By Wendy Koch, USA TODAY
Markoff gave her a book she had made about her family in Manhattan. After daily visits for a week, Phan was laughing.
"I promised her I would be back," Markoff says. Although she and her husband, Scott, got approval from the Vietnamese government to adopt Phan one month before her visit, the U.S. government hasn't issued the necessary visa to bring Phan to New York.
Phan is still waiting.
Not so long ago, the Markoffs' adoption of Phan might not have been as complicated. But today, international adoptions are increasingly complex for Americans, a trend that is reducing the number of foreign children entering the United States and leading more prospective parents to look into adopting from U.S. foster care.
The face of adoption is being changed by a combination of factors, including more aggressive efforts worldwide to stop illegal child trafficking. As part of those efforts, the U.S. government is more closely scrutinizing requests for U.S. visas for foreign children.
At the same time, several nations that have sent many orphans to the USA — namely China, Russia and South Korea — have begun encouraging more domestic adoptions, and limiting foreign ones, as their economies improve.
As a result, a historic shift in foreign adoptions is underway.
Last year, China, Russia, South Korea and Guatemala — the big four in providing candidates for adoption here — accounted for 70% of the 19,292 children who entered the USA for adoption. Three years ago, those nations accounted for 79% of the 22,728 kids who came here for adoption.
Meanwhile, two African nations, Ethiopia and Liberia, are emerging as popular countries to adopt from, although the number of children they send here remains relatively small.
"This is very much a time of transition," says Michele Bond, deputy assistant secretary for Overseas Citizen Services at the State Department, which issues visas for children entering the USA.
The Hague Adoption Convention, which the U.S. began implementing in April, requires the 75 participating countries to take specific steps to ensure that kids have not been sold or stolen, and that adoptive parents are suitable. It urges countries to try to find domestic homes for its children before looking abroad.
Most child-welfare advocates welcome the initiative.
"It adds a full layer of protection to children, adoptive parents and birth parents," says Tom DiFilipo, president of the Joint Council on International Children's Services, an adoption advocacy group.
However, Diane Kunz, executive director of the Center for Adoption Policy, a research group, says the State Department sometimes is too quick to reject adoptions from nations not meeting the Hague guidelines. She cites Guatemala and Vietnam, which have been among the top 10 foreign sources for international adoptions in the USA.
The State Department, noting rising concerns about baby trafficking, has warned Americans against adopting from those countries. In response, Vietnam and Guatemala have stopped taking applications from Americans.
Kunz says the Hague treaty's strict standards, along with other countries' promotion of domestic adoptions, will cause a continuing decline in international adoptions by Americans, which boomed in the 1990s.
For thousands of U.S. children in foster care, the shift away from foreign adoptions could be a positive development, says Kathy Ledesma, acting project director of AdoptUSKids, a federally funded program that promotes adoptions of foster children.
About 129,000 of the estimated 510,000 children in foster care across the USA were eligible for adoption in 2006, according to the most recent federal data. About 50,000 were adopted that year, compared with 20,679 foreigners adopted by Americans. Children are placed in foster care because of neglect or abuse. The average age is 8; one-third are 3 or younger.
"Increasing numbers (of people interested in adoption) will turn to foster care," Ledesma says. Her program is receiving more calls from people wanting to become foster parents, often the first step toward adopting children in foster care.
However, for the Markoffs and others who have focused on adopting a foreign child, the tightening rules on international adoptions are frustrating.
Jodi and Scott Markoff have two biological sons, ages 7 and 10, but wanted a third child — a daughter. They send Phan packages of clothes and hair clips. They phone every week, often prompting Phan to ask through an interpreter: "Can you come as soon as possible?"
Jodi says Vietnamese families were given first priority to adopt Phan. Because none stepped forward, she doubts Phan would be adopted domestically. Jodi fears Phan is "losing her childhood" in the orphanage.
"This," Jodi says, "is an older child who understands time."
Boy 'does not deserve this'
Kristina Frick also is marking time. She and her husband, Maj. John Frick, a Special Forces officer who has served in Iraq, are waiting for a visa to adopt a Vietnamese baby they call Joshua.
