When There's No Place Like Home

Some advocates blame the decline in intercountry adoptions over the past three years on a single surprising source: UNICEF. The United Nations Children's Fund may be known worldwide for helping underprivileged children obtain better health care and education, but when it comes to finding homes for orphans, they argue, the organization places misguided emphasis on maintaining cultural and geographic ties rather than on the child's overall well-being. That's true even when there is little chance of domestic adoption and virtually no public programs to provide care for abandoned children or struggling families. "National boundaries should not prevent abandoned children from having families," says Thomas Atwood, president of America's National Council for Adoption. "UNICEF's exclusive focus on domestic programs amounts to an obstacle to international adoption and prevents untold numbers of children from improving their lives through international adoption."

There is no argument over the need for adoptive homes—UNICEF estimates that there are 143 million orphans in the world—or the unprecedented interest among Westerners eager to adopt. And children's advocates of all stripes agree that when possible, children should be raised by their own families and in their own cultures. But there seems to be a discrepancy over what qualifies as "when possible." Rather than promote research that demonstrates the beneficial effects for all types of adoption, critics say UNICEF plays up rare cases of abuse and corruption and actively discourages developing countries from making more abandoned children available. "UNICEF and some foreign critics have encouraged countries to look at international adoption as a form of colonialism," says Dana Johnson, director of the International Adoption Clinic at the University of Minnesota and an expert on global adoption trends. Critics compare such policies to those promoted in the 1970s by black American social workers, who argued that only African-American families could ethically adopt black babies. As a result, many minority children spent most of their childhoods in state care.

UNICEF argues that intercountry adoption is not the only—and certainly not always the best—option for the world's orphans. Alexandra Yuster, a senior adviser in the child-protection section, claims the organization advocates the inclusion of international adoption in the mix of potential solutions for countries seeking homes for orphaned children. But it is much more focused on helping birth families get adequate support from their governments so they can take care of their own kids. "That's our priority because that will help a much larger number of kids—as will promoting domestic adoption," she says. "It's not that we're against intercountry adoption; it's just not a main focus for us."

In part, that's because UNICEF fears financial profit is the driving force behind many intercountry transactions. Because few healthy infants are available for adoption in Western countries, she says, the amount of money prospective parents are willing to pay to complete adoptions of healthy babies has increased. And corruption inevitably follows the money. UNICEF is especially concerned about poor countries like Guatemala, where private attorneys largely control the process and charge upwards of $35,000 per child—almost twice the going rate in countries like China and Vietnam, where government agencies oversee programs.

That kind of profit margin creates a market where one didn't exist before. "We're concerned with the commercialization of vulnerable children," says Yuster. "It gives an incentive to intermediaries to look for the kind of children these families most want to adopt." Some poor mothers are tricked into relinquishing healthy babies, while disabled and older children living in state institutions are left out of the foreign adoption loop because there's no profit incentive to match them with families. "Adoption is supposed to be about finding homes for children, not finding children for families," she says.

UNICEF is equally wary of the less expensive and more transparent programs in such countries as Ethiopia, China and Vietnam, where a portion of the adoption fees charged by the government is used to provide protective services and better living conditions for the orphans who remain behind. "We think this is a slippery slope," Yuster says. "If the child-welfare system becomes dependent on children leaving, countries may do less to seek domestic placements or work to keep children with their own families."

Critics charge that UNICEF's obsession with preventing corruption at all costs often results in countries adopting such restrictive regulations that foreign adoptions are reduced to a trickle. "Forces at the very top are making international adoption more and more difficult," says Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Bartholet, who has written extensively on the subject. "What this means is that fewer kids are getting adopted, more children are required to spend time in orphanages, those who get out are of older ages, and are more likely to have developed serious disabilities that make them hard to parent."

Yuster insists that UNICEF never pressures countries to tighten their adoption regulations, and in fact gets involved only when asked. That was the case in 2006 in Liberia, when the government requested an investigation after intercountry adoptions began to rise. Of the several hundred adoptions done in a year, she says, they identified 50 that qualified as "relinquishments under false pretenses." In some cases, unsophisticated parents were led to believe that they would lose custody only temporarily, or would one day join their child in the West. Without good data, she acknowledges, it's hard to know how common such abuses are globally. But "unfortunately, they are not rare, and there seems to be evidence that they are on the rise," she says. "When the surface is scratched, violations can often be found."

With Washington set to begin implementing the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption this spring, some experts think that such violations will decrease, allowing UNICEF and its critics to find more middle ground and common goals. "All of these groups want more ethical practices in adoption," Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, an independent research and policy organization. "But we all need to keep our eye on the prize: finding homes for children who really need them." Wherever they are.