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View from Washington

America may have cleaned up its policy on adopting foreign children but there is still a major problem with supply and demand

By Sasha Issenberg

The US imports many things in large numbers, including shrimp, sports-utility vehicles, and children. Americans adopt more foreigners than the rest of the world, but since the number peaked at nearly 23,000 in 2004, it has nearly halved. Experts debate how much the decline has been caused by economics (shrimp and SUV imports are down, too), and how much is due to policy changes by two large donor countries – China and Russia – to keep more of their children out of foreign hands.

But no one disputes that the decline has coincided with a major American shift towards better citizenship in the adoption scene. In 2008, the US finally joined most of its European peers in adopting the Hague Convention on Inter-Country Adoption, 15 years after it was drafted. Many countries that signed on early, such as Brazil, Romania and South Africa, had refused to permit adoptions from the US. Now Brazil is negotiating with the US and is expected to open up to Americans soon.

While officials in Washington say that the anti-trafficking safeguards will benefit international children, they are claiming an unintended victim: Americans looking to adopt abroad are facing a less friendly market. “There are more families willing to adopt internationally than children who have access to the system,” says Tom DiFilipo, president of the Joint Council on International Children’s Services.

Since ratifying the convention, the US has lost some of its busiest adoption partners. In December 2007, Guatemala – which that year had been the largest per capita donor nation to the US – put a halt to new adoptions because of longstanding allegations of corruption. According to recent statistics, the number of children adopted by Americans from Guatemala fell by 400 per cent in the following year. Last January, also citing fraud, Liberia made a similar move to suspend inter-country adoptions.

Unlike most Hague countries, the US chose not to place its adoption authority in a social-services agency or justice ministry. ­Instead, it put the State Department in charge, with a children’s issues office within the bureau of consular affairs – the advantage being that they have consular officials in every capital city to help US families negotiate local bureaucracies in court. After January’s Port-au-Prince earthquake, adoption agencies counted on the State Department to accelerate Haitian adoptions by swiftly issuing visas for Haitian children.

But these officials also have a mandate to help only American citizens, limiting dealings with foreign families or orphanages. Besides, DiFilipo notes, the Foreign Service Institute offers no training in child welfare. “The bureau that’s responsible for adoption can’t offer services to children.” His group is pushing a bill in Congress for a new office in the State Department solely responsible for the country’s adoption agenda. Their model: France, which has a similar office headed by a free-floating ambassador with an international adoption portfolio.

Such a post, though, would do little to solve the problem of supply and demand. Experts say there is room for growth in US adoptions from Ethiopia, Poland, Mexico, Chile and Kenya. But long-term prospects look dismal. Poor countries are under pressure to crack down on fraud, but unable to afford to modernise ­systems, and developing countries, such as China and Russia, will be looking to encourage adoption by their own rising middle classes. “The US,” says Peter Selman, an international adoption specialist at Newcastle University, “has got to probably face up [to the fact] that the high point of inter-country adoption may be passed.”

Party planning


In 2017, Canada will mark its sesquicentennial – 150 years of independence from the UK. A movement is afoot to ensure the opportunity isn’t wasted. For its last big birthday bash – the 1967 Centennial, Canadians got a new flag, a new anthem and newly designed money.

The general ferment of the times bequeathed to Canadians social insurance, medicare, arts foundations, decriminalisation of homosexuality (the kind of things that inspire some Americans to think of their northern neighbours as a snow-bound gaggle of socialists). The optimism soon faded, however. In the 1990s, popular Canadian writer Pierre Berton titled his book on the centennial The Last Good Year.

From 11 to 12 March, a few hundred Canadian artists, community organisers, public servants and business leaders will gather at the “150!Canada” confab in Ottawa to start the dialogue on what to make of the next big birthday. Peter Macleod, a consultant who is a driving force behind the conference, hopes the ethic that defined 1967 can be reignited. He calls the occasion “permission to get imaginative as a country again."

How other countries marked momentous anniversaries

China, 50th anniversary of People’s Republic of China, 1999

Big military parade; 300 of the world’s leading capitalists hosted at a forum in Shanghai; across the country residents were ordered to display flags.

India, 50th year of independence, 1997

Celebrations were muted, overshadowed by sober reflection and worries about chronic government corruption.

US, Bicentennial, 1976

Fireworks everywhere, a special bicentennial flag is created and new coins minted; popular children’s cartoon Schoolhouse Rock produces the series “History Rock”, informing how a generation of Americans understand the process of a bill becoming law.

Live for less

New York

It’s cheaper to get a good cup of coffee in the Big Apple than in Europe – a lot cheaper (€1 compared to almost €3.40 in Amsterdam). Surprisingly, New York is one of the most affordable cities on the planet for simple life staples (16.1 per cent below global average).

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