How much does it cost?
How much does an international adoption cost? Exactly where does all the money go? Definitive answers are all but impossible to find—despite the fact that the International Adoption Act (IAA) of 2000 requires the State Department to report annually on what fees are being charged for adoptions from countries that have signed the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. And without knowing what adoptions do cost and why, it’s very difficult to know whether an agency is spending the money wisely or unethically. And without accountability, agencies can too easily spend those fees unethically.
State Department regulations do require Hague-accredited agencies (agencies that have passed a standards review and are permitted to arrange adoptions from Hague-signatory nations) to disclose “a written schedule of expected total fees and estimated expenses.” That schedule must disclose fees in nine categories. But those categories are too opaque to glean exactly how agencies are using those funds—or to understand why they are so outsized compared to poor countries’ local wages and economies.
The biggest problem is the category called the “foreign country program fee.” This is, according to the State Department regulations, supposed to be the amount of money that the agency spends on adoption-related services in the foreign country (excluding care of the child and humanitarian contributions to the country’s child welfare system). But each agency breaks down and categorizes its fees in a different way; consumers cannot easily compare the costs from one agency to the next. According to the State Department’s 2009 report, the average “foreign country program fee” in 2009 was $7,498, although fees went as high as $35,790—and they vary tremendously by country. The median total fee for adoption from Mongolia was $1,250.00; from Azerbaijan, it was $ $20,370.00.
Where does that money go? Some agencies will say that it covers such overseas costs as going to court, underwriting the orphanage’s care for other children, finding an interpreter, and shuttling you around Moscow or Kathmandu or Addis Ababa for court appearances and orphanage visits. But that is still an enormous amount of money in countries where most people make between $1,000 and $5,000/year, and poor people live on a dollar a day. Surely some agencies use every penny righteously—and just as surely, others don’t.
The State Department’s report on fees is listed on page 20 of its
FY 2009 Annual Report on Intercountry Adoptions. But a look at page 20 is more confusing than illuminating; you come away no wiser about what an international adoption should cost—or where all the money goes. “Foreign Country Program Expenses” ranges from a median of $6,000 to a high of $35,790. Why is the gap so enormous? Was the high figure a single exceptionally costly adoption, or is it the usual fee charged by one agency—and if so, which one, and why so much? What exactly is covered under “Foreign Country Program Expenses”? Does every penny go overseas, and if so, how is its use tracked? Why do “Contributions to Child Welfare Service Programs in the Child’s Country of Origin” range just as broadly, with a median fee $1,500, and a high $11,000?
The second chart, which lays out the median fees paid per adoption by country, prompts still more questions. Exactly what is being reported in those fees? Are those derived from what the agency charged, in total, for every adoption that year—ranging from a few exceptionally complicated and costly individual adoptions, as well as a few swift special needs adoptions of “waiting children”? Or are these the standard fees that agencies quote, in advance, to prospective customers, without accounting for variation? How do those country charges break down by category (i.e., what is the range of “foreign country program fees” charged for adopting from China, or for adopting from Colombia)? How do those country charges break down by agency—i.e., who charges the most to adopt from Ethiopia, who charges the least, and how do agencies explain that variation? How do agencies justify their expenses, or explain why they charge significantly more or less than other agencies? Why aren’t the individual agencies’ costs and fees listed as well? And who is tracking all that money?
Repeated requests to the State Department for clarification did not result in additional insight.
NOTE: This page from the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism website offers documentation of and background about serious irregularities in international adoption. For the systemic analysis of corruption in international adoption, please read “The Lie We Love,” Foreign Policy magazine, Nov./Dec. 2008, and visit our webpages dedicated to international adoption. For ideas about fairer policy solutions, please read “The Baby Business,” Democracy Journal, Summer 2010.
© 2008-2014 Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, 02454. All rights reserved.
Last page update: February 22, 2011