Until about 1950, a married American couple wanting to have a child other than by procreation had only two options: adopt a U.S.-born children privately (e.g. attorneys, private child welfare agencies) or through public social welfare agencies. The model of adoption, dominant for many decades, was locked into the idea that racially matching potential parents with available children would be the best — and just about only — way to ensure an adoption's success.
At the end of the Korean War, American and other Western couples seeking to adopt were given a third option. Thousands of adoptable infants and toddlers from South Korea became available. Between 1953-1962, 15,000 Korean-born children were adopted by U.S. families. By 1976, that number doubled to 30,000 children. Thousands of others were adopted by West European families.
The idea of racially matching a child to parents almost ended, with what today is known as inter-country adoption. What remained entrenched until very recently was that single adults (both gay and straight), same-sex partners and nonwhites (except Asians) were not acceptable candidates as adoptive families for these Korean infants.
Throughout history, except when it was defined as a means of joining families and/or lands, adoption has been a within-country social class exchange, with the rich adopting the children of the poor. Inter-country adoption adds to this exchange the components of geography, ethnicity and race. Almost by definition, therefore, inter-country adoption has never been without controversy. This type of adoption was, early on, frequently labeled imperialistic, colonialist, racist and genocidal — charges that continue to this day.
Yet, for about 20 years beginning in 1980, the supply of foreign-born children into the U.S. and Western Europe was essentially stable, if not predictable. Korea, Guatemala, Russia and China could be counted upon to provide U.S. families with many thousands of their children each year. Many were under age 3, the most desirable category of adoptee. However, for almost a decade, there has been a steady decline in these numbers. From 2004-2011, the U.S. experienced a 40 percent decline in the number of international adoptions. From thousands of children a year sent from China, Russia, Korea and Guatemala, adoptions fell to hundreds and in some cases fewer than 100 per country. All indicators suggest that this decline will continue. In 2002, some 20,000 foreign-born children were adopted by U.S. families. In 2010, that number was 11,000.
The reason is not lack of demand. Sending countries are responding to domestic forces, such as a higher standard of living allowing them to care for their own; greater emphasis on encouraging domestic adoption with legislation enacted to stimulate this; and reaction to a number of negative episodes involving adoptive families in the U.S. who were either accused of abusing their adopted children or simply "returning" them to their birth countries.
Some countries never before allowing their children to be adopted by foreigners such as Ethiopia, Nepal, Burkina Faso and Kazakhstan recently have become child providers to the U.S., but their numbers are not nearly sufficient to fill the gap left by historic providers. Additionally, there is no way of knowing how reliable a source these countries will be over time.
Added to this complex picture is The Hague Adoption Convention, law in more than 124 countries, including the U.S., since 2008. Reasons for this convention are compelling. Throughout inter-county adoption's history, there have been persistent accusations that unknown numbers of children adopted in the West were in fact not legally free for adoption — that birth mothers, usually uneducated, unskilled women, were being deceived into relinquishing their children to the international adoption market. To rectify this, many of the world's sending and receiving countries, after years of hard negotiation, established the Hague Adoption Convention to safeguard the rights of the child and the birth family. It requires each country to establish a Central Authority to oversee all foreign adoptions. An unintended consequence was to further reduce the number of foreign-born adoptions.
Where does this leave Marylanders and the many thousands of other Americans seeking a non-U.S.-born child? The simple answer is, in a difficult place, should they remain stalwart in their desire to adopt from abroad. Adoption is governed by supply and demand. In this case, the demand for adoptable children, both domestic and foreign born, exceeds supply. It is difficult to place an exact figure on demand. Nationally, about 1.6 percent of U.S. women would like to adopt. When age (18-44) and marital status (married) are added, that figure changes to 2 percent. Wanting to adopt and actively seeking to adopt, changes the figures once again. About two-thirds of each category actually are somewhere in the process of adopting. With some variation, there is little reason to believe these figures do not reflect Maryland's women as well.
In terms of supply, we have even less data. However, it would be safe to assume that in the case of adoption, demand far exceeds the number of available children domestically and globally.
If current trends continue, and there is little reason to think otherwise, the pool of available children from abroad (and domestically) will continue to shrink. Inter-country will probably not entirely disappear, but there is little indication to suggest it will return to the numbers of the past.
There is, however, a real alternative. In 2011, there were 104,000 children in our nation's foster care system free for adoption. Their median age was 7.2 years. Thirty percent of these children were under age 3, with an additional 19 percent between 4 and 6. Legislation in the 1990s made it considerably easier to adopt from foster care. There is also a maximum adoption tax credit of $13,360. Fees are minimal, especially when compared with an inter-country adoption, which can cost $25,000 and higher.
Rather than deal with the vagaries of an international adoption, the answer to those seeking children to adopt may be the relative certainties of the process here at home.
Howard Altstein is professor emeritus at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.