UNICEF Blamed for Decline in International Adoptions

Critics say the U.N. agency’s priorities have played a major role in the steep drop over the last decade.

NEW YORK — For decades, international adoptions in the United States had been climbing. They peaked at nearly 23,000 children in 2004. Then, the numbers plummeted.

By 2011, just 9,319 children were adopted, U.S. State Department data shows.

Many adoption advocates blame that decline on the very international agency charged with safeguarding the welfare and well-being of children: the United Nations Children’s Fund, better known as UNICEF.

“I think UNICEF and other organizations like Save the Children, the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child and other self-styled child-rights organizations are the primary driving force for the elimination of international adoption,” Harvard law professor Elizabeth Bartholet, one of the most forceful critics of the international agency, told the Register in an interview.

Officially, UNICEF says that it views international adoption as one of many options for orphaned children, a position that a spokesman reaffirmed in a statement.

But adoption advocates say that UNICEF’s actions are at odds with its stated position.

One critic, Ellen Warnock, the director for adoption services at Catholic Charities of Baltimore, described UNICEF’s public stance as mere “lip service.”

Tom DiFilipo, president and CEO of the Joint Council on International Children’s Services, said UNICEF and other institutions in the international aid community have a definite “bias” against international adoptions.

UNICEF, in particular, has pushed policies that would “effectively eliminate” international adoption, under the guise of combating abuse and corruption, Bartholet charges. As a result, efforts aimed at improving the lives of orphaned children in some of the poorest countries in the world have had the perhaps unintended consequence of making them worse by preventing their adoption into loving homes in other nations.

One such effort was the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Cooperation in Respect of Inter-Country Adoption, an international agreement that was struck in 1993 but has taken years to be ratified by individual governments. The convention was meant to “ensure ethical and transparent processes” that focus on the “best interests of the child,” said Peter Smerdon, a UNICEF spokesman.

In a 2004 report on displaced children, UNICEF urged countries that adopt the Hague Convention to take the additional step of banning private intermediaries, such as attorneys, and other organizations, which Bartholet has described as the “lifeblood” of adoptions in many countries.

“Regulation prohibiting private intermediaries has been the death knell for international adoption in many countries, as those promoting this ‘reform’ well know,” Bartholet wrote in the January 2010 edition of Global Policy.


Easy Targets

Attorneys who make handsome profits have become an easy target for UNICEF, according to Bartholet. At one point, in Guatemala, international adoption was an $80-million-a-year industry for fewer than 5,000 children, the Joint Council reported.

But it is the prospect of profit that creates an added incentive for attorneys in countries like Guatemala to ensure that adoptions happen, says Bartholet, who brings to the issue firsthand experience as an adoptive parent of two Peruvian children. (She used a private intermediary with one child, but not the other, which she said made the process a “nightmare.”)

Chile ratified the Hague Convention in 1999 and has also instituted the UNICEF-recommended ban on intermediaries, according to Bartholet. Adoptions from that country into the United States nosedived from 19 in 1999 to zero by 2007. After a four-year dry spell, there was one adoption in 2011, according to State Department data.

The same pattern repeated itself in Bolivia, which ratified the agreement in 2002 and has banned intermediaries. In 2001, there were 35 adoptions of Bolivian children by U.S. families. By 2008, there were none.

“The issue of international adoption should be of concern to … all Catholics,” said Lillian Godone-Maresca, an attorney, parishioner at Holy Apostles Parish in Cranston, R.I., and adoptive mother of three children from Bulgaria and two from Haiti. All five of the children she has adopted have special needs, ranging from cerebral palsy to spina bifida. Godone-Maresca, who is widowed, says her three biological children play an indispensable role in helping to care for the needs of her adopted children.

“As Catholics, we are strongly pro-life — and it is about precious, little human lives we are talking about,” Godone-Maresca said, adding that "adoption is a ministry in which every Catholic should participate, whether by adopting, by helping others adopt, by praying and by making the plight of those kids known.”


Who’s Responsible?

There remains some debate among advocates as to how much of the decline in international adoptions can be pinned on UNICEF alone. Some describe the decline as a complex global phenomenon with numerous causes.

“There is no simplistic reason that international adoption has collapsed,” DiFilipo said. He suggested that the biggest issue is how governments have reacted to charges of corruption and abuse in their adoption systems.

