Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Mr. Thomas Atwood
President & CEO - National Council for Adoption


The National Council For Adoption (NCFA) thanks the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe for the opportunity to provide testimony regarding the important topic of “In the Best Interest of the Children? Romania ’s Ban on Intercountry Adoption.” Founded in 1980, NCFA is an adoption research, education, and advocacy organization that promotes the positive option of adoption, both domestic and intercountry, for children and families in the United States and around the world. NCFA has been involved in improving the intercountry adoption system since the early stages of drafting the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption (1993) and the Intercountry Adoption Act of 2000. We greatly appreciate the Commission’s leadership in drawing attention to Romania ’s ban on intercountry adoption. Since Romania ’s de facto ban on intercountry adoptions began in 2001, thousands of Romanian orphans have been deprived families, due to this cruel and arbitrary policy.

The National Council For Adoption agrees with the principle that domestic adoption is to be preferred over intercountry adoption. Whenever possible, children should grow up in loving, permanent families in their countries of origin. However, national boundaries and national pride should not prevent children from having families. When domestic adoption is not occurring for children within a certain timeframe, as is the case with tens of thousands of Romanian orphans, they should become eligible for intercountry adoption.

The topic description for this hearing asks the right question: Is Romania’s ban on intercountry adoption in the best interest of children? In our view, the answer is clearly, and emphatically, no. Considering Romania ’s ban on intercountry adoption, it seems as though Romanian policymakers prefer that their country’s orphans grow up in overcrowded institutions, rather than in loving American families. At least as puzzling and astonishing is that the European Union (EU) required Romania to adopt such a policy in order to obtain membership in the union.

When Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown in 1989, estimates of orphaned children housed in deplorable conditions in institutions around Romania ranged from 100,000 to 300,000. Following media coverage of the children, families around the world responded in genuine concern and opened their hearts and homes through adoption to many thousands of these children, of whom large numbers were discovered to suffer from significant and sometimes permanent special needs as a result of institutionalization. Although plagued by frequent changes in rules and procedures, and by a process hindered by the corruption of a few, Americans have successfully adopted more than 8,200 Romanian orphans from 1990 to 2004.

Since late 2000, however, Romania has erected a series of institutional barriers to adoption that have resulted in an effective ban on intercountry adoption. In 2000, the last nearly full year for Romanian adoptions, more than 1,100 Romanian orphans found loving families in America . In 2004 that number had dropped precipitously to 57, and there have been no adoptions in 2005. If the rate in 2000 had continued, 3,000 additional Romanian orphans would have found families in America , in the time since then. Currently, Romanian law restricts adoptions to biological family members.

Even cases where children have already been matched with families are not being allowed to proceed. Just three days ago, I heard from a couple who have been matched with a child and trying to adopt her for several years. This ten-year old girl has a relationship with them and wants to be adopted by them, but the authorities intend to move her to an orphanage. How can anyone argue that forced institutionalization is in this girl’s best interest? Romania ’s own adoption authority, the Child Protection and Adoption Authority, estimates that there are approximately 37,000 children in institutionalized care in Romania (some estimates are much higher). It is tragic for the children that Romanian law will not allow them to be considered for placement with the thousands of families around the world who would be pleased to adopt them. Approximately 5,000 families have submitted applications since the suspension began.

Romania has signed, ratified, and supposedly put into force the Hague Convention, the fundamental principles of which are that intercountry adoption can be in the “best interests of the child,” and that “intercountry adoption may offer the advantage of a permanent family to a child for whom a suitable family cannot be found in his or her State of origin.” By only allowing orphans with family members outside of the country to be adopted internationally, and then, only by these relatives, Romania is in violation of this treaty. The Romanian ban also contradicts the recommendations of international children’s organizations, such as UNICEF, which has stated: “For children who cannot be raised by their own families, an appropriate alternative family environment should be sought…. Intercountry adoption is one of a range of options which may be open to children, and for individual children who cannot be placed in a permanent family setting in their countries of origin, it may indeed be the best solution.” Note the word “permanent” in this strong UNICEF endorsement of intercountry adoption. Foster care does not offer permanence. Only adoption offers the orphaned child permanence.

