Russia's new ban on US adoptions is the latest setback for hopeful American parents as countries increasingly impose restrictions.
Other countries, including China and Guatemala, have erected hurdles for adoptive families as they create their own domestic adoption programs. The signing of the Hague Convention on adoption in 2008 drastically improved regulation of the process, which had been rife with corruption. But it has also led to a slowdown in adoptions or shutdowns in some countries. Internal politics and abuse concerns are additional reasons why countries have tightened controls.
In 2004, US citizens adopted 22,991 children who had been born abroad, an all-time high, according to Adoptive Families magazine. By 2011, that number had fallen to 9,319.
There are still other options for Americans wanting to adopt an international child. Bulgaria, Columbia and many African nations are some of the new, go-to countries for US adoptions.
But even that's not a sure thing. For would-be adoptive parents the best bet is to widen their search to include special needs kids, sibling groups and older children.
Africa's adoption explosion
Africa, which represented 22 percent of adoptions in 2009, is expected to be a bigger player in the future. "A decade ago, there were very few adoptions (in Africa)," according to Susan Soonkeum Cox, vice president policy and external affairs at Holt International, a Christian adoption organization. "Now, there's an explosion."
African countries seeing an increase in adoptions include South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Kenya and Ivory Coast.
Adoptions in Ethiopia, meanwhile, have declined from a peak of 2,511 in 2010 as the country overhauled its oversight process. But it is still a viable option, Cox said.
Cox advises working with an adoption agency that has staff on the ground in Africa and other countries to handle paperwork and advocate for US families.
Other countries that still welcome American adoptions include Bulgaria and Colombia, said Megan Montgomery, international adoption coordinator for Adoption Star, based in Amherst, New York. Adoption Star primarily deals with adoptions from Bulgaria, a country that has gone from five placements in 2008 to 75 adoptions in 2011.
Placements from Vietnam and Cambodia, which shuttered their US adoption programs, should resume soon, adoption experts say.
Families can't flip a switch
Adoptions of Russian children peaked in 2004, according to Dale Eldridge, coordinator of adoptive services at Jewish Family Services' Adoption Choices, a non-profit adoption program based in Framingham, Massachusetts. Right now, fewer than 50 US adoptions of Russian children are formally in the works while another 250 US families have identified kids they would like to adopt, adoption experts said.
Unfortunately, families that already have started an adoption in Russia can't just flip a switch and redirect their efforts to another country. "I wish it was as simple as taking some families who have been waiting (for Russian children) to just move over to another country," said David Nish, chief program officer at Spence-Chapin, a US-based adoption agency that finds homes for children in the United States and around the world. "But it's a whole other process."
That's because every country has its own eligibility requirements. Criteria can include parents' marital status, age of the parents, employment, financial status, medical issues, and even the age difference between the adoptive parents and adoptee child. The adoption process remains restrictive for single-sex couples.
And the cost can be prohibitive. For example, the median fee in 2011 was USD 8,000 for the Dominican Republic, USD 15,355 in Panama and USD 26,063 in South Africa, according to the US State Department's Intercountry Adoption Annual Report. Adoption fees for many of the 30-plus countries on the State Department's list are in the range of USD20,000. That's not including travel costs.
Even so, international adoptions are often cheaper than domestic ones for newborn babies, which can cost USD 40,000 or more.
To speed up the process, would-be adoptive parents should consider a school-age child, experts say.
According to the State Department, 233,934 international adoptions were made by Americans from 1999 to 2011. Nearly 94,000 of those adoptions involved children under the age of one. Just about 20,000 children aged three or four were adopted during that period. And for kids aged 5 to 12, it was 29,712.
The benefit of adopting a school-age child is that it is easier to identify developmental and emotional problems ahead of time. "There's more you can do to prepare and put resources in place to support what they need," Spence-Chapin's Nish said.
School-aged children can be challenging if pre-adoptive experiences affect their development, he said.
A special needs child is also a possibility. One way to fast-track an international adoption may be to apply for a child with known medical or special needs, said Adoption Star's Montgomery. "For families with resources, it can be great option," Montgomery said. "Of course, you really have to find the right family to take on that kind of known medical need."
Special needs can range from a baby born with a minor medical problem, such as a cleft palate, to more serious issues, such as a heart condition, blindness or spina bifida. "It's not about families getting a child quicker," Nish said. "It's about a family accepting a child into their household that they can provide for and love and nurture."
China's Waiting Child program, which includes children who have special needs or correctable medical conditions or are part of sibling groups, has wait times that are typically much shorter than the traditional program, according to Adoptive Families magazine. In 2011, more than half of adoptions from China were through this program.
Would-be parents must be prepared to wait. The Associated Services for International Adoption, a non-profit adoption group, says the wait time for an adoption referral in China is 73 months as the country has clamped down on US adoptions. "If the wait time is becoming impractical, it's better to close the intake process" and start again, advised Holt's Cox.
Tracy Downey and her husband, Jason, who live in suburban Des Moines, Iowa, tried to go the traditional international Chinese adoption route in 2006. But after waiting for 18 months to bring home a baby from China, Tracy switched gears and started combing the official Chinese list of children with special needs along with additional lists from adoption agencies and orphanages.
The Downeys have since adopted a daughter, Angel, along with two sons - Corban and Tegan - from China, all with large, potentially disfiguring moles known as a giant congenital nevi. They started the process to bring home the two boys, now aged 3-1/2, last January. It took about 10 months.
Aside from their large moles - which are on two of the children's faces and on the other's lower body - all three kids are healthy and thriving, Tracy said.
"If we wanted a non-special needs child, we'd still be waiting," Tracy said.