International Adoptions Drop to 15-Year Low

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The number of international adoptions is at its lowest point in 15 years, having dropped by nearly 50 percent.

Globally, the number of orphans being adopted by foreign parents dropped from a high of 45,000 in 2004 to an estimated 25,000 last year, according to annual statistics compiled by Peter Selman, an expert on international adoptions at Britain's Newcastle University.

Some adoption advocates argue the decrease is also linked to a set of strict international guidelines known as the Hague Adoption Convention.

Devised to ensure transparency and child protection following a rash of baby-selling and kidnapping scandals, critics say the guidelines have also been used by leading adopting nations, such as the U.S., as a pretext for freezing adoptions altogether from some countries that are out of compliance.

"It should have been a real step forward, but it's been used in a way that's made it a force for shutting down countries," Elizabeth Bartholet, a Harvard Law professor who promotes international adoptions. "That affects thousands of children every year."

Bartholet said places where international adoptions are stopped may ultimately see more children stuck in orphanages or on the street where they could fall prey to sex traffickers.

Much has changed from a decade ago, when busloads of would-be foreign parents flocked to orphanages in poor countries such as China, Vietnam, and Guatemala to take babies home following a relatively quick, easy process.

Waits have become increasingly longer and requirements stiffer, with some countries now refusing obese or single adoptive parents and requiring proof of a certain amount of cash in the bank.

Countries embroiled in scandals have pulled the plug on their programs, or been cut off by the U.S. and other countries, leaving hundreds of children caught in bureaucratic limbo.

Other adoption experts say the economic downturn is at least partly to blame, with foreign adoptions typically costing between $20,000 to $40,000.

The global numbers could decline further as South Korea, one of the top providers of orphans for foreign adoption, works to phase out its long-running program.

Since the 1950s, it has sent more than 170,000 children abroad, with the majority ending up in the United States.

Despite having one of the world's fast-growing economies, and growing domestic concern about falling birth rates that are already among the world's lowest, it continues to rank as a top sending county.

Experts blame this on a strong cultural stigma against both unwed Korean women who give birth and couples who adopt.

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