Expert sees further slide in intercountry adoption

Peter Selman Peter Selman
(Mar. 16, 2011)   Which way is intercountry adoption headed? The answer looks bad for people seeking to adopt internationally.

Fewer and fewer children are finding adoptive homes far from their birth country. Worldwide, adoptions peaked in 2004 at over 45,000 and fell to about 30,000 in 2009. That's a drop of one-third in six years.

Dr. Peter Selman of Britain's Newcastle University told Family Helper ( that the decline is likely to continue in 2011 and for years to come.

Dr. Selman is an authority on international adoption statistics. He gave Family Helper this advance look at his survey of intercountry adoption in the 21st century, to appear in 2011 in the book Intercountry Adoption: Policies, Practices and Outcomes, edited by Judith Gibbons and Karen Rotabi.

Dr. Selman predicts that fewer and fewer children each year will be available for adoption by foreigners. Instead, more will be adopted domestically.

His bottom-line message for those seeking to adopt internationally: the impact on the many childless couples in the rich countries of the West is likely to be negative—many of those now approved will face a long wait and may never receive a child, unless they are prepared to take an older child with special needs.

Beyond that, he said, the future of international adoption will depend on receiving countries' willingness to drive out the continuing irregularities and follow the spirit of the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption in all transactions, including those with countries such as Ethiopia which have not yet ratified the convention.

The future in source countries

After a decade of growth up to 2004, intercountry adoption figures started falling, as fewer and fewer children became available from source countries. Will the decline continue? Dr. Selman believes it is likely to do so in the immediate future but that trends in the second decade of the 21st century will depend on a number of factors.

By 2009 it had become clear that the downward trend since 2004 was not uniform, with a few countries, notably Italy, showing an increase over the period. In 2009 numbers also began to rise in some countries which had experienced a significant decline up to 2008, e.g. Denmark, Sweden and Norway.

Provisional figures for 2010 show a further rise in adoptions to Italy and a significant increase in France, largely due to adoptions from Haiti after the earthquake. However, numbers in the U.S. continued to fall, despite over 1,000 emergency visas being issued for children from Haiti. As data is currently available for only five receiving states, it is impossible to say what the final total will be, but a further (smaller) decline worldwide seems likely in 2010.

Dr. Selman said he expects that intercountry adoptions will keep falling, unless new sending countries emerge and those currently closed, e.g. Guatemala, Liberia and Nepal, re-open.

He offered the following commentary on prospects for the countries which are sources of children for intercountry adoption (ICA). For ease of discussion he divided the source countries into four regions.
Asia. For many years Asian countries accounted for a majority of international adoptions, but between 2005 and 2009 the proportion of adoptions from Asia fell from 47% to 35%. This was due to a reversal of the dramatic rise in adoptions from China and a continued reduction in the number sent by Korea and India. The decline in ICA from China and the rest of Asia is likely to continue in 2010 and onward, and along with it, a general decline in global ICA. Any increase will depend on a resolution of the current problems in Nepal and Vietnam, but even this would not compensate for the likely end to adoption from Korea in the next decade.
Latin America. 2010 is marked by a big rise in adoptions from Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake, but this is unlikely to be repeated in subsequent years. The number of children from Latin America will remain low until the future of adoptions from Guatemala is resolved and this means that prospective adopters in the US will continue to face a major shortfall in the number of children available.
Europe. Numbers will continue to drop in Europe, which will no longer be the major source of children for international adoption it had been in the 1990s. As late as 2004 adoptions from Eastern Europe accounted for more than 30% of all ICAs worldwide; by 2008 this had fallen to 20%. Adoptions from Romania and Belarus have ended and future trends will depend on Russia's success in promoting domestic adoption.
Africa. The number of adoptions from Africa (mainly from Ethiopia) is expected to rise further in 2010, so that Africa may be the only region showing an increase. In 2003 African countries accounted for only 5% of all ICAs; by 2009 they provided 22% of children sent. In 2009 Ethiopia accounted for 70% of African adoptions— more than 15% of all adoptions worldwide.

The number of adoptions from Ethiopia to the U.S. rose by more than 200 in FY2010. However, the Ethiopian Ministry of Women, Children, and Youth Affairs has just announced that it would reduce the number of intercountry adoption cases processed, from 50 a day down to five a day, starting March 10, 2011. If implemented as proposed, this huge reduction of 90% suggests that the number of adoptions from Africa could fall dramatically in the short term at least.

Other African countries have seen a recent increase in the number of ICAs, notably the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Nigeria and South Africa, all of which are likely to be in the top 20 sending countries in the next few years. Full data are not available for 2010, but the Congo has sent more children in 2010 to France, Italy and the U.S. than to all countries in the previous year and a similar pattern can be seen in Ghana and Nigeria, where most children have gone to the U.S.

If the recent announcement from Ethiopia is implemented, there is likely to be pressure on these countries to send more children, although total adoptions from Africa would certainly fall in the next few years.

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).

His new survey of intercountry adoption in the 21st century will appear as a chapter in Intercountry Adoption: Policies, Practices and Outcomes, edited by Judith Gibbons and Karen Rotabi (Ashgate 2011, forthcoming).

More on intercountry adoption

The trends up to 2009 are covered in "Intercountry adoptions fall one-third in six years".

Adoptions from China are headed downward. This article explains why: "U.S. adopts the most Chinese children".

Adoptions from Ethiopia are also 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?".
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