Adopting against the odds
The experience of one Asian American family in Seattle shows the growing challenges to international adoption
A pane of glass stood between the Chungs from Seattle and the two boys they were adopting from Taiwan. It was the first time Connie, her husband Kyun, 9-year-old Emma, and 7-year-old Micah were meeting their new family members in person, having Skyped with them for about a year. From their side of the quarantine hotel lobby in Taiwan, the Christian family watched Ryan and Shawn, ages 5 and 6, open their gifts of stickers, 3D glasses, bouncy balls, and puzzles.
Unable to hug the boys, Connie, 39, admitted that the half-hour meeting in October was “super awkward.” They’d already completed their 15-day quarantine and could leave their room, but they had to self-monitor their health for another week. That prevented them from coming into full contact with the two brothers.
The Asian American family’s adoption of these boys took place as international adoptions are at an all-time low. Americans adopted 23,000 children from abroad in 2004, the peak year for international adoptions. The decline since then has been so steep that by 2020, the latest year for which the U.S. State Department provides statistics, adoptions were down to 1,622. It’s a staggering 93 percent drop. Though more pronounced in the United States, the decline is global.
That leaves “untold numbers of children … who remain institutionalized with no path to permanency in their country of origin,” said Ryan Hanlon, president of the National Council for Adoption. He points out many of these children have medical conditions or other disabilities.
Multiple factors are at play in the decline of international adoptions. Some countries, like Russia, have banned foreign adoptions. Ukraine was forced to halt adoptions as its orphans flee the Russian invasion that began in February. Ukraine was the top choice in 2020 when U.S. families adopted 211 Ukrainian children.
As for Russia’s ban on adoptions to the United States, the Kremlin’s tension with Washington contributed to the decision. Before 2013 Russia was a preferred country for American adoptions, but Russia imposed that restriction to retaliate against Washington’s sanctioning of Russian officials over alleged human rights violations. That move also came after a Tennessee woman sent her 7-year-old adopted son back to Russia in 2010. She put him on a plane by himself and claimed the Russian orphanage had lied to her about his psychological problems. That shook the adoption community and fueled Russia’s resentment toward adoptions by Americans.
Congo, Ethiopia, and Kenya have also restricted overseas adoptions as an attempt to curb abuse and trafficking. Corruption in Guatemala, where children were separated from their birth families and fraudulently adopted abroad, prompted authorities there to clamp down on the adoption system.
The pandemic—closing borders, suspending courts, and stalling visa approvals around the world—was not something the Chungs expected when they started the adoption process in October 2019. The outbreak was a major contributing factor to the 45 percent decrease in American adoptions from abroad between 2019 and 2020.
A judge in Taiwan approved the Chungs’ adoption last May, but they had to wait another five months for the island to open to prioritized groups that included travelers for the purpose of adoption. The Seattle family also missed some of the monthly hour-long Skype sessions with the boys as Taiwan’s social distancing measures prevented the social worker from coordinating the calls. Fearing any COVID-19 spike would again close the region, Connie booked their flights as soon as possible and stayed up late contacting approximately 100 quarantine hotels seeking reservations. (Taiwan is 15 hours ahead of Seattle.)
Inside a room with four beds side by side, the Chungs alleviated their 15-day cabin fever by ordering deliveries of Taiwanese fried chicken and bubble tea and letting the kids have more time playing video games. Taking Zoom calls for her product management job at a tech company, Connie had her laptop on the sink while she sat on the lid-down toilet.
That quarantine was especially emotional for the couple. Kyun, a 40-year-old, stay-at-home dad, felt the “tension between what we knew and the new life we would live.” Connie, her heart beating out of her chest one night, was anxious about their future as a family of six. She also worried about all the logistics lining up. Between flying out of Seattle and returning from Taiwan, the Chungs each had to take five COVID-19 tests. If one came back positive, “everything would get blown up,” she said.
Ryan and Shawn are among the 143 children adopted from abroad through Holt International, a Christian agency, in 2021. Consistent with the overall decline in intercountry adoptions, Holt has facilitated fewer and fewer cases.
Meanwhile, intercountry adoption agencies themselves have dwindled in number. The State Department established the Intercountry Adoption Accreditation and Maintenance Entity (IAAME) in 2018; it holds agencies to higher ethical and financial standards. But the higher bar also creates a bureaucratic burden beyond what some agencies can bear. Since the IAAME launched, 76 adoption service providers are no longer accredited, according to its January report. That leaves only 49 that can still place children from abroad.
Daniel Nehrbass, Nightlight Christian Adoptions president, acknowledges the tougher regulation isn’t the sole cause for those agencies not being licensed anymore, but the drop since the 2018 accreditation began is still drastic. And when an agency shuts down and a family has to switch to another one, that raises the financial and emotional toll of intercountry adoption.
There’s also a shift in attitude when it comes to helping children overseas. Bethany Christian Services, the nation’s largest Christian adoption agency, stopped offering international adoption last year: It is redirecting efforts to keep children in their birth countries. “The future of adoption,” said Bethany’s vice president of global services Kristi Gleason, “is working with local governments, churches, and social services professionals around the world to recruit and support local families for children.” The agency is also refocusing to develop and improve in-country child welfare systems.
At the same time, intercountry adoption advocates like Hanlon point out that improving children’s lives in their birth countries and helping them achieve better prospects abroad aren’t mutually exclusive. The president of the National Council for Adoption sees a “false belief” at the policy level that “opening and strengthening pathways to [intercountry] adoption means we are closing opportunities to strengthen family preservation and cultural identity.”
