NEW YORK – For legions of Americans craving a chance to adopt children, a confluence of daunting trends makes this an especially distressing time.
The overall number of U.S. adoptions has dropped significantly in recent years, straining the viability of many adoption agencies and drawing some into conduct that authorities describe as unethical or worse. Would-be adoptive parents confront the specter of long waiting times and high fees. And many face pressure to spend lavishly on self-promotional advertising if they want to compete for a chance to adopt an infant.
Chuck Johnson, CEO of the National Council for Adoption, estimates that 1 million families are trying to adopt at any given time.
"No matter where they go, unless they're super lucky, they're going to be in for a long wait," Johnson said. "They're going to be in a slow, painful process for foster care or in this massive competition for the limited number of healthy infants — and that's where the situation is ripe for fraud. There are so many families who want to adopt, and so few options for them."
Inevitably, some of the people desperate to adopt fall victim to scams. In March, a woman from Carolina Beach, North Carolina, was accused of using the internet to fleece a dozen would-be adoptive parents. In 2015, a Texas woman was sentenced to five years in federal prison for defrauding a Kansas couple out of $22,225; she falsely claimed she was pregnant and wanted to put her twins up for adoption.
In the absence of comprehensive federal figures, Johnson's council, which represents more than 120 adoption agencies, periodically tries to tally the total number of adoptions in the U.S. Its latest count, released in February, showed a 17 percent drop from 133,737 adoptions in 2007 to 110,373 in 2014.
Most of the decline was due to a sharp decrease in the number of international adoptions; the number of infant adoptions remained relatively stable at about 18,000, as did adoptions out of foster care at about 50,000.
Thousands of clients seeking to adopt have been buffeted recently by the downfall of their agencies, in some cases after having paid many thousands of dollars over several years.
The State Department, alleging extensive improprieties in handling international adoptions, shut down Ohio-based European Adoption Consultants in December. It operated in a dozen foreign countries.
A few weeks later, a domestic-adoption agency licensed in eight states, the Independent Adoption Center, declared bankruptcy, leaving more than 3,000 clients in the lurch. The California-based agency, which boasted of arranging more than 4,000 adoptions over a 34-year history, blamed the bankruptcy on "societal changes" that increased the number of parents seeking to adopt domestically while shrinking the pool of expectant mothers open to having their babies adopted.
Among the affected clients were Nicole and Don Davis of Lake Tapps, Washington, who said they had been working with the adoption center for four years at a cost of about $20,000.
"Honestly, I was stunned," Nicole Davis said of the bankruptcy news. "For the first few weeks, I was bouncing between frustration and anger and crying all the time."
She recalled a Super Bowl party in February with friends who brought their infants. "It was a gratifying day to hold the babies ... but at the same time it was devastating," she wrote in her blog. "I actually cried the whole way home."
Another couple, newlyweds Christopher Koontz and Bobby Duong of Long Beach, California, said they'd paid the agency about $16,000 over nearly two years, and right up until the bankruptcy were still being urged to spend more on advertising to promote themselves on social media. The extent of any reimbursement is uncertain.
"Several of our close friends, family members and co-workers were rooting for us to adopt — it felt shameful to tell them what happened," Duong said.
Koontz, a city planner for Long Beach, said he and Duong have approached another agency to pursue their quest for a child, but he finds himself disillusioned about the adoption business.
"It's very much run like a time-share presentation," he said. "It's a high pressure sales pitch, and then as soon as you cut the check it's like you're dealing with a completely different group of people."
Josh Christian, a lawyer in Greenville, South Carolina, was a client of European Adoption Consultants. He estimates that he and his wife ended out paying $10,000 extra to complete the adoptions of two sisters from Uganda, who had to spend more time in an orphanage because of the agency's shutdown.
Only after the State Department action did Christian learn that there were long-simmering problems with EAC. He suggested there should be some sort of national database through which would-be adoptive parents could access information of that nature.
EAC was accused by the State Department of charging excessively high fees, misrepresenting information about children, and other improprieties. The agency said it considered the shutdown unwarranted and was considering an appeal.
Many agencies specializing in international adoptions have closed in recent years, and others have struggled, as the number of foreign children adopted by Americans has plunged. The latest federal figures, for the 2016 fiscal year, reported 5,372 adoptions from abroad, down more than 76 percent from the high of 22,884 in 2004.
The State Department says factors out of its control are responsible for most of the decline — including an increase in domestic adoptions in China, Russia's suspension of adoptions by Americans, and corruption scandals that shut down international adoptions in several countries.
Virginia-based America World Adoption, which has offices in 21 states, has seen its caseload drop by more than 50 percent over a decade — from 447 international adoptions in 2005 to 208 last year.
