International adoption, also known as transnational adoption or intercountry adoption, is the process of a prospective adoptive parent seeking and obtaining a child for legal adoption from a country other than that of the parent’s citizenship. For residents of the United States, children are available for adoption from over 50 countries. However, U.S. residents are ineligible to adopt from Canada, Australia, and Western Europe.
Transracial, or interracial, adoption is a form of adoption in which a family of one race legally adopts a child of a different race. Such adoptions have grown dramatically since black children started to be included regularly on adoption agency lists in the 1950s and 1960s. Also during that time, Asian children began entering the United States in adoption arrangements.
I. International Adoption
II. Popular International Adoption Countries
A. South Korean Adoptions
B. Vietnamese Adoptions
C. Guatemalan Adoptions
D. Chinese Adoptions
E. Former Soviet States and Adoption
III. Benefits of International Adoption
IV. Concerns of International Adoption
V. The State of International Adoption Today
VI. Transracial Adoption
VII. The Debate
A. Arguments against Transracial Adoption
B. Arguments for Transracial Adoption
VIII. Looking Ahead
Residents of the United States adopt more children through intercountry adoption than do the residents of any other nation. The practice has garnered more attention in recent years as Hollywood celebrities flaunt their adoption-created families. Parents in the United States are turning increasingly to international adoptions as a way to create their families. Since 1971, close to 400,000 children have been adopted from foreign countries. Recent numbers indicate approximately 12,500 international adoptions by U.S. parents in 2009 (http://www.travel.state.gov/). Comparably, in 1994, there were approximately 8,000 international adoptions.
The dramatic rise in international adoption can be attributed to war, poverty, and the lack of social welfare in the children’s home countries. Factors in the United States that contribute to the increase in international adoptions are a disinclination toward foster care adoptions, perceived difficulties with domestic adoptions, and preference toward adopting infants in lieu of older children. As fewer healthy white infants became available in the United States, parents seeking children with these characteristics began to look elsewhere. Additionally, prospective parents in the United States have a greater amount of expendable income compared with couples from other developed countries. These financial resources are necessary, because an average international adoption processed through a private agency can easily cost between $7,500 and $30,000, depending on the child’s country of origin and adoption service used (http://statistics.adoption.com/).
In the United States, the vast majority of children who are in need of adoptive parents are older children. Statistics on the ages of children adopted in the United States gathered by the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System show that less than a quarter of the children in need of adoption are two years old or younger, whereas close to 40 percent of the adoptions that take place involve children from that age bracket. For families seeking an infant, international adoption is increasingly the answer. Most international adoptions are of infants and toddlers, with the majority of these children adopted from China, Guatemala, Russia, and South Korea. The number of children adopted from each of these countries varies from year to year, but these countries have been generally supportive of international adoptions. Increased infertility rates have also played a role in the rise in international adoptions. Infertility rates have been on the rise as more and more couples in the United States choose to postpone having children until later in life. For some of these couples, their goal of having a family can only be realized with an adoption.
With the large number of internationally adopted children entering the United States each year come many challenges concerning cultural socialization, developmental delays as a result of poor health, and potential behavioral issues. The language barrier alone causes many of the educational and social problems faced by children adopted from other countries. Additionally, these children sometimes face medical issues. According to the International Adoption Guidebook, children who are adopted from other countries are at risk for numerous medical conditions; the five most prevalent are hepatitis, HIV, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, reactive attachment disorder, and sensory integration disorder. This creates special challenges for these families once they have navigated the bureaucracy to add the child to their family.
Popular International Adoption Countries
South Korean Adoptions
The Korean War (1950–1953) began the largest wave of international adoptions. In 1955, Harry Holt, an Oregon farmer and his wife Bertha, were so touched by the situation of the orphans from the Korean War that they adopted eight children from South Korea. This story sparked widespread media interest around the country, and many other Americans became eager to adopt South Korean children. In response, the Holts created Holt International Children’s Services, which, by 2007, had placed around 60,000 Korean orphans into U.S. homes.
