Photo: James Kim

International adoptions flow like a global web: Thousands upon thousands of orphaned youth crisscross the world each year, leaving struggling countries to join adoptive families across the globe. But international adoption practices are not all equal. Let’s rank five countries — Russia, Vietnam, the DRC, Haiti, and the United States — from worst place to first place by how they treat their orphaned children — and the families who want to adopt them.

5. The Democratic Republic of Congo holds adopted children ‘hostage’.

Taking worst place for international adoption practices is the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2013, the second largest country in Africa put the cruelest of pauses on its international adoption process: In a move that has left over 1,000 children languishing in political limbo, Congolese President Joseph Kabila ordered a halt to what the country is calling ‘exit permits’ — even for legally adopted children.

Why, you might ask, would the executive and his cabinet need to re-review adoption cases that the courts already finalized? Adoptive families around the world are not fooled by these extra ‘security’ measures. With the dictatorial President’s term nearing its end, Kabila could face an international court indictment for previous crimes as soon as he leaves political office — giving him prime incentive to pool his political leverage with influential countries.

Because adoptive families are legally responsible for their children — even though they cannot bring them home — parents have sent thousands of dollars in the way of school and medical supplies to their children abroad. Some parents have even moved to the DRC to care for their stranded kids. And as America’s soft diplomacy flounders, at least 25 legally adopted children have died waiting for their exit permits. Families are now calling on the U.S. to take a stronger position — but there is much to lose in this political chess game, earning the DRC a solid worst place. Congratulations.

4. The Russian Federation uses orphans for political payback.

Who says the Cold War ever ended? In 2012, the United States Congress passed a law aimed at punishing Russian officials convicted of human rights abuses; abruptly, Russian adoptions to the US were no more — even those processing at the time.

The Russian moratorium apparently prevents cases of U.S. adoptive child abuse or ‘return’ to Russia. But testifying to the U.S. Senate last November was a thoroughly-vetted adoptive mother whose second prospective child was forcibly left behind at a Russian orphanage. Since the botched adoption 2 years ago, the family has lost track of the location — and health status — of their child.

Clearly, the safety of children is not the primary concern: Despite isolated reports of abuse, most children would be safer with a U.S. State Department-screened family than in orphanages known for their poor conditions. Somewhere in the depths of Russia, children are suffering in exchange for political payback. If the DRC hadn’t pulled such a nasty stunt, Russia would easily take worst place.

3. Vietnam promotes adoption of vulnerable children but restricts all others.

Of the millions of orphans worldwide — more than the populations of the UK and France combined — certain kids are more ‘popular’ than others. Those most at-risk — think traumatized teenagers and differently-abled children — are now being promoted exclusively for adoption in Vietnam’s cautious return to intercountry adoption.

The ‘special program’ launch met with mixed reviews. On the one hand, reopening international adoptions is progress: In 2008, the United States discontinued its adoption policy with Vietnam after reports of baby-selling and corruption; responding to political pressure, the country signed on to the Hague Convention protecting the rights of internationally adopted children, while also making significant changes to domestic adoption laws.

Hold your applause: Tight restrictions accompany Vietnam’s promising legal adjustments. The newly reopened international adoption process has been limited to the tune of special needs-only, and orphaned siblings have to be adopted together. Regardless, the Vietnamese government reported 1,300 adoptions, mostly to European parents, between 2011 and 2013. Have these limits hurt the vast number of children in need, or have they secured relief for the most vulnerable? Is Vietnam’s progress disguising an effort to reserve the healthiest and ‘easiest’ orphans for Vietnamese adoptive parents? The jury is still out.

2. Haiti slaps the world on the wrist in the name of legal adoptions.

When the 2010 earthquake devastated the poorest country this side of the Atlantic, missionaries rushed in to ‘save’ the nation’s weakest. But in their haste to help, Americans are said to have ‘rescued’ children who were not, in fact, orphans. Although child-trafficking charges were dropped against a group of detained Baptists from Idaho, the kidnapping scandal sent a message to the world: Why snatch up kids from poor families instead of supporting the families to raise their own children?

Indeed, over 1,000 children — some orphaned, some not — were taken to the U.S. in the earthquake’s aftermath, many without proper paperwork or family-screening. The result? As ‘abducted’ children were sent to American foster care after prospective parents backed out of the adoptions, the Haitian government halted departures unless approved by the Prime Minister.

This slap on the wrist for over-zealous parents may have left some children in temporary limbo, but it brought to light the hypocrisy of ‘doing good’ on one’s own terms — not on the terms of those helped. Haiti, an island on its knees, earns 2nd place for standing up to its northern neighbor and demanding safe and legal treatment of its adopted children.

1. The U.S. adopts the most children globally – but ‘imports’ minority children while ‘exporting’ its own.

At nearly 6,500 annually, the US adopts more children than the rest of the world combined — but the truth is more nuanced than the numbers let on. In a racial twist on intercountry adoptions, most adopted children are non-white, while 73% of adoptive parents are Caucasian. In other words, white America continues to adopt minority children from abroad, despite the ‘availability’ of black babies from within its own borders. In fact, hundreds of African American orphans from the U.S. are adopted out annually to other countries, where birth mothers and foreign adoptive parents alike expect less racial prejudice than domestically.

Racial challenges within American adoptive practices meet with financial ones. Globally, the high cost of adoption is both shocking and well-documented – from over $160,000 in costly South Africa to just over $6,000 in Sri Lanka and Ecuador. The U.S. falls in the middle at more than $35,000, especially when footing the bill for fees, visas, and travel, most of which the government has refused to subsidize. Surprisingly, domestic adoption in the U.S. can be even more expensive, where the money often goes to paying the birth mother’s rent or medical bills. Meanwhile, the United States Congress debates laws that would offer tax incentives or easier avenues to adoptive citizenship — but in classic fashion, most of these bills have fallen prey to partisanship.

Former U.S. Vice President Hubert Humphrey said in 1977: “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children.” Racial and financial controversies, together with mounting accusations of child-trafficking and abuse, earn the U.S. a very shaky first place. If this country is to continue leading the pack for international adoptions, it’s time to live up to our own standards.

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