Adoption History

Overview of International Adoption

Overview of International Adoption

In 1999, Americans adopted more than 16,000 children from over 50 countries, including Russia, South Korea, Romania, Guatemala, Vietnam, China, the Philippines, Thailand and Peru. A majority of international adoptions in 1998 (64%) were of girls, and nearly half were infants. These adoptions not only cross international borders and bridge culture and language, but are often transracial as well. In spite of these challenges, international adoptions continue to gain in popularity among families in the U.S., Canada and Western Europe.

The practice of adopting children from abroad began just after World War II when large numbers of children were orphaned, abandoned, or separated from their parents as a result of the war in Europe. Americans, eager to provide humanitarian assistance, were moved by the plight of innocent children affected by the devastation of war, and adoptions began in the 1940s.

It was the Korean War (1950-53), however, which signaled the beginning of the largest wave of international adoptions to take place worldwide. Since the War, South Korea has expedited the adoptions of over 200,000 Korean children (about 150,000 to the U.S., and 50,000 to Europe, Canada and Australia), and continues to send children overseas today. For three decades, South Korean children constituted the largest number of foreign-born adoptees to enter the U.S. on an annual basis, a status that changed only in 1991, when adoption of foreign children was led by Romania (2,552 children vs. 1,817 Korean children). In 1999, the number of adopted South Korean children (2,008) ranked third after Russia (4,348) and China (4,101) (source: National Adoption Information Clearinghouse). To date, Koreans remain the largest group of adoptees in both the U. S. and Western Europe.

In the 1970s, another war in Vietnam precipitated increased adoptions by American families. "Operation Baby Lift" in 1975, was a series of highly publicized "humanitarian" rescue operations that brought at least 2,000 Vietnamese and mixed-raced children (many fathered by American GIs) to the U.S. for eventual adoption. Approximately 1,300 children were also flown to Canada, Europe and Australia. The hasty evacuation in the final days of the war led to a public debate over whether these actions had been in the best interest of the children and whether the children would have been better served by remaining in Vietnam. Some critics asserted that the "Baby Lift" represented another form of American cultural imperialism. The greatest point of controversy, however, had to do with the circumstances that led to the relinquishment of the "Baby Lift" children and whether these children were technically orphans who qualified for adoption. Lost or inaccurate records were the norm and, in several cases, birth parents or other relatives who later arrived in the U.S. demanded custody of children who had previously been adopted by American families.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, Americans began traveling to Central and Latin America to adopt, including Peru, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and El Salvador, also torn by war. Adoptions from Guatemala have risen substantially, and now represent the fourth largest number of foreign adoptions by American families (1,002 in 1999, up from 621 children in 1997).

With the overthrow of Romania's communist regime in December 1989, numerous American and Western European couples went to Romania seeking children to adopt. It was reported that orphanages were full of neglected children abandoned by parents who could not support them. In 1991, a total of 2,552 Romanian children were adopted by American families. However, due to international outrage and criticism over the black-marketing of babies during this period and the adjustment difficulties experienced by adoptees who displayed emotional problems and developmental delays, Romania reduced its number of foreign adoptions. In 1997, the Romanian government reformed the adoption process with the goal of decreasing the long-term institutionalization of its children and better regulating the adoption of children abroad.

Adopting from Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union has become popular since the collapse of the Union, and today, Americans are adopting more children from Russia than any other country in the world. Last year, 4,348 Russian children were brought into American homes (compared to 12 adopted in 1991).

Adoptions from China have also steadily increased since 1992, when China enacted its first adoption law. Now adoptions from China represent the second largest number of annual foreign adoptions in the U.S. To date, approximately 20,000 Chinese children, mostly girls, have been adopted by American families. Next to Korean adoptees, Chinese adoptees represent the largest group of Asian children adopted by American families. (For more information about the unique conditions surrounding adoptions from China, please see the Chinese Adoption Reading List and Resources and Links.)

In the early years of international adoptions, American adoptive parents were not necessarily childless couples. These early adoptive parents often had biological children and were religious and family-oriented. Their primary motives for adopting internationally were humanitarian. Today, the majority of adoptive parents are infertile couples who are motivated by the desire to have a family and offer a home to a needy child. While the majority of adoptive couples are white, there are increasing numbers of Asian American couples and single parents who are adopting from countries like China.

From its inception, the practice of international adoptions has raised many questions and remains controversial today. Are international adoptions in the best interest of the child? Under what kind of duress and economic/social pressures are birth parents when they relinquish a child, and is such a decision really made of free will? Will the child have difficulties adjusting to a new culture, society and language? Will the child experience racial discrimination and cultural/familial identity conflicts when entering adolescence and early adulthood? Should couples from wealthy Western countries "buy" babies from under-developed countries, and what is the global power-dynamics inherent in such a relationship? Could the money spent on international adoptions be spent in developing greater support for children and families in various countries in order to prevent the need for international adoption?

While there are no easy answers, these questions are important to consider as the practice of international adoptions continues to flourish.


Copyright © 2000 Deann Borshay Liem & NAATA. This content was originally created in 2000. Visit the original site.