120,000 Chinese children find homes abroad
U.S. adopts the most Chinese children, then Spain, Canada

Peter Selman Peter Selman
(Feb. 21, 2011)   Where do they go, the Chinese children adopted by foreigners? Primarily to the U.S., then to Spain, Canada and 14 other countries.

Worldwide, in the period 1992-2009, over 120,000 Chinese children moved to adoptive homes in 17 receiving countries. In those 18 years the U.S. was far in the lead, adopting 74,142 children. Spain was second (13,495) and Canada third (11,471).

The process has been far from uniform: adoptions from China peaked in 2005 and have since dropped to about one-third of peak level.

Those are the latest numbers compiled by the expert on international adoption statistics, Dr. Peter Selman of Newcastle University in the UK.

He's preparing a new survey of intercountry adoption in the 21st century for the upcoming book Intercountry Adoption: Policies, Practices and Outcomes, by J. Gibbons and K. Rotabi (eds.). He has shared with Family Helper this advance look at the direction of adoption from China.

Which countries took in the most Chinese children? The following table shows the trend over nine years, for the top seven countries. The numbers peak in mid-decade and decline thereafter. The highest year for each country is in bold.

Intercountry adoptions from China
Top seven receiving countries, 2001-2009

  2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
  (fiscal year)
Spain 9411,4271,0432,3892,7531,7591,059619573
Canada 6187711,1081,001973608658429451
Netherlands 445510567800666362365299283
Sweden 220316373497462314280206248
France 130210360491458314176144102
Norway 21631029830829917615685106
Totals, 17 countries 7,7539,16511,224 13,40414,49610,745 8,7475,9615,068

Totals are for 17 countries receiving children from China in the period 2001-2009.

Source: Dr. Peter Selman, Feb. 3, 2011, from data on adoptions from China provided by receiving countries. A version of this table will appear in Dr. Selman's chapter, "The rise and fall of intercountry adoption in the 21st century", in J. Gibbons and K. Rotabi (eds.), Intercountry Adoption: Policies, Practices and Outcomes, due out in 2011.

While the above numbers come from the receiving countries, the China Centre for Adoption Affairs (CCAA) sent to the Special Commission on Intercountry Adoption a different set of data for the years 2005-2009. These broadly match the data in the table above, but include 63 children sent to Singapore which were not included in the table. These data confirm that a majority of children (58%) placed for intercountry adoption in the years 2005-2009 went to the U.S.

Many more special needs children were adopted after 2005

The CCAA data includes information on the age and gender of the children sent and the number with special needs. These show that over the period the proportion of females fell from 95% in 2005 to 74% in 2009. The number of children over 5 rose from 1.4% to 10.9% and the number with special needs from 9% to 49%.

The proportion of children with special needs varied widely among receiving countries in 2009: 9% in Spain, 40% in Canada, 61% in the U.S. and 66% in the Netherlands.

The breakdown from CCAA shows that the characteristics of children placed have changed dramatically in the past five years and may be very different from those encountered by prospective adoptive parents in the past.

China peaked in 2005

As illustrated in the table above, data from 17 receiving countries show that adoptions from China peaked in 2005 at 14,496 children in one year, and have since dropped to 5,068. According to Dr. Selman, the drop derived from "a conscious move by the government through its central authority, the China Centre for Adoption Affairs".

As of May 1, 2007 China enforced nine new eligibility rules which restricted who could apply to adopt Chinese children. For example, prospective adopters had to be a heterosexual couple married at least two years. "This effectively ended adoption by single women, who accounted for up to a third of U.S. adopters in the late 1990s," Dr. Selman said.

Other factors also account for the fall in adoptions from China: the child welfare system is much improved; interest grows in domestic adoption; and China may also be keen to avoid the negative image that continuing international adoption can create.

A view of the future

Dr. Selman said he expects the number of children sent by China to decline further, so that, globally, intercountry adoptions will keep falling, unless new sending countries emerge. However, the level of adoptions could be maintained if countries are prepared to take more special needs children and China continues to find these hard to place domestically.

Dr. Peter Selman is visiting fellow at Britain's Newcastle University. He is advisor on statistics for the Special Commission on Intercountry Adoption set up by the Hague Conference on Private International Law. He is also chair of the Network for Intercountry Adoption and a Trustee of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering.

Dr. Selman ( specializes in the demographics of intercountry adoption: how it changes over time between various countries, and which countries send and receive the most children. He has published many articles on the worldwide impact of international adoption, most recently "The rise and fall of intercountry adoption in the 21st century", International Social Work, 52-5: 575-594 (September 2009) (pdf).

More on international adoption

• Adoptions from Ethiopia are set to drop. See: "Ethiopia puts the lid on international adoption".
• For the future of adoptions from Haiti, see "When will Haitian adoptions start again?".
• The trends up to 2009 are covered in "Intercountry adoptions fall one-third in six years".
• For the future of international adoption: "Expert sees further slide in intercountry adoption".
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