Minnesota parents find a new world when adopting overseas

Minnesotans, who have led the way in foreign adoptions, now find fewer and older children.

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Matt Howd got a smile from daughter Esme in their Minneapolis home. Matt Howd and his wife, Kate, started the adoption process in 2006, in Vietnam. When that didn’t work out, they discovered a little program in the Marshall Islands and adopted Esme in 2009.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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It survived the Great Depression and two world wars, but an upheaval in foreign adoptions proved to be the toughest blow for Children's Home Society and Family Services, one of the nation's largest international adoption agencies.

With foreign adoptions crashing to their lowest levels in 15 years, the 123-year-old agency merged management and staff with Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota on Sunday. It's a sign of how dramatically foreign adoptions have changed in Minnesota, forcing agencies to regroup and parents to accept that older children and longer waits for them are the new norm.

"Ten years ago, a family that met qualifications might be given a referral [to a child] within a month," said Melissa Mendez, adoption education coordinator for Children's Home Society. "Today there are hardly any infants in international adoption. People need to consider a toddler and up. And there are more sibling groups and kids with identified needs."

Minnesota boasts the highest rate of foreign adoptions, per capita, in the nation. Families have adopted from abroad since the first wave of Koreans arrived in the 1950s. But the last decade packed the biggest boom in foreign adoptions -- and most precipitous decline.

International adoptions zigzagged from 592 in 1999 to 923 in 2005 to 355 last year. Even so, 9,060 children from all corners of the globe found their way to Minnesota from 1999 to today, the vast majority through Children's Home Society. Another 215,000 children found homes nationally.

But the age and health of the children, and their home countries, have shifted. Countries such as South Korea, China and Russia that once topped the charts now have fewer children available. Other nations Minnesotans turned to, such as Vietnam and Guatemala, temporarily shut down because of worrisome adoption practices.

Even Ethiopia, now a top destination for Minnesotans, was rocked by scandals and the number of available children reduced.

In response, nonprofit adoption agencies such as Children's Home have laid off staff, revamped services, taken on older children and sibling groups, and searched for adoption opportunities in countries that previously sent few, if any, children here.

Bethany Christian Services, for example, recently opened adoption programs in Uganda, Ghana and Lithuania. Lutheran Social Service launched a program in the Marshall Islands. HOPE Adoption & Family Services International started working in Haiti this year.

"We're all trying to get our systems in order to best serve the children," said Maureen Warren, president of Children's Home Society.

Caught in the middle

When Kate and Matt Howd began the process of adopting a child from Vietnam in 2006, they expected to have an infant or toddler in their home by the end of the year. But their application arrived just as the adoption world began to shift.

The Minneapolis couple waited two years for a referral. Then Vietnam shut down its program temporarily. The Howds had previously considered Guatemala, but that program shut down, too.

"We felt hopeless," said Kate Howd. "Countries were closing, being re-evaluated, changing the scope of their rules. Some had put new age caps of 38 and up. Some countries had years of wait time."

Even countries with long adoption traditions in Minnesota, such as South Korea, had fewer available children because of a rise in adoptive families and foster homes in their own country. The Howds scoured the Internet. They discovered a small adoption program in the Marshall Islands. That program, however, required that all adoptions be "open," meaning the child would stay in contact with birth parents.

In 2009, the Howds flew to the Marshall Islands. They spent six weeks waiting for a visa to bring their baby daughter home. Every day, they visited her birth mother or extended family, laying the foundation for an unusual arrangement that links the families today.

"It wasn't about Esme becoming ours," said Howd. "It was the joining of families."

Esme, now 3, sat on her mom's lap last week while Kate Howd talked to her birth mother via a laptop computer on the dining room table. Normally they use Skype, which allows them to see each other, but there were technical problems.

"Esme!" said her birth mom in singsong voice.

"Can't see! " Esme responded. "Want to see." Even so, Kate Howd and Brenda, the birth mother, chatted like old friends, covering Esme's recent dance recital, their other children, and family news. The Howds were so impressed with the arrangement that they encouraged their adoption agency, Lutheran Social Service, to start its Marshall Islands program last year.

Open adoption is just one example of how countries are requesting more. Ethiopia, for example, requires agencies to invest in its health or human services, said staff at Children's Home Society, which built two schools there.

New rules for adoptions

Some countries also imposed tighter rules for would-be parents. China doesn't allow parents to adopt if they have taken antidepressants in the past two years. In the Philippines, would-be parents cannot have a body mass index of more than 35.

The upheaval is largely the result of the Hague Adoption Convention, which the United States began enforcing in 2008. It established uniform standards for international adoptions to help ensure children's safety and provide greater accountability.

Such protocols were not in place during the heyday of international adoption, from early 2000s to 2007, when Minnesota's airports were frequent scenes of joyful family unions. But those adoptions were not always "open" financially, and adoption watchdog groups questioned where their hefty adoption fees went. Those fees range from about $25,000 to $40,000 today. Watchdog groups wanted to know how much money benefited the children, versus adoption "facilitators." Their websites note that Children's Home Society reported on its tax returns that it paid $2.3 million for its Ethiopia program in 2007, a year when 306 Ethiopians were adopted. It also paid more than $2 million to its Korean coordinators that year, and more than $100,000 to a total of 16 subcontractors.

Minnesota's adoption leaders agree the system needed reform. They're hopeful that foreign adoptions will climb again, this time with better safeguards for children.

"I feel like we're pressing the reset button," said Warren. "There are still millions of children who need homes. It's our systems that needed to be recalibrated."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511

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  • Esme Howd’s adoption is “open,” somewhat unusual in international adoptions. Her birth mother keeps up to date on her life in Minnesota.

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