Who Will Fill the Empty Cribs?

For Anna Porras and Miquel Milian, The worst part is the waiting. Back in 2005, when the Spanish couple found they couldn't have a biological child, they took it in stride and set out to adopt. But from where? There was a nine-year wait list for Spanish orphans, so Porras, a language teacher, and Milian, who runs a company that makes signs, took their search overseas. They had heard that adopting from China was relatively easy, but only for married couples. So they quickly tied the knot, filed the paperwork in late 2006, and held their breath. Then the rules changed; Beijing announced that couples had to be married at least two years before adopting."We were crushed," says Porras.Next stop: Kazakhstan, where the wait typically lasts somewhere between eight and 20 months. If all goes well, they will bring home a son or daughter by summer. (Article continued below...)

That's an increasingly big "if." After decades of nonstop growth, the international adoption mill has begun to stall. Driven by rising affluence, falling birthrates and resurgent national pride, many developing nations are much less willing to let their orphans go abroad. Not only can these nations increasingly afford to care for orphans at home, but they have been spooked by highly publicized international baby-selling scandals into tightening rules. Countries as diverse as South Korea, Russia, Kenya and Brazil now openly discourage foreign adoptions. As a result, intercountry adoptions have plunged 10 percent in the top five receiving nations—the U.S, Spain, France, Italy and Canada—since the high point in 2004, when 45,288 children were adopted internationally.

The turnabout is most dramatic in the United States; after nearly tripling from 1990 to 2004, international adoptions to America have fallen for three years running, dropping from 22,844 in 2004 to 19,411 last year. "Until now we've all been talking about the inexorable rise of intercountry adoptions," says adoption scholar Peter F. Selman, a demographer at Newcastle University. "But around the world we're seeing more and more people wanting to adopt every day, and fewer and fewer children available. The supply of adoptable children is drying up."

Whether this is a crisis depends in part on where you sit. To nations like Russia and China, the dwindling "supply" represents rising standards of living and a growing ability to care for their own. But the need for intercountry adoption—which started after World War II as a way to provide for children orphaned or abandoned in the fighting—remains vital in many parts of the developing world that are not prospering, especially in Africa, where there are an estimated 48.3 million orphans. And now the hodgepodge of national restrictions has been joined by an international contract, the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, designed to encourage adoption at home rather than abroad, and to end the international baby trade. The fear of many adoption experts, particularly in the West, is that these rules may prove so rigorous and indiscriminate that they will severely curtail international adoption as a vital escape route for children in troubled regions.

Supplies are dwindling from countries that have traditionally provided the majority of children for international adoptions. The number of Chinese children adopted by the top five receiving nations dropped from a peak of 14,493 in 2005 to 10,743 in 2006; in Russia the number has fallen from 5,829 to 2,781 since 2004. "Russian society is back on its feet both economically and morally," says Elena Afanasyeva, a Duma deputy and member of the Committee on Women and Family. "We are now capable of taking care of our orphans." In China the number of adoption applications now exceeds the country's ability to process them. As a result, authorities have gotten much more choosy about who can adopt, excluding applicants who may be single, obese, taking antidepressants or over 50, among other things. Other source nations have implemented new restrictions to deter outsiders from adopting: South Africa now demands foreigners spend at least five years on native soil before adopting, and Tanzania three years. Moscow temporarily halted its international adoption program last year, partly in response to reports that 14 Russian children had been killed by their foreign adoptive parents since the 1990s.

In South Korea, which has sent 150,000 children abroad since the Korean War, it's not just the booming economy that has changed social attitudes toward orphans. With a birthrate of just 1.1 children per woman, which is below the level required to keep the population steady, the country needs to hold onto its people. Last summer protesters gathered in downtown Seoul with placards that read KOREAN BABIES NOT FOR EXPORT! Today Seoul offers tax breaks, cash incentives and even extra vacation days to families who take in domestic orphans. The measures seem to be working: last year marked the first time since the Korean War that more South Korean children were adopted at home (1,388) than overseas (1,265).