Foreign adoptions became so prevalent after the war that a special agency was created under the Ministry of Social Affairs in South Korea. In the 1950s, the majority of children adopted overseas were the mixed-race children of Korean women and U.S. servicemen. These children were referred to as the “dust of the streets” and were often treated cruelly in Korea. Eventually, the practice of adoption became so widespread in South Korea that not only mixed-race children were sent for adoption, but children of poverty-stricken families were put up for adoption as well. South Korea became the largest supplier of children to the United States and other developed countries. Since the end of the Korean War, over 200,000 Korean children have been sent overseas for adoption, 150,000 of them to the United States. To this day, Koreans comprise the largest group of adoptees in both the United States and Western Europe. Because unmarried Korean women often face a severe social stigma for nonmarital births, they are likely to put up their children for adoption because this makes the women eligible for substantial financial support.
In the 1970s, the Vietnam War was responsible for another wave of international adoptions by U.S. families. In 1975, Operation Baby Lift brought 2,000 Vietnamese and mixed-race children to the United States for adoption during the final days of the war. Critics questioned whether this hasty evacuation was in the best interest of the children. The most contentious point was whether these children were technically orphans who qualified for adoption. This operation was plagued with lost and inaccurate records, casting a negative light on international adoption. In several well-publicized instances, birth parents or other relatives later arrived in the United States requesting custody of children who had already been adopted by U.S. families. This effort was also criticized as another example of U.S. cultural imperialism.
Guatemala has in the recent past been a popular country for adopting U.S. couples; however, the number of Guatemalan adoptions has been dramatically curtailed, in part because of plans initiated by the former president of Guatemala, Oscar Berger. He announced that, as of 2008, all intercountry adoptions would be suspended. Thus, according to the U.S. State Department, whereas between 2004 and 2008 adoptions from Guatemala ranged from between 3,200 and 4,700 per year, by 2009, the figure had dropped to 756.
One of the primary reasons that so many children were available for so long in Guatemala relates to high levels of poverty, where birth parents may not be able to adequately care for all of their children and perceive adoption as a way to better their child’s life. There also has been a long-standing concern that many Guatemalan children offered for adoption were actually stolen from their birth parents, who did not wish to tender them for adoption. As a result, Guatemalan children recently entering the United States via adoption have been subject to DNA testing to ensure that they are, in fact, eligible for adoption and that they were not kidnapped from their birth parents.
China routinely has a high number of children adopted by U.S. parents. This is due in part to China’s one-child policy. In 1979, the Chinese government determined that Chinese couples residing in urban areas could have only one child without facing a penalty. If these couples had more than one child, they could receive jail time, pay heavy fines, and be ostracized from the community (http://china.adoption.com/).
Additionally, China is a country where baby boys are revered and baby girls are seen as burdens on society. Inheritance and ties to the ancestral family are passed along the male line, so parents have a preference that their one child be a son. This is an important element in Chinese society. As a consequence of the preference for male heirs, there are many more baby girls than baby boys available for adoption. Historically, female fetuses were more likely to be aborted, and some female infants were killed by their parents. Rather than becoming the victims of infanticide, many times baby girls in China are abandoned in temples and hospitals or in subways or railway stations. When found, these children are taken to orphanages, where they can become eligible for adoption.
Former Soviet States and Adoption
In the early years of the 21st century, the former Soviet States, including Russia and Ukraine, were competing with China for the place from which the most children were being adopted by Americans. More recently, however, the numbers of children being adopted from Russia have declined, and, in April 2010, the government announced a halt to U.S. adoptions. The cessation came as the result of a case in which a Tennessee adoptive mother “returned” a seven-year-old boy whom she had adopted in 2009, claiming that the child was violent and posed a threat to the safety of herself and her family. The Russian government later announced that adoptions would continue, leaving many U.S. couples who had made plans to adopt from Russia both pleased and anxious about the prospects for completing the process.
Benefits of International Adoption
Parents face many challenges when attempting to adopt internationally. But the benefits may outweigh the difficulties in many cases. Among the most attractive reasons for international adoption is that the children are legally available for adoption before being advertised or listed with agencies. This means that there is very little chance that birth parents will change their mind and take back the child at the last minute, as has happened with some open adoptions in the United States.
