The case of seven year old Artyom Savelyev (Justin Hansen) whose adoptive mother, Torry Hansen, sent him back to Russia is only the latest example of intercountry adoption gone horribly wrong. According to Marley Greiner's blog, The Daily Bastardette, fourteen Russian children have been murdered by their American adoptive parents. Disruptions in foreign adoptions are not uncommon, and as we have reported here, corruption is widespread.
While these parents must be held accountable for their horrific acts, another villain, lurking behind the scene, is the demand for foreign kids fueled by aggressive marketing on the part of the adoption industry. These children are attractive to those seeking to adopt because they are thought to come with less baggage (such as mothers) than American children. Glossy ads on the web perpetuate what David Smolin of Cumberland Law School describes as “the adoption myth in the United States [that] sends the message that the love and care found in any normal American home is enough to heal any child.”
Experts have recommended actions which might prevent these tragedies -- better screening of prospective adoptive parents and providing them with accurate information about the child, preparing them for the difficulties that they and the child will encounter; and offering on-going support. (How to Prevent Adoption Disasters, NT Times, 4/15/10). However, there does not appear to be any authority with the power or inclination to force the industry to change.
Intercountry adoptions are regulated by the US Departments of State and Homeland Security, state child welfare agencies, and the governments of the countries which supply the kids. The laws are weak and enforcement sketchy.
This seems unlikely to change. Congress is having difficulty clamping down on the Wall Street practices which brought the economy to its knees. Reining in an industry which “saves children” would be a herculean task. According to The Daily Bastardette, the industry trade group, the Joint Council on International Children's Services has already begun flooding the market with “positive adoption stories” and lining up supporters. When the government has made even feeble efforts to control abuses in adoption in the past, adoption agencies, many operating under the banner of Christ, unleashed an army of prospective adoptive parents to bang on Congressional doors and yammer about bureaucratic red tape preventing their child from joining his American family (albeit they may never have laid eyes on “their child”).
Federal and state officials have shown little ability to respond to even the worst cases of corruption and abuse. The United States Attorney in Salt Lake City allowed Scott and Karen Banks to plead guilty to misdemeanors and receive probation for a massive fraud involving Samoan children which we wrote about here. The Pennsylvania adoption agency Reaching Out Thru International Adoption which placed Masha Allen with pedophile Mathew Mancusco is still in business.
As long as demand exceeds supply, increasing regulation, even if politically possible, is unlikely to have a significant impact. We need only to look at the drug trade where tough laws and billions spent on enforcement has not made a dent. Attempting to impose more regulation over the adoption industry will simply result in a moving cascade of countries using adoption to fill their coffers and empty their orphanages. Where Angelina and Madonna tread, others are sure to follow. As long as there is a buck to be made, someone is there to make it. Congress could take a bite out of that buck, however, by limiting the $12,150 Adoption Tax Credit to adoptions from American foster homes but that’s as unlikely as Congress restoring the estate tax to its pre-Bush level.
The best approach for those wishing to curtail abuse in intercountry adoptions would be an “Adopt America” campaign, encouraging those wanting to “form their family through adoption” to look to their state’s child welfare agency.
An encouraging note is that the demand for foreign children may be waning. International adoptions have declined from a high of 22,990 in 2004 to 12,753 in 2009. Of course, some of this may be fallout from the poor economy. It may also be that as cases of corruption are reported and adoptive parents admit publicly that they cannot handle their kids, fewer people are willing to adopt children from overseas. The Artyom Savelyev case has caused more adoptive parents to speak up, dispelling fantasies about international adoption.
The other side is as Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Bartholet argues, that reducing foreign adoptions “punishes more children, denying them their best chance to escape institutions into the adoptive homes that are generally available only internationally.” Restricting adoptions because of the Artyom Savelyev case would “ignore the larger story about child tragedy and related policy lessons. That story has to do with the systemic abuse that victimizes the millions of children in institutions worldwide.”
While we at FMF do not want to see children abused or languishing in institutions, we recognize that adopting a few thousand of these children each year does nothing for the millions who are not chosen. In fact these happy adoption stories damage children who are too old, too disabled, or too dark by diverting attention from them. Systemic abuse requires systemic solutions. Money spent on bringing children to the US is better spent on relief organizations like those we’ve written about in India and Ecuador. Finally, of course, foreign governments need to step up and protect their children.