Dozens of lawmakers in Congress from both parties have united behind a bill that supporters say addresses a heart-rending issue beyond politics: the millions of foreign children languishing in orphanages or otherwise at risk because they have no immediate family.
The bill would encourage more adoptions of foreign orphans, which have declined steadily in recent years, and it reflects impatience with current policies overseen by the State Department.
"Every child needs and deserves to grow up in a family," says the bill's chief advocate, Sen. Mary Landrieu. "While our foreign policy has done much to keep children alive and healthy, it has not prioritized this basic human right."
The Children in Families First Act would create a bureau in the State Department assigned to work with non-governmental organizations and foreign countries to minimize the number of children without families — through family preservation and reunification, kinship care, and domestic and international adoption.
However, there is sentiment in the Obama administration that some key provisions of the bill are not needed.
"I think we've been pretty successful recently," said Susan Jacobs, the State Department's special adviser on children's issues. "We are proud of the work that we do to protect everyone involved in the adoption process — the birth families, the adopting families and of course the children."
There's no firm global count of children in orphanages, but they number in the millions. In Russia, which has banned adoptions by Americans, there are more than 650,000 children not in parental custody. In Kyrgyzstan, where foreign adoptions were disrupted for years due to corruption and political problems, orphanages are often ill-equipped. In Haiti, where recovery from the 2010 earthquake has been slow, inspectors recently checked more than 700 orphanages and said only 36 percent met minimum standards.
The Hague Convention on Inter-Country Adoption establishes ethical standards for international adoptions, which it says are an acceptable option after efforts have been made to have a child adopted in his or her home country.
The U.S. entered into the agreement in 2008 with strong support from adoption advocates who hoped it would curtail fraud and corruption, and then lead to a boom in legitimate adoptions.
Instead, the decrease in foreign adoption by Americans, which started in 2005, has continued. There were 8,668 such adoptions in 2012, down from 22,991 in 2004.
There are multiple reasons for the decline, including increases in domestic adoptions in China and South Korea, and suspensions imposed on several countries due to concerns about fraud and trafficking.
However, many supporters of Landrieu's bill believe the Hague convention has been applied too punitively, and that the State Department has been overcautious rather than working creatively to halt the decline. Several prominent supporters wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry on Dec. 18 asking that he investigate the matter.
The letter cites Cambodia as an example. The U.S. and other Western countries have banned adoptions from there since 2001 out of concern that the adoption business was rife with bribery and child-trafficking. Cambodia, which imposed its own ban in 2009, now says it has made needed reforms and is ready to resume international adoptions, but the State Department says the U.S. ban will remain in place because of continuing concerns.
Chuck Johnson, CEO of the National Council for Adoption and one of the letter's signatories, cited Vietnam and Nepal as other countries where adoptions were suspended because of corruption and trafficking, and which now feel ready to resume them.
Jacobs said the U.S. was successfully using the Hague standards to bring about improvements in some overseas adoptions systems. She said a pilot project to resume some adoptions from Vietnam is expected to start within a few months.
"Diplomacy is a slow process and can often be frustrating to people," she said. "But I think we have a really good record."
Landrieu, however, plans to confer about the bill in the coming weeks with Kerry, a former Senate colleague. "He and his team are very supportive of what we're doing," she said.
Among the supporters of Landrieu's bill is professor Elizabeth Bartholet, founder of the Child Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School.
The State Department, according to Bartholet, has been too preoccupied with its reputation, favoring suspensions of adoption when corruption or trafficking allegations arise and then taking its time resuming them.
"Keeping a child in an institution is systematic abuse and neglect," Bartholet said. "The bill says we the United States should see inter-country adoption as one of the best options — it should not be the last resort."
Bartholet is among a number of the bill's supporters who see it as a repudiation of UNICEF, the U.N. children's agency. She contends that UNICEF views international adoption as an undesirable last resort and has suggested that Congress consider suspending funding to the agency until its stance changes.
UNICEF said it does not comment on pending legislation in U.N. member nations.
However, in recent public statements, UNICEF's chief of child protection, Susan Bissell, insists that UNICEF is not against international adoption. She also does not favor approaches that would prioritize international adoption over alternatives giving children permanent homes in their own country.
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