Although the bureaucratic aspects of international adoption make it unlikely that one can adopt directly at a child’s birth, as can happen in open adoptions in the United States, nearly one-half of the children who are adopted internationally are under the age of one when they meet their new parents, and almost all are under the age of four. This factor is very appealing to U.S. parents who would have many options for domestic adoptions if they preferred older children but few when they prefer the youngest children.
There is a tremendous variety in the children available for adoption. They are from different countries, of different ages and genders, and they have many different needs that adoptive parents might be able to fulfill. This variety means that parents can generally find the child with whom they will have the best fit. Multicultural families lead to greater tolerance and acceptance, supporting the politics of community and unity. Famous adoptive parents Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have such a multicultural family. Parents who have adopted children from poor countries often cite the opportunity they have to provide for the underprivileged child as a motivating factor in their decision.
While many domestic adoption agencies have limitations on who is eligible to adopt, some foreign agencies have less stringent guidelines, perhaps permitting older parents or singles to adopt when other avenues for domestic adoption are closed to them.
Concerns of International Adoption
Because everyone dreams of a healthy, happy child, potential adoptive parents need to recognize that they may not know about medical problems. Generally, parents receive information about the child’s health, but they rarely know about the birth parents’ health and backgrounds. The concerns extend to whether any prenatal care was available or attained by the birth mother. Children who were cared for in orphanages may have some additional special needs related to mental health and adjustment as a result of the institutional environment, though these are often resolved relatively quickly upon arrival in their new home.
International adoption remains costly, but, again, this varies by country. Agencies usually provide a list of expenses up front so that prospective parents can plan accordingly. The costs, however, do limit those persons eligible to adopt in this manner. This has led to the suggestion that international adoption agencies sell children to the highest bidders who can pay for fees, travel, and sometimes extended stays in foreign locales. Extortion has even been reported with some agencies. These scams claim a child is available, send details about the child, and get a commitment from prospective parents who send money to the agency, only to be told later that the fees have increased and more money is needed or the child is no longer available.
Adopting internationally can be a time-consuming and tedious process. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) is a federal agency within the Department of Justice that is responsible for overseeing citizenship issues for foreign-born persons who wish to enter the United States, including children. The USCIS must provide permission for the adoptive child to lawfully enter the United States prior to the adoption being finalized in the child’s country of origin. The average time frame for an international adoption is 12 to 18 months, but much of this depends on the country of origin and whether the U.S. paperwork is prepared properly.
The State of International Adoption Today
International adoption continues to be a subject that is fraught with questions and remains controversial. These questions are important as the number of international adoptions continues to rise. It remains to be seen whether international adoptions are in the best interest of the child. Even though conditions may not be perfect in their home country, would it not be of benefit to be raised in the culture to which one is born? Will the child suffer discrimination or have difficulty identifying with their U.S.-born parents? With all of the millions of dollars spent on legal processing, could it be better spent to improve conditions in these countries so that adoptions are no longer necessary?
Although these questions and others remain unanswered, they are very important to consider, because hundreds of thousands of children and their adoptive families would like to know the answers. In the earliest years of international adoption, the concerns expressed by adoptive parents and the general public were primarily about transitioning to the new family and adjustment, with an occasional question about transmitting cultural heritage; today, the concerns are expanded.
The concerns have shifted to include legal, criminal, and ethical issues affecting both birth and adoptive parents and the children. The options for parents who would like to adopt internationally are many, but they are always in flux. For example, as countries’ laws regarding immigration or their political regimes change, they are more or less likely to permit children to be adopted to foreign families. Not only do policies, laws, and procedural requirements change in other countries, they change in the United States as well. The Hague Treaty on International Adoptions, when ratified by all Hague Convention nations, is designed to help ensure ethical adoption practices so that all parties will benefit and have their rights maintained. One of the primary goals was to prevent the abduction, trafficking, or sale of children through intercountry adoption. Additional provisions were designed to protect both the birth and adoptive parents’ rights. The Intercountry Adoption Act of 2000 was passed in the United States to implement the provisions of the Hague Convention Treaty, ratified by the United States in April 2008. These provisions are forcing some changes in the ways that international adoptions occur. Specifically, agencies must have a national accreditation with consistent standards of practice, and there must be a mechanism for filing complaints.
