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A Brief Overview of International Adoption

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The practice of adopting children from abroad began in the 1940s, just after World War II, when large numbers of children had been orphaned, abandoned or separated from their parents as a result of the war in Europe. Americans were moved by the plight of innocent children affected by the war and, in an effort to provide humanitarian assistance, opened their homes to children in need.

It was the Korean War (1950-1953), however, that was the impetus for the largest wave of international adoptions to take place worldwide. Since the war, South Korea has facilitated the adoptions of approximately 200,000 Korean children (about 150,000 to the United States, and 50,000 to Europe, Canada and Australia). Though South Korea continues to send children overseas today, in 1976 the country enacted a Five Year Plan for Adoption and Foster Care to encourage domestic adoption. The number of international adoptions from South Korea has since decreased. In a 2008 interview with The New York Times, Kim Dong-won, who oversees adoptions at South Korea’s Ministry of Health, stated that South Korea is now an advanced nation and wants to shed itself of its image as a “baby-exporting country.” South Korea’s stated goal is to eliminate international adoption by 2012.

In the 1970s, the Vietnam War further precipitated increased international adoptions by American families. Operation Baby Lift in 1975 was a series of highly publicized “humanitarian” rescue operations that brought at least 2,000 Vietnamese and mixed-raced children (many fathered by American soldiers) to the United States for eventual adoption. Approximately 1,300 children were also flown to Canada, Europe and Australia. The hasty evacuation in the final days of the war led to a public debate over whether these actions had been in the best interest of the children and whether the children would have been better served by remaining in Vietnam. Some critics asserted that Operation Baby Lift represented another form of American cultural imperialism. The circumstances that led to the relinquishment of the Operation Baby Lift children were much discussed, and controversy arose over the question of whether these children were technically orphans who qualified for adoption. Lost and inaccurate records were the norm, and in several cases birth parents or other relatives later arrived in the United States and demanded custody of children who had previously been adopted by American families. Over time, the US has increased safeguards and developed regulations and policy to ensure children are “orphaned” prior to an adoption process being started.

One of the most recent significant developments in international adoption policy has been the recognition of foreign adoption decrees. As part of the efforts to ensure that adopted children have the same rights as those born in the U.S., the Child Citizenship Act was passed in 2000, which automatically conferred U.S. citizenship of foreign born children adopted by US citizens, upon the issuing of a U.S. Visa.

Tallies of international adoptions differ slightly according to various sources but one set of statistics from the U.S. government shows that the number of international adoptions has fallen from 22,990 in 2004 to 12,753 in 2009. This is likely due to changes in U.S. policy and country standards and requirements.

The Hague Convention

The most widespread changes to international adoption procedures were introduced by the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Inter-Country Adoption (or Hague Adoption Convention), an international agreement drafted to regulate and safeguard international adoptions. Completed in 1993 and implemented by the United States in 2008, the convention has done much to simplify and improve international proceedings, including creating a central authority for adoption in each participating country. In the United States, the Department of State plays that role.

Primarily, the convention seeks to: avoid human trafficking and protect children’s safety; promote transparency in the process by requiring agencies to disclose fees and expenses in writing; and provide adoptive parents with adoption certificates and other paperwork that eases children’s entry into their new homelands.


» POV: First Person Plural. "Overview of International Adoption."
» Conn, Peter. "The Politics of International Adoption." Origins 1, No. 4 (2008)
» The Adoption History Project. "International Adoptions."
» The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. "International Adoption Facts."
» U.S. Department of State. "Intercountry Adoption."
» U.S. Department of State. "What Is Intercountry Adoption?"
» Child Welfare Information Gateway. "Statistics: Intercountry."

Adoption from China

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China, like the United States, is party to the Hague Adoption Convention, so all its adoptions are regulated under the convention’s guidelines (for more information on The Hague Convention see the “International Adoption” background information). Overall adoption numbers from China peaked in 2005, with close to 8,000 Chinese adoptees brought to the United States. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of State’s annual report on intercountry adoptions, in 2009 mainland China issued 3001 adoption visas (the most of any country) to children entering the U.S. and South Korea issued the 4th largest number of adoption visas (1077) to children entering the U.S.

The existence of a large number of infant girls available for adoption in China is often attributed to the country’s one-child policy. However, there are other social, economic and political reasons for infant abandonment, as documented by Kay Ann Johnson in her book Wanting a Daughter, Needing a Son.

