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 dramatically 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.
Each country has developed its own regulations. Korea requires that adopters be married and have a body mass index no higher than 30 (considered to be obese). China won't allow adoptions by gay men, lesbians or those who have recently taken antidepressants. Many countries reject some spouses whose ages are too far apart.
The United States also imposes its own requirements, including criminal checks, fingerprinting and medical reports, as well as proof that the child is truly considered an orphan.
Across the board, the waiting time has stretched out, and many governments require two or more visits to the country by the prospective parents, increasing the cost and lengthening the process.
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, shut down 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.
DiFilipo said he does not believe that the Hague Convention caused the collapse of intercountry adoptions, noting that adoptions also waned in places that did not sign it. But, he said, "It has been used as a tool by those who oppose intercountry adoption to close it."
For would-be adopters, the increased requirements in countries that still allow adoptions mean the process is more costly and time-consuming and less certain.
Adam Raines of Westminster, Md., said he and his wife, Carol, picked Korea to adopt from because it was supposed to be the fastest. "They told us 18 months to two years — and we thought that was a long time," said Raines, 42.
It ended up taking so long that they had to redo, and in some cases pay for, such things as the home study and the fingerprinting for the homeland security check, which expires after 15 months. ("Somehow, our fingerprints had expired," Raines said dryly.)
"They say jump, and we say, how high?" said Carol Raines, 43. "We want what they have, so we're at their mercy."
Even after they received a referral for a child, months passed with no news. The possibility of being called to Korea at a moment's notice made it hard to make plans. "It's like we're perpetually pregnant and there's never a delivery day," Adam Raines said.
Finally, in early December — two and a half years after they had started the process — they flew to Korea and brought home 17-month-old Hannah Elizabeth. Within days, she was cooing as her mother talked on the phone, playing with her mom's iPad and imitating the bark of the family dog.
Was it worth it? "Yeah, definitely," said Carol Raines. "Would I do it again for a second child? No. . . . it just takes forever."
Sometimes, all the waiting and the money is fruitless.
Lorenda Naylor began trying to adopt internationally in 2005. After the paperwork was completed, "they said, 'Okay, in six months you will have a baby girl, so go home and get your nursery ready. So we did — we had this hot pink Hello Kitty nursery ready to go."
But the availability of children in China waned, and the baby never materialized. Naylor and her husband next tried Vietnam: They were seventh on the list before the program there shut down. A third application in Nepal went nowhere.
After trying for five years and spending $45,000, they gave up on international adoption.
"If somebody had said, 'You're going to go through all these programs and pay all this money and at the end of the day you're going to end up with nothing, I never would have done it," she said.
In 2009, they became foster parents to two American toddlers. After fifteen months, they were able to adopt them.
Julia Bayless and her husband, Anthony, of Montgomery Village, had trouble adopting in Russia long before American adoptions were banned there. In 2010, they received a referral for a 20-month old named Jon. They flew to Russia, spent a day with him and were smitten.
"He played and he was smart and he had this terrific little laugh — I'm sure he still does — and these dimples and these brown eyes. How could you not fall in love with him?" she said.
But the Baylesses waited in vain for a local judge to set a court date, and several agonizing months later, they learned informally that that province had quietly stopped allowing intercountry adoptions.
"I honestly don't have words for how devastating it was," said Julia Bayless, 43. "It was tragic for us to know that he wasn't going to have a family."
By then, Adoptions Together, the agency they were working with, had stopped its program in Russia. Staff there referred them to another agency, which found them a child in a different region of Russia.
"I think as anyone probably would, we had our guard up," Bayless said, "just waiting for something to happen."
In May of 2012, they brought home a 2-year-old named Michael. "He's amazing. It's wonderful," Bayless said. But she said they still dream of someday finding Jon, who is now 4, and completing his adoption.
At about 4, children in Russia are moved from baby homes to orphanages. The Baylesses have no news of what has happened to Jon.