As the procedure for international adoptions changes in response to the Hague Convention, this is a confusing time for those wishing to adopt internationally. As the nations adhering to the convention change, so do those nations’ policies. There are also some shifts in which of the countries are being explored by prospective U.S. parents. In 2009, according to the U.S. Department of State, 2,277 Ethiopian children were adopted by U.S. citizens, a nearly eightfold increase from 2004. Changing patterns of adoption will be interesting to monitor.
The most common form of transracial adoption in the United States is the adoption of a black child by white parents. Several reasons influence a couple’s choice to adopt transracially, such as limited numbers of white children awaiting adoption, some people feeling a connection to a different race, others just wanting to adopt a child regardless of his or her race. Most advocates of transracial adoption feel that a loving family of any race is essential for a child, and yet there are opponents who believe firmly that children should be placed solely with families of their own race.
Transracial adoptions gained popularity in the 1950s and peaked through the 1960s and 1970s. With fewer healthy white infants available for adoption, adoption agencies began to consider placing a child of color into the home of a white family. The main reasons for the increase in transracial adoptions were long adoption waiting periods and a decreased number of white babies available due to advances in birth control, abortion, and societal acceptance of single mothers. The civil rights movement, too, with its emphasis on the breaking down of racial barriers, has been credited as a factor contributing to the increase in transracial adoptions.
The National Health Interview Survey found that 8 percent of adoptions were transracial in 1987. In 1998, the estimate of transracial or transcultural adoptions was 15 percent of the 36,000 foster children who were adopted. Of the 1.6 million children who were adopted in the United States in 2004, 17 percent were interracial adoptions and 13 percent were foreign born, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Data compiled under the U.S. Health and Human Service’s Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System suggest that, in 2008, of the 123,000 children awaiting adoption from foster care, more than 60 percent were nonwhite.
The numbers of transracial adoptions have increased, sparking controversy between those who do not believe that a white family can raise an African American child and those who believe that children are entitled to a loving home, no matter what racial barriers exist. The largest adversary of transracial adoptions historically and currently is the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW). Native Americans also oppose transracial adoptions, claiming that the practice is cultural genocide.
Arguments against Transracial Adoption
One of the main arguments against transracial adoption is that white parents will not be able to give a black child a cultural identity and survival skills in a racially diverse society. NABSW says that child socialization begins at birth, but the needs of black children differ from those of white children. Black children need to learn coping mechanisms to function in a society where racism is prevalent. Black families are capable of teaching these mechanisms in everyday life without having to seek out special projects or activities. They live their lives in a white-dominated society, and their children learn by daily interactions. Even when white adoptive families actively seek out interactions and activities with black families, they put an emphasis on the differences within their family.
Cultural support can be especially difficult to give if there is limited understanding of the cultural differences of family members. White couples are ill equipped in their understanding of African American culture to adequately prepare a child for life in an ethnic group other than that of the adoptive parents. Despite their best intentions, whites cannot fully understand life from a minority perspective, because they only experience it vicariously. The unique experiences of African Americans since their arrival on U.S. soil mean that parenting strategies and coping mechanisms have been developed to help deflect hostility from the dominant members of society. Additionally, racial barriers exist in many different aspects of social life.
Over time, there has been a decline in the availability of white children to adopt. NABSW feels that white families adopt a black child so they do not have to wait for long periods of time to become parents. Adoption agencies cater to white middle-class prospective adoptive parents, and, because white children are not as available, the agencies try to persuade these families to adopt black children.
NABSW supports adoption agencies finding black families to adopt black children. It suggests that agencies should change adoption requirements so that black families wanting to adopt are not quickly eliminated from the process. NABSW also would like to see adoption agencies work harder to find extended family members who want to adopt and keep the child within the family. Financial help also should be available for these families, so adopted children have the opportunity to grow, develop, and socialize within the black community. In fact, NABSW has argued that the so-called genocide that results from the adoption of black children by white families could never promote the interests and well-being of black children.