China’s controversial one-child measure, introduced in 1979, ceased to be voluntary on September 25, 1980. The measure, conceived to combat hunger and poverty in the world’s most populous nation, set a limit of one child per family; families found to have two or more children were subject to costly fines (although exceptions were frequently made for rural families, which were often allowed two children if their eldest children were female). Due to long-standing Confucian ideals and a lack of a government social security system, boys were expected to take care of aging parents, whereas girls were expected to care for their husband’s aging parents. As a result, many families abandoned baby girls. Although abandoning a child is against the law in China, that law is difficult to enforce, and birth parents who have abandoned children are not easy to find. As a result, gathering information about child abandonment has been difficult. However, as fieldwork for her book, Johnson interviewed 287 abandoning families, the vast majority of which (88 percent) were from rural villages. Johnson found that the most common determining factors for abandonment were gender and birth order. Not surprisingly, almost 90 percent of the abandoned children were girls and approximately 87 percent of those abandoned were second, third or fourth daughters. Birth parents who already had one daughter were abandoning additional daughters in order to have a chance to conceive a son.

After China introduced the one-child policy, girls began to fill Chinese orphanages. In 1992, the government implemented a law that allowed foreigners to adopt these orphans. Adoptions steadily increased, and in 2005 approximately 14,500 Chinese adoptees went abroad. China is now said to have placed more than 70,000 children with families in the United States, as well as in France, the Netherlands, England, Canada and other countries.

As a result of China’s one-child policy, the country’s workforce-age population has shrunk in proportion to its elderly population. In an effort to rebalance the population, one-child restrictions have been loosened in some urban areas, such as Shanghai. The government is now actively encouraging people who were, themselves, single children born during the one-child policy era, to have two children. The number of orphans is expected to decrease.


» U.S. Department of State. "Intercountry Adoption."
» "China."
» China Center of Adoption Affairs. "Adoption Law of the People's Republic of China."
» Great Wall China Adoption. "Married Couples Adoption Eligibility Requirements."
» Consulate General of the United States, Guangzhou, China. "Adopted Children Immigrant Visa Unit."
» The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. "Adoption:China."
» Belluck, Pam and Jim Yardley. "China Tightens Adoption Rules for Foreigners." The New York Times, 20 December 2006.
» Barboza, David. "1 Plus 1: Shanghai Tweaks One-Child Rules." The New York Times, 24 July 2009.

Transracial Adoption

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Transracial adoption — most often white families adopting children of color — has a charged history in the United States.

The practice flourished in the aftermath of major conflicts such as World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, when widespread death and destruction left thousands of children without parents or adequate resources. It was in the 1940s when American families first became aware of the plights of such children and began adopting from abroad. Specific programs developed that sought to facilitate international adoption. One such program, Operation Babylift, brought more than 2,000 children from Vietnam to the United States. Such adoptions marked a shift in U.S. practices, which historically had aimed to place children with parents of similar races.

Gradually, children of color began to be placed in white homes, with mixed results: While some families suffered harassment and even violence, others had few issues. Between 1968 and 1972, approximately 50,000 black and biracial children were adopted by white parents. At the time, the adoption of black children by white families was motivated largely by the increasing number of black children in foster care and the seeming lack of black adoptive families. In the early 1970s, the number of transracial adoptions rose as white infants became less available and the number of prospective adoptive parents continued to grow.

The adoption of black children by white families has long generated controversy in the United States, sparking criticism from both blacks and whites, as well as from some adoption professionals. In 1972, the practice of transracial adoption was publicly challenged. At the national conference of the North American Council on Adoptable Children, the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) issued a formal statement opposing transracial adoption, citing concerns that such placements compromised children’s racial and cultural identities and amounted to a form of cultural genocide. The NABSW worried that black children raised in white homes would fail to develop effective coping strategies to deal with racism and discrimination and would experience identity conflicts as they grew older. The NABSW also challenged traditional adoption practices, raising questions about institutionalized racism within the adoption profession. The organization pointed to existing evaluation criteria for prospective adoptive couples that routinely prevented black families from qualifying and claimed that agencies were failing to recruit prospective black adoptive families and were, in fact, even passing them over in favor of white couples. By 1994, however, the NABSW released a new statement supporting transracial adoption in the case of a documented failure to find a home with black parents.

