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

International Efforts to Regulate Adoption

Becca McBride


By Becca McBride

November 8, 2013

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

recent Wall Street Journal article cautioned Christians about the need to monitor corruption in overseas adoptions. The unfortunate reality of corrupt practices in intercountry adoption raises the question of who is responsible for monitoring these adoptions and enforcing standards to protect children, birth parents, and adoptive parents. Intercountry adoptions require coordinating legal systems across borders where adoptions must be processed in the origin state of the child such that the child can legally be transferred to another family in another state. With such a process, we can imagine the multiple levels of responsibility held by international organizations and treaties and the policies and actions of the states sending and receiving children. Additionally, non-state agencies, particularly adoption agencies, and individuals adopting across international borders also hold distinct responsibilities in this process. This series begins with taking a closer look at one of the largest existing mechanisms for preventing corruption in intercountry adoption: The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption.


The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, created by a group of states at the Hague Conference in May 1993, is a multilateral treaty designed to facilitate adoptions across international borders. Since intercountry adoption is a global process, international regulation is an important tool for preventing corruption. However, the Hague Convention provides a weak mechanism for preventing corruption in the practice because it is built on a weak consensus on orphan rights, and it has high commitment costs, such as creating institutions for intensive monitoring of adoptions, that do not seem justified by the limited benefits of commitment. 


In regulating adoption processing across borders, the treaty serves multiple purposes. First, the treaty attempts to curtail two types of corruption frequently found in international adoptions: trafficking children and defrauding individuals trying to adopt. Second, the treaty attempts to ensure that the states sending and receiving children have laws that are compatible with each other in order to simplify and institutionalize the process. States that sign the treaty are required to establish a central authority to deal with all intercountry adoptions. The central authority’s responsibilities include 1) ensuring that the child is adoptable and that adoption is in the child’s best interests, 2) ensuring that each adoption is free of extortion and corruption, 3) ensuring that adoptive parents are eligible to adopt, 4) accrediting domestic agencies driving the intercountry adoption process, and 5) interacting with the central authorities from other states to make certain that the adoptive process is normalized across states. 


While all the states that adopt children had ratified the Hague Convention by 2010, less than half of the top ten states thatsend children had ratified the treaty by that time. In fact, only two (China and Guatemala) of the nine states from which US citizens adopt the most children (China, Guatemala, Russia, Ethiopia, South Korea, Vietnam, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Haiti) had ratified the treaty by 2010.


Multiple factors make it difficult to get states to commit to the treaty and implement its provisions. First, there is little agreement on whether adoption is in the best interest of vulnerable children, especially adoption outside a child’s birth country. Committing to the treaty is a signal that a state supports the practice of intercountry adoption at a level of commitment that makes many states uncomfortable. Second, the treaty does not have immediate tangible benefits because adoptions frequently happen outside the Hague framework. Not committing to the treaty does not limit a state’s ability to continue processing adoptions. In fact, even states that have committed to the treaty can withdraw from the treaty at any time with no formal consequences. Third, the costs of committing to the treaty are quite high for the states that we would most hope would commit to the treaty. These states often have weak legal systems and lack the institutions to implement the provisions of the treaty, challenges which already tend to increase the likelihood of corruption in their adoption processes.


As Christians, we should care about ineffective efforts to regulate intercountry adoption because adoption profoundly affects the lives of the most vulnerable citizens of our global community. However, we should not get mired down in the debates about more or less regulation or the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of international law. Instead, we should think creatively about opportunities for states, non-state agencies, and individuals to share responsibility for reducing corruption in intercountry adoption. The next two articles in the series will examine how these multiple levels of responsibility can work together to respond to that important challenge.


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


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