The Big Question: How does international adoption work, and is tighter regulation needed?

Why are we asking this now?

An American mother's decision to send her seven-year-old adopted son back to Russia, alone and with a note that she no longer wanted him, has horrified officials and adoption experts in both countries and made headline news worldwide. The treatment of the Russian boy, Artyom Savelyev, has been described as a "monstrous deed" by the Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev.

What exactly happened?

Artyom Savelyev was adopted from an orphanage last year by Torry-Ann Hansen of Tennessee. On Thursday, the single mother put him unaccompanied on a 10-hour flight to Moscow with a note stating: "I no longer wish to parent this child." The note is said to explain:"He is violent and has severe psychopathic issues/behaviour. I was lied to and misled by the Russian orphanage workers and director regarding his mental stability. They chose to grossly misrepresent those problems in order to get him out of their orphanage."

The Hansen family claims Artyom drew a picture of their house burning down and told anybody that he was going to burn it down with them in it. It is reported that his mother packed the boy's rucksack and told him he was going on an "excursion". Officials in the former Soviet Union deny these allegations, claiming Artyom had no mental health problems and the Russian media reported Hansen as having "cynically returned the child to Russia as if he was an unwanted purchase". Russia has since announced a freeze on child adoptions by US families.

Is this a one-off?

In an interview with ABC News, the Russian President said he had a "special concern" about the recent treatment of Russian children adopted by Americans. Peter Selman, author of Intercountry Adoption: development, trends and perspectives and visiting fellow at the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology at Newcastle University, confirms that cases range from "an American man who adopted a five-year-old Russian girl and abused her for 10 years right through to several cases of murder". International adoptions between other countries, however, don't seem to tell such sinister tales. In fact, research shows no evidence that international adoptions are any more likely to break down than domestic placements. One study of 165 children adopted from Romania found only two breakdowns and other research shows that most children adopted from overseas do well in terms of developmental outcomes.

What rules govern international adoption?

Worryingly lax ones in the US, where overseas adoptions – which form the bulk of adoptions – tend to be private and there are some notoriously unethical agencies which take large sums of money. There seems to be little protection in place for children themselves. Sheriff Randall Boyce even told ABC News that there may be no crime at all on the part of Hansen – merely "some bad judgement on the way she turned this child back".

Is it the same in the UK?

Here, the number of children adopted from overseas is relatively small – around 325 a year, less than 10 per cent of all adoptions – largely because rules are so strict. The figure would almost certainly be higher, had the process not been tightened up following the notorious case of the Kilshaws in 2000 – who paid to adopt twin sisters from abroad over the internet. The system was then changed so that anyone wishing to adopt from overseas must be assessed by a social worker in the UK, just as they would if applying to adopt domestically. The next step is to seek permission from the British Government to apply to the country in question. That country has to have signed up to the Hague Convention, which aims to ensure that in every adoption there is proof that adoption is genuinely in the best interests of the child.

Is there a pattern to adoptions that fail?

The British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) estimates that one in five adoptions breaks down. The older the child at placement, the more likely the chance of the placement failing. A major study by the Maudsley Hospital also shows that adoption breakdowns tend to happen longer after the child joins the family than in this case. These researchers found a disruption rate of 8 per cent after one year and 29 per cent six years later.

Are there additional risks involved from overseas?

Yes. "Often when you adopt a child from overseas, you will have very little background information," says a spokesman from BAAF. "The child may know nothing about his or her family of origin, which may pose significant issues for them as they get older, and medical reports for some countries may not reflect the true state of the child's health." As reports of orphanages abroad show, these children may also have suffered a particularly worrying form of neglect.

What about ethics?

Although the Hague Convention attempts to stop child-trafficking, some argue that what now happens is "child laundering" – that is, using the formal system to cover less than ideal circumstances. Madonna has been heavily criticised for adopting two children from Africa as "orphans" when they have a father.

Catriona Aldridge, who adopted three street children from Guatemala, was motivated by giving them a better life, but she's not so sure "rescuing" children, and bringing them thousands of miles from their roots, is always the answer. "It's not that I'm anti-adoption or that I regret adopting. But I believe more and more that we need to improve the situation for people – for women in particular – in these developing countries," she says.

The most prominent recent controversy surrounding international adoption is Haiti. Britain and the US cut red tape in order to facilitate adoption of the hundreds of children who were believed to have been orphaned by the January earthquake. Many argue that rushing the process could jeopardise family reunification and to date, the situation remains unresolved.

Why do particular countries feature so prominently as providers of children for adoption?

Most children adopted overseas come from China and Russia, but the numbers coming from China are dropping dramatically. Cynics say this is because the country recognises that this image doesn't look good and it doesn't like the idea of same-sex couples or single people adopting their children. Optimists say it's because they are starting to sort out their own problems. Either way, it is a reflection of how the countries people adopt from is constantly evolving. Some years back, the top countries were Guatemala and Romania. Not surprisingly, countries topping the list are often blighted by war or have faced natural disasters, or have had publicity surrounding the number of children in orphanages.



Is the system flawed?

In the US, it's hard to see another answer than yes. And even though the UK doesn't have the poor reputation that the US does, few would argue that our system is perfect. Countries including Denmark, where overseas adoption is far more common, criticises us for using social workers with very little expertise in the issues. Others argue that we need a central government agency dedicated to international adoption.

Is international adoption failing the children it should be helping?

Yes...

* Those adopted from overseas often point to being afflicted by two key issues – loss and racism



* Adopters often go overseas because rules at home make adoption difficult – a misguided starting point



* Without proper resources from governments, how can it ever be in children's best interests?

No...

* Children adopted from overseas are often saved from lives of misery and suffering



* Adopters often help their children to trace, find and maintain links with birth families



* There are many studies on international adoption, helping people to learn from past mistakes

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