In the same year, Senator Howard Metzenbaum authored The Multi-Ethnic Placement Act of 1994 (MEPA), which mandated that adoption agencies receiving federal funds could not deny or delay adoptions based solely on racial difference. This was written partly in response to the growing number of children in foster care. Because the language of that first act was open to interpretation, in 1996 Congress enacted the Inter-Ethnic Adoption Provisions (IEP), which specifically prohibited federally funded agencies from denying or delaying adoptions solely on the basis of race or national origin. These laws are designed both to decrease the length of time a child has to wait before being adopted and to eliminate racial discrimination. These laws have been controversial, however, and the debate surrounding transracial adoption has not diminished. Many people feel that transracial adoptees are emotionally scarred by their experience; others strongly disagree and suggest that the long-term outcome for transracial adoptees is very positive. Some suggest that the number of children in a particular racial group in need of foster care or adoption will always exceed the number of available families in that racial group. Others believe that current adoption practices are rife with racial discrimination and other barriers, and that greater efforts should be made to remove them. Still others advocate for more systemic support of economically and socially disadvantaged families in order to keep these families together and decrease the need for foster and adoptive placements. And finally, there are those who think that, for children of color, adoption into a white family is preferable to the impermanence and instability of foster care.

A report issued in 2008 by the nonprofit Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and endorsed by the Child Welfare League of America, the Adoption Exchange Association, the NABSW, Voice for Adoption and the Foster Care Alumni of America (among others) stated, however, that the act downplays race and culture too much.

The report stated that although transracial adoption itself does not produce psychological or other social problems in children, multicultural adoptive families do face some special challenges. Some public agencies have become hesitant to discuss race at all with adopting couples, however, for fear of being sued for discrimination. As a result, many new families go without the counseling and preparation they need to help them navigate the realities of living in a race-conscious society.

In its position statement on transracial adoptions, the North American Council on Adoptable Children, a group representing more than 400 American and Canadian child advocacy organizations, contends that adoptive parents of the same race as the child are best equipped to provide him or her with the skills and strength to combat racism. The council also states, though, that if an appropriate family of the same race cannot be found, transracial adoption is a better alternative for a child than long-term foster care.

One provision of MEPA calls for the diligent recruitment of adoptive parents of color. However, the 2008 report found that the provision has not been well implemented and is not being enforced adequately. The report called for better enforcement of the provision through greater resources and funding for recruitment.

Many studies show that about three quarters of transracially adopted children adjust well to their new homes, but experts agree that there are steps multicultural families can and should take to promote children’s well-being, self-esteem and sense of cultural identity, including celebrating cultures of all kinds, forming friendships with other interracial families, talking about cultural issues and adopting a no-tolerance policy on bias.


» Annual Report, U.S. Department of State. "FY 2009 Annual Report on Intercountry Adoptions: November 2009."
» Bashir, Samiya A. "The best interest of the child: Samiya A. Bashir examines changing dynamics of transracial adoption." Color Lines Magazine, 22 Dec 2002.
» Bratcher Goodwin, Michele. "Baby Markets: Money and the New Politics of Creating Families." Cambridge University Press, 22 Dec 2002.
» Nixon, Ron. "De-emphasis on Race in Adoption Is Criticized." The New York Times, 27 May 2008.
» Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. "Finding Families for African American Children: The Role of Race and Law in Adoption From Foster Care."
» PBS. "Precious Cargo."
» POV. First Person Plural, "Transracial Adoption."
» Child Welfare Information Gateway. "Transracial and Transcultural Adoption."
» The Adoption History Project. "Transracial Adoptions."
» Davenport, Dawn. "Born in America, Adopted Abroad." The Christian Science Monitor, 27 October 2004.
» North American Council on Adoptable Children. "Race and Ethnicity in Child Welfare."

Development of Racial Identity

Racial identity might be defined as one’s self-perception and sense of belonging to a particular group including not only how one describes oneself, but also how one distinguishes one’s self from other ethnic groups. Racial identity in children develops in two stages: First, a child distinguishes race at a conceptual level, and second, he or she begins to assess his or her own membership in a racial group. This second stage usually occurs between the ages of 3 and 7. Children’s attitudes toward their own races are greatly influenced by their interactions with and observations of the attitudes of those around them. As adolescents, all children begin to establish separate identities from those of their parents. When children are of a different race than their parents, they may magnify the physical differences between them, and feel especially isolated as a result.

Beverly Daniel Tatum, psychology professor and president of Spelman College in Atlanta, found that one reason young people of color tend build their identities around their racial backgrounds is that they see themselves as differing from the dominant images in American society. And the white majority, which tends to see itself as colorless, encourages this further with questions and observations about those perceived differences. White adolescents, in contrast, are more likely to see themselves as “normal” in terms of ethnic background.