The growing backlash against foreign adoptions is partly a response to exposés of aggressive networks of baby hustlers, in which unscrupulous middlemen charge prospective parents exorbitant fees while conning desperate families into giving up their children for a song. No country better illustrates the system's potential for abuse than Guatemala, which had become a favorite of anxious adoptive parents, especially from America. They were drawn by the few-questions-asked system that dispatched infants in a matter of months. Gays, singles and unmarried couples were welcome. Inspired by the lack of regulations, a ruthless class of jaladoras (pullers) began trolling the city slums and impoverished countryside, sometimes buying babies cheap (or, allegedly, stealing them) and selling them dear. Foreigners shelled out upwards of $35,000 for a Guatemalan waif, with shadowy foster homes and crooked bureaucrats playing midwife to the exchange. In the words of David Smolin, a law professor at Alabama's Samford University, foreign adoptions had turned into "baby laundering."

Such abuses galvanized human-rights advocates and eventually led to the creation of the Hague convention. More than a decade in the making, the convention is designed to restore order, transparency and decency to the adoption process. Signatory countries vow to outlaw adoption for profit; to favor domestic adoptions over international ones; to carefully screen prospective adoptive parents, and to keep a tight rein on social workers, adoption agencies and the juvenile courts. Nations may no longer release a child to a foreign family without formal consent from the birth parents. "The business of selling babies is over," says Rolando Morales, the Guatemalan lawmaker who led the fight to clean up adoptions in his country.

Though many countries immediately supported the treaty when it was first drafted in the 1990s, they have been much slower to implement it. No country could ratify the convention without first establishing a central authority to oversee adoption, and that was a challenge for some nations to pull off. China ratified the treaty only in 2005; Guatemala joined in 2002 but private adoption lawyers challenged it as unconstitutional. After a long national debate, the government finally passed implementation legislation late last year—though it remains unclear how well it will work. Even the U.S., which signed in 1994, only ratified the treaty in December, at least in part because it got so bogged down in transforming the state-run system into a federal one. But with 72 governments now onboard, momentum appears on the side of new regulation. "If the bureaucracy can end the trafficking and the bad matching, it will enable a future for intercountry adoptions which could otherwise be heading for collapse," says Selman.

In the long run, the Hague convention could prevent abuses. But in the short term, imposing tougher standards, screening children and would-be foster families more closely and eliminating for-profit foster care may mean longer stays in orphanages for many children. And the treaty only applies to the countries that have ratified it; those that haven't are free to do business as usual—even with those who have signed on.

There remain flaws in the system that even the best treaty cannot remedy. Orphanages everywhere are overflowing with severely handicapped or older children who often bear deep physical or emotional scars. "Everyone wants a blue-ribbon baby, not the 4-year-old with AIDS, or the 10-year-old with one leg," says Selman. Some adoptive parents struggle to find effective treatments for their children's ills; others seek to give them up. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently found that 81 children adopted overseas were relinquished to foster-care agencies in 14 states in 2006.

In the vast majority of cases, however, foreign adoptions are successful. And for couples desperate to adopt, the shrinking pool of available children is frustrating. Some are turning to Africa, where AIDS, political instability and ethnic violence have taken their toll on families. In Kenya, adoption authorities say the recent upheaval has curtailed domestic adoptions, as parents wonder about each baby's ethnic origin. Celebrity adoptions like those by Madonna and Angelina Jolie have certainly raised the continent's profile. "Our phones were ringing off the hook with families saying, 'We want a baby girl that looks like Zahara'," says Cheryl Carter-Shotts, founder of Americans for African Adoptions, referring to the Ethiopian child whom Jolie adopted in 2005.

But interracial adoption, though increasingly accepted, still raises concerns in some circles. UNICEF has been a vocal proponent of keeping orphaned children in their home countries (next story). And many African countries, where extended families or tribes have traditionally taken in orphaned children, tend to be extremely wary of foreigners who show up to whisk off their young.

No one suggests that international adoption will solve the world's ills. But until societies are able or willing to tend to all the victims of their own fractured families, overseas adoptions can continue to serve an important function, sparing tens of thousands of youths from potential neglect, abandonment, danger and a childhood spent between gray walls. "My heart breaks when I think of the conditions at orphanages, of the fate that waits for these babies," says Olga Dereviagina, who cares for toddlers and babies at the infectious-diseases ward of Moscow's Tushinsky hospital. "I wish foreign parents would come in now and take all our babies to some beautiful, kind place, to warm, loving homes." That's what Porras and Milian and countless couples like them wish, too.