CWLA Testimony Submitted to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the Hearing on the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption
October 5, 1999
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The Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) welcomes this opportunity to submit testimony on S. 682, the Intercountry Adoption Act. We commend the efforts of the bill's bipartisan sponsors for taking steps to both ratify the Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption (the Convention) and to put forth legislation to implement 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 it is ratified by the United States Senate. To become operational, implementing legislation also needs to be passed by both the House and 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 S. 682
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 and recommendations on S. 682.
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. S. 682 designates the United States Department of State as the central authority with total responsibility for these functions. 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.
S. 682 assigns oversight of accreditation to the United States Department of State. CWLA believes that role should be assigned to the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). That agency has the knowledge and expertise in child welfare policy and practice including adoption services. CWLA suggests that HHS, in coordination with the Department of State, be delegated the accreditation responsibilities prescribed by the Convention.
Need for Post-Legal Adoption Services
CWLA strongly recommends that S. 682 add provisions to promote the development of post-adoption services. Article 9 of the Convention states that the central authority shall promote the development of post-adoption services yet, S. 682 makes no provision for these services. Families adopting children from other countries are likely to need assistance after the adoption is finalized. In addition to the issues related to changes in culture and language, increasing numbers of children adopted from other countries are older; in some instances, they have experienced years of living in orphanages or other institutions and need help adjusting to living within a family. A significant number of children are reported to have problems related to attachment and bonding with their new families. Post-adoption services such as respite care, counseling, and parent education and training can support parents in meeting the specific needs of their adopted children to maintain safe, nurturing, permanent families. Post-adoption services are the key to preventing adoption disruptions and dissolution and should be available to all adoptive families.
Married Couple Requirement for the Adoption of U.S. Children
CWLA recommends that the requirement set forth in S. 682, that parents adopting United States children be a "married man and woman" be dropped. That proposal creates an unprecedented standard for both United States or intercountry adoption and creates additional barriers for children in need of permanent adoptive families. CWLA Standards for Adoption Practice state that all applicants should have an equal opportunity to apply for the adoption of children and receive fair and equal treatment and consideration of their qualifications as adoptive parents. The needs of the child are always the priority consideration in adoption. The imposition of this type of limitation may result in other countries reciprocating by imposing similar restrictions on United States adoptive parents. This would result in fewer children finding permanent families. CWLA opposes any measure, such as the restriction contained in S. 682, which would restrict permanency options for the children in need of permanent families.
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. S. 682, however, prohibits access to identifying information in adoption records. 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 suggests that S. 682 be changed so to allow identifying information to be maintained, and provisions and conditions for access be determined, as set forth in the Convention.
Twelve-Month Waiting Period to Adopt Children in the United States
S. 682 prohibits the adoption of a child from the United States until 12 months after the child has been made available for adoption. CWLA suggests that this provision be dropped. CWLA opposes any restriction that would delay placement of children into permanent families. The imposition of this type of limitation may result in other countries reciprocating by imposing similar restrictions on children leaving their countries. This would result in unnecessary delays for children in need of permanent families.
Annual Report on Disrupted Adoptions
The annual report prescribed in S. 682 includes data on the number of disrupted adoptions, including the reasons for the disruption and the resolution of the adoption. Disruptions usually refer to ending an adoption between the time the placement agreement is signed and the adoption is finalized. In intercountry adoptions, 80% of the adoptions are finalized in the sending country prior to the child entering the United States. The burden of measuring disruptions in intercountry adoptions, therefore, falls exclusively on individual adoptive families. This requirement imposes an intrusive burden on adoptive families, violating their right to privacy. We suggest that this data element be dropped from the annual reporting requirements.
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 Senators 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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