There are conflicting thoughts about how explicit race conversations should be between parents and young children. On the one hand, in families where the issue of race is not addressed, children get the message that it is inappropriate to express their feelings and that the topic is taboo and perhaps even shameful or embarrassing. On the other hand, in homes where parents dwell on the issue extensively, children may attach too much significance to it, causing self-consciousness and anxiety.

Adjustment Outcomes of Transracial Adoption

Considerable research has been conducted around the outcomes of transracial adoptions. A 12-year longitudinal study of 204 families and 366 children whose families included transracially adopted children, adopted white children and white birth children found that the transracial adoptees were as integrated into their families as the biological children. No significant difference in self-esteem was evident. After 12 years, with approximately half of the families still in the study, 18 adoptees had serious problems. However, in only one case was race a significant factor. All of the other problems could be traced to the children having been adopted at an older age (4 or older), learning disabilities, developmental delays or abuse before the adoption. Another review study found that the majority of transracially adopted children (75 to 80 percent) functioned well and demonstrated no more behavioral or educational problems at home or school than non-adopted children.

A Canadian study tracking families from Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec who had adopted internationally found that the self-esteem of inter-country adoptees when they reached adolescence was higher than that of the general population but lower than that of their siblings. A large majority of the adoptees reported being comfortable with their ethnic backgrounds, although 10 percent identified themselves as white, despite coming from Korea, Bangladesh and Haiti.

In 2009, the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute published an extensive examination of adult adoptive identity based on input from 468 adults who were adopted as children. Specifically, the study compared the experiences of white adoptees to those of adoptees from South Korea. The resulting 112-page report is entitled “Beyond Culture Camp: Promoting Healthy Identity Formation in Adoption.” Central findings in that report include the following:

While the majority of Korean-born survey respondents reported experiencing race-based discrimination from strangers and classmates (and 39 percent from teachers), white respondents were more likely to feel discriminated against simply for being adopted, particularly within their extended families.

A significant majority of transracially adopted adults reported considering themselves to be, or wanting to be, white as children. By adulthood, however, the majority had reconciled their racial identities, whether through increased interaction with a “like” community, reconsidering their roots after experiences with discrimination or simply maturing.


» PBS. "Interview with Beverly Daniel Tatum."
» Spelman College. "Biographical Sketch: Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D."
» Aboud, F. "The Development of Ethnic Self-Identification and Attitudes." In Children's Ethnic Socialization: Pluralism and Development. Jean S. Phinney and M.J. Rotheram, 32-55. Thousand Oaks, Cal.: Sage Publications, 1987.
» Hollingsworth, L.D. "Effect of Transracial/Transethnic Adoption on Children's Racial and Ethnic Identity and Self-esteem: A Meta-analytic Review." Marriage and Family Review 25 (1997): 99-130.
» McRoy, R.G. and E.M. Freeman. "Racial Identity Issues Among Mixed Race Children." Social Work in Education 8 (1986): 164-174.
» Tizard, Barbara. "Intercountry Adoption: A Review of the Evidence." The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 32 (1991): 743-756.
» Westhues, Anne and Joyce S. Cohen. "A Comparison of the Adjustment of Adolescent and Young Adult Intercountry Adoptees and Their Siblings." International Journal of Behavioral Development 20 (1997):47-65.
» Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. "Beyond Culture Camp: Promoting Healthy Identity Formation in Adoption."

Adopting Special Needs Children from China

In the past few years, China has created a new, more comprehensive system for placing children with special needs, also known as “waiting children.” These include children who are older or who have developmental or medical issues ranging from the minor (cleft palates, orthopedic issues) to the more serious (congenital heart disease, deafness or blindness). Parents who choose to work through the Waiting Child Program may not wait as long and are not subject to the stringent restrictions placed on families looking to adopt healthy children.

According to the Chinese government, the number of children born with birth defects increased nearly 50 percent between 2001 and 2006. These children, who are often abandoned, now make up a majority of China’s orphan population. Currently, roughly 60 percent of children adopted from China are classified as having special needs.

The Joint Council on International Children’s Services, a U.S. organization of adoption agencies, found that 27 percent of all the international adoptions organized by its members last year involved special-needs cases and 29 percent involved children 3 or older.

The biggest challenge, President Tom DeFilipo told the Associated Press, is not finding families willing to take on special-needs children, but helping those families by ensuring they have adequate resources to attend to their children’s physical and psychological needs. Families who adopt special-needs children may be eligible for additional support from both private and public sources and may pay reduced adoption fees.

