RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Every year, thousands of children born in other countries are brought to the U.S. by way of adoption. But that number used to be tens of thousands. So why has the number of international adoptions in the U.S. gone down so much? NPR's Ashley Westerman explains.
ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: When my parents wanted children but couldn't have any of their own, they decided to adopt from another country. They chose the Philippines. Here's my dad, Paul Westerman.
PAUL WESTERMAN: Actually, my sister had already adopted. And they had lived in the Philippines. And we already had three nephews and nieces that were from the Philippines. In our mind, we thought if we were going to do an international adoption, it would be good that they had cousins that were from the Philippines. And that would be a connection to the family that they might not have if they were from somewhere else.
A. WESTERMAN: At the time, my parents didn't realize what they were part of. It was the late-1980s. And in their small corner of rural western Kentucky, hardly anyone was adopting babies from abroad. But the U.S. was in the midst of a decades-long wave of international adoptions.
RYAN HANLON: In different stages throughout our nation's history, Americans have been responding to children in need.
A. WESTERMAN: That's Ryan Hanlon with the National Council for Adoption. He says conflicts like World War II, the Vietnam War, the fall of the Soviet Union and others have prompted Americans to open their homes to children seen as vulnerable, innocent victims of forces beyond their control.
HANLON: I think initially it was more of a humanitarian call-out to Americans. There was an appeal through many Christian churches to open your homes to children in need.
A. WESTERMAN: Hanlon says international adoption into the U.S. really took off during the Korean War. It was spearheaded by a couple, Harry and Bertha Holt, who decided to adopt eight children from South Korea.
HANLON: Then they began systematically helping others adopt. They formed an organization. It was the first international adoption agency.
A. WESTERMAN: Over the last six decades, Holt International Children's Services has placed some 40,000 children with parents in the U.S. and remains a leader in international adoption today. My parents used Holt because in the late-'80s they were one of only a handful of agencies allowed to facilitate adoptions from the Philippines. It took roughly 10 months for my parents to get through the process. Word arrived that they could bring me home right before Thanksgiving in 1988. My mom, Sonya Westerman, remembers leaving on Thanksgiving Day for the Philippines capital, Manila. She didn't even get to eat Thanksgiving dinner. Instead, she boarded a plane alone with a bag of clothes, diapers, bottles and baby toys.
SONYA WESTERMAN: When I got over there, they met me at the airport. They took me to see you I guess almost in that afternoon.
A. WESTERMAN: The driver took her to the Heart of Mary Villa, a home for unwed mothers located at the time in Malabon, a city in the Metro Manila area. She was tired after the long flight but excited and alert.
S. WESTERMAN: They didn't let me go into the nursery. They brought you out to the gardens or the little courtyard. And you cried a lot. And you looked up, and then you grabbed onto my blouse, and then you wouldn't let go.
A. WESTERMAN: I, of course, don't remember any of this. I was only 10 months old. I also don't remember when I officially became an American citizen, two years later in 1990, just before my younger brother was born. Eventually, my parents would have two biological children. The number of transnational families like mine would continue to grow. In the '90s, China opened its doors and eventually became the country with the most adoptees placed in the U.S. The number of international adoptions continued to climb, eventually peaking in 2004 when State Department numbers showed that almost 23,000 children were adopted into the U.S. Then the drop-off began.
MARK MONTGOMERY: Adoptions have not fallen off because there are fewer people wanting to adopt children from abroad. Adoptions have fallen off because there are fewer children available to adopt.
A. WESTERMAN: That's Mark Montgomery, an economics professor at Grinnell College in Iowa. He co-wrote the recent book "Saving International Adoption." The most up-to-date report from the State Department shows international adoptions are down 98 percent since 2005. For various reasons, the countries sending the most children to the U.S. have faced a backlash over international adoption.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: There's been resentment in Russia of adoptions by Americans after a Tennessee woman sent a 7-year-old Russian boy back to Moscow on a plane alone saying he had emotional problems and she couldn't care for him.
A. WESTERMAN: That's from an Al-Jazeera report in 2012. That's the year the Russian government officially banned adoptions to the U.S. It was also done to retaliate for the U.S. imposing sanctions on Russian officials suspected of human rights abuses. China still allows adoptions, but they're heavily restricted for a variety of reasons, including a growing Chinese middle class that has been encouraged to adopt more Chinese babies.
And Guatemala clamped down after it was revealed that the adoption system was corrupt. Some parents were even having their babies taken away without their permission. Officials say those three countries alone account for 80 percent of the decline. And all this has made it much harder for parents looking to adopt now.
SHANA KAUFMAN: How did you get out of school today?
A. WESTERMAN: Shana and Abe Kaufman live in Harrisonburg, Va. They adopted their son Hyool from South Korea. Shana Kaufman was also adopted from South Korea. She never learned Korean, but she sends her 5-year-old son to Korean school. As I sit in their living room, Hyool tells me how that's going for him.
HYOOL KAUFMAN: I don't know a lot of Korean.
A. WESTERMAN: Kaufman says, who better to parent a Korean adoptee than a Korean adoptee? And she thinks that in a way, it's easier to be an international adoptee today...
KAUFMAN: Because there are so many more stories out there with YouTube and blogs. I found a lot of comfort in reading blogs about Korean adoptees. I think that with technology and the way we can communicate, yeah, it's different than it was when we grew up.
A. WESTERMAN: In 1984, when Kaufman was adopted, it only took five months. The Kaufmans started the process to adopt their son in 2012.
KAUFMAN: From his referral date to custody date, it was almost exactly two years. There was a lot more paperwork. I mean, the paperwork we have for his adoption is, like, a foot high.
A. WESTERMAN: South Korea is another country that has heavily restricted adoptions as it's become increasingly wealthy. Many experts also argue that policies put in place over the years meant to regulate international adoptions actually make it more cumbersome and expensive. Kaufman says the couple spent over $30,000 to adopt Hyool. Ashley Westerman, NPR News.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, we say that international adoptions are down 98 percent since 2005. In fact, they're down about 80 percent, according to the State Department.]
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