Where Have the Orphans Gone?

If you are familiar with International adoption at all you know the numbers of children being adopted in other countries and coming home to America is falling fairly dramatically. (1) Some people blame extra restrictions and paperwork, or the Hague convention.(2) Those things do cause delays. Maybe another reason fewer children need homes outside their birth countries is a more positive one.  

As International adoption slumps, domestic adoption in some countries is picking up the slack.

Recently I talked to Jynger Pleasant, the Executive Director of Dillon International adoption agency. She told me that one of the reasons few children were coming to America was that more were being adopted within the countries where they were orphaned. 


“Mainly what we have heard from the Central authorities we have been working with is that more domestic adoption is occurring, which is great. That’s one of the things that Dillon pioneered early on was… we were hopeful that it would help spur domestic adoptions if  people in the country saw other people adopting internationally.” She told me. (3)

China – The One Child Habit

Some of the specific programs Ms. Pleasant has worked with have indeed gone through some drastic changes over the years. In China, for example, their one child policy was legendary in the adoption world. (4) Culture combined with economics in one of the worst ways. The government had crunched the numbers and determined that overpopulation was going to hurt their economic prosperity, so they determined that anyone having more than one child should be penalized. The penalties levied because of the one child policy were never doled out equally. Some provinces were always stricter than others, and rural areas were typically allowed more children. In the places where the policy was strictly enforced, fines were imposed on families who had more than one child. The second child wouldn’t even be allowed into the national household system, meaning they couldn’t register for school or get healthcare. Add to this restriction the cultural tradition in China that states that the family’s bloodline flows through a son only. It also made sense in agrarian China to have a strong son to run the family farm. Even though life has changed over time in China, the pressure to have a son is still present. (5)


This policy came into being in 1980, which was a lively time in international adoption. Middle class American families were bringing healthy young children over our border so often it was beginning to seem routine. When stories started circulating about female infants being abandoned in fields and woods so their parents could have a second chance to conceive a son, agencies took notice and made connections within China. China became known for the stability of the program these agencies developed. In the early 2000s China was sending American families more children than any other country.  (6) 


America’s heart for abandoned girls was so welcoming that the Chinese population began to skew male. The government realized that their population was declining and aging.  In 2016, instead of punishing families for having more than one child, they began to encourage families to have two children with limited success. (7) This bureaucratic whiplash didn’t go over well with many families. Couples had become accustomed to investing all their resources in one child, and having two seemed extravagant. When the Chinese government realized that far fewer babies were born in 2020 than in 2019 they adjusted the law yet again, encouraging women to have three children in 2021. Since China has begun to hoard their children there are not young, healthy children to send to America.

Korea: Few babies and fewer adoptions

Another country that is trying to hang on to more of its children is Korea. They also have a falling birth rate. Even though there are fewer babies being born, families within the country are not choosing adoption when they find they are not able to have their a child by birth. There is still a fairly strong stigma against adoption there. (8) The adoption of children from Korea into American families has always been viewed as an insult by some in the country. But the country also hosted a notorious stigma against unwed mothers. (9) With families rejecting the single mother and the child, and a lack of safety net provided by the country itself, many Korean mothers didn’t feel they had a choice but to allow their children to find homes outside the country. 


Recently because of the embarrassment to the country, the government has tried to incentivize adoption for Korean families by offering a stipend to those who adopt children under 12. (10) At the same time the restrictions for international adoptions have increased. To say this is working well is a vast understatement. The stigma within the country for both unwed mothers and adoptive parents is still strong. The policy changes are having some effect, but overall adoptions both within and outside of the country have been dropping in the past years along with the birth rate. Korea obviously still has some work to do to properly service its children and their mothers, even if they are single. 

India: Starting to Leave Adoption Stigma Behind

Then there is India, where the caste system that negatively affects orphans has been dogging Indian society for over 3000 years. The weight of that tradition was one that some thought India could never crawl out from under. But the stigma to adopting is easing in India. As a matter of fact there is currently a surplus of Indian families looking to adopt. (11)The problem is many of them have a narrow view of the child they would accept.  Add to this the fact that many children in India who could use a family are not cleared for adoption and registered within the system. (12) With more families open to adopting the youngest and healthiest of Indian orphans, the children left in the system and available for adoption outside the country are older and likely to have more special needs. 

