Agency’s move to stop foreign adoptions leaves few options in Michigan

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

The international adoption market in the United States, especially in Michigan, is collapsing as foreign countries allow fewer children to leave their homelands.

Citing the plummeting number of eligible children, a Grand Rapids-based child service organization will stop its international adoptions program next year, leaving only a few intercountry adoption agencies in Michigan.

Bethany Christian Services will stop international adoptions next year, officials announced in January.

Bethany Christian Services, a global nonprofit, announced it will continue to serve families who are in the process of international adoption, but it will not accept any new applications after its accreditation expires on March 31, 2021.

Kristi Gleason, vice president of global programs for Bethany, said in some countries where the company helped hundreds of children find homes annually, it now processes fewer than a dozen adoptions each year.

"In the last decade, international adoption practices have dramatically changed around the world," Gleason said. "Nations like Russia, Guatemala and Ethiopia have closed their doors to international adoption altogether."

Additionally, the agency decided not to seek re-accreditation, with changing laws and practices "making it nearly impossible to adopt children internationally," she said.

Gleason said because Bethany's in-country services are thriving, with thousands of children being adopted at their locations in Ethiopia, Haiti and South Africa, they have decided to focus on helping children find foster or adoptive families in their own communities.

"Our decision to phase out international adoption is not a criticism of the program but a reflection of our desire to serve children in their own communities," Gleason said. 

According to the State Department, in 2012, the most recent year data was available, the top five adopting countries offering children for adoptions were China, Ethiopia, Russia, South Korea and Ukraine. As of 2018, the top five adopting states were Texas, California, Florida, Illinois and North Carolina. Michigan ranked 18th.

The steep decline

Nearly 15,000 children have found a home through Bethany's international adoption in its 37-year history. But the agency only placed 87 international children in 2019 in comparison to 611 children in 2010.

According to the State Department, the number of international adoptions in the United States peaked in 2004, when almost 23,000 children were adopted. In 2018, that number was 4,058 — the lowest since 1981, when the United States accepted 4,868 overseas adoptions.

In Michigan, only 107 international adoptions were finalized in 2018. In 2004 there were 1,041, according to State Department statistics.

State Department data shows the decline since adoptions peaked in 2004 with 23,000 adoptions to the U.S.

The reasons for the decline vary, agencies say. Adoptions are governed by both U.S. laws and by the adoptee's native country — both of which have imposed tougher restrictions after cases of abandonment, child abuse or corruption. Several countries have suspended or limited foreign adoptions while others are using agencies like Bethany to promote domestic adoptions.

Michigan agencies facilitating the adoptions also say reinterpretations of regulations by the State Department is making already stringent accreditation standards harder and costlier.

For example, one proposed regulation requires agencies to have liability insurance for anyone in a foreign country who would come in contact with the child.

Agencies fear being suspended or issued violations over minor regulations and find it easier to close a single international program voluntarily than risk being shut down entirely.

21-year-old Daniela Sander, right, hold a photo from when she was 3 with her adoptive mother, Katie Sander.

Katie Page Sander, executive director of Hands Across The Water in Ann Arbor, said Bethany's move is part of a nationwide trend not to seek re-accreditation for international placement.

"As the oversight gets more and more stringent and expensive, agencies like Bethany are deciding not to seek re-accreditation, especially when there are fewer adoptions in general," Page Sander said.

The needs of children eligible for international adoption have drastically changed, too, Gleason said. In the past, orphanages were overwhelmed, but today, many children who can’t be cared for by their own families are being adopted into homes in their country of birth.

In recent decades, the leaders of foreign adoption including Ethiopia, South Korea, Russia and Guatemala, have banned or cut back on international custody transfers. The bans are placed for political reasons or following sex trafficking and kidnapping incidents.

In Russia, a diplomatic rift with the U.S. led to a ban of new American adoptions that's been held in place since 2013. Guatemala stopped overseas adoptions in 2008 after allegations of malfeasance, Pew Research reported.

More recently, the State Department noted in its 2018 annual report a large decrease in adoptions occurred in Ethiopia, which imposed a ban on intercountry adoption that year, citing concerns, including missing post-adoption reports, concerns about the welfare of children in the U.S. and instances of adoptive parents returning children to Ethiopia.

The same decline is reflected in China and South Korea, where officials have tightened domestic laws regarding adoption in general.

The U.S. government has banned adoption from Cambodia, Nepal and Vietnam after allegations of baby trafficking and document fraud.

Meanwhile, a few countries like Colombia noticeably increased the number of intercountry adoptions to the U.S. after passing legislation designed to move children in institutional care more quickly to permanent families. Intercountry adoptions from Colombia increased more than 25% from 181 adoptions in 2017 to 229 adoptions in 2018. Intercountry adoptions from India also increased from 221 to 302 in 2018, according to the State Department.

