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A reform in the works

Hague Convention treaty would require system to oversee international adoptions

Sunday, August 13, 2000

By Cindi Lash Post-Gazette Staff Writer

As Russia works to overhaul its international adoption system, the United States, too, is poised to approve similar reforms.

The guidelines are contained in a treaty called the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. If ratified by Congress, the treaty would require the United States to create a system to oversee and coordinate international adoptions.

With ratification, the U.S. would become the 40th nation to agree to standards aimed at eliminating child-selling, bribery and fraud from international adoptions.

The U.S House of Representatives passed legislation to implement the treaty July 18. The Senate, too, unanimously approved legislation to ratify a version of the treaty July 27, but its version contained slightly different language on a minor immigration provision.

The House now must approve the Senate version and is expected to do so when its members return from vacation Sept. 6.

The treaty was drafted in 1993 by the Hague Convention, an organization based in the Netherlands that develops treaties on international issues. The U.S. signed the treaty the following year but did not formally ratify it.

The treaty calls for countries to establish a central authority to oversee and coordinate international adoption procedures.

In the United States, where adoptions have been regulated only by individual states, that authority would be the State Department.

Proponents say cooperation among such authorities would help nations share information about unscrupulous adoption practitioners who bribe adoption officials, pad fees or coerce birth parents into selling their children.

Having a central agency to track adoptions would prevent agencies from escaping scrutiny by moving from place to place, as they've done in the past.

"To have no oversight or monitoring or accountability is an insane situation," said Maureen Hogan, president of Adopt America, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy and lobbying organization.

"In this country, we've regulated everything from guns to snail darters. You can't ride in your car without being regulated by the federal government. You can't sell organs, but you can essentially sell a whole, live child. This is an issue that's time has come."

The central authority also would monitor and keep records about children who've been adopted from other countries.

The United States currently keeps statistics only on the number of foreign-born children that obtain immigrant visas and does not track the outcomes of their adoptions.

"Some individual adoption agencies have been good about follow-up [checks and assistance for children they've placed], but others haven't.

There really is no framework," said Kathleen Strottman, an aide to Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who is a co-chairman of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption and a co-sponsor of the Hague treaty legislation.

Like the new Russian laws, the Hague treaty calls for requiring adoption agencies to meet accreditation standards.

A diverse group of U.S. adoption agencies and advocates, child-welfare organizations and human-rights groups has endorsed the treaty.

Yet its passage was delayed for months in the House by quibbles over whether it should be amended to bar gay adoption and in the Senate by concerns about how it would affect small adoption agencies.

In the House, Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., had sought language that would have stopped gays, lesbians and people who "engage in promiscuous sexual activity" from adopting abroad.

After weeks of negotiation, the legislation now includes language that requires adoptive parents from the United States to comply with other countries' marriage requirements or laws banning gay adoptions.

The treaty also stalled for a time in the Senate after Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., who is an adoptive parent, expressed fears that small agencies might find it too burdensome and costly to comply with a new federal adoption bureaucracy.

But Sen. Jesse Helms, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a co-sponsor of the Hague legislation, and other supporters were able to address Brownback's concerns and win the votes needed for ratification.

The impending passage of the treaty, after years of unsuccessful attempts, comes as a relief to adoption proponents. They'd feared that Russia, China and other countries that have allowed U.S. families to adopt thousands of their children would be angered if Congress once again failed to approve the treaty.

"It's embarrassing to go to other countries and be asked, 'Why haven't you signed [the treaty]? We talk about the safety of children and we're not signing it. It's disingenuous, and it's not lost on other countries," said Susan Soon-Keum Cox, vice president of Holt International Children's Services adoption agency.

"As an adoptee myself, I'm very interested in making sure that children are protected," said Cox, who's lobbied extensively for passage of the treaty.

"Now there will be someone [in government] who can advocate for adoption and there will be a standard of practice for agencies that families can be sure of," she said.

"Otherwise, other countries can say to us, 'We don't have to work with you, and we won't.' "

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