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Is International Adoption Risky?

5 International Adoption Risks to be Aware of

Risk is inherent in adoption. While adoption is not really a sure thing until it is finalized in court, adoptive parents are asked to put their hearts on the line long before that. They invest their time, emotions and finances in a process that is full of uncertainties, and any hopeful parent who embarks on this journey is taking a leap of faith.

In a process with so many moving parts, there are plenty of opportunities for unforeseen challenges to arise. No matter which type of adoption you choose, there can be bumps in the road, delays in the process and moments that test you. In domestic infant adoption, there is the risk of being chosen by a prospective birth mother who ultimately changes her mind and decides to parent her child. In foster care adoption, there is no guarantee that a child you’ve loved and cared for — maybe even for years — will become a permanent member of your family. And international adoption is no different.

While American Adoptions does not provide international adoption services, we know that many of our families consider this path as they explore their family-building options and we want you to have all the information you need to make a fully informed decision about what is best for you.

Ultimately, every hopeful parent must decide what path is right for them, and it is up to you to determine what risks you are comfortable taking. If international adoption is a route you are considering, here are some of the realities you need to be aware of.

Risk 1: The country shutting down or suspending adoptions

International adoption has undergone a dramatic transformation in recent years. While this used to be a common way for hopeful parents to bring children into their families, international adoptions have dropped more than 84 percent since 2004 — due in large part to shifting international adoption policies.

Countries that were once popular destinations for hopeful adoptive parents, including Russia and Ethiopia, have closed their borders to foreign families hoping to adopt. Other countries, including China and South Korea, still allow international adoptions but have imposed restrictions on the number of children being placed abroad. Often, these bans and suspensions are implemented because of increasing domestic adoptions within the country or because of ethical concerns (more on that below). Just as often, they are an unfortunate byproduct of complex political drama.

These adoption shutdowns often happen without warning, leaving hundreds of would-be adoptive families in limbo. Adoptions in process at the time a suspension or ban is implemented will be put on hold indefinitely, meaning even parents who have already been matched and fallen in love with their child cannot complete their adoption. At best, this means frustrating delays for hopeful adoptive families while they wait for the suspension to be lifted. In many cases, it means a family may never get the opportunity to bring their child home.

The list of countries imposing restrictions on international adoption is ever-growing. Families who choose this path, even in a country that is currently friendly to American adoptive parents, are always at risk of an unexpected suspension or shutdown in their chosen country, potentially delaying or halting their process altogether.

In contrast, domestic adoption provides a safe, guaranteed path to bringing a child into your family. For example, when you work with American Adoptions, you will become a parent, no matter how long it takes. Our adoption specialists will connect you with experienced adoption attorneys who understand local adoption laws and will take all the necessary steps to protect your family-building journey.

Risk 2: Participating in an unethical adoption process

International adoption can be beautiful — but, under certain conditions, it can also be an opportunity ripe for exploitation. Language barriers, unfamiliar adoption laws and procedures, and varying quality of international orphanages all can allow certain crucial information to slip through the cracks. It’s not uncommon for details about an adoptee’s personal background to be lost in translation — or even intentionally omitted. This means, often, it is difficult to verify whether a child actually qualifies as an orphan in need of adoption.

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for shady adoption “professionals” in developing countries to coerce birth parents into relinquishing their children or to make false promises to unsuspecting birth families who may be in a desperate situation. These traffickers may take advantage of vulnerable parents by stepping in and offering what they say is a temporary solution — only to then place the child with foreign adoptive parents without the birth family’s consent.

Take, for example, a 2019 report from the Associated Press detailing one South Korean facility’s illegal “orphan pipeline.” The report uncovered a system of government cover-up and high level of abuse at a facility that kidnapped and abused children before delivering them to adoptive parents in North America, Europe and Australia — all without the knowledge of their biological parents.

It is this type of corruption — along with widely publicized stories of internationally adopted children being abused in their American homes — that has led many countries to impose restrictions on international adoptions. Even well-intentioned hopeful parents who adopt from abroad may be at risk of unwittingly supporting and participating in a corrupt and unethical system.

But parents who adopt in the United States with our agency’s help can know that the process is completed ethically, safely and legally. Our trained specialists provide free, 24/7 counseling to prospective birth parents, educating them about all of their unplanned pregnancy options. A prospective birth mother receives support through every step of the process, and she always retains the right to change her mind about her adoption decision until signing her legal consent after the baby is born.

Our adoptive parents can rest assured that any children placed with them are done so out of their birth parents’ free will and desire to provide the best opportunities possible for their son or daughter.

Risk 3: Receiving incomplete health information

In addition to receiving incomplete (or even falsified) information about a child’s personal history and biological family, parents who adopt internationally are often provided little to no information about a child’s medical background. This means a family may inadvertently adopt a child they are not fully prepared or equipped to parent.

Without a complete family history, adoptive parents have no way of knowing whether their child has (or is genetically predisposed to develop) serious medical or psychiatric illnesses. They most likely will not know whether their child’s birth mother received prenatal care or used drugs or alcohol during her pregnancy. In countries with inadequate medical resources, a child may not receive the proper care to diagnose and treat their illnesses, which may lead to long-term medical implications. Similarly, many international orphanages struggle to provide well-balanced meals, leading to malnutrition that can have a lifelong impact on a child’s health and behavior.

