(RNS) — The number of international adoptions has plummeted in recent years. In 2004, nearly 30,000 children from other countries were adopted by U.S. families; in 2018, that number had dropped to 4,059, according to U.S. State Department statistics.
This trend represents a tremendous shift in the culture of adoption in this country and has put new stresses on the global adoption system. The prosecution of Arizona official Paul Petersen for smuggling pregnant women from the South Pacific to supply parents in the United States with babies shows how badly we need a new approach to child welfare.
In 1982, Bethany Christian Services assumed responsibility for an international adoption program operated by the state of Michigan that placed children from South Korea with American families. In the years since, intercountry adoption has been an important part of Bethany’s mission and identity. We have placed nearly 15,000 children from Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa and Central America with safe and loving U.S. families.
We’re proud of this work. But the needs of vulnerable children around the world are changing. That’s why we are spearheading international efforts to change the emphasis on bringing children to the U.S. and instead help find adoptive homes for children in their home countries.
In the past decade, nations such as Russia, Guatemala and Ethiopia have closed their doors to intercountry adoption altogether. Other countries have changed their laws, making it nearly impossible to adopt children internationally. In places where we once helped hundreds of children find homes, we now process fewer than a dozen adoptions each year. Other adoption agencies have experienced the same drop off.
Many of these changes are politically driven or are the result of scandals in which foreigners broke adoption laws to take children out of the country. But many countries' thinking about adoption itself is changing as well. Governments that once prioritized orphanage care for children are now supporting family preservation, family reintegration and domestic adoption for children. This change should be celebrated and supported.
The needs of families have drastically changed as well. Bethany began working with countries in Africa because the AIDS epidemic had devastated many villages and families. Today, however, the number of new HIV infections is declining, and treatment options are allowing people to live longer and better lives. We can help preserve and support those families.
When children are removed from their homes in the U.S., foster care workers try to keep them as close to their biological home as possible to minimize change, trauma and loss. The same should be encouraged and supported in our child welfare work overseas. The future of adoption is working with local governments, churches and social services professionals around the world to recruit and support local families for children and to develop and improve effective and safe in-country child welfare systems.
Bethany has been doing this work since 1991, when we partnered with the Romanian government to build a child welfare system from the ground up.
Since then, we’ve provided services in Sarajevo, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to children and families who had fled the war in Kosovo. We’ve worked alongside government partners to establish in-country foster care and adoption programs in China and Ethiopia — the first of their kind in Asia and Africa.
And we’ve helped establish foster care and adoption programs in countries including Haiti, Ghana, Cambodia, Zambia, South Africa, Albania and others, including countries where there was previously no term for “foster care.”
Through these programs, in 2019, we’ve already served more children around the world than we’ve ever served in a single year through intercountry adoption.
The families and children we work with in our overseas programs are remarkable. One adoptive father, when he first saw the child we had matched with his family, told us he’d seen her in a dream. Another waiting family told us they’d chosen the name Meklit, meaning “talent,” for their daughter-to-be; we knew nothing about this when we matched them with a child named Meklit.
In the past, a family facing poverty or a temporary setback might have placed their child for international adoption. We’ve now been able to recruit and support temporary foster families so these children can eventually return to their biological parents.
A family setting best supports a child’s spiritual, physical, psychological, social and emotional needs. It just makes sense to empower local families to care for children in their own community, not just because of the benefits for the children and the community, but also financially. The average intercountry adoption through Bethany costs approximately $50,000 for one child. For that same amount, we can help 50 African children leave an orphanage and find loving foster or adoptive homes nearby.
But we also hope Americans will partner with us as we work to establish more foster care systems and adoption programs around the world and give children the opportunity to grow up with loving families in their own communities.
(Kristi Gleason is vice president of global services at Bethany Christian Services. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)