International adoption: Kidnappers or Saviours

Source: Economist

Amid catastrophe in Haiti, a new controversy about adoptions
Feb 4th 2010 | From The Economist print edition

Out of Haiti, but not to the highest bidder
IT MUST have seemed like a good idea at the time. The New Life Children’s Refuge, a Christian group from Idaho, saw no need to bother with paperwork or official permission when they decided to take 33 Haitian children to the Dominican Republic where they apparently hoped to build an orphanage.

Furious officials arrested ten of the group’s members on charges of kidnapping (which they deny). Many of the children turned out to have families. A similar row erupted in 2007 when workers from Zoé’s Ark, a French charity, were accused of kidnapping 103 children in Chad. Ostensibly orphans from the Darfur region of Sudan, destined for adoption in France, many turned out to be local children, and not orphans. Six charity workers were jailed.

The sentiment behind inter-country adoption may sound noble and often is. Why should governments stand between loving people in one country and needy children in another? Support for inter-country adoption is particularly strong in America, where parents adopt more foreign children than all the rest of the world. Some would-be adopters may at times be overhasty but Michele Bond, the senior State Department official dealing with the issue, insists that those concerned act from the best possible motives.

But inter-country adoptions happen in a fuzzy and sometimes murky world. One worry is that demand creates supply. Outsiders’ money can distort the decisions of officials and parents in poor countries. That may hamper chances of the most desirable outcome, in which children are fostered by relatives or adopted locally. Very few children described as orphans have no living relatives. If they move to another country, their chances of staying in touch with family members shrivel. Even the most ardent free-marketeers do not support free trade in children, with blonde female babies attracting a hefty premium.

Another worry is that adopted children may disappear from view when they cross international borders. International law stipulates that reports on the adopted child should be sent regularly to the source country. In some countries that is observed punctiliously. In others it is in effect voluntary. American law, in particular, does not require parents to send such reports. Once in America, an adopted child is treated like any other, with the state getting involved only in cases of evident abuse. Officials in countries such as Ethiopia or Ukraine may lack the means or motivation to chase up dilatory American parents.

Many critics of inter-country adoption cite experiences in Romania. Following reports of scandalous conditions in orphanages there after the collapse of communism, outsiders flocked to adopt children. But of the 30,000 children adopted by foreigners between 1990 and 2000, around 20,000 are now untraceable, according to Rupert Wolfe Murray, who worked as a lobbyist on the issue.

Roelie Post, who as a European Commission official dealt with adoption in the run-up to Romania’s entry to the European Union, has written a book on her experience of dealing with what she sees as a powerful adoption lobby that preys on weak and poor countries. Mr Wolfe Murray says that after wars and natural disasters adoption agencies descend like “vultures” to find suitable children. The countries that provide the most children for international adoption include China, Vietnam, Kazakhstan and, until recently, Guatemala, which are also among those with the weakest legal systems, he notes.

Most adoption agencies are non-profit outfits that see their work as entirely charitable. They may charge only expenses and a reasonable fee, according to The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. An international treaty with a supporting bureaucracy, it has had growing clout since America joined it in 2008. But the sums involved leave ample room for doubt. A Love Beyond Borders, an agency helping would-be parents adopt children from Haiti and elsewhere, says the process may cost more than $30,000.

The Hague rules also govern the agencies’ accreditation. That should, for example, stop the practice (often criticised as exploitative) of putting photographs of “children awaiting adoption” on their websites. But American agencies may dodge that by saying that they are seeking accreditation, or cite some other endorsement, for example by the consulate of the country they are dealing with.

As legal regimes on adoption tighten, activity tends to shift. When Romania banned inter-country adoption, agencies moved to lightly regulated Moldova and then Ukraine. Hans van Loon, the secretary general of The Hague regulatory body, highlights Guatemala, once the source of 5,000 annual adoptions, mainly to America. That seemed a lot for a country of 13m people. (Only about 10,000 foreign adoptions a year take place in China.) Now the number has dropped to zero after a temporary suspension. When it resumes, he expects only a few hundred children, mainly with disabilities, to be adopted.

Inter-country adoption may often be wonderful for the children and families concerned. But it does not solve the problems of poverty and abuse that make it so seemingly desirable.