UNICEF’s Unethical War Against International Adoption

UPDATE, 12/19/2011: There is more on the topic of international adoptions here.

There are few things more harmful than a trusted organization associated with good will and good deeds that uses its influence irresponsibly, and there are few organizations with more accumulated trust than UNICEF, the United Nations organization dedicated to children’s rights, safety and welfare. That UNICEF could be promoting policies that actually harms children seems too awful to contemplate, but that appears to be what is occurring. The problem is that most people have grown up thinking of the organization as the epitome of international virtue. UNICEF doing something that hurts kids? Impossible. Since the group’s impressive moral authority seems to be focused in an unethical direction, the damage it can do before public opinion turns is substantial.

The area is  international adoptions. Elizabeth Bartholet has just released a scholarly paper describing the impediments to international adoptions worldwide, and her credentials and passion are impressive and undeniable. She is the Morris Wasserstein Public Interest Professor of Law and Faculty Director of the Child Advocacy Program (CAP) at Harvard Law School, where she teaches civil rights and family law, specializing in child welfare, adoption and reproductive technology. The paper is entitled, “International Adoption, the Human Rights Position,” and it describes in heartbreaking detail the degree to which opponents of international adoption, led by UNICEF, have worked to dismantle the administrative support structure that makes adoptions possible.

The reason appears to be that UNICEF leaders have fallen prey the views of international adoption critics, who regard the practice as an inherent violation of human rights because it “robs children of their heritage” and creates an incentive for poor parents to give up their children. This has led the organization to relentlessly focus on adoption abuses at the cost of successful adoption, and to promote policies which will effectively eliminate all international adoption. It has called for closing down the private intermediaries that in many countries make adoption possible. UNICEF also maintains that international adoption must be subordinate to various in-country options, like foster care, regardless of whether those options are realistic. Bartholet writes:

The real threat to international adoption and to children is posed by UNICEF and others who claim they are not against international adoption, but simply for regulatory reform…But the UNICEF positions would if accepted radically limit children’s opportunities for finding nurturing homes. Moratoria closing down international adoption programs in particular countries end such adoption entirely, and while moratoria are often initially described as temporary, they may end up being permanent. Even if eventually lifted, children will meantime have been denied adoptive homes. Thus in Guatemala, the current moratorium is denying homes to thousands per year.

“Regulation prohibiting private intermediaries has been the deathknell for international adoption in many countries, as those promoting this ‘reform’ well know. Critics find receptive audiences with their talk of eliminating the greedy lawyers and others who make a living arranging such adoption. But private intermediaries are generally more eager than government bureaucrats to make matches between the parties who want adoption to happen – parties that include birth as well as adoptive parents. Pursuant to pressure from UNICEF and others, many countries in South and Central America have banned private intermediaries, and have as a result largely eliminated international adoption. These countries include Paraguay, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Honduras, and El Salvador. Instead of placing thousands of children per year, they now place only a handful, and then only after the children have spent long periods in damaging orphanages. Guatemala has responded to similar pressure by enacting legislation eliminating private intermediaries in any future international adoptions.”

Discussing UNICEF preferences for foster care over international adoption, she writes:

“UNICEF’s argument is that such care could preserve children’s birth and national heritage links. But foster care doesn’t exist as a meaningful option in most sending countries – unparented children are instead relegated to orphanages. UNICEF wants foster care expanded, but denying children adoptive homes now because in the future foster care might exist is unfair to existing children. Nor is there any reason to believe that poor countries will be able to build a nurturing permanent foster care system. Such foster care as now exists in poor countries is often quite terrible, a euphemism for cottage-industry-level institutionalization… parentless children in a small-scale orphanage run by a small staff of under-resourced adults.”

The inevitable results of UNICEF’s opposition to international adoption is clear, Bartholet says, and

“…will be disastrous for the many tens of thousands of children who could be placed yearly. Such adoption will be limited to last-resort status, with a relative handful of children released, and this only after damaging periods in orphanages.”

How damaging?

“…Abandoned babies are often confined to steel cribs 23+ hours a day for months or years. Without normal stimuli, without the ability to crawl, play, interact or be loved, they suffer immense, often irreversible psychological and physical damage.”

This is no exaggeration. I visited such orphanages when I adopted my own son in Russia, and the prospect of any child being left to rot in such places because UNICEF is in thrall to ethnic purity, class warfare, and anti-American political correctness is frightening.