"We have fewer staff now, and adoptions are becoming more difficult, taking longer," said Ryan Hanlon, the agency's executive director. "We're trying to do more with less."
Hanlon says some families lose interest when told that infants are not available, or that waits will be long — likely more than three years, for example, for adoptions from Haiti. Those who do persist face large bills; the agency advises that adoptions from China or Ethiopia could cost $30,000 to $40,000.
One of the largest U.S. agencies, Bethany Christian Services, continues to grow overall even as the number of adoptions it facilitated dropped from 1,980 in 2010 to fewer than 1,300 in 2016. It has expanded various other services in the U.S., including foster care and family counseling, and has launched programs overseas to encourage foster care and adoption of orphans in their home country. For example, Bethany is partnering with a nonprofit in South Africa that is pioneering efforts to enable black South Africans to consider adopting.
Of the foreign children who are available for adoption by Americans, an increasingly large share have physical or emotional complications, highlighting the need for agencies to ensure that parents adopting these children are well-prepared in advance of the adoption and then supported afterward.
"It is very challenging for some agencies, especially if your only source of revenue is adoption," said Bill Blacquiere, president and CEO of Bethany, based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. "In any declining market you're going to see some kind of consolidation and people having to change."
One small agency, New Beginnings Adoption, has managed to stay afloat while operating in just two states, Mississippi and Tennessee, and focusing on adoptions from just three foreign countries — China, Poland and Taiwan.
The president of the nonprofit Christian agency, Tom Velie, says his staff receives emotional calls day after day from people yearning to adopt an infant, and warns them it could take several years. He says he limits his agency's waiting list to about 40 to 45 clients, forgoing "bucketfuls of money" that would be available if he added more clients paying nonrefundable application fees. Some agencies have been faulted for maintaining large waiting lists that leave some clients in limbo for years.
In San Antonio, Abrazo Adoption Associates, a small nonprofit agency, was handling a peak of about 70 adoptions annually a decade ago, and now fewer than half that number. Its executive director, Elizabeth Jurenovich, devoted a recent blog post to the adoption industry's mounting problems. She bemoaned the cut-throat competition for the small supply of healthy infants — she calls them "Gerber babies" — available for adoption.
"It sticks in my craw that there are tens of thousands of American children sitting in foster care who are considered less than desirable because they're no longer infants," she said.
Of the roughly 50,000 children adopted out of foster care each year, most are 5 or younger. Of the nearly 112,000 children left in the system still waiting to be adopted, most are 7 or older, and according to federal figures, more than 20,000 foster youth age out of the system each year without having found an adoptive home.
Experts doubt that the number of adoptions in the U.S. will ever approach their peak of 175,000 in the 1970s. They cite such trends as the destigmatization of single motherhood and the availability of abortion, which have reduced the pool of women whose unintended pregnancies led them to consider adoption.
Deborah Siegel, a professor of social work at Rhode Island College who writes frequently about adoption, says the lower numbers aren't necessarily a cause for regret.
"If we can avoid adoption by keeping children embraced in stable, safe families, everybody's better off," she said. "In a way, the less need for adoptions is for the better, but that's hard for the people waiting to adopt."
However, she said supporting at-risk families so children don't need to go into foster care requires adequate funding.
The Donaldson Adoption Institute, a leading research organization, says the optimal goal should be to make all families stronger, not simply to promote adoption. It says expectant mothers considering adoption should get "non-coercive counseling" about their options. April Dinwoodie, the institute's chief executive, said more women might keep their babies if they were assured of adequate financial support.
The institute also has warned about the over-commercialization of adoption.
"The reality is that money has distorted adoption," said one of its recent reports. "This reality can leave parents ... open to the possibility of coercion and emotional despair and make adopted people feel like commodities."
Among the most outspoken proponents of adoption is Chuck Johnson of the National Council for Adoption, and yet he voices frustration at current trends.
Adoption numbers could be boosted, he argues, if the State Department was more aggressive in promoting international adoption, if more expectant mothers were counseled on the option of adoption, and if state child welfare agencies were more responsive to people interested in adopting children out of foster care.
Of the families recruited by public agencies to be foster and adoptive parents, he says, about 60 percent quit in the first year and 20 percent more in the second year, mostly citing frustrations with the bureaucracy. He ticks off problems facing adoption: inconsistent practices and regulations, profit-motivated competition among agencies, corruption and unprofessional services.
"I started examining, in more detail, some of the real instances of unethical adoption practice — and it made me sick to see the exploitation and crimes being committed under the guise of adoption," Johnson wrote in a recent column, faulting political leaders for failing to seek remedies.
"Adoption is probably the policy issue where you see the most consensus across the political spectrum — yet despite so much public support, adoption always seems to take a backseat to other issues," Johnson said. "We just can't get it done."
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