When Madonna adopted a baby from Malawi in 2006 the reaction was not one of universal admiration. Madonna’s justification was that when she discovered there were more than one million orphans in the country “it was my wish to open up our home and help one child escape an extreme life of hardship, poverty and in many cases death”.
Kevin Browne, professor in forensic and child psychology at Liverpool University, calls Madonna’s motivation the “do-gooder hypothesis”. These well-intentioned would-be adopters believe that taking a child from his or her country and giving them a “better” life abroad reduces the number of children in institutionalised care.
A study by Browne in the latest edition of the Baaf journal Adoption and Fostering looks at the relationship between institutional care and the international adoption of children in Europe. But far from reducing the number of children in the care of authorities, the study found that intercountry adoption “may contribute to the continuation of institutional care and the resulting harm to children”.
Browne’s study of European countries looked at the numbers of children in institutionalised care versus the numbers of children being adopted into a country or adopted out. In Europe in 2004 the countries which received most children adopted from overseas were Spain (5,541), France (4,079), Italy (3,398), the Netherlands (1,307) and Sweden (1,109). The US received the largest number of internationally adopted children worldwide – 22,884. In 2006, China (6,493), Guatemala (4,135), Russia (3,706), South Korea (1,376) and Ethiopia (732) were the predominant sending countries.
By contrast, the figures show that the UK has one of the lowest levels of intercountry adoptions in the world. According to Department for Children, Schools and Families figures, the number of intercountry adoptions has remained fairly static – there were 285 in 2002, rising to 356 in 2007. The highest number of adoptions occurred in 2005 (369), coinciding with a peak in adoptions from China – 190 in 2005, dropping to 127 last year.
According to Sarah Pepys, adoption and fostering services director at Pact, one of the few agencies approved to carry out intercountry adoptions, the figures are likely to drop even further because the number of children coming out of China is falling. Last March China tightened the criteria for would-be adopters.
Pepys says: “Families who have been approved to adopt from China are now preparing to wait for a long, long time before they are likely to receive a child.”
She adds: “Families are in a difficult position because there aren’t many easy routes to intercountry adoption. The Indian subcontinent has children [available to adopt] and if you are an Indian national the chances are much greater. It’s the same story with Pakistan. It’s not an easy picture but we have a number of families who are very committed and supportive of one another.”
One problem with intercountry adoptions for families is that it is a changing landscape. In the past five years Guatemala has been a popular choice for would-be adopters but in December the DCSF suspended adoptions from there because of concerns over dubious practices. British embassy officials uncovered a trade in babies with mothers being paid, or encouraged, to give up their children – practices that contravene the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children. Popular countries now are Russia, Ethiopia and Kenya, says Pepys.
Not for fainthearted
Intercountry adoption is not for the fainthearted: in 2006-7 there were 573 enquiries to Pact regarding the issue and just 97 full applications. When would-be adopters get in touch they receive a pack which “tells it like it is”, says Pepys.
She says the government needs to work harder at forging links globally. “The British government doesn’t do a lot of work in negotiating contracts with new countries. The law says people can adopt from overseas – we need someone to say we want to make this as easy as possible for you. There is some concern at the government’s reticence,” she says.
Intercountry adoption is an attractive option for many people, says Adoption UK director Jonathan Pearce, because they believe that it is easier to adopt a baby from abroad than it is from home.
“There is an element of truth to that but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the adopted child [from overseas] is not going to have any problems,” he says. Many of the issues present in children adopted in the UK – behavioural problems, a history of abuse, health conditions – will be true for children coming from overseas.
Pearce is unsure why the UK has such a low rate of intercountry adoptions – stigma could be an issue – but he believes that more childless people will be looking at the intercountry route if the number of UK children available to adopt continues to decline. He adds: “There is also more emphasis on global issues. People are more aware of poverty and they might see intercountry adoption as a route to helping people.”
Jeffrey Coleman, director of the southern England region at Baaf Adoption and Fostering, agrees that intercountry adoption is a difficult route to go down because of the rigorous standards that now apply. However, he adds: “When intercountry adoption is ethically managed it has a significant place in the range of adoption services.”
But he believes efforts should be made to ensure that children, where possible, remain in their own countries. “Intercountry adoptions divert focus and energy from ensuring there are more life options for children in their own countries,” he says.
And on the flipside, he thinks that adopters should always be encouraged to go down the domestic route. “From my experience of meeting intercountry adopters I only wish there had been more vigorous efforts to focus on children waiting for domestic adoption.”
All our intercountry adoption articles
This article appeared in the 22 May issue under the headline “Journey to the unknown”