"His room is done. We have everything — diapers, clothes," says Frick, a stay-at-home mom in Tampa. The Fricks have one child, a girl adopted three years ago from U.S. foster care.
Frick says Vietnam approved Joshua's adoption in November, when he was 2 months old, and as soon as she saw his photo, she fell in love with him.
"Children are born in your heart," she says. "It was as if I gave birth to him."
She worries about the crucial early months she's missing as he remains in an orphanage. "This little boy does not deserve this sentence," she says.
Rah Bickley says her 17-month-old son, Sam, who came to the USA in April, has developmental delays that she blames on the four extra months he spent in a Vietnamese facility while U.S. officials investigated.
She says she and her husband, John O'Brien, became dismayed by the U.S. inquiry.
"There was never proof" of irregularities, she says. "We felt betrayed by our own government."
In a stinging report in April, the State Department said Vietnam's adoption system was rife with corruption, baby-stealing and baby-buying.
The report "does not truly reflect the situation in Vietnam," says Cuong Nguyen, spokesman for Vietnam's embassy in Washington. He says Vietnam opposes baby-stealing and has taken steps to stop it, including the arrests of suspected traffickers.
Vietnam has made "significant progress," says DiFilipo, who has met with Vietnamese officials and toured the country to check on its work.
Vietnam has not agreed to the Hague treaty, so adoptions from there are governed by an agreement between it and the USA that expires Sept. 1. Vietnam stopped taking adoption applications from Americans on July 1.
The tougher rules surrounding international adoptions stem from "the world paying attention … in a way it hadn't before," says Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a research group. Besides boosting adoptions from the U.S. foster care system, Pertman says the changes in international adoptions are likely to:
• Promote the adoptions of disabled children. Parents faced with long waits for healthy infants are more willing to consider older kids, such as Phan, or those with disabilities, Kunz says.
• Encourage adoptions from Africa. Adoption agencies report that U.S. families increasingly are asking about adopting children from Africa. Nancylyn Bigonesse, spokeswoman for the Gladney Center for Adoption in Texas, links that interest to changing racial attitudes in the USA and the celebrity effect of Angelina Jolie, who adopted a girl from Ethiopia, and Madonna, who adopted a boy from Malawi.
Bigonesse also notes that many churches are telling parishioners about the needs of orphans in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa.
David Pilgrim, vice president for adoption services at the Children's Home Society & Family Services, says families looking to adopt shouldn't lose hope, because millions of children worldwide need homes. "If you hang in there, you will be able to adopt," he says. "It may take longer, so give yourself more time."
'It was absolutely crushing'
Some families, fed up with waits and visa denials, are hiring attorneys. The Markoffs have turned to Lynda Zengerle, a partner at Steptoe & Johnson, a prominent law firm in Washington, D.C. She has helped several families get U.S. visas for Vietnamese children.
On June 16, the day the painters came to paint Phan's bedroom "misty lilac," the Markoffs got a letter from the U.S. government saying it intended to deny the adoption. It questioned whether Phan's father knew he was giving her up permanently.
"It was absolutely crushing," says Jodi Markoff, her voice cracking.
Zengerle arranged for a Vietnamese investigator to re-interview Phan's father. She says the interview makes clear the father understands his daughter could be adopted abroad. Zengerle says he left her at the orphanage in October after Phan's mother died and has not returned to visit.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which works with the State Department investigating prospective adoptions, cannot comment on a specific case because of privacy concerns, spokesman Bill Wright says.
"We're not insensitive to children and don't want to condemn them to orphanages," says the State Department's Bond.
At the same time, she says her office also doesn't want kids bought or stolen from their parents.
The Markoffs never expected their adoption to be denied, partly because Phan is older than most adoption candidates. The Markoffs have ordered furniture, bought clothes and checked out summer camps and kindergartens for Phan.
"She's part of our family," says Scott Markoff. He says their sons were nervous at first about Phan's adoption, then got excited — and now are confused.
He says Tyler, 10, told them: "I don't understand why it has to be so complicated. All we want to do is give someone a home."