CWLA Testimony Submitted to the House International Relations Committee for the Hearing on the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption
October 20, 1999
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The Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) welcomes this opportunity to submit testimony on H.R. 2909, the Intercountry Adoption Act. We commend the efforts of the bill's bipartisan sponsors for taking steps to put forth legislation to implement the Convention on Protection of Children and Co-Operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption (the Convention).
CWLA is an 80-year-old association of more than 1,000 public and private nonprofit community-based agencies that serve more than three million children, youth, and families each year. CWLA member agencies provide the wide array of services necessary to protect and care for abused and neglected children, including child protective services, family preservation, family foster care, treatment foster care, residential group care, adolescent pregnancy prevention, child day care, emergency shelter care, independent living, youth development, and adoption. Nearly 400 of our member agencies provide services that enable children to secure loving, permanent families through adoption. Of that total, approximately 125 agencies provide international adoption services.
CWLA and our member agencies were active participants throughout the convention process. The Child Welfare League of Canada's former executive director was part of the official delegation from Canada to the Hague Conference on Private International Law that led to the enactment of the Convention on Intercountry Adoption. CWLA provided direct input to the official United States delegation during the negotiations leading up to the United States signing the treaty in 1994. CWLA member agencies were represented on the Study Group on Intercountry Adoption convened by the United States Department of State. Following the adoption of the Convention, CWLA member agencies and others in the forefront of intercountry adoptions drafted accreditation standards consistent with the Convention. These draft accreditation standards are available for review and/or revision and implementation by the United States central authority to be designated in legislation to implement the treaty. CWLA also provided input into the proposed implementing legislation transmitted to Congress by the Administration.
NEED FOR ACTION
Intercountry adoption can offer children the advantage of a permanent family for whom a suitable family cannot be found in his or her country of origin. Increasingly, families in the United States are choosing to build their families by adopting children from abroad. The number of children from other countries who were adopted by families in the United States has nearly doubled in the past 10 years.
There is substantial public and governmental interest in attending to and monitoring the international process to protect children from exploitation and abuse and further to ensure their safety and well-being. Recognizing this need, the United States signed the Convention on Intercountry Adoption in 1994. The Convention prescribes a framework for cooperation and a legal structure to safeguard children, birth parents, and adoptive parents involved in intercountry adoption. The Convention addresses safeguards to ensure that intercountry adoptions are in the best interest of children. It establishes a system of cooperation among countries to prevent abduction, sale of, or traffic in children.
The United States signing of the Convention was only the first step. The treaty is not legally binding until the United States Senate ratifies it. To become operational, implementing legislation also needs to be passed by the House and the Senate. As other countries ratify the Convention, they agree to place children for adoption only with countries that offer the same protections. Delay or failure of the United States to ratify and implement the treaty could result in thousands of American families not being able to adopt children from other countries.
- In the last 10 years, almost 100,000 children have joined United States families through intercountry adoption.
- In 1988, a total of 9,356 international adoptions were completed.
- In 1998, 15,774 international adoptions were completed in the United States. That number is expected to increase significantly in the next decade.
COMMENTS ON PROVISONS OF H.R. 2909
We agree with the important goal of the legislation: to ensure that children joining families through adoption across national borders be better protected. Today we offer comments on H.R. 2909.
Establishment of Central Authority
The United States is unique from other countries in that adoption is governed by state laws, which leads to as many as 50 different offices with related but somewhat different eligibility requirements, forms, and procedures for other foreign governments to interact with to complete an intercountry adoption. This variability is very confusing to other countries that have one central authority for handling adoptions and one set of eligibility requirements, forms, and procedures.
Establishing a national central authority will ensure that the United States has a single authoritative source of information about the laws and procedures for intercountry adoptions in the United States. The central authority will serve as a single point of contact for other party countries to look for reliable information about adoption laws in the United States. The central authority will also be responsible for monitoring United States implementation of the Convention, to ensure that the adoption procedures outlined in the Convention are followed. These procedures include ensuring that the necessary consents for adoption have been obtained, the country sending the children has determined that the child is eligible for adoption, and the country receiving the child has determined that the potential adoptive parents are eligible and suited to adopt. H.R. 2909 designates the United States Department of State as the central authority. CWLA agrees that the State Department should have a pivotal role in overseeing intercountry adoptions.
Under the Convention, all agencies providing international adoption services have to be accredited. CWLA helped prepare draft accreditation standards that are now available for review and/or revision and implementation by the designated United States Central Authority. These standards of practice detail the fundamental requirements for providing quality intercountry adoption services. Given the complexity of intercountry adoption, standards of practice need to be consistent throughout the country, and agencies need to be accredited to demonstrate their competence in this specialized field of adoption. This accreditation process will ensure that agencies doing adoption services are reputable, have knowledge of the special issues and expertise needed to do intercountry adoptions competently, and follow sound business practices.
Licensed, nonprofit adoption agencies play a pivotal role in ensuring protections both for the children and the families seeking to adopt. Although independent intercountry adoptions have been possible in the United States and can continue under the Convention, CWLA believes that, due to the complexities inherent in adoption, all adoptions, domestic or intercountry, need to be completed through a licensed, nonprofit social service agency. The added complexity of intercountry adoption increases the need for the involvement of social service agencies to ensure that the children have been voluntarily released by their birth parents or freed for adoption in a legally correct manner, and that services were offered to birth parents if they are known, to ensure that they made an uncoerced decision with full knowledge of the implications of their decision.
Social service agencies are also in the best position to prepare families for the challenging and rewarding experience of intercountry adoption and to support them following placement and following the legal completion of their adoptions. Not only do families need to deal with the usual issues of adoption-grief and loss, attachment, explaining adoption to their children, assisting with self-concept, and integrating the reality of both birth family and adoptive family into their own identities-but they must also be prepared to help children with abrupt changes in language, customs, food, climate, dress, and behavioral expectations in their new country.
H.R. 2909 assigns all functions prescribed by the Convention with respect to the accreditation of agencies and the approval of approved persons to provide adoptions serivces to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), in coordination with, the State Department. CWLA strongly supports this structure. HHS has the knowledge and expertise in child welfare policy and practice including adoption services and should have a pivotal role in the accreditation process.
Access to Identifying Information
Article 30 of the Convention mandates that information on the child concerning the child's origin-in particular information concerning the identity of his or her parents as well as the medical history-be preserved. The Convention also states that the child or his or her representative should have access to such information, under appropriate guidance, in so far as is permitted by the law of the state.
The evidence is increasingly clear that individuals who were adopted as children need information about their backgrounds for their optimal mental health. While such information is often fragmentary in intercountry adoptions, what is available should be shared. CWLA is concerned that Section 401 of H.R. 2909 may create potential barriers for adoptees to gain appropriate access to this information. CWLA suggests that H.R. 2909 be modified to follow more closely the conditions for access set forth in the Convention.
In sum, we again commend this Committee for moving forward to implement the Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption. We applaud the efforts of the members of Congress, who worked diligently in developing this legislation, which we believe can and should move forward, with improvements. We look forward to continuing to work with you to help protect children as they move across national borders to find loving, permanent families.
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