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Stopping families before they start

Bureaucratic barriers drive down the number of intercountry adoptions

Stopping families before they start

Hopscotch Adoptions in High Point, N.C., completed only 12 intercountry adoptions in 2020, down from an average of 45 in recent years and 75 in 2015. Hopscotch executive director Robin Sizemore said last year’s decline was only partly related to COVID-19 travel restrictions and economic constraints on adoptive families.

The number of intercountry adoptions by U.S. couples was already plummeting before COVID-19 hit. Agency directors and adoption advocates say the pandemic exacerbated bureaucratic hurdles that have made the process so burdensome that families and agencies are opting out.

“The days we are able to assist in a child joining a family that absolutely otherwise would not have a family are the days we hold onto,” Sizemore said. “There are far fewer of those opportunities, so it does make us question. … It’s defeating.”

There were 1,622 intercountry adoptions to the U.S. between October 2019 and September 2020, according to a newly released annual report from the State Department. At their peak in 2004, international adoptions by U.S. couples reached 23,000. By 2018, that number had dropped by 80 percent to about 4,000 and further in 2019 to 2,971.

The State Department report said of last year’s new low, “the majority of the decline can be attributed to the pandemic.” Indeed, adoption agencies and advocates said COVID-19 restrictions left many families and children in limbo as they faced travel bans, visa restrictions, and lockdowns.

China suspended its foreign adoption program in March 2020 and has yet to reopen it, putting at least 400 American families’ adoptions of Chinese children on hold, according to the State Department. Daniel Nehrbass of Nightlight Christian Adoptions said China’s suspension was the single most contributing factor to the agency’s 50 percent drop in intercountry adoptions last year.

Still, international adoption advocates argue the State Department has failed to acknowledge its role in dwindling intercountry adoptions. “This is not at all a response to the openness that exists in America and other countries to adopt children,” said Ryan Hanlon, vice president of the National Council for Adoptions. “This is a bureaucracy problem.”

A growing number of adoption service providers have relinquished, canceled, or lost their licenses since the State Department established its accrediting arm, the Intercountry Adoption Accreditation and Maintenance Entity (IAAME), in 2018. The State Department argued more oversight was necessary to protect children and families. But critics argue the accrediting entity has imposed overbearing regulations––including fees, paperwork, stipulations, and longer wait times––while failing to advocate for intercountry adoption.

“The experience for families and agencies has become so difficult, it is driving them out,” Nehrbass said. “We want the bar to be set high but not unreasonable.”

The number of licensed intercountry adoption service providers has dropped to 70, down from 125 in 2020 and 278 in 2008, according to the State Department.

Meanwhile, some faith-based agencies are shifting their attention away from intercountry adoption for other reasons. Bethany Christian Services, the nation’s largest evangelical adoption agency, announced in 2020 it would allow its accreditation to expire in March and focus on helping establish foster and child welfare programs that emphasize reunification and domestic adoptions.

So far, Bethany has not seen an increase in its foster care or domestic adoptions, according to company spokesman Nate Bult.

The number of U.S. parents completing foster care adoptions has steadily increased—from roughly 63,000 in 2018 to 66,000 in 2019—while domestic adoptions have dropped amid record-low birth rates.

More than 1 million children worldwide lost a parent to COVID-19, according to one new study, and 1.5 million lost a parent, grandparent, or caregiver. An estimated 153 million children are orphaned globally, according to the United Nations.

Nehrbass said the orphan crisis in the United States and abroad requires numerous solutions, including intercountry adoption: “There will always be plenty of room for intercountry adoption without ever solving the problem.”

Mary Jackson

Mary is a book reviewer and senior writer for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Greenville University graduate who previously worked for the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal. Mary resides with her family in the San Francisco Bay area.


Thank you for your careful research and interesting presentations. —Clarke

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