The number of children adopted from other countries by people in the United States fell by 14 percent last year, with a steep drop in adoptions from China making up a large portion of the decline, the State Department said Thursday.
The overall drop is a continuation of a decade-long trend, with annual declines that have sent the number of adoptions from 12,753 in 2009 to 4,059 in 2018.
In its annual report to Congress released Thursday, the State Department's Office of Children's Issues attributed fewer adoptions of Chinese children to "an improvement in economic circumstances" as well as the development of options for permanent homes for children within China.
State Department Special Adviser for Children's Issues Suzanne Lawrence said one other reason for the decline is China's internal legislation on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
"While the NGO law was not intended to specifically target adoption service providers," said Lawrence in a briefing on Thursday, "It did adversely impact many agencies who have found it very difficult to comply with all of the paperwork and regulations."
China's Foreign NGO Law, which came into effect Jan. 1, 2017, mandates that foreign NGOs must register with the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) or its provincial-level equivalents before establishing an office within mainland China.
Foreign NGOs are permitted to work in areas including economics, education, health, and environmental protection, but they "must not endanger China's national unity, security, or ethnic unity; and must not harm China's national interests, societal public interest."
Answering questions posed by VOA, Lawrence said: "From our interaction with adoption service providers who had been active in China, they tell us that that has really had an impact on their ability to help families who are interested in adopting from China."
China was still by far the leading country of origin for U.S. intercountry adoptions with 1,475 in 2018. But that was a decline of 655 from the year before.
India (302), Ukraine (248) and Colombia (229) were next on the list, and also the rare countries in the top 10 that actually saw increases over their 2017 levels. The other high-ranking nations, which account for all those with at least 100 adoptions in 2018, all saw their number of adoptions go down last year.
Adoptions of Ethiopian children fell by 43 percent to 177 in 2018.
The report cites a number of concerns about the adoption industry and highlights the case of Ethiopia as a place where nearly all of those issues were present.
Ethiopia's parliament passed a law in January banning adoptions by foreigners, instead requiring orphans to grow up in their homeland and learn the country's traditions and culture. Critics worried that child centers and other resources would be overburdened.
In its report Thursday, the State Department said Ethiopia had specific concerns about missing post-adoption reports, corruption, and cases of U.S. parents returning their adopted children to Ethiopia.
Such attempts to return children were among the trends the report identified as those that could undermine the U.S. adoption process.
"The facts of each situation differ, but the reasons shared by adoptive parents to the department for such returns include: concerns that the child was improperly separated from birth families to whom they wished to return; false or fraudulent information received during the adoption process; and medical or behavioral issues or previous abuse of the child that the family was not aware of prior to the adoption placement," it says.
Another ongoing concern is unethical activities by adoption service providers, something the State Department encourages foreign countries to report. The department said it was encouraged by what it said was in 2018 the first notable use of a complaint registry system that showed other countries are "being more proactive about reporting concerns."
The report says bilateral and multilateral cooperation is key to its efforts to ensure intercountry adoptions remain a viable option for kids who need a permanent home.
The process also applies to children from the United States who are adopted by people from another country.
Those levels remained essentially constant between 2017 and 2018, falling from 83 to 81.
Canada was the new home for 38 of those children, followed by the Netherlands at 20 and Mexico with nine.
Nike Ching at the State Department contributed to this report.