty so that they can ensure that the practices that are in place are sound ones, and that are going to allow adoptions, and to promote homes for the children that are in need of them, but do so in a way that is safe and ethical.

And so that's going to, unfortunately, I think, slow down the process. And I think the goal has to be to have protections, but do so in a way that recognizes that every day that a child spends out of their home in an institution is detrimental to their long-term development.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I saw Guatemala last year, something like 4,700 children from Guatemala to the United States, from Russia, 2,300 children. Another country with issues?

KATHLEEN STROTTMAN: Yes. And I think, when you look at some of the other countries that have been sending countries, as you said, for some time, so like Russia and China, the problems that you see there are that they are getting at a point now where many of the children that they deem to be the most wanted, if you will, are in short supply.

And so you see them trying to begin efforts to expand the visibility of the children that are still in need of homes, so, for instance, older children, children with special needs. And sometimes their systems are not equipped to begin matching those children with the families that might be there to adopt them. And so you'll see slowdown in some of those countries, as well.

Adoption remains important at home

JUDY WOODRUFF: Susan Cox, I know someone who -- as an adoptee yourself, who's been involved with an adoption agency for a number of years, how worried are you about this slowdown now and whether it will continue?

SUSAN SOON-KEUM COX: Well, I think it's important to understand that inter-country adoption is not the only option for children and that every child should -- every attempt should be made to keep children in their birth country.

When that isn't possible, however, inter-country adoption is a way for children to have a family. And it's important that every parent be able to look at their child when they're in their teens and say, "Yes, you came to us because there wasn't another family for you." And the protections that are in place have to be protected to make that possible.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kathleen Strottman, what is truly at stake here? How many American families are there now who would like -- that you know -- who would like to adoption internationally? And how many children are there out there who live in countries where they can legally be adopted abroad and who need a home?

KATHLEEN STROTTMAN: Sure. Obviously, there's no short supply of families that are willing to open their home to a child who's in need of one. I think some of the statistics that we know, that 7.3 million Americans suffer from infertility, and many of them choose to form their families through adoption, either domestic or internationally.

And I also know that, you know, UNICEF has estimated there's about 43 million orphaned children in the world. And there's still not clarity about what the statistics are and how many of those are in need of homes, because they may be parented by a single living parent.

But I think the short answer is that there are many, many children in need of homes. And they are ranging anywhere from young infants to children who are older and have been in institutions for some time.

And I think many of us who are working in the adoption community really want to make sure that every child who's in need of a home has an opportunity to find one, as Susan said, either in their own country or wherever one might be available.

Countries optimistic for adoption

JUDY WOODRUFF: Susan Cox, what would you add to that? And we know that even as some countries are finding it more difficult to send children abroad, there are others that are increasing adoptions, like Ethiopia?

SUSAN SOON-KEUM COX: Yes. Ethiopia is a country that has just begun inter-country adoption. But one of the things that I believe people find it hard to understand is, why is it so many children who need families, and there are so many parents who want to adopt them, and yet it's so difficult for all of those things to come together?

The policies that are put into place have to look to the future and to make sure that the countries are working hard to help single parents, to help children stay with their families, but the children who need families today, they also need attention, as well.

So I'm hoping that we can work together collaboratively to make that possible.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think the prospects are, as we sit here this evening, Susan? I'm sorry, Kathleen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Susan, go ahead.

SUSAN SOON-KEUM COX: Well, I am actually quite optimistic about Vietnam, because the people in Vietnam are willing to really consider what needs to be done from their side. We're working hard here.

And there are families who are encouraging everybody to do what needs to happen, because there are children right now who very much are weighing in the balance.

KATHLEEN STROTTMAN: And I would agree with Susan. I really think the future is very bright, particularly in Vietnam. I think the members of Congress, 170 or so of them, are prepared to send a letter to the secretary in support of moving forward.

And I think the secretary and her staff have shown a continued interest in moving in a positive direction. So I think it's very good.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Kathleen Strottman and Susan Cox, we thank you both for talking with us. We appreciate it.