Why International Adoption Matters

International adoption is always a hot button issue—and my recent post about Russia cutting American families out of their adoption program was no exception. Inevitably, any story about international adoption brings out a slew of people commenting that “American families should just adopt from the U.S.” (And just as inevitably, those people are rarely people who have adopted or plan to adopt themselves.)

But domestic adoption isn’t the best choice for every family—and it cuts thousands of children from around the world off from the possibility of a loving family. Here’s why international adoption matters, to my family and the thousands of others who were created that way.

Domestic adoption can be challenging. Most families who adopt domestically eventually succeed. But the time frame before you’re picked by a birthmother is completely random—some families find a match within days of putting their information out there, while others wait for years. And many families have at least one “failed placement,” when the birthmother decides she wants to parent her child. (Fabulous for the birthmother and child—but heartbreaking for the potential adoptive parents.) My husband and I simply couldn’t deal with all of those unknowns.

Today, most adoptions in the U.S. are open, which means the birth family and adoptive family maintain contact. Open adoption is much better and healthier for everyone involved—especially the child. But there are some families who aren’t comfortable with that, and international adoption is a more closed option.

Foster adoption can be even more challenging. People point to the number of children in foster care in the U.S.—463,000—and say that we should all simply adopt from foster care. But keep in mind that some of those children do end up being reunited with their birth families weeks or months later. For those who remain in foster care, sometimes it is possible to adopt young children, but in many cases it’s older children who are available, many of whom have seen and experienced things no child should have to experience. These children need a special kind of love and support that some families are simply not equipped to provide.

All children deserve a loving family. Does our capacity for love and kindness really end at the border? Ideally, children in Russia or China or Ethiopia should find a loving family nearby, to help them preserve their connection to their birth culture. But many of these children—especially those with special needs—have few prospects for finding a family within their own country. If there are willing and able parents somewhere in the world who want to raise them, why should we stop them?

Life in the orphanages is devastating to a child’s future. Institutional care is always subpar, no matter how “good” the orphanage is. There is no replacement for a loving family—and it bears out in research, which shows that a baby who is raised in an orphanage loses a month’s worth of development for every three months she spends there. (Which means that an 18-month-old sitting in an orphanage is much more like a 12-month-old.)  Children in orphanages often have limited opportunities for education, and are sent out into the world as young as 14 years old, left to fend for themselves.

Until you have personally visited an orphanage, you simply can’t understand how devastating it is. I do.

Imagine a classroom filled with 30 cribs. The cribs have no mattresses, and the babies all lie on wooden slabs in the cribs. Every single crib is filled except for one by the window (which is where your new baby rested her head until a few days before). There is one single attendant charged with caring for all of these babies, and she walks around with the same dirty rag to wipe the babies’ noses—it seems that all of the babies are horribly sick with colds.

The babies all stare at you, and reach out to you. You touch their hands, and wish you could simply scoop them all up and take them out of there. There are no toys (despite the fact that you and other adoptive parents have donated plenty), and nothing to stimulate these babies as they lie in their cribs day after day. Most of them (including your baby) have huge flat spots on the backs of their heads, due to lying on their backs for months. They are fed the same thing every day—a mix of rice cereal and formula, put into a bottle. The attendant has too many mouths to feed, so the babies aren’t held when they’re fed—the bottle is propped up for them.

This is where my daughter would have spent her days. Because she has a small medical issue, she would have had little to no education—despite the fact that she is incredibly bright. If she was lucky, she would have gotten a job at a nearby factory after the orphanage left her go. If she wasn’t….well, I shudder to think about that.

Foster care isn’t ideal, but these warehouses of children are far, far worse. This is why I chose to adopt internationally—not once, but twice. And why I continue to support charities that work with the orphanages, so that the kids who are left behind can go into foster care, get an education, and get proper nutrition.

Maybe someday, we will get that perfect world, where kids can stay with the parents who gave them life—or with friends and family nearby. Where anyone who wants to be a parent can make that dream happen. But until we get that perfect world, we have to make the best of the one we have.

Photo: Mother and child by AISPIX by Image Source / Shutterstock

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  1. by Paula Hall

    On January 4, 2013 at 4:50 pm

    Thank you for a well- written, informative article. It’s so easy for those who have not adopted to presume to know what is best for all of us. Building a family is very personal, and just as I would not ask someone why they were trying infertility drugs or a surrogate, I would not expect anyone to question my decision to adopt internationally.
    When we returned from China with our daughter, the customs official questioned why we adopted from China. Although I expected the questions, I didn’t expect them so soon. How about a nice, “Congratulations on your new daughter.”
    When people want to be parents, a child to love is all that’s important.

  2. by Christina

    On January 4, 2013 at 7:22 pm

    Thank you for wording this so eloquently. We are on our own adoption journey…taking a sidestep with the recent ban from Russia.

    It’s frustrating to argue with people who know nothing about our reason and choices and refuse to listen. I will send them to your article next time.

    Thank you and happy new year.

  3. by Karen W.

    On March 10, 2013 at 2:39 pm

    This is a very real and controversial topic that I have read a lot about. Thank you for sharing your very personal and thoughtful views on international adoption.I am majoring in child, adolescent and family mental health and we are currently delving into the world of adoption. I recently have been researching trans-racial adoption and this is a very difficult yet rewarding thing to do. It also is shown to be quite popular among celebrities yet I don’t think the media is painting the full picture. I just read a fantastic memoir by author Catana Tully entitled, “Split at the Root” derived from the author’s own personal experience of being adopted into a family of a different race and culture. This book not only highlights important issues for those who have or plan to adopt a child of a different race and/or culture but it also offers a compelling story about a young woman who spends most of her life searching for answers about her past, her identity, and where she belongs. Her adoption has molded her into the person who she is today; she held the position of tenured Associate Professor at SUNY Empire State College, she was also a mentor and instructor in the Lebanon program, and as Interim Program Director for the Dominican Republic. An accomplished life to be proud of. I recommend it to anyone who is looking to adopt or perhaps to those of you who are already on this journey :)