THE BLOG

Eye-opening Insights Into International Adoption, Orphans, Special Needs and "Re-homing"

10/30/2013 05:41 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Co-written with Ellen Pinderhughes, Ph.D.

A chilling story has been getting considerable attention in the news during recent weeks: Adoptive parents around the U.S., feeling unable to cope with the severity of their children's problems, are using the Internet to informally move them into new families -- without any professional guidance, support, monitoring, supervision or regulation. The process is called "re-homing," and it clearly needs to be addressed (i.e., stopped) with targeted laws, policies and practices.

At the same time, this phenomenon needs to be viewed as more than a window into the struggles of a relatively small number of people. Rather, it should be understood as a cautionary tale about what can happen when parents are not prepared for the needs of the children they adopt, and don't receive the necessary training, support or services to meet those needs (see "Keeping the Promise"). It also should be seen as the tip of an iceberg of unmonitored, unregulated adoption-related activities taking place on the Internet (see "Untangling the Web").

Finally and pointedly -- in the context of a new study by the Donaldson Adoption Institute titled "A Changing World" -- the "re-homing" story should be understood as an insight into the emerging realities of intercountry adoption, because nearly all of the children in the news being "re-homed" were adopted from abroad.

The Adoption Institute study shows that a growing number of the girls and boys being adopted from other nations today are not the infants of adoption's recent past but, instead, are older and sometimes have serious special needs. As a result of this new reality, the study recommends (among many other things) that best practices be created, reshaped and implemented to enable all their families to succeed and, for those with severe problems, to prevent the kind of distress that leads desperate parents to seek radical solutions like "re-homing."

"A Changing World" represents the most extensive independent research into intercountry adoption to date, including into the regulatory framework/treaty called the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption (HCIA). The research was conducted over the past two years by scholars at Tufts University and the Institute; among its components are surveys of about 1,500 adoptive parents, adoption professionals in the U.S. and other "receiving" countries and countries of origin, as well as interviews with senior policymakers in 19 nations.

Key findings in the study, based on the responses from parents and professionals, as well as an extensive literature review and additional research, include:

• More children are remaining in orphanages for longer periods of time, thereby incurring the increased developmental and psychic harm that comes from being institutionalized, while also diminishing their prospects for ever moving into a permanent family.

• Though many prospective parents chose intercountry adoption to avoid contact with children's families of origin, a fast-growing number change their minds and seek connections -- which is leading to a growing increase in international open adoptions.

• Many countries of origin, including the largest ones such as China, are increasingly allowing the intercountry adoption primarily or exclusively of children who have special needs, are older, and/or are in sibling groups (to be adopted together).

• While the overwhelming focus for children in U.S. foster care is finding permanency domestically, American officials are also endorsing adoptions for some of them into families abroad. Ninety-nine children were adopted out of the U.S. last year..

• There is greater transparency and consistency in the international adoption process, as well as an increased focus on the best interests of and protections for children who need families, though there is great variability from country to country.

• The ongoing changes in the world of intercountry adoption have contributed to a steep drop in numbers (from a peak of almost 23,000 adoptions into the U.S. from abroad in 2004 to fewer than 9,000 last year and to rising costs that can exceed $50,000.

Based on its analysis of the research findings, the Institute's recommendations include:

1. To the greatest extent possible, countries of origin should provide more-complete and accurate diagnoses/records on medical and mental health issues; these are often lacking, so it is more difficult for adopting families to prepare for and meet their children's needs.

2. Receiving countries should offer more training and resources to help countries of origin improve their child welfare and adoption systems, thereby helping more children while showing that their primary interest is not just increasing intercountry adoptions.

3. Receiving countries should provide preparation, services and supports for adoptive families; the research found they too often do not know where to turn, and the help they need sometimes is not available. Preparation on special needs and openness is critical.

4. To the extent possible given economic and social realities, countries of origin should develop and provide better adoption education and supports for domestic families. The goal should be that more children can be placed in families in their own communities.

5. Adoption practitioners should provide more and better information for prospective and adoptive parents about the prospects/realities of making and maintaining contact with families of origin, and about positive ways to navigate possible relationships.

Intercountry adoption has changed comprehensively in the last few decades -- and is still in the midst of its transformation from a robust but largely unmonitored process through which tens of thousands of infants and toddlers moved into new homes annually, into a smaller but better-regulated system serving primarily children who are older and/or have special needs. At the same time, uncountable hundreds of thousands (and probably far more) of boys and girls of all ages remain institutionalized in countries around the globe, many if not most with minimal prospects of ever living in a family or reaching their potential.

The accumulation of greater knowledge about adoption is critical to shaping, improving and implementing the laws, policies and practices that are ostensibly designed, first and foremost, to serve these children's interests and to enhance their prospects for better lives.

Ellen Pinderhughes, a Senior Fellow at the Adoption Institute, is Associate Professor at the Eliot Pearson Department of Child Development, Tufts University