For years, the common wisdom for Americans who wanted to adopt a baby quickly and easily was to go abroad.
Rather than wrestle with the red tape and long waits associated with adopting in the United States, they could fly to countries where the process took just weeks — or even days — and involved little more than showing up and paying some money.
But sometimes, the quick trips took on sinister undertones, with some birth countries becoming a sort of Wild West for adoptions. Babies were sometimes made available under suspicious circumstances, such as through kidnappings or buying them from their birth mothers.
Aiming to curb such practices, governments stepped in, and now the pendulum has swung far in the other direction. Even before the recent ban in Russia on adoptions by Americans, the annual number of international adoptions has plunged to 40 percent of what it was in the mid 2000s, and the process can grind on for years.
"In 1984, I had people yelling at me because it took six weeks instead of four. Today, it takes about five years to adopt a healthy child from China," said Janice Goldwater, founder and executive director of Adoptions Together, a Silver Spring, Md.-based adoption agency that used to facilitate nearly 100 international adoptions a year and now does fewer than 10.
"The landscape is so different today than it was four years ago, or even three years ago, when we were out recruiting for parents for all these kids, and now there aren't all these kids available."
Americans' interest in adoption rose in the 1990s and early 2000s after the introduction and augmentation of adoption tax credits and legislation limiting how long children could spend in foster care. At the same time, a large number of countries opened for international adoption — including Eastern Europe, Russia and China.
"All of a sudden, there was this huge supply of orphans overseas who were available for American families to adopt," Goldwater said. The rise in interest coincided with an increase in infertility rates, as well as celebrity international adoptions and television shows depicting mixed-race families.
In 1999, the State Department counted 15,719 overseas adoptions by Americans; that number had soared to nearly 23,000 a year by mid decade. But in 2011, the most recent year for which the department has statistics, just 9,319 children overseas were adopted by people in the United States.
The pool shrank further in December: Russia, which in 2004 sent 5,862 children to the United States, passed legislation banning adoptions by Americans. The move, widely viewed as politically motivated, has jeopardized adoptions that were underway there.
Americans aren't the only ones facing difficulty in adopting abroad. After reaching a peak of 50,000 in 2005, the worldwide rate of intercountry adoptions has slipped to about 15,000 a year, said Tom DiFilipo, president and chief executive of the Joint Council on International Children's Services, an Alexandria, Va.-based nonprofit organization.
Some countries have shut down international adoption altogether. Others have increased the scrutiny of potential adopters as well as the children they want to adopt — to a point where many Americans find themselves shut out from applying.
Reasons for the shift vary from country to country. In Russia, a small number of instances of adopted children dying in the United States helped lead to tighter scrutiny even before the new law. In China, more Chinese are themselves adopting, reducing the number of children available to foreigners.
Guatemala, which five years ago was sending more than 4,000 children a year to the United States, halted adoptions in 2008 amid allegations of kidnapping and fraud. Romania and Vietnam, once big adoption destinations, have also halted adoptions.
Some in the industry blame the Hague Convention, an international agreement that requires participating countries to follow such practices as screening adoption agencies and preventing child trafficking. Some signatories, unable to meet the standards, simply prohibited all overseas adoptions.