"We applaud countries that are committing to build child welfare systems that protect children," Gleason said. "In fact, Bethany has been helping countries do this for almost as long as we’ve had international programs. We believe it's families that will change the world for children."

Officials with Bethany said the closing of the adoption program does not affect the unaccompanied refugee minors program.

Bethany's refugee program resettles children primarily from Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Ivory Coast and Central African Republic. Many of the kids come from refugee camps after having spent months fleeing extreme conditions, and have lived in chaotic environments, where educational opportunities weren't available.

Katie Sander, center, and her husband Jeff, left, and their adoptive daughter, Daniela, hold a photo when Daniela was 4 inside their home.

In child’s ‘best interest’

In Michigan, licensed private child-placing agencies handle international adoptions; however, there are few licensed agencies that handle the actual adoptive placement, and requirements vary depending on the nation involved, according to Michigan's Department of Health and Human Services.

Some international placement agencies in Michigan include Hands Across The Water, based in Ann Arbor; Adoption Associates in Farmington Hills; and Families Through Adoption in Grand Rapids.

Janet Snyder, executive director of the Michigan Federation for Children and Families, said Bethany's decision will allow more U.S. orphans to find permanent homes with fewer families adopting internationally.

"Overall, the number of international adoptions in Michigan and across the country has decreased over the last five years, significantly," Snyder said. "Many of the countries that the U.S. has worked with have changed their policies, developed different restrictions and limited the children that would be available."

Char Lanning, executive director of Families Through Adoption, works as a middle-man pairing those in need with other agencies and has matched more than 400 children from 30 countries in the past five years.

4-year-old Daniela Sander, center, with her adoptive parents Jeff and Katie Sander in this 2003 photo.

"There are few agencies in Michigan, and we're one of the larger states for international adoption," Lanning said. "Simply, it's becoming more expensive, paired with limited children and others not wanting to care for third-world children when 'we're not taking care of our own.'"

She said Bethany's move to focus on in-home-country adoptions is something many agencies are considering but that practice doesn't always work.

"There's a push to keep every child in their own home country to keep them around their culture, but as we look at the disaster in Haiti, where the infrastructure is gone or never existed, trying to get children in safe homes or after a natural disaster in that country is very difficult to do," Lanning said.

Page Sander said Hands Across The Water is currently aiding 75 Michigan families seeking to adopt from overseas, only a quarter of what it was helping in 2004.

Today, more families opting into international adoption have some connection to that country, such as Page Sander's. Through Hands Across The Water, she and her husband adopted their first daughter from Bolivia.

"We met her when we were living there and knew this was a child in need that we wanted to care for. She was 4 years old at the time, and Hands helped facilitate it. Those things happen," said Page Sander, whose daughter is now 21.

Afghan refugees who fled their homeland due to war and famine, are on their way to collect clean water in slums of Lahore, Pakistan, Wednesday, June 19, 2019.

Increasing costs

Bethany's intercountry adoption is funded by adoption fees and donor contributions, as are the other agencies.

Page Sander said helping those families outweighs Hands Across The Water's cost, theoretically.

"We do operate that program at somewhat of a loss," said Page Sander, whose program started in 1999. "We do what we have to because we want to continue serving families and the kids we're committed to. It's what our agency was built upon, and we hope in the future the program will be self-sustaining."

Before leading Families Through Adoption, Lanning and her husband, Gale, adopted two daughters from China and one son from Ohio. She got involved with international adoption in 1998 and said the process has only become more expensive, scaring prospective families away.

"I'm a small agency, and my program costs $20,000 to be accredited every four years and I have to come up with that," Lanning said. "There's a lot of different variables going on here. I think there's still a desire to adopt, but for many now, it's becoming out of reach."

She said cost ranges between $20,000-$50,000 to adopt a child from overseas depending on the country. Other fees include translations and documentation fees, a $250 state fee, an $800 application fee, a $300 visa fee and medical examination fees.

"It’s very, very expensive," she said. "That’s why you see fundraisers, people working together because kids need homes. But it really takes drive, motivation and a willingness to sacrifice to bring a child home."

Adopting a child in the domestic welfare system is far cheaper — $200, or often free, not including attorney fees. Many children are eligible for subsidies and medical insurance, while internationally adopted children are not.

Family photo showing children at an orphanage in Bolivia watching cars go by outside in 2003.

"There's a myth that agencies are making tons and tons of money on international costs, when in reality it's usually split between attorneys in-country, and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services," Page Sander said.

Bethany predicts the future of adoption is working with local governments, churches and social service professionals to recruit and support children to develop safe in-country child welfare systems, Gleason said.

"Through these efforts, we served more children around the world in 2019 than we previously served in a single year," she said. "Partnering with local churches in Ethiopia, Bethany has trained hundreds of foster and adoptive families in a culture that had no local, Amharic word for foster care. We recently celebrated 400 placements of Ethiopian children into Ethiopian families.

"I wish I could tell you each of their stories."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_

Staff Writer Jennifer Chambers contributed.