In 1971, William T. Merritt, then president of NABSW, stated that black children who are in foster care or are adopted should only be in the home of a black family. His position paper the following year reiterated his perspective, and, as a consequence of the advocacy of NABSW, national adoption guidelines were changed to favor or promote race matching. In 1973, transracial placements decreased by 39 percent. In 1985, Merritt claimed that black children raised in white homes could not learn skills to function as a black person in society. He adamantly spoke out against transracial adoptions. Morris Jeff Jr., another past president of NABSW, called transracial adoption “the ultimate insult to black heritage.”
Children who are adopted can sometimes face certain problems regardless of the adoptive parents’ ethnicity. These problems, however, can become more intense when also dealing with racial barriers. Children placed for adoption have usually come from homes where abuse was common. They may be of an age to remember their biological parents and have unresolved conflicts because they were, in their minds, unwanted by their biological families. They often have to learn new ways of family life. In addition to adjustment issues, children who are adopted often have mental, physical, or emotional handicaps. Because adoption itself may require the child to make adjustments, the presence of racial identity questions enhances the difficulty of transitions.
Adoption comes with a certain stigma, and children who are adopted may face identity issues. Even though they accept their adoptive parents and families and appreciate being a part of the family, adopted children often have an intense desire to know their biological parents. Research shows that both adoptive parents and adult adoptees experience feelings of being stigmatized by others who question the strength of their ties with their adoptive families. This stigma can be heightened when the adoptee’s ethnicity is different from that of the adoptive family.
Along with the cultural barriers and stigma of adoption, many opposed to transracial adoption say that there are enough black families interested in adoption to eliminate the placement of black children with white families. The National Urban League identified at least 3 million black families in 2000 who were interested in adoption. Adoption agencies have been faulted for contributing to the low numbers of available black adoptive families compared with white adoptive families. Critics say that many agencies do not have enough black social workers who are competent to make assessments of black families. Black families seeking to adopt may not receive equal treatment with their white counterparts, a situation that could be improved through the employment of more black social workers in adoption agencies.
Arguments for Transracial Adoption
Legislation has stepped in to terminate discrimination in the adoption process and eliminate race as the sole factor when determining the placement of a child for adoption. The Multi Ethnic Placement Act in 1994 was created to prohibit agencies or entities that receive money from the federal government from using race, color, or national origin as the critical criteria in the adoptive or foster parent or child decisions. While the Multi Ethnic Placement Act made improvements to the process of transracial adoptions, it still allowed for agencies to take into consideration whether prospective parents could adequately care for a child from a different race. The passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act (1996) eliminated the use of any form of discriminatory tactics that would not allow prospective parents to transracially adopt. Any states that broke the laws would face reductions in their quarterly federal funds.
Those favoring transracial adoptions say that the statistics alone should be reason enough to disregard race as the determining factor in placement. In 2008, it was estimated that 123,000 children were awaiting adoption from foster care, and one-third of those were black children. In addition, the average black child waits more than four years before a permanent placement is obtained. Some of these inequities may be relieved if more transracial placements occurred.
The argument that suggests that harm will come to transracial adoptees because of the obviousness of the adoption and the constant reminder of being adopted may be interpreted positively. A child who is of a different race will learn sooner that he or she is adopted, and being forced to recognize this will make the adoption easier to talk about, thus making for a more open relationship with the parents. It has been suggested that there are direct benefits to the child in learning early about the adoption. They include a greater openness about the adoption, a positive self-identification with the adoptive status as well as racial identity, and recognition that there is no shared biology between the parents and child. Additionally, there is a positive affirmation for the child that he or she was chosen and wanted. Given that adoptive families are often open about the adoption and encourage their other-race children to become involved with the children’s heritage, black children adopted by white parents are more likely to refer to themselves as black than are black children adopted within race. As a consequence of having to learn about more than one culture, studies suggest that these children have a greater tolerance for others different from themselves and are more accepting of cultural differences.
