By Marisa Light and Tim Eydelnant
Thousands of U.S. citizens were caught up in Russia’s full-scale, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine that began Feb. 24. Among them were several families that had traveled to Ukraine for what should have been one of the happiest moments of their lives—finalizing the adoption of their children. Instead, those families faced an immediate suspension of all intercountry adoption and the prospect of leaving the country without the children, who were now stuck in a war zone. The prospective parents, many of whom had been involved in the adoption process for several years, faced nothing but uncertainty.
With a mixture of desperation and hope, many chose to stay despite the safety risks and warnings of U.S. government travel advisories. In the weeks that followed, other prospective adoptive parents traveled to Ukraine, trying to ensure the safety of the children. Adoption staff within the Bureau of Consular Affairs’ Office of Children’s Issues (CI) worked tirelessly to provide families and their adoption agencies with information while coordinating behind the scenes with the Ukrainian government on individual cases to allow as many as possible to proceed. CI stayed in constant communication with consular colleagues from posts in Kyiv and Warsaw to assist the families and prioritize cases that were ready for immigrant visa issuance.
CI collectively experienced the joy that came with the news of each family arriving safely home with their new U.S. citizen children. While there are still hundreds of potential adoption cases from Ukraine that face an uncertain future, CI continues to update potential adoptive parents to be ready to restart international adoptions as soon as the Ukrainian government is able to lift the suspension of services.
Fortunately, most of CI’s work is not nearly as dramatic. It is, however, equally life changing. Children without families face similar vulnerabilities worldwide, and the generosity of American families who adopt these children is inspiring. Children approved for intercountry adoption often have complex medical or developmental needs that have resulted in (or are the result of) being relegated to institutional care since birth. These children have, therefore, already been determined to be unable to be adopted in their own countries. Since the year 2000, American families have adopted more than 250,000 children from more than 100 countries, about half of the world’s total intercountry adoptions. CI plays a critical role in making intercountry adoption possible for the children who need it.
In addition to serving as the U.S. Central Authority for the Hague Adoption Convention, which established international standards to protect children and ensure that intercountry adoptions take place in a transparent and ethical way, CI’s two adoption divisions work together to advance U.S. policy and ensure that intercountry adoption to and from the United States is safe and appropriate for all involved. Staff in the Bilateral Engagement Division collaborate with foreign governments to facilitate adoptions and provide technical assistance to strengthen intercountry adoption programs consistent with the convention. They also advise consular staff overseas on complex cases and provide training on adoption issues. Staff in the Adoption Oversight Division ensure the integrity of the U.S. system, composed of private agencies that facilitate intercountry adoptions and State Department-designated entities that evaluate and monitor their compliance with federal regulations. Oversight staff also update regulations and research areas that are more vulnerable to illicit practices. Both divisions work closely with the Department’s Special Advisor for Children’s Issues, Michelle Bernier-Toth, as well as counterparts in the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families.
The last few years have been particularly challenging for intercountry adoption, especially for the children and families engaged in the process. China, the largest country of origin for adoptions to the United States prior to the global COVID-19 pandemic, suspended intercountry adoptions in March 2020 over health concerns and has yet to allow any movement in the hundreds of cases that were in process at that time. Ukraine was the second largest country of origin before it indefinitely suspended adoptions following Russia’s full-scale invasion. A handful of other countries have imposed restrictions or even unilaterally banned intercountry adoption due to negative attitudes towards the practice, often influenced by misinformation or rare, but high-profile cases in which children suffer abuse by an adoptive parent or are returned to their country of origin without anyone’s knowledge. In these cases, CI staff work to resolve concerns, demonstrate the rigor and oversight of the intercountry adoption process, and advocate for the restoration of intercountry adoptions when they are in the best interests of children.
Adoption efforts have also seen positive trends. Over the past five years, six countries have acceded to the Hague Convention and, in 2021, intercountry adoptions increased approximately 10% over the previous year. In July, Special Advisor Bernier-Toth led an interagency delegation, representing the United States in a multilateral virtual meeting, with representatives from over 70 nations to address the practical implementation of the Hague Convention. The meeting concluded with a global commitment to reduce illicit practices in adoption, such as improper financial gain, and helped secure resources that will help authorities identify problematic practices and collaborate to prevent and reduce them.
November is National Adoption Month, which serves as an annual opportunity for the public to reflect on the generosity of American families that open their homes and hearts to children in need, whether from within their communities or from around the world. National Adoption Month also recognizes the essential efforts and dedication of experienced adoption agency staff around the country. They guide American families through every step of this complex legal process. As the CI staff fills the month with outreach opportunities to highlight the life changing impact of intercountry adoption, they also engage directly with intercountry adoptees to learn from their experiences and help inform U.S. intercountry adoption policy and procedure.
In spite of the challenges, CI continues to look at the future of adoptions with optimism. As long as there are children throughout the world who can benefit from the permanency of intercountry adoption, the adoption staff in CI will work to ensure that the process is safe, ethical, and transparent.
In the July report on intercountry adoptions Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stated: “U.S. families have consistently stepped forward to care for [international adoptees]. We can be proud that, as a nation and as families, we protect them and provide them the love and permanency they need to thrive.”
Marisa Light is chief of the adoption oversight division and Tim Eydelnant is chief of the bilateral engagement division in the Office of Children’s Issues.