Smerdon, the UNICEF spokesman, also pointed to governments around the world as the responsible parties. “Governments may suspend inter-country adoptions because significant numbers of children are being adopted abroad without due cause and through processes that fail to respect basic standards. It is government, not UNICEF, that suspends inter-country adoptions,” Smerdon concluded. (The most recent prominent instance of a government shutting down adoptions was Russia last December.)

Bartholet agrees that state governments share some blame. “But, often, I think national governments simply feel pressured by UNICEF and others to shut down international adoption,” she said.

Both Bartholet and DiFilipo point to Guatemala as an extreme example of the unintended consequences of international adoption reform. Guatemala — viewed as having one of the more corrupt adoption systems — ratified the Hague Convention in 2002. The agreement mandates that signatory countries have a dedicated government agency to oversee adoptions, license adoption agencies and verify that children are legally eligible to be adopted.

Because Guatemala could not meet these conditions, it instead shut down international adoptions in early 2008 — the opposite outcome of what sincere reformers had hoped for, DiFilipo said. “We were screaming for reform,” he said. “We weren’t screaming for closure.”


Children Suffer

In a 2011 interview with ReasonTV, a media arm of the prominent libertarian publication by the same name, Bartholet described the possibility of a permanent closure as evil.

“If we shut down international adoption, there’s 5,000 kids a year whose lives we are ruining, whose lives could have been wonderful, and we are dooming them by shutting them into this institution,” Bartholet said. “So, to me, that’s fundamental evil.”

As international adoptions have declined overall, so have the hopes of prospective parents. Some of them give up, said Warnock of Catholic Charities of Baltimore. “It’s horrible for the parents, but their lives are not nearly as affected as the children,” Warnock said.

“The children absolutely are the ones who suffer,” she added.

As of 2011, there were an estimated 151 million orphaned children worldwide, UNICEF figures show.

Even before the decline in international adoptions, only a tiny number of those children were adopted by families outside of their home countries. About 10 years ago, there were just over 45,000 inter-country adoptions, according to the National Council for Adoption. But the slump in adoptions to the United States mirrors a global trend: By 2010, there were about 29,000 international adoptions worldwide.

“As Catholics, we cannot remain unmoved by the plight of thousands and even millions of children dying from preventable and even curable diseases in many places of the world,” Godone-Maresca said. “We cannot remain unmoved by the plight of children feeling unwanted and asking for a family of their own. We cannot remain unmoved by the knowledge that if not adopted by a certain age, in many Eastern European countries, orphan children with any kind of special needs are thrown into mental institutions, where life is no more than a slow death.”


UNICEF’s Motives

The situation begs the question of what motivates UNICEF to act as it has.

Bartholet says one concern driving UNICEF is the “heritage rights” of children: their right to remain in their country close to a relative or a foster parent of the same race, ethnicity or nationality. She maintains that having a permanent family home is more vital to the well-being of orphaned children.

The UNICEF argument gains some weight, given the reality of orphans in poorer countries. Many of them are not orphans in the traditional sense. Instead, they are “social orphans” — children who have been abandoned because their parents cannot afford the cost and burden of another dependent.

Still, for Bartholet, the fact that one or more birth parents is still alive is not a compelling reason to deny a child the opportunity for a better life. “That is clearly elevating the adult’s life above the child’s life,” she asserted.

Bartholet has also suggested that UNICEF may be employing a “hostage” strategy, which she described in a 2007 paper as keeping children in “intolerable” orphanages to “create pressure on all [the developed world] to do something to solve the problems of poverty and injustice” that prevent their birth parents from raising them. 

“If that’s their strategy, I don’t think that’s a moral or legitimate strategy,” Bartholet said.

Asked to respond, Smerdon flatly denied the accusation. “Such portrayals of UNICEF’s position are both illogical and wrong,” he said, emphasizing the role that governments have played in closing their countries’ adoption systems.

“Inter-country adoption is among the range of stable-care options,” Smerdon said. “For individual children who cannot be cared for in a family setting in their country of origin, inter-country adoption may be the best permanent solution.”


Facing Reality

Bartholet agrees that the developed world should do everything it can to help birth parents in poverty-stricken countries keep their children.

However, she added, “In the meantime, we don’t live in that world. If there’s an opportunity to put some of these kids in good nurturing homes, we should do that.”

Register correspondent Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.