Because the adopted child knows that he or she was wanted by the family, there is also recognition that race is not a factor in how much the child will be loved. This visible reminder that the child was chosen to be a part of the family can help to increase the child’s self-esteem. The visible differences can also help to remind the child that he or she does not share biology with the parents, but psychologically this can help the child realize that differences with the parents are expected and are not frowned upon. Any genetic expectations would be decreased as well so the child might feel less pressure to develop the same interests or talents as the parent.
Other concerns regarding the psychological health of transracially adopted persons have also been disputed. Many studies have refuted the claim that white parents are ill equipped to raise socially adapted African American children with high levels of selfesteem. Although this is a classic claim used by those opposed to transracial adoption, research data suggest that there are no significant differences in adjustment between transracially adopted children and those adopted within race. The most important factor influencing how the child adjusts to society is the age of the child at the time of adoption. Likewise, studies have not found a correlation between a child’s adjustment and racial identity. It seems that the older a child is when adopted, the more problems there are with adjustment issues. However, this seemed to be the outcome whether the child was adopted by same-race or other-race parents.
The Simon-Altstein Longitudinal Study of adoption was a classic study that examined several aspects of transracial adoption. The study began in 1972, had three phases, and involved 204 families with nonwhite adopted children. The first phase of interviews asked the children about their racial identity by using the Kenneth Clark doll test. This phase concluded that the children in the study—both nonwhite and white—had no racial biases to either a black or white color doll. All knew their racial identities. Parents indicated that they used several means to introduce the racial culture of the adopted nonwhite children in the family.
The second phase of the study, conducted in 1983, measured self-esteem. The results of black, nonwhite, white adopted children, and white biological children were separated and compared. All groups had statistically equal levels of self-esteem. The transracially adopted children were asked about their relationships with their parents and white siblings. Most said that their relationship with their parents was better now in young adulthood than it had been when they were adolescents. Interestingly, this finding was the same for biological children and parents. Racial differences had no impact in most of the relationships between the transracially adopted children and their siblings who were the biological children of their shared parents. Transracially adopted children and biological children were almost equal in choosing a parent or sibling as the ones to whom they would go if they needed help, at 46.8 percent and 45 percent, respectively.
The third phase of this study, conducted in 1991, asked again to whom they would go if they needed help. The results showed that the adopted children would still turn to their parents or siblings for help. The study’s overall findings provided strong evidence that white parents are capable of raising children of another race to have high self-esteem, positive identities, and close family ties.
There are several issues that families must consider before committing to transracial adoption. The most important thing to consider is the potential parents’ own racial views. Another thing to consider is that the family will be in the minority after transracially adopting. Of concern may be how the parent and other members of the family will deal with opinions expressed by those outside of the family. Prospective parents could think about adopting siblings so that each child will have a familiar face to help with the transition.
Colorblind is a term frequently used by those who promote transracial adoptions. This refers to the ideal that everyone is seen equally and is not discriminated against due to race. The term is pertinent in adoption discussions, because it is illegal for adoption agencies to discriminate because of someone’s skin color. In matching parents and children for adoption, the United States will probably never be a society that is totally colorblind. Colorblindness helps to promote fairness with regard to race, a difficult but necessary task. On the other hand, critics of the concept of colorblind contend that it erases a person’s heritage and culture. Being colorblind does not erase the questions that arise about visual differences within families and communities. Ignoring differences can cause hurt and resentment. Because race and culture are so closely linked, to be colorblind to someone’s race is to ignore his or her culture. Experts contend that children have a right to learn about their culture so that they can pass it down to the next generation.
Transracial adoption is not only a black and white issue; children are also adopted from foreign countries, although there is very little research to date on the adjustment experiences of these parents and children. Places like China and Ukraine are popular when families decide to adopt, because the high birth rates and poor economic conditions in these locales mean that there are often children readily available. There is not as much debate about the adoption of these children as there is over black children being adopted by white families, because adoption is seen as helping these children. The idea of saving a child is an idea that supporters of transracial adoption believe can happen right here in the United States by decreasing the numbers of children of all races awaiting placement with a permanent family.
Hayley Cofer and Taralyn Watson
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