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The worldwide war on adoption


Robyn Wolfson Vorster is a dedicated wordsmith with a background in social sciences, learning and strategic consulting who opted out of corporate life ten years ago to work as a children’s rights activist. As an adoptive mom to a beautiful daughter, she has a special interest in adoption advocacy and the needs of vulnerable children. Runner up in the 2021 Isu Elihle competition for child-focused journalism, and winner of the Mandy Rossouw award for government accountability, she uses her many words to give children a voice, educate around issues affecting them, and motivate for changes in policy. You can find her at For the Voiceless.

In 2005, there were almost 46,000 inter-country adoptions globally. But just 10 years later, international adoptions had *dropped 72% to 12,000 in total. Behind this decline are political and economic factors, fear of trafficking, cultural concerns, allegations of forced adoptions, and an extremely powerful anti-adoption lobby. But, in an environment where increased vigilance and regulation can often prevent abuses, are those punting for a complete end to inter-country adoptions guilty of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”? In South Africa, this seems to be the case.

In May 2017, the Dutch parliamentary Justice Commission met to discuss a report compiled by its Council for Criminal Justice and Youth Protection that recommended an end to inter-country adoptions in the Netherlands.

The report followed inter-country adoptions being curtailed or prohibited in many nations worldwide, including Ethiopia, China, Russia, South Korea, Romania and Guatemala. There was one significant difference though. While the other nations are all sending nations (countries that allow their children to be placed in adoptive families in other countries), the Netherlands would have been the first receiving nation (a country allowing children from other countries to be adopted locally), to eliminate it.

In a nation that had expanded its inter-country adoption agreements as recently as 2013, and the birth place of “the Hague Convention of 1993 on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of inter-country Adoption designed to protect children and their families against the risks of illegal, irregular, premature or ill-prepared adoptions abroad”, an end to inter-country adoptions would have been significant.

As this article goes on to illustrate, adoption is a life-saving solution for children in sending countries like South Africa, and inter-country adoptions are particularly important for vulnerable children whose families cannot raise them, especially those that are abandoned, disabled or older. Given the need, and the fact that the proposal advocated a dramatic change in policy in the Netherlands, it’s worth asking: who would recommend an end to inter-country adoptions, and why? And, are the alleged excesses of inter-country adoptions relevant in South Africa?

Globally, the most powerful lobby groups against inter-country adoptions include anti-trafficking groups. They claim that inter-country adoptions are undertaken by financially corrupt and unscrupulous agencies, that they are a front for child trafficking, and that they can be forced: where birth parents are induced (often financially, or with the promise of a better life for their children), to place loved and wanted children for adoption. In addition, cultural anthropologists contend that adoptions are driven by “supply and demand” as Western infertility rates grow, and are responsible for removing children from their birth culture. Further, certain adult adoptees and family preservation projects strenuously oppose any form of adoption (including national and same race adoptions), arguing that adoption separates families, rather than bringing them together.

Some of these concerns have a historical basis. In the middle of the last century, adoptions in the United States were popularised by a seemingly innocuous middle-aged woman who turned out to be a pernicious child trafficker. Georgia Tann, along with the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, is alleged to have stolen more than 5000 children over a 25-year period, mostly blond and blue eyed, from poor families. Tann, a proponent of eugenics – ideas and practices aimed at “improving” the human population – believed that poor people were not fit to parent. More than 500 children died in their “care” due to poor conditions, disease and suspected physical and sexual abuse. The survivors were placed with wealthy “suitable” adoptive families desperate for children, for exorbitant fees, much of which Tann kept for herself.

During the same era, the infamous Mother and Baby homes run by the Catholic Church and State in Ireland were reportedly responsible for the “forced adoption” of countless children within Ireland, the UK, and the US; and the deaths of many others. Preying on the shame and desperation of unwed mothers, they apparently coerced thousands to place their children for adoption. And in Franco’s Spain, up to 300,000 children may have been stolen and trafficked between the 1930s and 1990s. Dubbed the “ninos robados“ (stolen children), these children were removed from parents deemed undesirable. The motivation was initially ideological, to stop them from transmitting the “red gene of Marxism” to their children. But later, children were taken away for moral or economic reasons. Parents were told that their child had passed away. The babies were placed with “approved” families or, by the 1950s when it became a criminal enterprise, sold to adoptive parents.

Some anti-adoption activists contend that supply and demand is still inducing forced adoptions and trafficking in First World countries. But, tightening of adoption procedures for national adoptions in Europe and North America has almost eliminated the practice. Instead, it is now allegedly more prevalent in inter-country adoptions.

Again, there is some evidence to support these claims. In 2013, a Reuters investigation tracked American adoptive parents who were signing over custody of children adopted from foreign countries (sometimes, unwittingly, to known paedophiles), because they no longer wanted to raise them, often because of a Reactive Attachment Disorder diagnosis. In most countries, changing a child’s identity is extremely difficult, and parenthood following adoption strictly managed. So, this practice of “rehoming” adopted children rightly appalled the adoption community worldwide, along with the American public. Although many American states still require a change in federal law to make rehoming illegal, the expose did result in prosecutions and a mass clamp down on the practice.

