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In 2004, American families brought home 23,000 boys and girls from foreign countries as adopted sons and daughters; in 2015, that number plummeted to 5,000. This dramatic drop doesn’t match up to a drop in demand—many American families are still eager to adopt internationally. But it can be explained in part by a combination of factors including increased regulation of the adoption market by U.S. authorities and political pressures in various source countries. 

In particular, as a 2015 Wall Street Journal article points out, “nationalist sentiment against adoption in emerging economies such as China and South Korea” has led those governments to impose restrictions on the children they make available for international adoption. China is doing what it can to further restrict international adoption of Chinese children. Russia stopped all international adoptions to the U.S. completely in 2012. As these examples illustrate, participation in international adoption markets is often a tool in the “soft power” arsenal of politicians and bureaucrats looking to thumb their nose at Washington. 

(As a side note, much news was made last year when the Chinese Communist Party appeared to “relax” their infamous One-Child Policy; but as human rights activist and China expert Reggie Littlejohn pointed out in Congressional testimony around that time, the Party only “tweaked” the stringent controls on reproductive rights, it didn’t erase them. The change was merely to allow couples to have a second child if either parent is an only child.)

Another reason for the steep drop-off in international adoptions to the U.S. is the development of standardized protocols and regulations relating to adoption procedures. It wasn’t uncommon twenty or thirty years ago for adopted babies arriving in America to have been snatched from nurseries or daycares in their source country and put up for adoption against the will of the biological parents. In an attempt to address such nightmare scenarios, many countries took steps to ratify the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, which the United States joined in 2008. But despite being branded as a way to smoothly facilitate U.S. adoptions, the Hague Convention has had the opposite effect, making adoptions from certain countries harder. Many countries, such as Cambodia, rushed to sign onto Hague without meeting the proper standards, only to have their access to American families closed off by Washington as a penalty. Such restrictions by the American government are obviously in the best interests of the children and families involved, but also contribute to the decline in overall adoption numbers. 

Nonprofit leaders in working in international adoptions are thus discovering a few hard truths in light of these developments: First, that benevolent rule-making often leads to unintended consequences; second, that at a certain point they simply must abide by the ever-shifting legal and political winds which originate outside their own realm of “civil society;” and third, domestic adoption remains a huge market in the U.S., with demand far outpacing supply. As these groups are now forced to turn their attention more and more to those domestic markets, perhaps they will be able to lobby for improvements to the byzantine state and federal bureaucracies that drive so many American families to look abroad in the first place. And for those families and parents that admirably still want to adopt from abroad, policy-makers should look to craft a system that is both responsive and responsible. 

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