The changing landscape of international adoption: Where we’ve been and where we’re going

Bethany spearheads efforts to change the emphasis from bringing children to the U.S. to instead finding adoptive homes for children in their home countries.

Kristi Gleason, Vice President of Global Programs

January 21, 2020

In 1982, Bethany Christian Services assumed responsibility for the international adoption program that had been run by the State of Michigan, seeking American families for orphaned or abandoned children from South Korea. Throughout our nearly 40-year history with international adoption, nearly 15,000 children have found a home with safe and loving families.

International adoption has been an important part of who we are at Bethany, but the number of international adoptions has plummeted in recent years. In 2004, nearly 30,000 children from other countries were adopted by U.S. families; by 2018, that number had fallen to 4,059.

Bethany’s international adoption accreditation expires on March 31, 2021 and we’ve decided we will not renew it. To fully understand and explain this decision, we must reflect on our beginnings.

Bethany and global child welfare

As I consider Bethany’s impact over the last 37 years, I’m in awe of the opportunities God has given us to find families for children from all over the globe.

From South Korea in 1982, our work expanded across Asia, and we placed our first Chinese child with an American adoptive family in 1992. In 2007, we initiated international adoption programs in Africa, beginning with Ethiopia and Kenya, serving children who were often orphaned due to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. As our organization grew, we were able to respond to more needs and our work spread throughout Eastern Europe, Africa, and Central America.

A family setting best supports a child’s spiritual, physical, psychological, social, and emotional needs. It’s God’s design for children! We praise God for all the families that allowed us to walk with them on their adoption journey, providing loving homes for children from across the globe. And we celebrate the children who have embraced their new families, truly reflecting that God makes all things new.

Some who are reading this message have grown their families through international adoption. Others are praying for that opportunity. Many of you have walked alongside us, prayed with us, supported us, praised God with us, and cried with us for hurting children. Your heart breaks alongside ours for what breaks the heart of God. We are grateful that you have allowed us to walk alongside you in your adoption journey, along with the children Christ has called us to serve through adoption.

Changing times

In the last decade, international adoption practices have dramatically changed around the world. Nations like Russia, Guatemala, and Ethiopia have closed their doors to international adoption altogether. Other countries have changed their laws and practices, making it nearly impossible to adopt children internationally. In some places where we once helped hundreds of children find loving homes, we now process fewer than a dozen adoptions each year.

The needs of children eligible for international adoption have drastically changed too. Bethany began serving children in South Korea because orphanages were overwhelmed with vast numbers of healthy infants. Today, many children who can’t be cared for by their own families are being adopted into loving homes in their country of birth.

This is a good thing, and we praise God for it.

Our decision to phase out international adoption is not a criticism of the program, but a reflection of our desire to serve children in their own communities. In this next season, we look forward to building on the foundation and relationships made by Bethany’s international adoption programs to help those same kids and many more within their home countries.

Serving children in their own communities

We applaud countries that are committing to build child welfare systems that protect children. In fact, Bethany has been helping countries do this for almost as long as we’ve had international programs. We believe its families that will change the world for children. That’s why we’ve been leading in global adoption and foster care for decades, helping children find families in their own communities.

In 1991, we partnered with the Romanian government to build a child welfare system from the ground up. Bethany also provided services in Sarajevo to children and families who had fled the war in Kosovo. Later, we worked alongside our government partners to establish in-country foster care and adoption programs in China and Ethiopia—the first of their kind in Asia and Africa. Since then, we’ve helped establish foster care and adoption programs around the world—from Haiti to Ghana and from South Africa to Albania.

The future of adoption is working with local governments, churches, and social services professionals around the world to recruit and support local families for children and to develop and improve effective, safe in-country child welfare systems. Through these efforts, we served more children around the world in 2019 than we previously served in a single year.

Partnering with local churches in Ethiopia, Bethany has trained hundreds foster and adoptive families in a culture that had no local, Amharic word for foster care. We recently celebrated 400 placements of Ethiopian children into Ethiopian families. I wish I could tell you each of their stories. One adoptive father was left speechless when he first saw the child we had matched with his family; he told us he’d seen her in his dreams. Another waiting family told us they’d already chosen the name Meklit, meaning “talent,” for their daughter-to-be; we knew nothing about this when we matched them with a child named Meklit.

It makes sense to empower local families to care for children in their own community, not just because of the benefits for the children and the community, but also financially. For example, the average international adoption for one child through Bethany costs approximately $50,000. With that same amount of money, we can help 50 children in our Africa programs leave an orphanage and find loving foster or adoptive homes nearby.

While we phase out our services placing international children with American families, we will be able to increase our capacity to serve children and families in their communities. Bethany will continue to implement programs that support and strengthen families, recruit and support temporary foster families and find permanent, adoptive families for kids who need them.

What about international adoption?

Even though our accreditation will expire in 2021, we will continue serving families who are in process, but we will no longer accept any new applications. In the coming days, we’ll be in touch with every waiting Bethany family that is working with us, and we’ll continue supporting Bethany families with post-adoption services long into the future. Several adoption agencies with high standards and ethical practices remain in the international adoption field. We will support them.

At Bethany, our work is founded on the belief that children are made in the image of God, are known by Him and have inestimable worth—no matter where they are from or what has happened to them. We’re going all-in, spearheading international efforts to change the emphasis from bringing children to the U.S. to finding families for children in their home countries.

We hope you’ll continue to partner with us as we support families, reunify children in orphanages with their families, and establish foster care systems and adoption programs around the world.

Kristi Gleason is the Vice President of Global Services at Bethany. If you have any questions, please email us at [email protected].

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