Also in the US, a CNN expose from October 2017 about the forced adoption of Ugandan children reported that some birth mothers were being manipulated into placing their children for adoption in America. Told that the children would be educated in the US and then returned to them, none knew that their parental rights had been rescinded. The documentary asserted that the agency involved was effectively trafficking these children for extortionate adoption fees. Although the children’s adoptive parents were unaware that they had loving families when they were placed, some had already returned their children to their birth parents prior to the expose. The agency has since been investigated and closed, but the damage has been done.

Crucially, these traumatic stories were preventable: adoption regulations and restrictions are designed to protect vulnerable adoptees, and remove the risk of trafficking and of unvetted parents raising them. But Uganda is not a signatory to the Hague Convention. The implication is that adoption agencies in receiving countries could not guarantee that these children weren’t being trafficked. Knowing that the children’s origin cannot be confirmed, and local agencies aren’t necessarily scrutinised, other receiving countries like the Netherlands no longer allow their citizens to adopt Ugandan children. However, if sending nations resist controls, and receiving nations defy international conventions formulated to safeguard adopted children, including poor follow-up and adopting from non-Hague Convention countries, adoption may continue to generate scandals.

Yet, despite being widely publicised, most of these problems are nation-specific. There are some broader adoption-related concerns though. Adoptions are increasingly cross-cultural, and often involve poorer children being adopted by families from wealthy nations. This is generally a function of the intensity and cost of the inter-country adoption screening and approval process. Some however construe it as cultural dominance. Others believe that it feeds a troubling ideology that children are “better off” growing up in affluent families with “more opportunities” than they would have in their birth families. Nevertheless, there is no guarantee of a better life for children adopted across countries. Separation from birth family and culture can cause distress, and growing immigrant populations are making some countries previously open to trans-racial adoptions increasingly conservative. Even adopted children formerly accepted and welcomed into cultures lacking in racial integration, and citizens by dint of their adopted status, are sometimes singled out and marginalised along with migrants.

Again, these experiences are not universal, and can be countered. But read together, especially juxtaposed with stories from adoptees that have undergone loss and trauma, it isn’t surprising that the anti-adoption lobby is militant. To quote Reverend Keith C. Griffith:

Adoption loss is the only trauma in the world where the victims are expected by the whole of society to be grateful.” And importantly, the lobby has done a lot of good: driving increased vigilance on the part of the authorities, along with the need for careful counselling and vetting, promoting awareness about cultural challenges, and recognition (especially from adoptive parents and social workers) of the pain that some adoptees feel. It has also been responsible for dispelling the myth that adoption is a success-only journey.

But, the same lobby has also been responsible for perpetuating other, equally dangerous myths, the most significant being that there is no intrinsic need for adoption as a child protection strategy. They claim that adoption is the construct of corrupt, greedy, self-serving adoption agencies and desperate (often infertile and narcissistic) adoptive parents, and that without their involvement, the practice would be eliminated; and that birth mothers are victims, who if left alone, will all keep and raise their babies. Second, they contend that because an estimated 80% of the approximately 8 million children in institutions worldwide have some family, family preservation is possible for most children, and that the money used for inter-country adoptions could instead support birth mothers and eliminate the need for adoption. And finally, they assert that adoptive experiences are fundamentally negative, so any other fate (including death and institutionalisation), is preferable.

While this may be the personal experience of certain adult adoptees, it can’t be generalised to all adoptions, and countries cannot and should not develop policy around it. They are also myths belied by experience in many sending countries, where most adoptable children grow up in institutions, not with family. The effects of growing up in care and the negative impact on the brain, attachment and emotional development have been well-documented. Not only do these children experience loss and rejection, which can be worsened when they have family who don’t claim them, they also exhibit significant problems with attachment and brain development. Neural pruning and attachment disorders are common outcomes of long-term institutionalisation.

Further, many children experience the hardships of aging out of care and fending for themselves without parental support. A study focusing on Russian orphans followed 15,000 children who were never adopted and had aged out of their orphanages. It found that many of the children fared poorly; 10% had committed suicide within two years, 40% had become homeless, 33% had committed a crime and 50% of the girls had been forced into prostitution. In addition, a separate study focusing on global child trafficking revealed that the children most vulnerable to trafficking are those without families, especially those in institutional or foster care.

In South Africa, a country with three million orphans, half a million children in an overburdened and poorly functioning foster care system, and more than 23,000 children in institutions, there were only 1186 adoptions in 2017: 1033 national and 153 inter-country. Family preservation is the government’s primary strategy for child protection, and although adoption has provided a positive permanent family solution for thousands of children, women experiencing a crisis pregnancy are often actively discouraged by community-based nurses and social workers from considering adoption. In addition, placing a child for adoption is extremely difficult for foreigners, and for girls under 18, who require the assistance of a guardian.

