THE BLOG
05/05/2010 05:12 am ET Updated 6 days ago

International Adoption Under Siege?

After a day at the 2010 Adoption Policy Conference.

I'm not an adoption expert, but I know more today than I did yesterday. Spend a day in a room full of legal experts, advocates and activists devoted to promoting and facilitating international adoption, and you're bound to learn something. But these days you're also bound to get a feeling that the whole enterprise is under siege.

What had looked like a tidal wave of adoptions into the U.S. just a few years ago:

Now looks like a roller coaster whose ride is coming to an end (sorry the colors don't match):

One of the most articulate versions of the siege story came in the talk by Elizabeth Bartholet from Harvard Law School, which mostly drew from this recent paper:

International adoption is under siege, with the number of children placed dropping in each of the last several years, and many countries imposing severe new restrictions. Key forces mounting the attack claim the child human rights mantle, arguing that such adoption denies heritage rights and often involves abusive practices. Many nations assert rights to hold on to the children born within their borders, and others support these demands citing subsidiarity principles. But children's most basic human rights are to grow up in the families that will often be found only through international adoption. These rights should trump any conflicting state sovereignty claims.

The forces of siege were not well represented at today's conference, which revolved around the crisis in Haiti. Many advocates have been frustrated with UNICEF in particular, which sounded the alarm about the potential for abuse and trafficking in the aftermath of the earthquake. To the critics' minds, this just follows UNICEF's historically negative attitude toward international adoption. UNICEF's statement on the practice in general lists international adoption as "one of a range of care options," not as good as being raised in their families of origin but better than staying in an orphanage. In practice, however, UNICEF seems to treat international adoption as a failure of the domestic system, rather than as a necessary response to the needs of parentless children.

On the other hand, one of the heroes in the room was Whitney Reitz, the representative from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services who was credited with engineering the "humanitarian parole" of more 900 Haitian children after the earthquake. These were children whose adoptions were already approved and matched to American parents before the earthquake, but whose final paperwork had not been completed. Reitz and her colleagues, with explicit support from above in the Obama administration, jury-rigged a system to approve their entry into the U.S., which required a signature from Haiti's prime minister in each case. That system is imperfect -- for example, they are not U.S. citizens yet, as orphan adoptees normally are upon arrival -- but considering the building with their files in it collapsed, that is to be expected.

On the other hand, I wasn't sure I was happy to hear Reitz say, "The idea was to help the kids. And if we overlooked Hague, I don't think I'm going to apologize." That's a reference to the Hague Adoption Convention, which the U.S. ratified, and the principles of which the U.S. "strongly supports." (To clarify this, since Haiti is not a signatory to the Convention, its rules don't apply to adoptions to the U.S.) Of course, everyone was against corruption and abuse anywhere in the adoption process, under the oft-repeated triple mandate: "ethical, legal, and transparent."

Anyway, I can't resolve the battle of competing rights -- the right to a family, your original family, a loving home, a secure permanent setting, etc. Everyone seems to agree explicitly that "there is no right to adopt, only the right of the child to be adopted," but the reality is that the demand generated by adoptive parents is one of the driving forces in this arena -- and that includes their money. (As Bartholet points out, of course, that also means international adoption is a way of helping children without government spending.)

Ironically, although many advocates for children are adoptive parents, I am starting to get the feeling that if policy is going to be true to that premise -- children's rights, not adoptive parents' rights -- then the adoptive parents shouldn't be in the room when the policy is written. In other words, the humanitarian impulse, at least ideally, could be the foundation of public policy -- but we can't expect it to be the motivation for adoptive parents any more than it is for birth parents.

Cross posted from the Family Inequality blog.