Wrongful Adoption or Adopting Blindly?

I have been following the news stories about the Tennessee mother that put her adopted child on a plane (alone) back to Russia because she could no longer cope with his significant health and behavioral problems.  Although saddened by this case, I see a silver lining.  Maybe, Americans will finally see that international adoptions are not necessarily any less risky than domestic adoptions.  In an article published several years ago, I examined the reasons why many Americans prefer to adopt internationally as opposed to domestically.  I am not opposed to international adoptions and in fact, believe that the law should encourage more families to adopt, both domestically and internationally, so long as the adoption is in the particular child’s best interest.  However, I was puzzled that many families chose to adopt internationally despite the high financial costs ($20,000-$35,000), extensive delays, and bureaucracies in both the U.S. and the sending country.  One common response was that domestic adoptions were too risky—specifically, that foreign-born children had fewer health risks than the children available for adoption in the U.S., international adoptions were less likely than domestic adoptions to be disrupted, prospective parents would have a child in their home sooner, and the process was less expensive.   In the article, I summarized the literature debunking these myths.   Here, however, I would like to focus on only one—the belief that foreign-born children have fewer health risks than those available for adoption in the U.S.

Many parents who adopt internationally are shocked to discover that their child has a physical, mental, or developmental disability.  However, for years, scholars have documented that “many (if not all) children adopted from abroad, irrespective of age, have special needs.”  Of course, some foreign born children are perfectly healthy especially if adopted from Guatemala or South Korea, two countries that take excellent care of orphaned or relinquished children and provide adoptive parents with extensive medical records.  These countries, however, are the exception.  In addition, children adopted from Russia may have greater health risks than children adopted from other countries.  As I noted in 2006:

Over 80% of children adopted from former Soviet countries suffered delays in fine motor skills, 70% had delays in gross motor skills, and many others suffered from rickets, anemia, fetal alcohol syndrome, and parasites.   They are also significantly more likely than children born in the United States to have tuberculosis, hepatitis B or C, or syphilis, and to have birth mothers who abused drugs and/or alcohol while pregnant. In the words of one [Russian] adoption expert, “there are no healthy children available for adoption in Russia.” 

I was not surprised to find numerous studies confirming the potential health risks of children adopted from Russia and many other countries.  The majority of birth mothers of foreign-born children available for adoption do not receive medical care or proper nutrition during their pregnancies, factors that place their children at risk.  Furthermore, even when children are healthy at birth, they often develop physical, developmental, or emotional problems by the time they leave the orphanage months or years later.  Again, this is not surprising.  Children in orphanages often do not receive proper nourishment, nurture, or supervision.  Many are neglected and abused while in the orphanage.

One might think that this information was available only in academic journals, but it was actually available on many websites, newspapers, and magazines.  In fact, Spence-Chapin, a well-respected adoption agency stated on its webpage in 2004, that “to adopt from Russia, applicants must be open to accepting children with some risk factors for physical, emotional and/or developmental special needs.”   Granted, most agencies were not as forthcoming as Spence-Chapin, and many are now facing wrongful adoption suits.  However, several news magazines warned in 2001 that “the most daunting and potentially devastating hurdle in international adoptions is assessing a child’s health in the face of incomplete or faulty medical information.”   In addition, in the 1990s, many families that had adopted Romanian children tried to return them or place them for re-adoption after they discovered that the children suffered from significant medical conditions.  This information was available in the New York Times and other media.  (Sadly, many of these children ended up in foster care in the U.S.).  Thus, families adopting internationally in the last decade should have been forewarned that they were adopting children with minimal information about their health, children who were likely to experience health challenges.  

Given the availability of information showing that many foreign-born children available for adoption have significant (and unknown) health risks, one has to ask why adoptive families are “blind” to the risk.  Or is it possible that they knew the risks but their desire for a child caused them to be unrealistically optimistic?

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