If the proponents of family preservation were correct, these policies would result in more birth mothers electing to raise their children. But they don’t. Economic and social factors mean that many mothers cannot or will not parent. Without the option of adoption, these women often make desperate decisions. Illegal late-term abortions and unsafe abandonment are common.

Many babies die horrible deaths. Those that survive are frequently left with traumatic brain injuries from the abortion process and severe prematurity, disfigurements from being eaten by rats, or illnesses caused by exposure, or being placed in refuse bins or drowned in faeces-laden latrines. Disabled children and children with abandonment or abortion-related injuries are seldom placed in local families, so most of these children grow up in institutions. The problem is so severe that 30% of the children in institutions are physically disabled (as opposed to approximately 10% in the total childhood population).

Abandonment is also illegal, so anonymous abandonment is the norm, and most children who survive abandonment will never know their family identity. Even more disturbing, Places of Safety are reporting an increase in the number of toddlers being abandoned. When prompted to explain their decisions, birth mothers of these little ones, who are often emaciated and abused, report that they didn’t want to parent, but were forced to do so through societal and family pressure. Like disabled children, older children are rarely placed permanently in South Africa, so large numbers spend their childhood in institutions or in the overpopulated, under-resourced foster care system. For them, the only hope for life-long family care is through inter-country adoptions.

It is a reality confirmed by statistics. One South African adoption agency which places children up to the age of six in three European countries, confirmed that in 2017, 56% of their inter-country adoptions were of children with some form of disability, and in the first half of 2018, all the children placed had special needs. Another agency with three inter-country adoption treaties only places special needs children, some up to the age of 11.

This lived experience in South Africa highlights the biggest concern with the anti-adoption lobby. While many adoption advocates are using the experience of adult adoptees to grow their understanding of the loss inherent in adoption, and move away from the “lucky” adoptee messaging; communication from anti-adoption groups is still largely characterised by a “single story” approach. Portraying all adoption social workers as child traffickers; all birth mothers as victims, lacking agency and coerced into adoption; and all adoptive parents as self-serving, does serious damage to the many adult and child adoptees whose experience of adoption and their adoptive families has been positive. Significantly, the voices of pro-adoption adoptees are often silenced by the vehemence of anti-adoption messaging coming from this lobby. It also detracts from the importance of their argument for more careful vetting and stronger regulation.

Equally, this lack of nuance leads to the mistaken belief that all sending and receiving countries are the same. In South Africa, an inter-country adoption can only occur after there has been a thorough search for a suitable national placement, per the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. If these placements aren’t available or fail, often due to the child’s age, disability or psychological trauma, then inter-country adoption can be considered, and then only after the placement has been vetted by a government-appointed Central Authority. But the anti-adoption lobby lumps those countries that work hard to manage the process, with others resistant to regulation, and therefore susceptible to abuse. It also produces unrealistic solutions. The report to the Dutch parliament recommended that fees used for inter-country adoptions should instead be deployed to keep families in sending nations together, effectively asserting that the cost of a handful of annual inter-country adoptions could alleviate poverty in a nation like South Africa and keep mothers from abandoning their children. It is sadly implausible.

Moreover, even in South Africa, where there are no proven accounts of corruption, fraud or trafficking through adoption, where fees are tightly controlled and inter-country adoptions, which amount to approximately 10% of adoption placements, carefully investigated; child protection authorities in notoriously anti-adoption provinces are using vague and generalised allegations about the dangers of adoption, and the anti-adoption messaging linking adoption to personal gain and trafficking, to further curtail adoption placements. This strategy, which is based on a false dichotomy that the opposite of adoption is always a whole and healthy life with a birth family, is robbing many children of the chance of permanency, often relegating them to a life of loss or in institutional care (sometimes with tragic results).

After much consideration, the Dutch parliament rejected the recommendation to end inter-country adoptions. It elected instead to partner with sending nations to tighten up controls where required, and ensure that providers are screening and placing children ethically, are adhering to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and Hague Convention requirements, and that the best interests of children are promoted. It’s a challenge to other receiving nations. Where necessary, stricter regulations and the policing of unscrupulous adoption practitioners may make global adoption numbers fall even further. But, if they prevent one child from being trafficked or one birth family from being coerced into adoption, they are worthwhile.

However, if the result is an end to all adoptions, or to inter-country adoptions out of countries like South Africa, without fundamental changes to the economic and societal conditions like patriarchy, violence and xenophobia that make adoption a life-saving solution for children, we will be guilty of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”.

Alexandre Ndlovu, a South African artist, said it well:

It is scary how we focus on our fears and lies, forgetting where we are and where we are going.”

One day, family preservation may be universally successful. But today is not that day, and countries can support it, but also recognise that adoption, both national, and inter-country, is a critical solution, especially for older, disabled or abandoned children. When it is properly managed and in the best interests of the child, it can and should remain an indispensable and life-affirming part of countries’ strategy for child protection. DM

* Statistic Source


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