There is no single factor that explains the free fall, adoption experts say, which has occurred as the number of orphans continued to grow now at 153 million worldwide, including 18 million who have lost both parents and as many as 8 million living in institutions, according to UNICEF. And interest in adoption remains strong as ever, though the recession may have affected some families' ability to handle the expense.
But most experts bring up two issues when asked to explain the decline: the rise in nationalistic policies by foreign countries favoring domestic adoption, and The Hague Adoption Convention, which was fully implemented in the United States in 2008.
In China and Russia, which have 600,000 and more than 700,000 orphans, respectively, new policies and procedures have affected the number of children available to foreigners to adopt. Russia's review, which led to new regulations that begin Nov. 1, was spurred by tragic abuse and deaths of nearly two mdozen children adopted by American families.
As for The Hague treaty, "It's taken a few years to try to figure out the accreditation of agencies and put safeguards in place around the world for children ... but we're seeing progress," said Denise Bierly, president of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys (AAAA), which held its annual symposium in Salt Lake City last week. "I'm optimistic that international adoptions will increase and will increase dramatically."
The United States recorded a peak number of adoptions of children from foreign countries in 2004 22,991 but international adoptions have fallen steadily since then. In 2011, slightly more than 9,300 children were brought into the United States from another country.
Of those children, 128 found homes in Utah, according to data from the U.S. Department of State.
The U.S. became a signatory to The Hague Adoption Convention in 1994, but it did not take full effect until four years ago. Countries that belong to The Hague treaty agree to follow international standards and protections for service providers, adoptive parents and eligibility of adoptees. Those safeguards include preventing child abduction, sale and trafficking.
About 86 countries now belong to the accord, though the U.S. is not processing adoptions from six countries Cambodia, Guatemala, Montenegro, Rwanda, Senegal and Vietnam it believes are not in full compliance with the treaty.
One of the newest members: Fiji. And Haiti may soon be on board. After a devastating 2010 earthquake, Haitian officials slowed adoptions while they worked toward becoming a Hague member. Haiti has set up a central authority to oversee adoptions and announced on Oct. 1 new policies to regulate orphanages, creches and children's homes.
"We think a lot of good things have come out of [Hague]," said Chuck Johnson, president of the National Council for Adoption, who addressed the impact of convention protocols Thursday at the AAAA symposium. The positives include uniform practice standards, pre- and post-adoption support, oversight and transparency.
At the same time, some adoption experts say The Hague adoption treaty has overly burdened the international adoption process, and the United States has been too harsh in its assessment of whether some countries, such as Vietnam, are fully complying with the protocols.
"The reports we receive from adoptive families is the new processes due to working with a Hague country have become too difficult," said Laura Trinnaman, director of For Every Child Adoption Services in American Fork. "And the cost of accreditation and meeting the requirements of being a Hague-accredited agency have put many, many agencies out of business."
The fact that none of the countries closed by the State Department since Hague took effect have been able to reopen illustrates a missing component, Johnson said.
"We'd still like to see more advocacy," he said. "What are we doing to help them become Hague compliant, and why are other countries willing to work with [the closed countries] when we're not? ... We've just got to figure out a way to make it work better for orphans."
When Hague was approved by the U.S. Senate, it was viewed as a better way to facilitate and safeguard international adoptions, said Kathleen Strottman, director of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute and former adviser to Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who has led numerous adoption-related initiatives.
But many countries have struggled to meet its provisions, turning the standards into a legalistic checklist rather than goals, said Strottman, speaking Friday at the symposium.
Many of those countries simply don't have the resources monetary or technical to do what is needed. That's true of Cambodia and Vietnam, she said.
"If we leave them to do that on their own, I can guarantee you we won't see something happening for a very long time," Strottman said. Instead, the U.S. should be "helping align resources we are already putting into these countries" to meet these goals.
But Ambassador Susan Jacobs, special adviser for children's issues in the U.S. Department of State, is unapologetic about the more rigorous standards now in place.
"There is the possibility in the future of our numbers coming up to a certain degree, but our focus ... is to ensure that adoptions are conducted in the best interests of the child, where everybody's rights are protected, and [there is] confidence in this adoption," Jacobs said in a telephone interview last week. "Our view is more is not necessarily better. What is better is transparent adoptions that protect everyone in the process. And we are unwilling to work with countries where that process seems murky."
As for added scrutiny of agencies, Jacobs said, "What we have found is providers who are accredited do a better job. Parents should have confidence in agencies doing this work. We want every agency to adhere to the same set of standards and practices."
And that may eventually be law. A "universal accreditation" bill pending in the U.S. Congress already approved by a Senate committee would set similar standards for adoption service providers working in non-Hague countries, which are responsible for slightly more than half the adoptions taking place today. Four of the top five countries from which children are adopted by American families Ethiopia, Russia, South Korea and Ukraine have not signed The Hague treaty.
International adoption in the U.S.
Top five countries, with most recent year's numbers
2011 • China (2,587) , Ethiopia (1,732), Russia (962), South Korea (736), Ukraine (640)
2010 • China, Ethiopia, Russia, South Korea, Ukraine
2009 • China, Ethiopia, Russia, South Korea, Guatemala
2008 • Guatemala, China, Russia, Ethiopia, South Korea
Source • U.S. Department of State