In some cases, situations like these have led to heartbreaking stories of parents dissolving their international adoptions — sometimes by dangerously and illegally “re-homing” their children to other families after coming to the United States.

Parents who hope to adopt abroad should be prepared for the possibility of later discovering undisclosed physical and mental health conditions in their child’s history. It’s important to be aware of this risk of international adoption so you can be fully prepared to embrace and support your child in the years to come — whatever their needs may be.

On the other hand, those who adopt domestically receive much more information about their child’s personal and medical background. Our adoption specialists work closely with prospective birth parents to create as complete a picture as possible about birth family medical and social history. Hopeful adoptive parents can decide their comfort level on certain medical situations, and open adoption contact with their child’s birth parent ensures they receive any new medical or family history that comes to light after the adoption, too.

Risk 4: Losing money to adoption fraud, extortion or hidden fees

There is money to be made in international adoption — which means there is no shortage of predators ready to take advantage. If hopeful parents don’t take precautions and ensure they are working with a reputable adoption professional, this can put them at risk of losing significant sums of money to scammers.

For example, some fraudulent adoption “agencies” will lure hopeful parents in by posting pictures of “waiting children” online — only to take the family’s initial application fee and then disappear. Language barriers also make hopeful adoptive parents a common target of fraud or extortion when they travel to their child’s country to adopt; corrupt officials (or, in some cases, scammers posing as officials) may demand additional, unexpected fees before allowing parents to leave the country with their child.

However, domestic adoption is much more heavily regulated. Licensed adoption professionals like American Adoptions are reviewed by government officials yearly to ensure they are providing ethical adoption services. American Adoptions also advocates on your behalf to prevent adoption fraud; we take the steps to screen prospective birth mothers and confirm their commitment long before connecting you. Our screening and counseling services help to identify women who are lying about their pregnancy or their intent to place, and we provide extra financial protection for adoptive parents in the case of an adoption disruption.

Risk 5: Becoming ill or injured while traveling

Depending on the country from which a family is adopting, there may be certain health and safety risks of international adoption to consider, as well. For example, families traveling to adopt in certain parts of the world may be exposed to infectious diseases that U.S. doctors don’t routinely vaccinate against, such as malaria or typhoid. Hopeful parents may also risk food-borne illness if they eat unsafe foods or drink contaminated water. It’s important to be aware of these potential health hazards in the country you are traveling to and to get the necessary vaccinations and take other precautions ahead of time.

There may be certain security concerns in the country from which you are adopting, as well. Be aware of any current terrorism threats in your child’s birth country, as well as any anti-American sentiment you may experience while abroad. Stay up to date on any travel advisories issued by the U.S. Department of State, and plan accordingly.

If you prefer a safer family-building journey, domestic adoption may be the right call for you. While adoptive parents frequently adopt across state lines, doing so is easy and straightforward. Barring travel disruptions due to situations like COVID-19, traveling to adopt a child within the United States is safe and commonly done. And, when you work with American Adoptions, your specialist will guide you every step of the way and prepare you for any challenges you may encounter.

Minimizing the Risks of International Adoption

While international adoption can be risky, it can also be a rewarding way to add a child to a family. If you are considering this path for your family and feel the benefits outweigh the risks, here are some steps you can take to protect yourself and your child throughout the process:

  • Work with a reputable adoption agency. By far, the best thing you can do is work with a highly rated international adoption agency with an established history of completing safe and successful adoptions in the country from which you want to adopt. A well-established, ethical adoption agency will guide you through each step of the process, prepare you for the laws and procedures to expect in your chosen country, and help minimize your risks by offering transparent fee estimates, providing you with travel recommendations and more.

  • Adopt from a Hague country. The Hague Adoption Convention is an international treaty that establishes guidelines and procedures that help to protect internationally adopted children. Adopting from a country that is part of the Hague Convention helps to ensure that your adoption is completed ethically and may provide additional benefits, like improved access to medical records.

  • Choose your country wisely. Thoroughly research the country you wish to adopt from and assess the stability of its adoption procedures and its relationship with the United States. Follow the U.S. Department of State’s website for updates on any possible adoption bans or suspensions.

  • Stick to the agency’s outline of fees. Get a complete list of the fees you can expect to pay from your adoption agency upfront. A reputable adoption agency will be transparent about the costs and will not charge any hidden fees later on in the process. Do not make any payments to anyone without checking with your agency first.

Choosing to adopt internationally is not a decision to be made lightly. However, if you feel it’s right for you, following these tips can help you to have a safe, successful, ethical experience.

If you are not sure that you are ready to take on the risks of international adoption, there are many other options you can consider, including domestic infant adoption. If you have not done so already, spend some time comparing domestic and international adoption to determine which path is best for you.

Families who are interested in learning more about the possibility of adopting a baby in the U.S. can request free information online, any time and with no obligation. 

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