President, National Center on Adoption & Permanency
Psychologist, Montclair State University
Intercountry adoption is the adoption of a child living outside of your own country. Often far less is known about the child and birth family than if you were adopting domestically.
While timelines and costs generally track domestic infant adoption in the United States, in many cases, the duration and fees will be dramatically higher.
What’s more, depending upon the country, it can be significantly harder for single or LGBTQ hopeful parents to adopt from abroad.
In this chapter, we’ll provide a brief overview of what to consider when thinking through international adoption.
As you can see in the data below, the number of intercountry adoptions into the United States has dropped dramatically from its peak around 2005–2006. Simultaneously (or relatedly), the number of US domestic adoptions has climbed.
There are a number of reasons for this phenomenon, one being that “sending” countries (e.g. China) took measures to bolster domestic adoption within their own borders or to stamp out “unethical adoptions”. In many countries, the hurdles to intercountry adoption have been raised, and as you’ll see, the profile of children being adopted today are different than a decade ago.
While it may seem like there are a dizzying number of countries from which to adopt, the reality is 90% of intercountry adoptions into the US are from eight sending countries: mainland China, Colombia, Ethiopia, Haiti, India, Nigeria, South Korea, and Ukraine.
While it’s generally true intercountry adoptions into the United States are down, as you can see from the data below, that’s not true for each sending country. Adoptions from Colombia, India, and Nigeria have increased (and in the case of India, dramatically) over the last half decade.
The fees associated with adoption can vary greatly depending on the country from which you adopt. For instance, in South Korea, the requirements of adoptive parents to remain in the country longer can lift the total costs dramatically.
How the adoption is finalized will vary from country to country—to some extent this is slightly standardized and streamlined when sending countries are party to the Hague Convention (more on that below). In some cases you may complete and finalize the paperwork in the child’s home country, while in others, you may finalize the adoption in the United States.
Immigration, visa, and passport requirements to bring the child home and obtain US citizenship will also vary depending on the country. Having a lawyer and reputable agency to guide you through the process is crucial.
US Citizenship and Immigrantion Services (USCIS) must approve all intercountry adoptions. They require prospective adoptive parents to be US Citizens and at least 25 years old when filing the petition to adopt if unmarried. Married individuals have no age requirement, and citizenship is only required for one spouse.
Many associate intercountry adoption with bringing home a young child, and that’s an accurate depiction.
As you can see in the data below, the vast preponderance of intercountry adoptions involve children ages 1–4 years old. It’s rare for adoptive parents to adopt an infant or child over age 5.
This represents a major shift: as late as 2003, nearly 50% of all intercountry adoptions to the United States involved children under the age of 1; today that number is approaching the single digits.
Today, many intercountry adoptions involve children who’ve been placed in an institution and relatedly have developmental delays. For parents who adopt abroad, having medical professionals in place to make a diagnosis and treatment plan is critical.
Most studies that compare children placed in an institution versus those who’ve never been institutionalized show a difference in motor skills, strength, and coordination. Below are data from one study of 250+ children living in Romania published in the Journal of Pediatrics.
The degree to which children who’ve been institutionalized “catch up” is a matter of debate and likely a function of the age and duration they were institutionalized and the characteristics being studied.
According to a survey of 1,000 parents who adopted from abroad, nearly half adopted a child with special needs. Below, we spell out the results in a flow chart. Of those parents who adopted a child with special needs, roughly half got the diagnosis only after the adoption had been completed. Of those who received the diagnosis before the adoption, 42% were given an additional diagnosis when the child was brought home. So, in total, over a third of all parents adopting from abroad learned of a special need only after the adoption had been finalized.
If you consider intercountry adoption, you’ll hear a lot about the Hague Convention. Effectively, it’s an international agreement to safeguard intercountry adoptions. The intent is to protect children from abduction, sale, or trafficking in association with intercountry adoption.
The Hague Convention establishes requirements for agencies facilitating international adoptions and regulates ethical adoption practices. To some extent, it also makes the process more uniform and predictable for those adopting from countries that subscribe to it (see the list here)
To adopt from a convention member country, you must use a convention-accredited agency who will be solely responsible for handling a number of services and tasks.
Nearly 84% of intercountry adoptions are transracial. The top 10 “receiving” countries have majority white/Western European populations, while the top “sending” countries (Ukraine being an exception) are primarily populated by people of color or mixed heritage. Parenting a transracially adopted child requires special consideration for their needs which we address in our earlier lesson on transracial adoption.
Many countries have restrictions on who can adopt and for an LGBTQ couple or a single parent, the process is likely to be more complicated or simply not allowed depending on the country you are working with.
By comparison, you can reference our earlier lessons on domestic adoption for single and LGBTQ individuals, the foster process for both groups and our fertility courses for lesbian women and gay men.