Foreign Policy Magazine Exposes International Orphan Myth

Last month, Foreign Policy Magazine ran a hard-hitting expose entitled The Lie We Love. It’s premise: “Foreign adoption seems like the perfect solution to a heartbreaking imbalance: Poor countries have babies in need of homes, and rich countries have homes in need of babies. Unfortunately, those little orphaned bundles of joy may not be orphans at all.”

Finally some truth in advertising. Here’s reporter E.J. Graff on the international orphan myth:

We all know the story of international adoption: Millions of infants and toddlers have been abandoned or orphaned—placed on the side of a road or on the doorstep of a church, or left parentless due to AIDS, destitution, or war. These little ones find themselves forgotten, living in crowded orphanages or ending up on the streets, facing an uncertain future of misery and neglect. But, if they are lucky, adoring new moms and dads from faraway lands whisk them away for a chance at a better life.

Unfortunately, this story is largely fiction.

Westerners have been sold the myth of a world orphan crisis. We are told that millions of children are waiting for their “forever families” to rescue them from lives of abandonment and abuse. But many of the infants and toddlers being adopted by Western parents today are not orphans at all. Yes, hundreds of thousands of children around the world do need loving homes. But more often than not, the neediest children are sick, disabled, traumatized, or older than 5. They are not the healthy babies that, quite understandably, most Westerners hope to adopt. There are simply not enough healthy, adoptable infants to meet Western demand—and there’s too much Western money in search of children. As a result, many international adoption agencies work not to find homes for needy children but to find children for Western homes.

More from this excellent article:

Along the way, the international adoption industry has become a market often driven by its customers. Prospective adoptive parents in the United States will pay adoption agencies between $15,000 and $35,000 (excluding travel, visa costs, and other miscellaneous expenses) for the chance to bring home a little one. Special needs or older children can be adopted at a discount. Agencies claim the costs pay for the agency’s fee, the cost of foreign salaries and operations, staff travel, and orphanage donations. But experts say the fees are so disproportionately large for the child’s home country that they encourage corruption.

To complicate matters further, while international adoption has become an industry driven by money, it is also charged with strong emotions. Many adoption agencies and adoptive parents passionately insist that crooked practices are not systemic, but tragic, isolated cases. Arrest the bad guys, they say, but let the “good” adoptions continue. However, remove cash from the adoption chain, and, outside of China, the number of healthy babies needing Western homes all but disappears.

Read the article and then check out the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism for more information. Listen to Leonard Lopate’s interview with the author, E.J. Graff, Associate Director and Senior Researcher, Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism.

4 Replies to "Foreign Policy Magazine Exposes International Orphan Myth"

  • Elizabeth Case
    January 16, 2009 (8:55 am)

    The only “bone” I could pick with Ms. Graff’s excellent article, was “Outside of China”. There have been numerous examples of baby stealing and smuggling by baby brokers. The adoption mythology of magically appearing baby girls showing up on street corners is nearly an iron curtain. Perhaps it was that way in the early 1990s, but it is not that way anymore. Try explaining that to the waiting masses of American PAPs.

    I’d also like to point out, on the financial end, that because of the “credit boom” in the late 1990s & 2000s, AParents (such as myself) were able to borrow lots & lots of money to fund these adoptions. Easy money translated into an international adoption boom.

  • Diane Kunz
    January 16, 2009 (6:31 pm)

    The Truth By Which We Live
    Diane B. Kunz
    Center for Adoption Policy
    Foreign Policy, a usually well-respected journal, has published a screed against international adoption in its December 2008 issue, entitled “The Lie We Love.” In this article author E.J. Graff tries to demonstrate that the idea that international adoption brings together unparented children with permanent, loving families is “largely fiction.” Thankfully, what is fiction is Graff’s analysis.

    The Center for Adoption Policy was contacted for this article; we are not quoted as our statements apparently did not fit into the anti-international adoption bias of the article.

    Graff’s analysis of international adoption is fundamentally distorted. Children around the world languish in orphanages or ill-prepared foster homes with no hope of a permanent, loving family or a decent future. The headlines of articles about orphanages reflect the dismal reality: “Romania’s Orphans Face Widespread Abuse, Group Says,” and Bulgarian Mothers Rally against Poor Conditions in Orphanages . Medical research confirms these views. As Dr. Charles Nelson, who conducted a path-breaking Macarthur foundation study of Romanian children summarizes, “children reared in institutions showed greatly diminished intellectual performance . . .there was a continuing “cost” to children who remained in the institution over the course of our study.”

