The Politics of Intercountry Adoption

I have some friends who fell in love with a little girl from Russia.  They were positive that God had a special place for her in their hearts and their lives.  They started the long road to adopting a Russian child, a process US citizens have been pursuing since the early 1990s.  A few months into their adoption process, the Russian government passed a law that bans US citizens from adopting Russian children.  Due to the policy, their adoption will not be completed.  Other countries like Ukraine, Rwanda, and Romania have also closed their programs intermittently in the past.  Though as Christians we know that adoption is only one of the many ways to care for vulnerable children, it is devastating when politics disrupt an adoption to which we have committed our hearts.

Part of this despair stems from the fact that we tend to think of adoption as primarily a family issue.  But without the permission of governments, the intentions and hopes of individuals can be a moot point.  This should matter to Christians: Our responsibility to take care of “the orphan” is not satisfied simply by encouraging Christians to adopt vulnerable children.  Those parents pursue adoptions within political institutions that may be more or less open to adoption.  This requires political advocacy.   If we want to understand our role as advocates for orphans and advocates for families, we have to understand that politics shape intercountry adoption—for better or worse. 

First, an adoption across international borders is not just a family change, it is a citizenship change.  Both changes are legal transfers, and states on both sides can facilitate or inhibit these transfers.  On the sending side, states decide whether to allow foreign adoption of children at all, and determine how restrictive the process will be.  For example, some states allow foreign adoption agencies to facilitate adoptions, while others only allow private adoptions through domestic attorneys.  States also have varying residency requirements for adoptive parents ranging from two weeks to multiple years.  Sending states can require few or many visits to interact with the child before the adoption can be processed, and they impose or lift restrictions for adoptive parents based on income, health, background, and age.  Governments on the receiving side of the transfer decide whether to allow their citizens to adopt foreign-born children, and they impose restrictions that determine who can become adoptive parents.  States also frequently provide incentives for adoptive parents in the form of tax incentives, for instance. 

These restrictions and incentives, on both the sending and receiving sides of intercountry adoption, demonstrate how much domestic politics influence adoption.  But just like with any other international exchange, an adoption across international borders requires the interaction of both states.  States on both sides frequently restrict adoptions to and from specific countries. Many sending states only allow citizens from states that have committed to certain treaties to adopt children; Russia and China both restrict adoptions to states that have committed to either specialized bilateral treaties or multilateral treaties on adoption.  Receiving states can restrict adoptions from certain countries based on factors such as the level of corruption in the sending state’s adoption program.  For example, the United States has restricted adoptions from both Guatemala and Nepal due to concerns about child trafficking from those countries.  Finally, both states must coordinate their visa rules so the child’s citizenship can be transferred across state borders.   

Children in a Russian orphanage. The country has banned all US citizens from adopting Russian children. Photo via

Children in a Russian orphanage. The country has banned all US citizens from adopting Russian children. Photo via

This bilateral interaction is perhaps the most difficult reality of intercountry adoption, because it is shaped by factors that are unrelated to the child being adopted.  The recent interaction between the United States and Russia on adoption illustrates this point so clearly. When Russia legally banned all US citizens from adopting Russian children, Russian politicians attributed this decision to tragic cases of US citizens abusing adopted Russian children.  But in public interviews, the Russian foreign minister also mentioned that a US policy denying visas for Russian human rights abusers contributed to the decision to ban US adoptions.  Unfortunately for Russian orphans and US citizens attempting to adopt them, the tense relationship between the United States and Russia has left hundreds of Russian children who already had adoptions in process without homes. 

Beyond state-level policy and bilateral interaction, there are also international laws and norms that are supposed to govern the actions of sending and receiving countries.  The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption is the most relevant multilateral treaty.  Flowing from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the convention is concerned with protecting the best interests of the child (a concept left largely undefined), and is an attempt to curtail corruption in the processing of international adoptions.  The convention is also an attempt to standardize interstate transactions of adoptions, and ensure that states sending and receiving children have laws that are compatible with each other in order to simplify and institutionalize the process.

Both sending and receiving states decide whether to commit to the Hague Convention and whether to comply with its requirements or to process adoptions outside the Hague framework.  Though this decision impacts the processing of adoptions and the reality of whether or not a child can be adopted across borders, states’ decisions to commit and comply are often unrelated to adoption.  Instead, states make their decisions about the treaty based on other factors, including their ability to implement the treaty through existing political institutions.  Often, states temporarily close down their adoption programs in order to bring those programs into compliance with the Hague convention, and then reopen their programs years later after the requirements of the treaty have been implemented. Rwanda, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan are all examples of countries that have done so. These politically-related interruptions in adoptions are a painful reality for adoptive parents and children waiting to be adopted.

We can never forget that it is not families or policymakers who control the future for vulnerable children.  God allows us to be a part of a vulnerable child’s journey, and He is even more concerned about their future than we are as parents or advocates.  But if we want to be informed advocates, and potentially influence policy, we have to understand the multiple layers of political interaction that are shaping the intercountry adoption process. We also have to place a premium on supporting child advocacy organizations, like Bethany Christian Services International, that are actively engaging political institutions at all of these levels to effectively advocate for vulnerable children.  Finally, Christians have to think about how political institutions can be engaged to help provide solutions for vulnerable children when intercountry adoption is not politically feasible.     

-Becca McBride is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Her research focuses on investigating how politics influence states’ efforts to control intercountry adoption, and how advocacy organizations influence state policy on adoption.  She has a PhD in Political Science from Vanderbilt University and an MA in Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies from Georgetown University.