Amid partisan conflict in Congress, dozens of lawmakers from both parties — including staunch liberals and conservatives — have united behind a bill that supporters say addresses a heart-rending issue beyond politics: the millions of foreign children languishing in orphanages or otherwise at risk because they have no immediate family.
The bill would encourage more adoptions of foreign orphans, which have declined steadily in recent years, and reflects impatience with current policies overseen by the State Department.
"Every child needs and deserves to grow up in a family," says the bill's chief advocate, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. "While our foreign policy has done much to keep children alive and healthy, it has not prioritized this basic human right."
Titled the Children in Families First Act, the measure has been introduced in slightly different forms in both the Senate and House. Its co-sponsors range from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a hero of the Democratic left, to Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., a favorite of tea party conservatives.
"It's not a slam dunk, but it is very possible," Landrieu said of the bill's chances. "We need voices from all parts of the political spectrum to make a change that many of us think is extremely important."
As of mid-December, the twin measures had 32 co-sponsors in the House and 17 in the Senate.
Landrieu, mother of two adopted children, hopes to keep building support for the bill with the goal of clearing committees in both chambers by spring.
However, some House Republicans are skeptical about creating more bureaucracy, and there is sentiment in the Obama administration that some key provisions of the bill are not needed.
"I think we've been pretty successful recently," said Susan Jacobs, the State Department's special adviser on children's issues. "We are proud of the work that we do to protect everyone involved in the adoption process — the birth families, the adopting families and of course the children."
Landrieu thinks differently, contending the government has been remiss in failing to establish an office that focuses on international child welfare. The bill would create a new bureau in the State Department assigned to work with non-governmental organizations and foreign countries to minimize the number of children without families — through family preservation and reunification, kinship care, and domestic and international adoption.
Under the legislation, the processing of international adoption cases would be assigned to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, while the U.S. Agency for International Development would become home to a center dedicated to implementing a 2012 plan to assist children in adversity.
There's no firm global count of children in orphanages, but they number in the millions. In Russia — which has banned adoptions by Americans — there are more than 650,000 children not in parental custody. In Kyrgyzstan — where foreign adoptions were disrupted for years due to corruption and political problems — orphanages are often ill-equipped, with limited specialized care for severely disabled children. In Haiti, where recovery from the 2010 earthquake has been slow, inspectors recently checked more than 700 orphanages, and said only 36 percent met minimum standards.
Much of the impetus for Landrieu's bill stems from shifting views about the Hague Convention on Inter-Country Adoption. That treaty establishes ethical standards for international adoptions, which it says are an acceptable option after efforts have been made to have a child adopted in his or her home country.
The U.S. entered into the agreement in 2008 with strong support from Landrieu and other adoption advocates who hoped it would curtail fraud and corruption, and then lead to a boom in legitimate adoptions.
Instead, the decrease in foreign adoption by Americans — which started in 2005 — has continued. There were 8,668 such adoptions in 2012, down from 22,991 in 2004.
"When I helped to pass this treaty, it was everyone's hope that the number would go up — doubled, tripled, quadrupled," Landrieu said. "Instead it's down by 60 percent. That's the best evidence I have that what State Department has in place isn't working."
There are multiple reasons for the decline — including increases in domestic adoptions in China and South Korea, and suspensions imposed on several countries due to concerns about fraud and trafficking.
However, many supporters of Landrieu's bill believe the Hague convention has been applied too punitively, and that the State Department has been overcautious rather than working creatively to halt the decline. Several prominent supporters wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry on Dec. 18 asking that he investigate the matter.
The letter cites Cambodia as an example. The U.S. and other Western countries have banned adoptions from there since 2001 out of concern that the adoption business was rife with bribery and child-trafficking. Cambodia, which imposed its own ban in 2009, now says it has made needed reforms and is ready to resume international adoptions, but the State Department says the U.S. ban will remain in place because of continuing concerns about Cambodia's child-welfare system.
Since 2001, the letter said, "tens of thousands of children in Cambodia have had no chance at a permanent family." Many grow up or even die in institutional care, it said, while others end up on the streets or trafficked into the sex trade.
Chuck Johnson, CEO of the National Council for Adoption and one of the letter's signatories, cited Vietnam and Nepal as other countries where adoptions were suspended because of corruption and trafficking, and which now feel ready to resume them.
"The State Department has assumed the regulation of inter-country adoption with a lot of gusto, but with a void in terms of advocacy," Johnson said. "There are countries that want to work with the U.S., but we won't work with them."
Johnson said his organization, which represents dozens of adoption agencies, had enjoyed a positive relationship with the State Department in the past but is now bracing for a rupture over Landrieu's bill.
"We're putting the gloves on," he said. "Children's lives are at stake."
The State Department's Susan Jacobs said the U.S. was successfully using the Hague standards to bring about improvements in some overseas adoptions systems that have been plagued by corruption and child-trafficking. For example, she said a pilot project to resume some adoptions from Vietnam is expected to start within a few months.
"Diplomacy is a slow process and can often be frustrating to people," she said. "But I think we have a really good record."
Landrieu, however, is losing patience.
"Slow is not something that works well for children," she said. "There's no legitimate excuse for the U.S. dragging its feet when it comes to saying, 'Yes, children do belong in families.'"
The senator plans to confer about the bill in the coming weeks with Kerry, a former Senate colleague. "He and his team are very supportive of what we're doing," she said.
Among the outspoken supporters of Landrieu's bill is professor Elizabeth Bartholet, founder of the Child Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School.
The bill's basic message, she says, is "the U.S. government should change itself from being a negative force, with respect to children who need homes, to being a positive force."
The State Department, according to Bartholet, has been too preoccupied with its reputation, favoring suspensions of adoption when corruption or trafficking allegations arise and then taking its time resuming them at the cost of prolonging orphans' stays in institutions.
"Keeping a child in an institution is systematic abuse and neglect," Bartholet said. "The bill says we the United States should see inter-country adoption as one of the best options — it should not be the last resort."
Bartholet is among a number of the bill's supporters who see it as a repudiation of UNICEF, the U.N. children's agency. She contends that UNICEF views international adoption as an undesirable last resort and has suggested that Congress consider suspending funding to the agency until its stance changes.
The official website promoting Landrieu's bill also takes a swipe at the U.N. agency.
"The U.S. Government has effectively relinquished its policy role on international child welfare to UNICEF," the site says. "We need to retake control of U.S. foreign policy on this critical issue and lead the way in shifting the world's focus on to the importance of family for all children."
Asked about Landrieu's bill, UNICEF said it does not comment on pending legislation in U.N. member nations.
However, in recent public statements, UNICEF's chief of child protection, Susan Bissell, been emphatic on two points. She insists that UNICEF is not against international adoption, despite what some critics say. She also does not favor approaches that would prioritize international adoption over alternatives giving children permanent homes in their own country.
According to Landrieu's staff, the bill's proposals would cost about $60 million annually, with the money reallocated from existing foreign aid. About half would go to the USAID Center for Excellence and half to fund the new State Department bureau.
Some supporters of UNICEF and of U.S. efforts to combat the global AIDS epidemic fear those programs could lose some funding as part of the shift. Final decisions won't be made until and unless the bill advances.
Kathleen Strottman, executive director of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, said she likes Landrieu's bill because of its scope — proposing a range of initiatives beyond adoption to help more of the millions of children worldwide living without a family.
"If the U.S. government is committed to reducing that number, this bill is the right strategy," Strottman said. "There's one perfect number — it must be as close to zero as we can get it."
Website promoting the bill: http://childreninfamiliesfirst.org/
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