In 1851, a Massachusetts legislature passed the first adoption law. Adoptions in the U.S. were on a domestic basis only, but the end of World War II brought intercountry adoption into play. Available children were orphans of military conflict, many of them airlifted out of countries like Germany and Japan. Intercountry adoption began in earnest in 1955, when Henry and Bertha Holt (who would found Holt International) lobbied Congress to pass the “Holt Bill,” allowing them to adopt eight children from Korea who were war orphans of the Korean War. The Holt Bill helped reshape the laws and social norms surrounding intercountry adoption, and in 1957, 10,900 intercountry adoptions took place.

At the height of international adoption in 2004, 22,989 children were adopted from foreign countries and came to live in the United States. In 2016, that number dropped to 5,370 adoptions. Though a significant decrease, international adoption is still a sought-after option for many U.S. families. But why would a country decide to place children in the United States?

Hague Convention

To begin with, most foreign countries do not decide where their children will live. The United States is still the leader in foreign adoptions, but other receiving countries include Spain, France, Italy, and Canada. While it is true that a foreign country may choose to limit who can adopt, those countries party to the Hague Convention have strict guidelines as to who can adopt and which children are available for adoption.

Per the Hague Convention, Article 4, intercountry adoptions may only take place after the prospective adoptive child is found (a) to be free for legal adoption and (b) to have been given due consideration for adoption within the child’s country of origin. Each country has methods and procedures for placing children domestically through their own adoption agencies and adoption authorities. Per the Hague Convention, should no domestic placement of the child be possible, intercountry adoption shall be ruled in the best interests of the child. In other words, children are not available for intercountry adoption until they have been ruled as “not adoptable” domestically.

Types of Children Placed

While it is true that the social stigma of adoption has decreased in many countries (such as China and India), leading to an increase in domestic adoption, there are still many children awaiting forever homes. Today, the majority of children available for intercountry adoption are children with special needs, children over the age of 2, or sibling groups. The definition of the term “special needs” varies, but for most children it refers to cases of mild medically correctable needs, such as vision issues, cleft lip or palate, hearing issues, club foot, et cetera. This is very different from how it was at the height of international adoption in 2004, when the majority of children adopted internationally were infants. Likewise, older child intercountry adoption is on the rise. In 2016, children between the ages of 5 and 12 accounted for nearly half of all international adoptions to the United States, according to the U.S. Department of State.

Outgoing Cases

An interesting thing to note too is that the United States has allowed intercountry adoption from the U.S. to other Convention countries, referred to as outgoing cases, since the 1990s. This means there are children born in the U.S. who, through the process of intercountry adoption, are now living in a different country with their forever families.

No matter where they were born, how they came to be placed, or where they may come to live, these waiting children need to find forever homes where they can grow, blossom, and thrive. And that’s the most important thing.

For more information on how to adopt internationally, click here.

Jennifer S. Jones is a writer, performer, storyteller, and arts educator. In a small government office in China, Jennifer became an adoptive mother. She is passionate about the adoption community and talks about the ins and outs, ups and downs, joys and “Is this really us?!?” whenever she can. She writes about her experiences at