Unintended Consequences: Why International Adoption Is Not the Answer to the Orphan Crisis 

Written by: Bliss Gustafson Photography By: Whitney Runyon

Written by: Bliss Gustafson
Photography By: Whitney Runyon

Today, it is estimated that there are 140 million orphans worldwide. It’s a statistic we’ve all heard. A lesser-known fact is that only 15.1 million are “true orphans,” meaning there are no living birth parents known. While this number is staggering, when viewed from an alternative vantage point, this means that 80 percent of children, worldwide, have at least one living birth parent. This number doesn’t take into account grandparents or other extended family members willing to care for the child. Many of these children, including ones I’ve known and worked with, end up in orphanages as a result of poverty, because families are simply unable to provide for the most basic needs of the child.

This is where taking a “let’s just adopt all the children currently living in orphanages” approach to solving the orphan crisis becomes deeply and systematically complicated. There are many unintended consequences to this approach, which negatively impact the international adoption process as a whole. More than that though, it can negatively affect children and families. Many developing countries lack a child welfare system to effectively track the cases of children living in orphanages. Therefore, the information about potential living parents or relatives is not always readily available to prospective adoptive parents. This lack of information, or incidence of misinformation, in some cases, results in children being internationally adopted who have biological families who are willing to care for them.

When families are separated by international adoption practices, whether intentionally or unintentionally, there is not only a breakdown of the potential family unit, but also a breakdown in the potential of communities and countries, as a whole. Additionally, in attempting to solve the orphan crisis using the adoption approach, the more sustainable solution of resettlement is often neglected.

What role did prospective adoptive parents play in these outcomes, and what is our role going forward in working to reverse them or lessen the negative effects? Foreigners looking and moving to adopt, must bear the responsibility of ensuring the adoption process is legally and ethically sound.

It is important to go into the adoption process with an open heart, open mind and a willingness and readiness to walk away from a questionable adoption, no matter how difficult that might be. Go into the process armed with knowledge and questions. Hire a private investigator, as a third party, separate from the orphanage, to do the leg work of seeking out and talking to the family before making a final decision. This is not a comprehensive list of how to ensure one’s international adoption is ethical and legal, but it’s a good place to start.

I believe that international adoption should always be the last resort. I believe, that family preservation, reunification, and renewal should be at the forefront of all orphan crisis resolution efforts. I believe that the discerning adoptive parent should be as committed to keeping families together as they are to growing their own.


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