It is time to re-evaluate our blind trust of UNICEF, and to make its anti-adoption efforts known. The organization is substantially funded by American donations, and those quarters dropped into those Trick or Treat cans are being used to ensure that thousands of foreign orphans never have the opportunity to experience Halloween, or anything other childhood pleasures.

Can an organization continue to be regarded as a beneficent child welfare advocate if it is working to keep poor kids from finding the loving parents who are eager and able to give them better lives?


[Please read Prof. Bartholet’s paper here.]

58 thoughts on “UNICEF’s Unethical War Against International Adoption

  1. @Jack, This link is UNICEF’S position on inter-country adoption. http://www.unicef.org/media/media_41918.html The position seems rational, especially in cases of war, famine or natural disaster. Should we simply allow all Haitian children to be adopted, or try to figure out a proper way to find parents or relatives that may well be alive, but in a chaotic situation? I’m for restraint at least for a period of time.

    At the same time, I am also an adoptive parent from a country that typically does less than 50 adoptions a year to the US. I realize first hand the emotions, and needs on both sides of this issue. But we must face a few stark realities: 1. All children in need will not be adopted. 2. the actions of unscrupulous adults can and should be a focus, but is also an issue of sovereignty. Individual countries have an inherent interest in protecting children, orphan or not. A poorer country may not be able to do this as well as other countries. This does not mean that adoption agencies and the parents they serve (overwhelming majority of whom are well meaning) should exploit the situation. We must all be careful to not project values or make assumptions based on an incomplete set of facts. 3. The nature of this is so personal and each case so individual, that any policy is bound to not be comprehensive enough to suit everyone. 3. While adopted parents are free to adopt from wherever they choose, there are plenty of American children in orphanages that also need loving parents.

    While UNICEF may be far from perfect, I don’t believe that that their official position is without merit, or is unreasonable. My position has evolved as I continue to learn more about this very complex issue…

    • Thanks, Roger. Of course, a press statement broadly laying out principles is not necessarily reflective of what UNICEF actually does. The pro-family/culture bias makes sense right up to the point where it keeps a child in an orphanage who would otherwise be adopted internationally. Then it is inhuman. In Russia, I saw hundreds of children languishing in orphanages with no chance of being adopted in-country. If even one is forced to stay alone because of UNICEF efforts, it is too many.

      The domestic adoption option wasn’t possible for us—we were too old to get an infant; and I do not care for the US laws that make adoptive parents potential victims of trolling natural parents. I am quite happy that my son’s parents are an ocean away, and that they could not locate him without a great deal of trouble, if at all.

      • But Jack, UNICEF has addressed the issue formally, and in relevant language. Not that I want to be an apologist for them, but you’re not being entirely fair either. You called out UNICEF, and referenced a policy that you “could write”, but when one is put before you, it’s immediately discounted. The “even one argument,” while emotionally real, is simply not practical, in Russia of all places, where a lot of inter-country adoptions are being done. Should we simply encourage every child in an orphanage to come to the US or any other country that will take them? Would that really solve the issue? The current system puts a premium on baby’s. Do you not think that any orphaned children grow up to make something of themselves? The problem is a human one. Some children, unfortunately will grow up in orphanages, like it or not. UNICEF has a responsibility to think of and make fact based policy. Not emotionally charged decisions.

        Lastly, your comments about trolling natural parents saddens me. First off, you are your sons parents, and should never fear a confrontation with his birth parents. Imagine if Russia had rules/laws like what we have in the US. Would you have adopted somewhere else? I think we have to be really careful about imposing our values onto others simply because we want what we want when and how we want it. You obviously care about this issue, and your own child. My wife and I choose to deal with this situation by continuing to support our child’s orphanage 5 years later. Our dream is for her to continue such support as soon as she’s able to understand and discover her own ways of support. Maybe not ideal, but it might make life easier for an orphaned child, or in some small way get them closer to getting out of the system. even UNICEF wants that….

        • That’s a statement for public consumption. I have no idea what’s behind it. But I know it is written to be non-controversial.
          My position is simple—UNICEF shouldn’t interpose itself between a true orphan and a parent…anywhere. Child trafficking is something else.

          I have friends who have adopted children only to have legal actions taken against them by junkie mothers or suddenly parental fathers. An adoptive parent isn’t a baby sitter. If a parent gives up a child, the family that raises the child should be able to be assured that the natural parent asserts no presence or influence ever, until or unless the adult child seeks them out.

          What values are you talking about? My business is values. I state them—I don’t impose them. But to answer your question…we would have adopted in Russia even without the privacy guarantee. It was appreciated, though.

