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International adoption: A big fix brings dramatic decline

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“Haiti magnified and amplified the issue that we deal with in over 180 countries,” says Susan Bissell, chief of child protection for UNICEF in New York. The earthquake – and the media attention that followed it – simply exposed the multitude of problems that many developing countries face and that drive the supply of orphans: extreme poverty among families, weak social welfare systems to find alternative family arrangements closer to home, and corrupt legal systems that operate on personal deals rather than legal principles.

Instead of finding families for every child in need, the present system is set up to find a child for every family that wants one. Navigating the unfamiliar and wildly varying rules of foreign courts has created a huge industry of adoption agencies and adoption-law specialists, who command large fees – often $20,000 to $40,000 per child. And while many adoption agencies do their work legitimately, the lure of such large fees has created powerful incentives for less legitimate agencies to procure children.

In Guatemala’s case, for example, “the government had lost control of the system,” says Marilys Barrientos de Estrada, a director of the governmental agency created to oversee the new adoption process. “It was purely in the hands of the lawyers and agencies. And it wasn’t about the children, it was about the money.”

To ensure that a child’s interests are put first, the 1993 Hague Adoption Convention gave countries a legal blueprint to help them make adoption a transparent, predictable, and legitimate process. As implementation of the treaty by the United States and 81 other countries progressed over the past few years, the number of intercountry adoptions dropped dramatically.

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