Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

State Efforts to Monitor Corruption in Intercountry Adoption

Becca McBride


By Becca McBride

November 15, 2013

This article is the second installment in a three-part series.

The first article in this series identified the challenges in getting states to commit to the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, the multilateral treaty governing the practice. Because the states with overwhelming numbers of vulnerable children tend to hesitate to commit to the treaty, what are the implications of this reality for ethical adoptions?  How can we control corruption if other states fail to commit to the treaty designed for that very purpose? This second article focuses on how adopting states have taken on responsibility for controlling corruption, even in the absence of binding international law on the practice.

When the United States allows its citizens to adopt from states that have not committed to the Hague Convention, this presents several problems in controlling corruption. The first problem is related to logistics--the sending state of the child does not have the same obligations for monitoring or reducing corruption because it has not committed to the Hague Convention. The second problem is related to principles--we undermine our commitment to the Hague Convention if we frequently receive children from states that have not committed to the treaty. Yet we know this continues to happen; less than half of the top ten states sending children for intercountry adoption over the past decade have committed to the Hague Convention, and failure to commit to the treaty seems to have no impact on a state’s ability to participate in intercountry adoption.

States have adopted various strategies over time to monitor intercountry adoptions, two of which merit mention here. The first strategy is for a state to apply the provisions of the Hague Convention to all adoptions being processed for its citizens, regardless of the sending state’s commitment. For example, the United States can require that all children being adopted must meet the Hague requirements for adoption eligibility in order to acquire a visa. These elevated requirements to provide documented proof of a child’s orphan status can reduce the likelihood that children are trafficked or that birth parents are coerced into releasing their children for foreign adoption. With such a strategy, even a sending state that has not committed to the Hague Convention must still comply with its provisions, simply by virtue of interacting with a committed state. This addresses the logistical problem and reduces the likelihood of corruption, while also moving a state toward commitment by requiring them to change their behavior to be compliant with the treaty.  

The second strategy is for adopting states to restrict the states from which their citizens can adopt, based on evidence of corruption. Although monitoring adoption is a key purpose of the Hague Convention, there is no mechanism for monitoring corruption in programs for states that are not committed but still participate in intercountry adoption. Adopting states can assume this monitoring role and guard against corrupt adoptions, even when adopting from states that are not committed to the Hague Convention. For example, the United States has at various times restricted adoptions from countries like Guatemala and Nepal based on evidence of corruption in those programs, even though other states’ citizens still adopt children from these countries. This restriction strategy addresses the problem with principles because it can compel uncommitted states to participate in intercountry adoption with higher levels of accountability in order to avoid being shut out of the process entirely by the receiving states. 

Having an international agreement on intercountry adoption is only the first step toward ethical adoptions across borders. However, the presence of a law never reduces individual responsibility for ethical behavior. States have to live in the tension between international will to regulate adoptions and a lack of commitment to the Hague Convention on the part of states with the least effective means of monitoring and curtailing corruption. Instead, the burden of monitoring corruption in these intercountry adoption exchanges falls on other actors in the intercountry adoption process including individual states, adoption agencies, child welfare advocates, and adoptive parents. States who implement their own documentation and monitoring requirements for adopting children play a crucial role in this multilayer accountability structure.   

- Becca McBride is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. 



“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”