          • I am thrilled the the ethics and legal alarms have gone out to Larry Jenkins from A Act of Love Adoptions in Utah.
            It is terrible that he and the Utah court system have been sleasing and sliming around adopting children. That is the most creepiest adoption agency I have ever seen. Utah continues to encourage unethical and illegal adoptions so they can have more Ladder Day Saint members. Members also get bonus points for adopting girls. It is extremely alarming as they can also marry at age 12 to older members of the church in Utah.
            Thumbs down on that illegal unethical disgraceful acts!

          • Dear Jack, thank you for writing sense. I would like you to know that UNICEF as an orgnisation should be tried for crimes against children. In South Africa the same culture stance was adopted in our Childcare Act of 2005. We have 5.2 million orphans, and only 500 children on the adoption register as adoptable. I am in the process of the paperwork as I would love to do a cross cultural adoption, but face enormity in my own country. Lack of social services and framework place millions of children in underprivelaged care. We have 11 million children in the foster grant system. The result? a more than 50% drop in adoptions in South Africa and an increase in orphans and children in institutions. What does the colour of skin mean to UNICEF and why do they insist on same culture adoptions? I want to adopt, I can, yet I face the impossible task of trying to negotiate not only legislation that is infected with discrimination and results in children not having the option of being adopted into a home. In any event I am Jewish, so does this mean I can’t adopt?

          • Maybe UNICEF is listening to adoptees who have grown up and can offer their informed perspectives on the matter. This thread is so centred on the rights of adoptive parents over children and birth families. Your statement about “Junkie” mothers is offensive. As an intercountry adoptee with quite a rational perspective on all of this I hope your views have softened for the sake of your son. We have the right to access information and contact families if we want to and any suggestion that this being difficult process is a good thing is very selfish. There is plenty of proof that many intercountry adoptions were unethical and suggestion UNICEF are implementing harmful policies is self serving.

  2. There was a very interesting and in depth article in the New Yorker about a year ago about this very subject. The most revealing fact I read was that there are 160 MILLION orphans worldwide and UNICEF’s anti intl’ adoption stance has greatly reduced the number of intl’ adoptions in recent years. That is a crime. There are thousands of families in the US and elsewhere that have the means and will to adopt children into loving homes and are blocked by a country’s moratorium for “reform”.
    Mu husband and I brought our adopted daughter home from Guatemala almost a year ago. It took three years and we were lucky to bring her home at all. There are still 300 families that began the adoption process in Guatemala around the same time we did or longer and waiting to bring their children home. The Guatemalan government is doing nothing to move the process along and in many cases they are trying desperately to place these children with Guatemalan families to no avail.
    Meanwhile thousands of babies that will be abandoned are being born each year all of which will end up in orphanages that have little resources and not enough care givers. Many of these children will have emotional problems and learning disabilities because they did not get the attention/love necessary for proper development.
    This is a problem that had somewhat of a solution with int’l adoption. Yes, no mother should have to give up her child because of poverty. That is a separate and important issue that needs to be tackled. Not used as an excuse to abandon children.

  3. Pingback: Arguments for the Adoption Option « kidswithaglobalvision

    • Unicef negates all of its good work by discouraging and working against international adoptions. Millions of orphans per year are denied the opportunity to be placed in loving homes with families. That is ALWAYS a better option than an orphanage or living homeless on the streets. Shame on unicef.

  4. We too adopted from Guatemala and we were very lucky to have brought our son home 6 months after the adoptions closed. I cannot imagine the pain of those families still waiting to bring their children home because UNICEF “knows what’s best for these children – staying in their own poverty stricken countries”. EVERY child deserves a loving home and UNICEF has no right to deny any child that chance. I no longer support UNICEF because of their stance against international adoption. Perhaps someone should do a study of internal adoptive families to see how we actually encourage our children to learn and stay connected to their home countries. We also have a daughter adopted from China (because Guatemala closed) and both our children celebrate important events/holiday from their countries, they are learning their native languages and stay in touch with their foster families. UNICEF has no idea how adoptive parents keep their children’s heritages alive. I have made it my mission in life to make sure that everyone I come into contact with knows how UNICEF is depriving children of loving homes. The money they bribe these governments with to stop international adoptions should be used to support these children in finding loving homes no matter where they are.

    People like MIke Cox are also the ones that fuel the fire against international adoption without really knowing what they are talking about. Before you bash the system, walk in the shoes of an adoptive family!

  5. Pingback: A word on orphan care… | End of the Pipeline

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