For years, the common wisdom for Americans who wanted to adopt a baby quickly and easily was to go abroad. Rather than wrestle with the red tape and long waits associated with adopting in the United States, they could fly to countries where the process took just weeks — or even days — and involved little more than showing up and paying some money.
But sometimes, the quick trips took on sinister undertones, with some birth countries becoming a sort of Wild West for adoptions. Babies were sometimes made available under suspicious circumstances, such as through kidnappings or buying them from their birth mothers.
Aiming to curb such practices, governments stepped in, and now the pendulum has swung far in the other direction. Even before the recent ban in Russia on adoptions by Americans, the annual number of international adoptions has plunged to 40 percent of what it was in the mid-2000s, and the process can grind on for years.
“In 1984, I had people yelling at me because it took six weeks instead of four. Today, it takes about five years to adopt a healthy child from China," said Janice Goldwater, founder and executive director of Adoptions Together, a Silver Spring, Md.-based adoption agency that used to facilitate nearly 100 international adoptions a year and now does fewer than 10.
“The landscape is so different today than it was four years ago, or even three years ago, when we were out recruiting for parents for all these kids, and now there aren’t all these kids available."
‘Huge supply of orphans’
Americans’ interest in adoption rose in the 1990s and early 2000s after the introduction and augmentation of adoption tax credits and legislation limiting how long children could spend in foster care. At the same time, a large number of countries opened for international adoption — including Eastern Europe, Russia and China.
“All of a sudden, there was this huge supply of orphans overseas who were available for American families to adopt," Goldwater said. The rise in interest coincided with an increase in infertility rates, as well as celebrity international adoptions and television shows depicting mixed-race families.
In 1999, the State Department counted 15,719 overseas adoptions by Americans; that number had soared to nearly 23,000 a year by mid-decade. But in 2011, the most recent year for which the department has statistics, just 9,319 children overseas were adopted by people in the U.S.
The pool shrank further in December: Russia, which in 2004 sent 5,862 children to the United States, passed legislation banning adoptions by Americans.
Americans aren’t the only ones facing difficulty in adopting abroad. After reaching a peak of 50,000 in 2005, the worldwide rate of intercountry adoptions has slipped to about 15,000 a year, said Tom DiFilipo, president and chief executive of the Joint Council on International Children’s Services, an Alexandria, Va.-based nonprofit organization.
Some countries have shut down international adoption altogether. Others have dramatically increased the scrutiny of potential adopters as well as the children they want to adopt — to a point where many Americans find themselves shut out from applying.
The U.S. also imposes its own requirements, including criminal checks, fingerprinting and medical reports, as well as proof that the child is truly considered an orphan.
Across the board, the waiting time has stretched out, and many governments require two or more visits to the country by the prospective parents, increasing the cost and lengthening the process.
Sometimes, all the waiting and the money is fruitless.
Lorenda Naylor began trying to adopt internationally in 2005. After the paperwork was completed, “they said, ‘OK, in six months you will have a baby girl, so go home and get your nursery ready."
But the availability of children in China waned, and the baby never materialized. Naylor and her husband next tried Vietnam: They were seventh on the list before the program there shut down. After trying for five years and spending $45,000, they gave up on international adoption. In 2009, they became foster parents to two American toddlers. After 15 months, they were able to adopt them.