    More importantly, throughout the article biased opinions and half-truths are dressed up as facts. For example, a consultant named Nigel Cantwell is quoted as saying that he believed “zero” healthy babies under the age of three would be adopted into Western Europe and the United States from Eastern Europe were money not involved in adoption. Tell that to the ethnic minorities such as the Roma children in Eastern Europe and Central Asia who are constantly shunned and discriminated against by majority populations.

    Indeed Graff never mentions the invidious position of ethnic minorities in many sending countries for international adoption. While she is quick to condemn international adoption from Guatemala, she does not point out that the majority of children adopted from Guatemala are from indigenous groups and as UNICEF Representative in Guatemala Manuel Manrique stated, “Indigenous people in general are discriminated against, the indigenous child doubly discriminated against, the indigenous girl triply discriminated against.”

    Moreover the regional office of UNICEF also “demand[ed] that Guatemalan authorities launch a serious investigation of child pornography rings said to be operating virtually unhindered in this Central American nation. That Guatemalan birth mothers would choose to have their children parented abroad cannot be surprising, given these circumstances.

    Graff also writes about the “nefarious means” used to obtain children for international adoption in Vietnam. She neglects to mention that according to the Gates Institute, Vietnam has one of the highest abortion rates in the world; currently Vietnam’s proportional abortion rate is more than double the U.S. rate. Once international adoption from Vietnam reopened, it is inconceivable that some birth mothers did not choose to make an adoption plan rather than have abortions.

    In her discussion of international adoption, Graff focuses on adoptive parents’ desire for “healthy, adoptable babies.” Never does she mention that around 40 percent of adoption from China last year, the largest sending country for adoption, was of special needs children nor does she point out that most of the children adopted from Russia (also in the top five sending countries) are children with medical needs. These are not the parents searching for a “perfect child” portrayed in the article. And the fate of children with special needs in the developing world remains dire. They are a discriminated against minority who face a dire dearth of medical care and as a result, shortened, stunted lives.

    Are there bad actors in international adoption? Of course, because there are dishonest people in every profession. Do things go wrong? Yes. But just as we do not ban medicine because of malpractice deaths, or outlaw cars because millions of people die on the highway around the world each year, our goal must be to create and enforce the highest ethical and legal standards for international adoption, not end it.

    The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption which has gone into effect in the United States and seventy-five other countries around the world is a major step toward improving the regulation, transparency and accountability of international adoption. Unparented children have no voice to protest against the destruction of their future. We can and do have the ability to help the countless children around the world who are living outside family care.

    *Who we are: The Center for Adoption Policy (CAP) is a New York based 501(c)3 organization. Its mission is to provide research, analysis, advice and education to practitioners and the public about current legislation and practices governing domestic and intercountry adoption in the United States, Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa. CAP is an independent entity. It is not affiliated with any agency or entity involved in the placement of children. Its Executive Directors are Diane Kunz and Ann Reese. Ms. Kunz is an attorney and a prize-winning Oxford and Yale-trained historian who specialized in diplomatic history and economic policy. She now focuses full time on adoption policy and law. Ms. Reese was Chief Financial Officer at ITT and now serves as a director of Xerox, Sears and Jones New York. CAP was honored as a 2008 Congressional Angel in Adoption.

    tel. 919-309-0371

  • Barry
    February 2, 2009 (8:45 am)

    While Ms. Graff is completely correct that international adoption is in need of reform, she completely misses several crucial realities:

    * Every social service, especially our own domestic programs of adoption and foster care, includes human failings and abuse. We simply have to accept these failings and abuse, continually work to reduce them and reform the processes as we go; the only way to eliminate these failings entirely is to terminate programs that do a tremendous good for real people and children, who are, right now, experiencing real and avoidable suffering.
    * Every party she quotes has their own agenda, spins their information for their own ends, and leaves out something essential to the entire picture. This includes our own government, particularly USCIS, but also the State Department, whose fear of embarrassment in an administration that has only one standard: zero tolerance, even for social programs. For instance, US officials fully intended to embarrass Vietnamese officials with a release in April of 2008 that was nothing more than a well planned retelling of 10 stories (out of the 1400+ adoptions approved) of corruption released by the Department of State in February of 2008. This manipulated the Vietnamese into a corner from which they found it impossible to renegotiate the Memorandum of Understanding that Vietnam requires to participate in international adoption. This “happened” to leave the US government in the politically “clean” position of being able to point to Vietnam’s choices as the cause of the program shutdown. Even these 10 stories contained the kind of misinformation and omissions that Ms. Graff finds so horrendous in the documentation from others, indicating their corruption. The very transparency our own government insists must come from other governments, orphanages, and hospitals is not present in our own.
    * Without support from international adoption agencies, many orphanages in developing countries would be in such deplorable condition that desperate birth parent(s) would not consider them as an option. Instead, a friend of a friend of an acquaintance or (fill in the blank) unknown party could offer more hope and care for their child, even abandoning their child in a field and praying! Many orphanages provide care for the children least likely to be adopted, those with HIV or special needs, the infirm and even the elderly, and are able to do so because of donations from adoptive parents who have been there. Without this first person experience, there simply is no other “voice” for the most vulnerable and silent; they are without skills, education, means, access to media – sometimes they literally have no fingers with which to write or with a physical handicap that impairs their speech. And they are long plane flights away from the richest nation in the world and its news agencies.
    * Legally, there isn’t anything stopping our government from regulating what agencies may charge for adoptions, nor stopping them from requiring adoptive parents to disclose all fees paid and to whom.
    * One huge reason for the decline in international adoptions is that, as the US discovers corruption, they shut down programs entirely. There is no ongoing dialogue or even minimal diplomatic priority for resolving the underlying issues. It is politically “cleaner” for the US to sever ties. Another huge reason is that as the Hague spreads, the process becomes much more arduous, lengthy, and overrun with paperwork. This not only discourages prospective parents but harms the children as they wait, not grow up, in institutions.

    The True Lie propagated by her article is that this is an economic issue. It is a human one. Adoption reveals both the best and worst we have to offer. It demonstrates the abundance of love and hope and fear and greed in our world. We should not try to obscure that with an image of consumer and product, nor of logistics, nor of supply and demand. Doing so necessarily limits the language to the arena where money dominates and only greed grows. So, of course, the view from there is dismal!

  • C.Wagner
    February 7, 2009 (9:25 am)

    “In her discussion of international adoption, Graff focuses on adoptive parents’ desire for “healthy, adoptable babies.” Never does she mention that around 40 percent of adoption from China last year, the largest sending country for adoption, was of special needs children nor does she point out that most of the children adopted from Russia (also in the top five sending countries) are children with medical needs. These are not the parents searching for a “perfect child” portrayed in the article. And the fate of children with special needs in the developing world remains dire. They are a discriminated against minority who face a dire dearth of medical care and as a result, shortened, stunted lives.”

    Diane Kunz fails to explain that the majority of those people who chose to adopt a child with a SN were actually waiting in line among the other 25,000+ international families for a NSN adoption and had it not been for the corruption within the China program these families would have remained in the NSN route.
    She does not explain as well that many of these adoptions were of children who had very minimal or fully corrected SNs as well as healthy older children with no SN.

    Only when massive issues arose within the IA program and the Hunan scandal exposed how orphanages were obtaining children for the IA demand — then things began to slow down with corrupt orphanages pausing their baby buying programs for a period. And even the Hunan scandal showed how damage control was done and minimal accountability was placed on the orphanages and the China program.

    Now with the increase in donation and more buying power along with pressure to produce more children to alleviate the backlog of waiting families and the pressure from agencies that are now hurting financially, CCAA is working hard to get “all children’s files submitted” and to “limit orphanages from placing kids for domestic adoptions”.

    Infants will continue to be submitted for IA despite the millions of domestic families who desire or rely on adoption. International adoptions will be favoured over domestic adoptions inside of China due to financial reasons and this will sadly continue the epidemic of child snatching that is seen in order to fulfill the domestic demand.

    Children found at the gates of the orphanage, found by orphanage staff, found by repeat finders or found in fictitious locations… this will all still continue because the political pressures and the billions of dollars will ensure that kids keep flowing.

    Now we see much older children, who have living relatives in China who love them and cared for them, being submitted into the IA stream. Agencies are now going inside of China and working very hard to ease the children’s concerns about IA. “Camps” that work to promote IA and to persuade these older children to make the decision to leave the families that they love and move across the world into another home with another family and another entire culture. All for the sake of money!!

    If the older children do not want to be adopted then agencies should not be using solicitation and coercion to get them to agree to IA and they should also not be placing videos and pictures online to promote the adoptions of these children! Regulations and family requirements have been waived and fees “anonymously donated” to allow these children to fill the gap that the NSN infants left once the program began to crater.

    I do hope Ms. Graff will one day have the time to revisit her article on The Lie We Love and explore the China situation much deeper. China is not removed from the same type of corruption found in other programs; the lack of access prevents this truth from being fully exposed.