Last month, Guatemala was effectively shut down as a country from which children can be adopted into the United States. While the shutdown is officially temporary, it is likely that even when new laws are in place, Guatemala will follow the path taken by many South American countries in recent years: eliminating the private agencies and intermediaries that facilitate the placement of children who need homes and substituting government monopoly over adoption, which will reduce to a trickle the number of children escaping life in institutions or on the streets.
In recent years, Guatemala has been a model for those who believe in adoption as a vehicle for providing homeless children with permanent, nurturing parents. It has released significant numbers of children to international adoption, many at young ages, before they suffered the kind of damage that results in attachment disorders and other life-altering limitations. Ironically, these policies are why Guatemala attracted the attention of UNICEF and other human rights organizations that, along with our State Department, have been pushing for adoption “reform.” These official “friends of children” have created pressure that has led to the cessation of international adoption in half the countries that in recent decades had been sending the largest number of homeless children abroad. Until recent years, the number of international adoptions into the United States had been steadily increasing, but the numbers are dramatically down.
Why close down international adoption? The real-world alternatives for the children at issue are life — or death — on the streets or in the types of institutions that a half-century of research has proved systematically destroy children’s ability to grow up capable of functioning normally in society. By contrast, we know that adoption works incredibly well to provide children with nurturing homes and that it works best for those placed early in life.
Critics of international adoption argue that children have heritage rights and “belong” in their countries of birth. But children enjoy little in the way of heritage or other rights in institutions. The critics argue that we should develop foster-care alternatives for children in the countries they are from, and UNICEF’s official position favors in-country foster care over out-of-country adoption. But foster care does not exist as a real option in most countries that allow children to be adopted abroad, and the generally dire economic circumstances in these nations make it extremely unlikely that comprehensive foster care programs will soon be developed. Nor is there any reason to think that children would do as well in foster care as in adoptive homes. Indeed, for decades the research in countries that use foster care, such as the United States, has shown that such care does not work nearly as well for children as adoption does.
Critics also condemn adoption abuses such as baby-buying. But there is no hard evidence that payments are systematically used in any country to induce birth parents to surrender their children. In any event, the right response to such abuses is stepped-up enforcement of the overlapping laws prohibiting such payments, which would rightly result in the lawbreakers being penalized. Closing down international adoption, however, wrongly penalizes all those homeless children who could otherwise find nurturing adoptive homes, condemning them to institutions or to the streets.
Policies restricting international adoption replicate the same-race matching policies that used to exist in the United States. In the mid-1990s, Congress passed the Multiethnic Placement Act, rejecting the notion that children should be seen as belonging only within the racial group into which they were born. Our lawmakers recognized the harm children suffered by virtue of being held in foster care rather than being adopted transracially.
Congress, the State Department and the human rights organizations that purport to care for children should similarly reject the notion that children in other countries must at all costs be kept in their communities of birth. Children’s most fundamental human rights include the right to be nurtured in their formative years by permanent parents in real families.
Elizabeth Bartholet is a law professor and faculty director of the Child Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School. She is the author of the books “Family Bonds” and “Nobody’s Children.”