When President Donald Trump’s administration in April withdrew proposed rules that international adoption agencies worried would price them out of doing their jobs, the agencies breathed a collective sigh of relief.
But seven months later, it appears as if it’s harder than ever to adopt a child from overseas.
First, the State Department’s Office of Children’s Issues began requiring agencies to provide far more information on adoption service providers overseas, making agencies responsible for every person or entity who interacted with the children that they wanted to pair with U.S. families — even if the agency had no ability to influence the actions of those foreign providers. Agencies were also asked to enter into signed legal agreements with foreign providers accepting responsibility for their actions — even if those agreements were prohibited by the country.
Then they began re–interpreting regulations on the accreditation of U.S. adoption service providers — a move that adoption agencies say will make their already stringent accreditation standards harder and far costlier.
Frustrated by the new requirements, the New York–based Council on Accreditation — the leading organization accrediting international adoption agencies — announced last month that it would step down in serving as the national accrediting entity, providing accreditation services for 14 months as a transition period and trying to resolve their disagreements with State during that time. In an October letter explaining the move, COA president and CEO Richard Klarberg said the new State Department requirements “are inconsistent with COA’s philosophy and mission.”
Klarberg wrote that the agency worried that the changes would further reduce the number of children who can be placed in permanent homes in the United States because their countries of origin will find the changes “to be an infringement of their sovereign rights or unduly burdensome.” And he said the costs of implementing those requirements would become prohibitive both for agencies and for prospective adoptive families who will bear the financial burden of the new requirements.
“Given our long relationship with the Department and the adoption community and our commitment to supporting inter-country adoption, this has been a very difficult decision,” he wrote. Reached for comment, Klarberg declined to elaborate on the letter.
The number of U.S. international adoptions has already been waning since 2004, when U.S. families adopted 22,989 families from overseas. By 2016, the State Department reported, that number had dropped to 5,370.
International adoptions have also plummeted in Ohio. In 2004, Ohioans adopted 906 children from overseas. Last year, they adopted 210.
Some of the slowdown is because some nations — including Russia, Guatemala, South Korea and Ethiopia — have slowed or halted international adoptions to the United States.
But the regulations that the State Department suggested, adoption proponents argue, would have had an even harsher impact, barring agencies from charging prospective adoptive parents for the cost of caring for their child after families are matched and adding stringent new requirements for parents wanting to adopt from overseas.
The administration formally withdrew those regulations in April, but they’ve moved forward on some of the concepts in those regulations, such as putting additional layers on the accreditation process.
Those layers, said Chuck Johnson, president of the National Council for Adoption “will actually make inter-country adoptions even more difficult.” He said he’s already seeing agencies leave the business.
Elizabeth Bartholet, director of the Child Advocacy Program at Harvard University, said that the administration has moved on with implementing the regulations despite withdrawing them. “They have basically driven the Center on Accreditation out of business,” she said.
Bartholet said the end result would “destroy international adoption.”
She said while the Trump administration has been eager to rescind other Obama-era regulations, it has not paid adequate attention to the actions of the State Department on international adoption. “It’s really, really unfortunate,” she said.
Others argue that additional regulations are needed. David Smolin, director of the Center for Children, Law and Ethics at Samford University in Alabama, said the real reason for the drop in international adoptions wasn’t too much regulation — it was too little.
He said many of the countries that dropped out of inter-country adoption did so because of scandal where children weren’t actually orphans or other abusive practices. In some cases, he said, paperwork about the children was filled with inaccurate information about everything from medical conditions to cognitive difficulties. Adoptive parents, he said, weren’t fully informed of the challenges their children would face.
Among the agencies that have faced such scandals: European Adoption Consultants, which the State Department barred last year from conducting international adoption services for three years. In October, an Ohio mother reported that the daughter she’d adopted from Uganda already had a loving family in Africa.
The State Department, for its part, said if the COA stops acting as the accrediting entity for international adoption agencies, another accrediting entity will take over. The department recently designated a new entity to help assume those responsibilities.
“There will be no interruption to inter-country adoption as a result of COA’s decision to terminate its role as a designated accrediting entity,” a State Department official said.
Julia Norris, director of affiliate offices and accreditation for the McLean, Va.-based America World Adoption Agency, said that the biggest hurdle has been uncertainty.
Part of the requirement for accreditation is that the agency supervise the foreign providers — a response to high profile stories of orphanages that had coerced poor parents into giving up their children or, in some cases, kidnapped from their birth parents because of a high demand for adoptive children.
But for agencies, such a requirement is hard to meet: Who, exactly, are they supervising? And how can agencies have the manpower to make sure that those overseas providers are supervised? The requirements, she and others, say, leave wide room for interpretation.
“I understand the point of this,” she said. “To eliminate corruption and unethical adoption. I am all for that. It’s just not practical the way they are expecting us to go about this.”
But Smolin is critical of the COA, saying that it uses a volunteer peer review method that does not provide adequate regulation of agencies. At times, he said, the organization has turned a blind eye to problems with other agencies. He said State should have been overseeing accreditation all along.
For those on the ground, the change is noticeable, even if the reasons aren’t.
Thomas Taneff, a Columbus-area adoption attorney, said he’s watched as international adoption has become increasingly difficult.
“It’s hard to put my finger on,” he said. “There’s been a definite slowdown.”