The benefits of intercountry adoption to children are indisputable. The record clearly confirms what common sense tells us, that outcomes for children who are adopted internationally are better than those for children raised in institutions or in foster care. A study, “Behavior Problems and Mental Health Referrals of International Adoptees,” recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association recently found that even though the studied internationally adopted youth were referred to mental health services more often than non-adopted, the effect size was small, and the large majority of them were “well-adjusted.” Interestingly, the study also found that they presented fewer behavior problems and were referred for mental health services less often than domestically adopted children. The researchers considered the finding that the large majority of internationally adopted children and youth were well-adjusted to be particularly significant in light of the fact that, “before adoption, most international adoptees experience insufficient medial care, malnutrition, maternal separation, and neglect and abuse in orphanages.” Clearly, internationally adopted children grow up healthier than they would have, if they remained in institutional or temporary care.

Scandinavian studies of internationally adopted children through 2000 also found that, despite the very difficult starts in life many of them had, “70 to 80 percent of [internationally] adopted children and young adults were growing up without any sign of major problems.” In another study by researcher Michael Rutter in 1998, it was documented that despite having poor health at the time of the adoption, the majority of internationally adopted children made significant progress within the first few years of adoption. The children with special needs especially benefit from concerned parents and medical opportunities available to them in the receiving countries, showing improvements in development and cognitive ability.

Empirical studies are valuable, but in this case they only confirm what we already know from common sense and millennia of human society: All children need and deserve loving, permanent families and parents of their own. We can also observe intercountry adoption’s benefits to children with our own eyes in the international-adoptive families we know personally. It simply defies human nature to suggest that institutional or temporary care can take the place of a loving, permanent family of one’s own, whether obtained through domestic or intercountry adoption.

NCFA supports Romania ’s efforts to place children, temporarily, in state-approved foster families, rather than in institutions. But foster care does not provide the permanence and security offered by a family through intercountry adoption. The child’s interest in a loving, permanent family dictates a policy that prefers adoption over foster care – first, domestic, then, intercountry, when domestic adoption does not occur within a certain period of time.

What rationale, based on the child’s interest, is there to prefer domestic foster care over intercountry adoption, as is the case with Romania’s current policy? Does the child have a greater interest in remaining in his or her country of origin than in having a family? The love and security of belonging in one’s own legally recognized and permanent family during childhood is fundamental to healthy human development. Children can be taught to appreciate their countries of origin, and they are, in most international-adoptive families. They can visit their original countries and even move to them later in life. But one can never restore love and security to a childhood lived in uncertainty and transience, without a forever family with whom one belongs. Foster care is an appropriate temporary measure, but it should be just that, temporary.

NCFA supports Romania ’s efforts to promote domestic adoption, both related and non-related. But there were only 3,500 adoptions of orphans by Romanian citizens from 2001 to 2003. Contrast that statistic with UNICEF’s estimates that there are more than 4,000 children abandoned in Romania annually, and it is apparent that without intercountry adoption Romania is losing ground in its efforts to provide for the well-being of its orphans.

Notwithstanding the problems with Romania ’s intercountry adoption program, it was neither necessary, nor in children’s interests, to end adoptions altogether. Transitioning to the Hague Convention and initiating other targeted reforms and enforcement efforts, in cooperation with the global adoption community, could have addressed the problems. But, for now, the European Union, led by Baroness Emma Nicholson, has ended intercountry adoptions out of Romania , by making Romania ’s admission into the EU contingent upon this tragic policy.

There is concern that this harmful policy could spread to other countries, especially nations desiring admission to the EU. Many countries of origin deal with a certain amount of nationalistic reaction to the idea of allowing their countries’ children to be adopted internationally. The American and international child welfare communities should be very concerned about this attack on children’s rights in Romania, work to reverse the policy as soon as possible, and prevent opponents of adoption from advancing their harmful agenda in any other vulnerable countries.

National boundaries and national pride should not prevent children from having families. Intercountry adoption can and should strengthen the bonds of friendship between countries, not strain them. It is indisputable that adoption, whether domestic or intercountry, is a phenomenally successful social institution, which has met the needs of millions of children. It can continue to do so for millions more orphans around the world, if allowed the opportunity. NCFA calls upon the European Union, the government of Romania , and all those concerned about the welfare of children to advance the positive option of intercountry adoption, in the interest of children. We greatly appreciate the American government’s and this Commission’s advocacy of intercountry adoption and offer our continued assistance in advancing this crucial mission.