Editor’s Note: In this series, CNN investigates international adoption, hearing from families, children and key experts on its decline, and whether the trend could – or should – be reversed.
Advocates say the current international adoption system is holding orphans hostage in red tape
Critics say the hunger for adopting children from developing nations feeds nefarious practices
UNICEF estimates there are 18 million children without parents globally
Holt International spokesperson: "Adoption is a business, there is no question, sadly"
Srey Powers’ earliest memories in Cambodia are “waking up each morning, climbing trees to forage for fruit and berries with my cousins, and sitting around a fire each night with the one meal provided,” the 19-year-old said.
Born in a refugee camp, Powers remembers traveling at age 6 for two days by moped, car and foot “only to be left at a building with many infants and toddlers and strange adults,” she said.
At the orphanage, she met her new American family – Claudia and Patrick Powers from Long Island, New York.
“From day one, I had a bond with my mother. Our first language was through playing soccer,” recalled Powers, who was named most valuable player after leading her high school to the 2010 girls soccer state championship.
Powers was adopted from Cambodia in 1999.
Two years later, the U.S. closed Cambodia to adoptions due to allegations of corruption.
The U.S. adoption story of another 19-year-old is different.
“When I was 13, I was sold,” said Tarikuwa Lemma, who grew up in Ethiopia.
She and her two sisters were adopted by an Arizona family who were told Lemma’s parents died of AIDS.
“The truth was that our mother had died as a result of complications during childbirth, and our father was alive and well,” said Lemma.
Lemma’s family was scammed by a man who said the girls were being sent to the United States on a study program, she said. Only when the sisters arrived did they realize their legal rights had been signed away to new parents.
“I wanted to escape from the people I felt had kidnapped us from our homeland, our culture and our family,” said Lemma, who hopped from three different U.S. adoptive homes before becoming independent after turning 18. “My sisters and I had a father, a brother and older sisters, plus a large extended family that cared for us and loved us. We were middle class by Ethiopian standards, not poor.”
These tales paint the divide on which, experts say, the legal and ethical debate on international adoption rests: Do the risks of abuse in a minority of cases outweigh the larger good that most adoptions provide?
Healing or ‘hostage taking’?
As international adoption becomes more difficult, a growing number of voices in the U.S., Australia and elsewhere are pushing to reduce restrictions that limit adopting from abroad.
“In every human endeavor, there is a chance for abuse,” said Elizabeth Bartholet, director of the Child Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School, who adopted two children from Peru in the 1980s.
“But if a plane goes down, they don’t ground the whole airline industry … the only institution I can think of that when there’s a problem, they shut it down, is international adoption.”
Critics argue the hunger to adopt children from developing nations helps feed nefarious practices, as families are often deceived or coerced into giving their children up for adoption.
“The same story happens again in country after country,” said David Smolin, director of the center for Children, Law and Ethics at Samford University.
Smolin became a legal expert on international adoption issues after he and his wife adopted two daughters from India in 1998 only to discover that the girls were stolen from their mother.
Smolin, along with many other experts and organizations – including UNICEF and the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption – believe that orphans being adopted from abroad should be a last-case scenario, with more emphasis placed on helping keep children in their home country, such as providing day care, foster care, better orphanages and more domestic adoption.
Asked whether abuse in a minority of adoption cases should result in the closure of entire countries, Smolin said: “That’s a false choice. I don’t appreciate our family or my daughters’ family in India being used as collateral damage. That’s like hostage-taking.”
International adoption ‘Stuck’
Adoption advocates argue the current system is holding children hostage, that developing in-country programs are at least a generation away – time that the millions currently languishing in orphanages can ill afford.
“The de facto result (of in-country preference) is they would prefer to have the children in institutional life rather than intercountry adoption,” Bartholet said. “The results are more developmental problems, more kids on the street and more cost to the government to institutionalize these kids.”
Until the global decline of transnational adoption in 2004, “40,000 kids a year were getting really good homes and moving from devastating circumstances,” according to Bartholet. “That’s an amazing social program that changes people at no cost to the home country. To shut that down is tragic.”
Craig Juntunen, a former quarterback in the Canadian Football League and an entrepreneur who retired at age 43, toured a Haiti orphanage in 2006.
The experience changed his life, as he watched children “climbing over each other” to get a hug.
Later that year, he and his wife adopted three children from Haiti.
“Looking into their eyes when they first came, we were filled with a happiness we had never felt before,” said Juntunen, who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. “But, I was constantly reminded of how kids living in institutions, deprived of such simple things as human contact, are robbed of the opportunity t