Eighty percent of the decline in international adoptions from 2004-2015 can be traced to declines in adoptions from three countries: Guatemala, China and Russia.
Eighty percent of the decline in international adoptions from 2004-2015 can be traced to declines in adoptions from three countries: Guatemala, China and Russia.

Fewer children are going to America.

International adoptions have decreased annually from their global apex in 2004, when 22,989 children were adopted internationally by US parents, according to a new report from the US State Department. Last year, 5,372 visas were issued; a mere 23 percent of the total from 2004.

The decreasing numbers are not surprising.

But what is surprising is the change in tone in this report. No longer offering an explanation based solely on external factors, the report shows a new willingness to confront problems stateside.

Exhorting adoptive parents to comply with the regulations of the countries their children come from, the report states, "It is the Department's experience that it only takes one person acting in an unethical manner to imperil the continuation of intercountry adoptions for all children for an extended period of time."

This is unexpectedly – and unusually – tough talk for a division whose purview is supporting American adoptive parents. Evoking bad apples and barrels, the report suggests that the US has some work to do in fixing its own adoption program.

In earlier years' reports, the decline was attributed to restrictions in what had previously been major "supply" countries.

Indeed, these reasons are compelling. In strictly demographic terms, as the 2015 report explained, a full 80 percent of the decline from 2004-2015 can be traced to declines in adoptions from three countries.

Changing policies in China now favor domestic adoption over international. A 2013 law in Russia prohibited adoptions to the United States. Guatemala suspended international adoptions in 2007 following widespread corruption and child theft.

But in some ways, the bigger story is in the small and steady decreases. When all other things are equal, and yet international adoptions to the US keep slowing down, it appears to be time to look inward.

To be sure, there are complex social and economic reasons for why American adults are having fewer children. Fertility rates are at their lowest point in a century and women are having their first child at older ages than in the past. And the United States is an outlier among developed nations for its shameful lack of parental leave.

Little wonder that in a recent global opinion poll about "best countries to raise children," the US was ranked 19, after 15 European countries, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. So perhaps the falling adoption rates merely reflect what is going on elsewhere in US demography and society.

But – though accurate statistics on numbers of US adults waiting to adopt a child are notoriously difficult to produce – researchers do not detect a decrease in interest in adoption. So the falling numbers of international adoptions must be at least partly attributable to the "supply side."

Staff from the Adoption Division of the Bureau of Consular Affairs meet regularly with their counterparts in other countries, advocating for international adoption. In this new report, they share significant concerns that come up repeatedly in those meetings. Internationally, the United States' record is far from spotless.

The lion's share of the concerns raised in the report are related to parents' behavior. Countries require – and parents agree to provide – post-adoption reports on how children are faring in their new homes.

The State Department announced in January that over 100 post-adoption reports to Guatemala were still outstanding, and asked parents for their cooperation. In February, they noted that over 200 post-adoption reports were outstanding to Kazakhstan. In addition, Peru suspended US adoptions for a few months last year as well, related, "at least in part, [to] concerns related to post-adoption reporting compliance."

The concerns of the adoption authorities in these "supply" nations are hardly groundless.

In early 2016, Kansas authorities discovered that three children, adopted from Peru, had been physically and psychologically abused by their US parents, Jim and Paige Nachtigal, who had once spent time in Peru as Christian missionaries. Peru's suspension of adoptions directly followed reporting about this case.

A related concern country representatives shared with the Adoption Division was that of "unregulated custody transfers."

A 2013 series from Reuters powerfully exposed the existence of Internet sites where unhappy adoptive parents advertise their children in the hopes of placing them elsewhere.

Of course, the new "parents" have not been vetted by the state, and the children who are transferred in this way become far more vulnerable.

With violent stories of abuse and the terrifying prospect of advertising children appearing in the news, it's understandable that the absence of post-adoption reports might look to foreign countries like something far worse than mere incompetence or procrastination.

As the State Department's report states, "When parents fail to fulfill the obligation they agreed to, it reflects badly on US adoptions and may impact the country's willingness to continue to engage and partner with the United States."

During the two years I spent in Peru, studying their international adoption process and child protection system, adoption office staff often asked what became of the children after they left. When abusive parents like the Nachtigals make the news, authorities in the sending countries are right to wonder.

The explicit message of the new report is that when adoptive parents behave unethically or fail to comply with promises – even if it's just a few of them – authorities in countries around the world become reluctant to place more children in adoptive families in the US

In the short term, parents whose post-adoption reports are overdue owe it to their children's countries of origin to let them know the kids are alright.

In the big picture, America must become a better place to raise children – for the children who come here through international adoption, and for all the others too.