Such funding is also available for adoptions of children with special needs within the United States. However, in the United States the definition of the term differs from state to state. Children with special needs may include not only older children and those with medical or developmental conditions, but also sets of siblings and children of color.


» International Adoption Help. "Adoption of a Special Needs Child."
» Holt International. "Financial Assistance."
» Crary, David. "Adopting China's Special-needs Kids." Associated Press, 28 March 2010.
» Masterson, Judy. "'We Will Get Her Better.'" Lake County News-Sun, 22 April 2010.
» Family Adoption Consultants. "Adoption of Chinese Children With Special Needs."

Child Welfare and Foster Care in China

In 2005, China's Ministry of Civil Affairs released the results of a national survey that found there were 573,000 orphans in the country under 18 years of age.

UNICEF, however, has arrived at a different figure: 21 million. This number obviously differs greatly from China's official statement, but seems feasible given the republic's one-child policy and its massive population, last estimated at 1.32 billion. The number of orphans would be about 1.6 percent of the population.

The discrepancy may also result from differing definitions of "orphan." When the Chinese government opened its borders for international adoption in 1992, it also issued a definition of an orphan as a child under 14 who had lost both of his parents due to death. In 2006, China broadened the category to include children who had lost their parents due either to death or abandonment and were not supported by anyone else. This classification distinguished two types of orphans: "actual orphans," whose parents have died or have been missing for more than four years, and "form orphans," who have one or two living parents, but the parents' social and cultural milieu prevents them from caring for their children.

Exactly who qualifies as an orphan is still a matter of some confusion, but those who do meet the definition are provided some support from the Chinese government. The 2005 survey found that 53,000 children were receiving an urban living allowance; 125,000 were receiving a "rural five protection allowance" (a stipend, given to the elderly, impoverished and those without children, that covers five basic needs: fuel, shelter, clothing, food and funeral); and 116,000 were given a rural poverty allowance. An estimated 200,000 orphans did not receive anything.

In recent decades, China has made strides in caring for its abandoned and orphaned children. In the early 1990s, when China first made international adoption possible, it also began to place children in foster care as an alternative to housing them in state-run, institutional settings. It is estimated that half of all orphanages in China currently offer some kind of foster care program, whether that means placing children with families outside of the orphanage, as is done in the United States and elsewhere, or creating family-like groupings within the orphanage itself. Foster situations, some of which allow children to develop close bonds with adults, are believed to promote greater health and well-being in children, though foster care is sometimes criticized for being inconsistent in quality or, in the case of placement with foster families, for not providing the level of education available in orphanages.

Some Chinese orphans are also beginning to find new homes inside China. Historically, informal domestic adoption has been quite common in China. During periods of war, parents who could not care for all of their children often would give up one child to a brother, cousin or other family member. However, little research has been done to provide exact statistics behind the numbers of "informal" adoptions that have taken place in China. In recent years, domestic adoption has become more accepted in Chinese society. Ministry of Civil Affairs statistics indicate that in 2000 there were a total of 10,700 registered domestic adoptions, as compared to 6,700 international adoptions that year.

Adoption professionals credit several factors for the upswing, saying that some children are going to couples who married later and have been unable to conceive, some to wealthier families willing to pay the fines for having more than one child, some to single parents and some to couples who have lost children. After the Sichuan earthquake, Chinese families expressed an enormous amount of interest in adopting children orphaned by the disaster.

September 25, 2010 marks the 30th anniversary of the government's one-child policy. As more Chinese families are experiencing the growing pains of the country's economic prosperity, many couples are choosing to have only one child. As a result, the number of children filling China's orphanages has decreased dramatically. At the same time, China's welfare institutions have improved dramatically due to the amount of funding they have received over the past 15 years from international adoption fees. Also, at the behest of international adopting families, the central government has improved care and conditions in orphanages and invested more money in the development of foster care programs. In 1993, the Ministry of Civil Affairs considered foster care a last resort, preferring to expand and improve institutional care facilities. Today, however, the Ministry of Civil Affairs aims to place half of the children under the ministry's care in some form of foster care.


» Johnson, Kay Ann. Wanting A Daughter, Needing A Son: Abandonment, Adoption and Orphanage Care in China. St. Paul, Minn.: Yeong & Yeong Book Company, 2004.
» Meng, Liu, and Zhu Kai. "Orphan Care in China." Social Work and Society 7, no. 2 (2009)
» Naville, Jane Lanhee Lee. "All in the Family." The Wall Street Journal, 13 March 2009.
» China Real Time Report. "After Quake, Many Inquiries From Chinese about Adoptions."

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