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Courage in the Adoption Waiting Game

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"It was probably the closest thing we'll ever have to giving birth."

After months of paperwork, interviews, emails and endless anticipation, the magical moment for Lori LeRoy and her husband Nick had finally arrived. Lori and Nick received arguably the most important piece of mail of their lifetimes. It was an adoption referral on their soon-to-be son, Nate, a Vietnamese boy who was given up by his sick and impoverished mother when he was two days old. They received a photo of Nate and an instant love flowered.

For any parent, the first moment you see your child is indescribable. I will never forget the feeling I had when I saw my three adopted children from Haiti for the first time. I was no longer a man who had no interest in being a father. My place in the world was with these kids, and my role was to love and protect them regardless of what happened.

Today, courage and strength have replaced love and desire as the most important characteristics for people who take on the international adoption process. Unfortunately for many prospective parents, including the LeRoys, the expected 18- to 24-month adoption process has turned into a maddening and unnecessary four or five year ordeal. Every day they wait, their son or daughter loses another critical day of physical and social development.

Despite the best intentions of those committed to international adoption, the debilitating process has taken adoption off the table as an option for orphans worldwide. In situations where children already start a step behind, don't they deserve as many options as possible? We've reached a critical point in time where a national conversation must start about doing better for these kids.

In 2011, more than 9,300 children were adopted from overseas by Americans. That's a steep drop from 2004, when close to 23,000 children were adopted by Americans. That astounding decline over seven years is the result of several factors outside the control of families trying to provide children with a safe, loving home.

A closer look at the nearly four-year process that the LeRoys endured to bring Nate home is instructive. In 2008, the U.S. raised red flags about alleged fraud in Vietnam's adoption process. Alarmed, and frankly offended, by these largely unsubstantiated claims, Vietnam decided to shut down adoptions to the U.S., stalling cases that were already in motion and extending the adoption process for the LeRoys and others. While the politics played out, Nate waited an extra two years in an institution before arriving at his new home in the U.S.

What is more concerning is that we've seen similar situations play out with other countries, including Cambodia and Ethiopia. The U.S. government preaches compliance with the Hague Convention, the international treaty that establishes practice standards for international adoptions, as the magic bullet solution. No one doubts that safeguards and protections in the process are important; however, years pass as countries implement reform measures, leaving children to languish in institutions for that much longer.

We have to wonder if our policies align with acting in the best interests of these children. As a world leader, the U.S. has a vital role to play in ensuring that international standards are being met, but in doing so, we must maintain an open dialogue and take a proactive approach to working with countries to develop the appropriate programs and policies that foster safe, ethical and efficient adoptions. Ultimately, we have to strike a balance of maintaining safeguards, but also ensuring that we're moving forward expeditiously.

We have recently seen the benefits of the U.S. working in partnership with another country to build child welfare capacities. Guatemala, previously known as one of the worst actors in international adoption due to corruption and fraud, has made great strides during the last two years to develop a system that serves its citizens and provides options for children in need. Guatemalan officials have committed to moving forward 300 adoption cases that have been stalled for years. A culture of adoption is also being cultivated at the grassroots level. There is a long way for Guatemala to go, but we're seeing what can happen when two countries make a commitment to doing what's necessary -- and right -- for orphans.

There will always be many highs and lows in the international adoption process. But the staggering decline in international adoptions from the U.S. indicates that something is not working here. We must realize the promise in international adoption, just like the LeRoys and thousands of families across the country have done. The question becomes: why aren't we doing more to make international adoption a less problematic option for children in need of a home and families with room in their hearts?