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House Committee Examines International Adoptions

The House International Relations Committee held a May 22 hearing to examine the procedures and responsibilities of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and the State Department in international adoptions.

On December 21, 2001, the INS and the State Department suspended all visa processing for adopted children in Cambodia due to allegations of illegal trafficking of children. The suspension created chaos and havoc for more than 400 American families who were in the process of adopting children from Cambodia. The moratorium also focused attention on the procedures of the State Department and the INS, which have intertwining responsibilities in helping parents with visa and immigration procedures when they adopt a child oversees and ensuring that these adoptions are not the result of abuses such as kidnapping and baby selling.

“I strongly support the INS and the State Department in their determination not to facilitate baby trafficking and similar abuses,” stated Committee Chair Henry Hyde (R-IL), opening the hearing. “But I also believe there is nothing to be gained by forcing innocent babies to spend the rest of their childhood in orphanages instead of with loving parents in the United States,” he continued, and added, “What we need, therefore, is a new set of procedures that will spot these abuses early, so that U.S. citizens who wish to adopt can be warned away from the countries or agencies involved before they begin the adoption process.”

Rep. William Delahunt (D-MA) agreed. “Over the course of these months, congressional offices received disturbing accounts of families kept in the dark by U.S. consular officials; treated with rudeness, insensitivity, and disrespect; and even warned not to contact their member of Congress to complain about their treatment,” he said. “Government officers who interact with adoptive families must be thoroughly trained in their duty to treat U.S. citizens and their children with courtesy and respect, and to see to their needs throughout the difficult process of adopting a child,” he added.

INS Commissioner James Ziglar was the first to testify before the committee, explaining that the issues surrounding the Cambodian adoptions arose early in his tenure. Consequently, he testified that international adoptions remain a top priority for the INS, and that one of his first initiatives “was to create a special Adoptions Task Force with clear and immediate objectives.”

Commissioner Ziglar described some of the complexities inherent in the international adoption process. Legal requirements vary from country to country, he said, and the INS must share its responsibilities for adjudicating cases overseas with the State Department as well as numerous state and private adoption agencies.

He cited the implementation of the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Cooperation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption (Hague Convention) through the Intercountry Adoption Act (IAA) as one of the most helpful improvements to international adoptions. The Hague Convention sets international standards and procedures for adoptions occurring between member countries and aims to protect children and families from exploitation and abuses, such as the trafficking or selling of children.

“The Hague Convention and the IAA will require that the child’s eligibility to immigrate be determined before either adoption or placement for adoption may occur in countries party to the Hague,” said Commissioner Ziglar, pointing out that the current regulatory process allows a child to be adopted before U.S. immigration eligibility is established. “The Hague Convention also provides for counseling and accreditation processes for adoption agencies,” he added.

Additionally, he told the committee that, because the changes under the Hague Convention are not scheduled to take place until 2004, “I asked the Adoption Task Force, in their review of our current policies and regulations, to recommend steps to move us as quickly as possible towards processes that are more consistent with the Hague Convention.”

Mary Ryan, Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs at the State Department also highlighted the importance of the Hague Convention. “It represents the first multinational effort to safeguard children, birth parents, and adopting parents in the conduct of international adoption,” she said. She summarized some the major provisions of the Convention:

  • Determinations, such as adoptability of the child, eligibility to immigrate, parent suitability and counseling, must be made before the adoption can proceed;
  • Every country must establish a national process for uniform screening of adoption service providers; adoptions certified to be in compliance with the Convention are entitled to recognition in all other party countries;
  • Every party country is able to establish further conditions and restrictions beyond those specified in the convention; and
  • Every country must establish a national government-level central authority to carry out certain functions that include cooperating with other central authorities, overseeing the implementation of the Convention in its country, and providing information on the laws of its country.

Assistant Secretary Ryan pointed out additional problems that hamper international adoptions. “There is no uniformity in state licensing of adoption agencies,” she cited. Another problem “is that some adoptive parents have not been adequately counseled prior to completing their adoption and may not be able to handle the special needs of their newly adopted child,” she said. The last problem area is that “there is no one authoritative source of international adoption information in the United States,” she stated, and added that, under the Convention, the new U.S. Central Authority will be the State Department.

The second panel of witnesses included a parent of a child adopted oversees and representatives from agencies involved in international adoptions. Cindy Freidmutter of the Evan Donaldson Adoption Institute outlined several critical issues that she urged the State Department to address through the regulatory process. She told the committee that American families who adopt overseas are often told by their adoption agencies to carry substantial amounts of cash abroad to pay fees. “This is a dangerous and sometimes illegal practice,” she emphasized, recommending that “U.S. providers should be directly responsible for all financial transactions with and payments to their contractors and agents in other countries, and should be accountable to families who rely on their representations about fees.”

Ms. Friedmutter also recommended providing adoptive parents with information they need to make informed choices about international adoption providers. “This is one of the simplest and most effective ways of accomplishing a primary purpose of the IAA, ‘preventing abuses against adoptive parents,’” she added.

Susan Soon-keum Cox of Holt International Children’s Services told the committee that “international adoption has come front and center onto the public stage,” citing statistics showing that international adoptions by American parents have tripled in the past decade, reaching almost 20,000 in 2001.

Urging the committee to establish policies that recognize the greater good for the children, she said that international adoptions should be undertaken “as a means to provide families for children, rather than children for families.” Often, she emphasized, there is a “simplistic assumption” that a poor child in a developing country will have a better life with a family in a “rich” country. She called that assumption “misguided, imperialistic and overlooks the sacrifice and loss, not only to the sending country, but to the child.”

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