The End Of An Era

Slowly, many of the countries that once allowed us to easily spout the phrase, “If you can’t have children biologically, then just adopt,” are not sending the equivalent of a young healthy child to America. It was never the case that going to lengthy measures to bear a biological child and adopting were the same thing. Now, more than ever, the differences between those seeking extra help to get pregnant and those seeking to adopt a child internationally have grown for Americans. The skills potential adoptive parents would need to have to raise an older child with special needs or a sibling group are just not a set that every parent naturally has or wants to develop. 

Where Can We Go From Here?

Watching domestic adoption grow in countries that have long been saddled with strong biases against anything not resembling a troupe of Dad, Mom and son, is definitely a step in the right direction. It is just a step, though. There is still a place for American families who can raise an older or otherwise in need child. There is a deep need for people who can support agencies who are trying to help orphans who will never have a family. The adoption landscape is changing. It is important for those in America with a heart for adoption to purge the sweet image of cuddling a cooing Asian baby daughter, and get to work making sure every orphan is cared for in the way we can.

 Listen to the Podcast

Adoption Over the Years and Into the Future with Jynger


  1. Wiles, Katherine. “International adoptions dropped by nearly half during 2020. But COVID-19 only helped to accelerate a years-long decline.” Market Watch, 13 Nov. 2021, www.marketwatch.com/story/international-adoptions-dropped-by-nearly-half-during-2020-but-covid-19-only-helped-to-accelerate-a-years-long-decline-11636496504#:~:text=In%202019%2C%20the%20last%2.

  2. Baird, Sarah M. “Stuck in the Pipeline: An Analysis of the Hague Convention and Its Effects on Those in the Process of International Adoptions.” Journal of International and Comparative Law, vol. 3, no. 1, 2012, scholarship.law.stjohns.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1016&context=jicl.

  3. Adoption Over the Years and Into the Future, With Jynger Pleasant

  4. Ziv, Stav. “China’s One-Child Policy and American Adoptees.” Newsweek, 3 Nov. 2015, www.newsweek.com/what-if-chinese-adoptees-and-end-one-child-policy-390130.

  5. Mullen, Andrew. “China’s one-child policy: what was it and what impact did it have?” China Macro Economy, 1 June 2021, www.scmp.com/economy/china-economy/article/3135510/chinas-one-child-policy-what-was-it-and-what-impact-did-it.

  6. Johnston, WM. R. “Historical international adoption statistics, United States and world.” Johnston Archive, 5 Aug. 2017, www.johnstonsarchive.net/policy/adoptionstatsintl.html.

  7. McDonell, Stephen. “China allows three children in major policy shift.” BBC, 31 May 2021, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-57303592.

  8. S, S C. “Why adoptions are so rare in South Korea.” Economist, 27 May 2015, www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2015/05/27/why-adoptions-are-so-rare-in-south-korea.

  9. Babe, Ann. “The stigma of being a single mother in South Korea.” Al Jazeera, 1 Mar. 2018, www.aljazeera.com/features/2018/3/1/the-stigma-of-being-a-single-mother-in-south-korea.

  10. Onshi, Norimitsu. “Erasing the Stigma Of Adopting a Baby.” The Korea Times, 22 Oct. 2008, m.koreatimes.com/article/20081022/481651.

  11. Bardhan, Sara, and Neymat Chadha. “The Challenges and Unaddressed Issues of Child Adoption Practices in India.” The Wire, 16 Sept. 2021, thewire.in/society/challenges-issues-child-adoption-practices-india.

  12. Kalra, Shreya. “Why India’s adoption rate is abysmal despite its 30 million abandoned kids.” Business Standard, The Wire, 30 Oct. 2018, www.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/why-india-s-adoption-rate-is-abysmal-despite-its-30-million-abandoned-kids-118103000218_1.html.





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