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Indiana adoption agencies try new strategies: Supply of kids from China, other sources dwindles

October 27, 2008

Families Thru International Adoption holds a reunion each summer at Forest Park in Noblesville that draws hundreds of families.

Most of the children were born in China or Guatemala, but adoptions from those countries have slowed dramatically. The Evansville-based agency will have to form relationships in other countries, or expect fewer new faces at the annual picnic.

FTIA is among a handful of Indiana agencies revamping their strategies to deal with the dramatic downturn.

"It is a difficult time for adoption agencies right now, absolutely," said Inna Pecar, director of Indianapolis-based KidsFirst International Adoption Services.

China and Guatemala have been top suppliers of adoptive children to U.S. families since the late 1990s. Now China says it can't keep up with all the requests, and this year set new criteria for foreigners wanting to adopt. (One rule the China Centre of Adoption Affairs issued in May is that couples may not be obese.)

The flow from Guatemala halted altogether because the government failed to meet international standards designed to ensure legal, ethical adoptions.

Families Thru International Adoption, a not-for-profit, is the largest and most prolific agency in the state. CEO Keith Wallace started the agency in 1995 with a program in China, but lately he's throwing his effort into Panama, Bulgaria, Nepal, Mexico and Ethiopia.

"The number of people wanting to adopt is still huge," Wallace said.

The future of the adoption agency could depend on what kind of luck Wallace has launching programs in new countries.

"This year is the breaking point," said Program Director Salome LaMarche. So far, Families Thru International Adoption has placed 36 healthy Chinese children, compared with 244 in 2004.

As the typical wait stretches into three years, LaMarche said, clients are reconsidering children with disabilities and birth defects. The agency has placed 55 Chinese children with special needs this year.

This could be the last year, at least for a while, that agencies place any children from Guatemala. All 158 Guatemalan adoptions completed in 2008 were begun in 2007, LaMarche said.

The agency has already pared its staff from 40 people to 20. Many of them were case managers for China and Guatemala, LaMarche said. "We're just preparing for smaller programs."

The lack of children also means a lack of fees, ranging from $17,000 to $34,000 per adoption, to keep agencies afloat. Across the country, agencies are closing, or forming partnerships with others, said Linh Song, executive director of Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Ethica, which advocates for ethical adoption. "There have been too many American adoption agencies in a small marketplace."

The demand from Americans became well-known in poor countries, and Song said that encouraged corruption and trafficking. In Vietnam, "There were bidding wars for healthy infants," she said. "This is something American adoption agencies will readily admit to."

In 2005, China prosecuted a baby-trafficking ring in Hunan province. The State Department has issued warnings since 2006 about the uncertainties of adopting from Guatemala, where there was no oversight.

The Guatemalan government is reforming its system, but U.S. immigration officials won't process new cases until the country meets Hague Convention standards for adoption.

Bethany Christian Services of Central Indiana has been working in foreign countries and setting up adoptions since 1983. It started with Korea, moved to Romania, and followed the trend to China.

If it weren't for a chance diversion away from adoption, the Indianapolis branch of Bethany Christian Services might be facing the same hardship as other offices, Director Linda Wrestler said. Bethany won a state contract to counsel Indiana families reported for abuse, just as adoptions from China began to slow.

Now international adoption accounts for only 10 percent of the agency's $3.75 million budget, Wrestler said.

"We could've never planned for this," she said. "It just came. Thank goodness it did. What would've happened to our international program, or the agency as a whole?"

Pecar, a native of Ukraine, started Kids-First 10 years ago with a program in Russia. She said the business slowed dramatically three years ago, after the Russian government began offering large salaries to local foster parents.

To make up for the decline in children from Russia, as well as China, Pecar decided about six months ago to venture into domestic adoption. Pecar has a master's degree in social work and runs the agency with her husband, Steve, a lawyer. KidsFirst completed its first two domestic adoptions in September.

"Because of the work we did internationally, I feel people trust in us," she said.
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