(March 2007) Although the number of U.S. adoptions of foreign children has generally risen over the past decade, in recent years that number has fluctuated. Between 2000 and 2006, foreign adoptions rose from 18,477, peaked at 22,884 in 2004, and fell to 20,632. Recent dips in total numbers are due in part to changes in laws and regulations in countries of origin.

“International adoption is a lot more tenuous than we tend to think,” says Hollee A. McGinnis, policy and operations director at the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a New York-based nonprofit devoted to improving adoption policy.

One reason the numbers fluctuate is that the vast majority of American children adopted from abroad come from just a handful of countries (see table). Eighty percent of foreign adoptions were from just five countries. China was the most popular country of origin for U.S. foreign adoptions in fiscal year 2006. That year; 6,493 immigrant visas were issued to orphans from China. It was followed by Guatemala (4,135), Russia (3,706), and South Korea (1,376).

Top 5 Countries by Number of Immigrant Visas Issued to Orphans Coming to the U.S., 2006-2007

Country Number Percent
All Countries 20,632 100.0
  China 6,493  31.5
  Guatemala 4,135 20.0
  Russia 3,706 18.0
  South Korea 1,376 6.7
  Ethiopia 732 3.5

Source: U.S. State Department.

Top 3 Countries of Origin for International Adoptees

Source: U.S. State Department.

If any of those countries decided to tighten adoption rules or change procedures, the number of foreign-born children adopted by Americans could change noticeably, just as they did between 2005 and 2006. During that time, Russia added another level of vetting for nongovernmental adoption organizations and China took twice as long to match prospective families with Chinese children. As a result, the number of orphans coming from the two countries dropped by 2,346—a decline that contributed to the net drop of 2,049 between 2005 and 2006.

In December 2006, the China Center for Adoption Affairs, which reviews the applications of foreigners looking to adopt Chinese children, announced new rules for intercountry adoptions to take effect in May 2007. Criteria include the following:

  • Prospective adoptive parents must be a man and a woman who have been married for at least two years.
  • Both husband and wife must be at least 30 years old and under age 50.
  • Neither prospective parent could have AIDS, a nonfunctioning limb, a mental disability, a contagious infectious disease, schizophrenia, or a body mass index of more than 40.

Christopher Lamora, chief of the Intercountry Adoption Unit at the U.S. State Department, notes that adoption is all about finding families for children who need them, not children for families who want them. The restrictions in China, he says, were not necessarily a good or bad thing. “I don’t think it will necessarily reduce the number of children who find homes in the United States,” he says.

Why the United States May Halt Adoptions From Guatemala

The United States is close to implementing a global treaty known as the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, designed to curb abuses such as child trafficking that have long tainted international adoptions, and to make international adoption safer for the child and for the biological and adoptive parents. The U.S. decision to abide by the convention could affect the countries Americans can adopt from.1

For instance, U.S. adoptions from Guatemala—the second most-popular country of origin—may halt, unless Guatemala complies with the Hague Convention standards.2 Guatemala’s current adoption process does not follow Hague principles for the protection of children and families:

  • Most Guatemalan birth mothers directly relinquish a child to an attorney, whose practices and methods for obtaining consent are unregulated.
  • Birth mothers typically give up the child without counseling and without the benefit of a public entity ensuring that she is relinquishing her child voluntarily.
  • Guatemala has yet to set up a central authority to oversee adoption. A child’s eligibility for adoption is determined by unregulated private attorneys—who control all aspects of the adoption process in the country— instead of a public authority, such as executive branch agencies or courts.3

Media Attention Drives Demand for Ethiopian Orphans

U.S. adoptions in Ethiopia have risen quickly in recent years. Adoptions from Ethiopia, the fifth most-popular country of origin jumped from 105 to 731 between 2002 and 2006. “Families are lined up waiting to adopt an Ethiopian baby,” says Cheryl Carter-Shotts, founder and managing director of Americans for African Adoptions, an Indianapolis-based adoption agency that has facilitated adoptions from Ethiopia since 1986.

She credits U2 singer Bono’s publicizing Africa’s pressing problems and actress Angelina Jolie’s 2005 adoption of a baby girl from Ethiopia for drumming up more demand for adoptions from Ethiopia. What the media misses, says Carter-Shotts, is that many Ethiopian babies and toddlers available for adoption are HIV positive. And most children waiting to be adopted are predominantly 4 years and older. Yet most American couples want to adopt an infant.

Sandra Yin is associate editor at PRB.


  1. Elizabeth Bernstein, “Rules Set to Change on Foreign Adoptions,” Wall Street Journal, Nov. 2, 2006.
  2. Catherine M. Barry, deputy assistant secretary for Overseas Citizens Services, “Status of the U.S. Implementation of Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoptions” (testimony before the Committee on International Relations Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations), delivered Nov. 14, 2006, accessed online at travel.state.gov, on Feb. 13, 2007.
  3. Barry, “Status of the U.S. Implementation of Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoptions.”