The Chungs chose to expand their family by adopting internationally to mitigate the emotional ordeal for their two biological kids. Because domestic foster care adoption prioritizes placing the children with close relatives, the couple didn’t want to foster a child for an extended period who might end up in another home. “If it were just me and Kyun, we’d be able to handle that,” said Connie, who had been thinking about adopting to help less fortunate children since college.
Bethany also considered finances for terminating intercountry adoptions. On average, it costs about $50,000 to adopt one child internationally, said Gleason. It makes better financial sense for the agency, she said, to allocate the same amount to help 50 children in its Africa programs leave an orphanage and find a local home.
Connie estimates the total cost of adopting both boys will fall between $50,000 and $60,000. That will include expenses for readoption. The Chungs have already finalized their adoption in Taiwan, but Connie is pursuing that additional process—which secures a U.S. birth certificate for adoptees—as a safeguard against any oversight that could cause legal or administrative trouble for the boys down the road. She and Kyun had saved up enough, though the tech employee also received a subsidy from her company to cover some of the fees. She got parental leave as well.
A few days after that awkward meeting behind the glass, the Chungs welcomed the boys into their arms. After another week, they welcomed them into their home in America—two years after they started the process.
UNLIKE THE CHUNGS, some families are stuck in the difficult limbo of their adopted child’s pending U.S. visa. Nightlight has seen families subjected to “arbitrary and unjustified” wait times for their child’s visa interview—often taking years and with no explanation. Nehrbass cites a family who adopted a child from Uganda several years ago but still hasn’t received the visa. Another single woman adopted a child from Nigeria only to have the consulate deny that child’s visa. That’s despite the child being “clearly an orphan in need of adoption,” said Nightlight’s president.
The agency hired an attorney to dispute visa denials and ended up winning. But that makes Nehrbass ask, “If we have been successful in every case, then why do we have to go through this at all?” It adds unnecessary years and thousands of dollars to the process. “The federal government doesn’t need legislation to bring intercountry adoption to a trickle. … All they need to do is bring the visa interviews to a trickle,” he observes.
Sometimes placements from abroad are disrupted: The child refuses to be adopted, the parent and child fail to bond, and the prospective parent falls short of meeting the child’s needs. These reasons explain the several disrupted cases the State Department recorded in 2020. Readopting a 4-year-old girl that another American couple had brought back from China but could no longer care for was something Kim and Ben Green did. The girl is now 17 and is among the 16 kids the Greens adopted internationally and domestically, according to Kim’s Facebook page. Some of them have special needs. The couple tried to adopt two other kids from Tanzania, but ran into complications with the country’s residency requirement.
Families adopting from abroad often face cultural differences and language barriers. That’s less of an issue for the Chungs. Connie, whose parents were born in Taiwan, is fluent in Mandarin. To help the boys connect culturally, the family brought them to Seattle’s Lunar New Year lion dance. Connie thought the traditional performance common in Taiwan would let them relive festive memories. The brothers, to her surprise, were seeing it for the first time in America.
More apparent than culture, race is a factor transracial families face. It is beneficial for children of these families to have people in their lives who look like them, said African American pediatrician Jeannine Hogg. They see that similarity, which helps them feel less like an outsider. Speaking on Christianity Today’s adoption podcast, the adoptive mom gave the example of a Caucasian couple who adopted a girl from Ethiopia. Once a month, they drive out to an Ethiopian restaurant in Chicago, where they find not only good food, but also the racial and cultural community that provides the girl with a connection to her heritage.
Connie and Kyun’s parents initially pushed back against their decision to adopt. “For a lot of Asian families, the notion of adoption is pretty weird,” Connie explained. They might take in a relative’s kids to help out family members, but not outsiders. The grandparents eventually changed their cultural mindset. Connie’s mom helped her track down quarantine hotels and pharmacies for COVID-19 tests. Kyun’s Korean American dad compensates for his lack of Mandarin with hand gestures as he plays with his new grandsons.
It’s hard to say for sure how Shawn and Ryan would turn out if they remained in Taiwan. But joining the Seattle family also reunited the brothers who had lived in separate foster homes for most of their lives. In addition, Shawn’s teeth are no longer black after his new parents took him to the dentist for three root canals, two fillings, and two crowns.
During my Zoom interview with Connie one Friday evening in April, I saw Micah playing the tabletop game Klask with Shawn, while Ryan sat by them drawing. The youngest came up to Connie to show her his drawing of Kyun. Though Shawn makes a lot of noise at night rolling in the bunk above hers, Emma told me, the four of them have fun playing with Pokemon cards. The biological kids, who had felt robbed of their parents and familiar way of life, have come a long way. They were “extremely unhappy” the first few months, Kyun recalls, and Micah had refused to share his toys.
The four kids now walk to school together, holding each other’s hands. But the parents brace themselves for calls from the principal: One of their adopted sons acts out in school, at times hitting others. Connie and Kyun suspect his behavior has to do with unpleasant school-related experiences from his past. That’s exacerbated by the boy not being used to sitting still for so long and not yet grasping English. The couple has been seeking help from a Christian adoption counselor.
Helping internationally adopted kids fit in is a community effort. The Chungs’ community includes extended family that lives nearby, fellow believers who pray for them, friends who make sure to include Shawn and Ryan for playdates, and schoolteachers partnering with them to help the boys adjust.
When times get tough, these parents remind themselves of why they’re doing this. “It’s about what God asked us to do, to take care of the widows and orphans, and be a good neighbor,” said Kyun. And when they’re running dry, this father of four knows it doesn’t matter, as long as the Father of the fatherless “keeps pouring His grace and love into us.”