MS ORTAGUS: Thanks so much. Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to our second briefing of the day. This is on the record, of course, and embargoed until the end of the call, please. This briefing is on the FY 2019 Annual Report on Intercountry Adoptions – excuse me – which provides statistical data on intercountry adoptions to and from the United States from October 1st, 2018 through September 30th, 2019. The department is deeply committed to promoting intercountry adoption as a viable option for children in need of permanency when it is in the best interest of the child, and when placement within the country of origin has been appropriately considered but ruled out as a viable option. As Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Carl Risch noted, adoption is about family, and intercountry adoption builds families in a real and positive way.
To help provide additional background and to delve a bit deeper into the contents of the FY19 adoption report, we have joining us today our Special Advisor for Children’s Issues Michelle Bernier-Toth. She’ll provide a few introductory remarks, then she will also be available, of course, to answer your questions. Also joining for the Q&A portion is Scott Renner, the director of the Office of Children’s Issues. Just a reminder that this briefing is embargoed until the end of the call, and it is on the record. And also please dial 1 and 0 to get into the queue if you have a question. Michelle.
MS BERNIER-TOTH: Thank you, Morgan. Hello, everyone, and thank you for joining us today. I’m very pleased to have this opportunity to talk about the department’s Annual Report on Intercountry Adoptions for Fiscal Year 2019. As Morgan said, facilitating intercountry adoption is one of the department’s most important priorities, and we are committed to safeguarding the practice of ethical and transparent adoptions and to ensuring that intercountry adoption remains a viable option for children in need of permanent loving homes. That work is continuing even now in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, I should note that, as was mentioned, this report covers Fiscal Year 2019, which ended September 30th, 2019 of last year, so most of what I’ll be talking about today does not relate to the current extraordinary circumstances in which we all find ourselves.
We submit this report every year to Congress and make it available to the public on our website travel.state.gov. This is our 12th report since the enactment of the Intercountry Adoption Act. Continuing a trend we’ve seen worldwide for the past 10 years, this year’s report shows a decline in the total number of intercountry adoptions by American families. Most of that decline is attributed to a decrease of intercountry adoption from just two countries: China and Ethiopia. In both cases, the reductions result from continued social economic or legal changes that we have previously reported on regarding those countries. We believe that most of the continuing worldwide decline is due to countries prioritizing domestic placements for vulnerable children before considering intercountry adoption, or countries such as Russia, Guatemala, and Ethiopia, which have unilaterally suspended or banned intercountry adoption.
At the same time, some countries noticeably increased in number of intercountry adoptions to the United States. This list includes Ukraine, Liberia, Hungary, and Colombia. I would encourage you to give the full report a read to learn more about these and other developments. Before I conclude, let me just say that our team here at the Department of State is committed to continuing our ongoing dialogue with all adoption stakeholders as we work to strengthen intercountry adoption practice to benefit children and families. I’ve been on the job as special advisor for children’s issues for almost five months now, and every day I’ve witnessed firsthand the great pride and care that goes into our work, both here in D.C. and at our embassies and consulates abroad. From our role as the central authority under the Hague Adoption Convention to our regulatory oversight of the entity that accredits the U.S. adoption service providers, to our adjudication of immigrant visas for children traveling with their adoptive parents to a new home in the United States. To us, every child who finds a safe, loving forever home is a success story. And with that, I look forward to your questions.
MS ORTAGUS: Thank you so much, Michelle. Again, if you want to get into the queue, just dial 1 and then 0. Okay, it looks like we have first up in the queue Lara Jakes, New York Times.
QUESTION: Hi, everybody. Michelle, thanks for the report. I’ve got two questions for you if you can take them. One, I’m aware that there are families with custody of kids in various countries who can’t get visas to leave with the child, or perhaps the process is close and they have – they’ve not been able to finalize the exit with a country where the adoptive child is from. So I’m wondering if you’re tracking how many families are in that kind of limbo. In other words, they have some legal custody rights but they’ve been unable to bring their baby back to the United States.
MS BERNIER-TOTH: Yeah —
QUESTION: And – yeah, go ahead. And then I’ve got one more question if you can keep my line open or I can ask it now, whatever’s easiest.
MS BERNIER-TOTH: Go ahead and ask it now.
MS ORTAGUS: Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay. Okay, the second one is more related to international adoptions during COVID. Obviously things are stalled if not completely stopped, and I’m just wondering: When the world starts to reopen, I’m wondering what help might be given to American adoptive families once, again, things start to open back up. I mean, will – do you expect that travel will still be difficult for a while? Will you do anything to make visa processing or consular services prioritized or faster in any way? Thanks very much.
MS BERNIER-TOTH: Thanks, Lara. Those are both really good questions. Yes, we are tracking – we are in close communication with adoption service providers who have families who are overseas in time – at any stage in the process. And so we are working with those adoption service providers. We also hear from the families. And yes, the Office of Children’s Issues is tracking those adoption cases closely.
As far as what would happen when things start to open up, I would note that yes, I mean, adoptions have been significantly impacted by the COVID pandemic, but that’s not to say they’ve stopped. Although our embassies and consulates abroad have suspended routine visa processing, adoption cases remain a priority, and to the extent that they are possible given the circumstances within each country and given the stage at which each case is at, we are continuing to process adoption cases and have had a number of families return to the United States with their children just within the past month. So it’s something that we are, one, paying attention to, continuing to do, and as far as what’s going to happen as things start to open up again, again, adoptions are a priority in our sort of scheme of services that we provide to U.S. citizens and, of course, to the children themselves.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Ruben, do we have anybody else in the queue?
MR HARUTUNIAN: Not at the minute. Please dial 1 and 0 to get in queue.
Lara Jakes has another question.
QUESTION: So you had said, Michelle, that you are tracking the families with kids who are in limbo overseas. Do you happen to know a ballpark of how many cases that is?
MS BERNIER-TOTH: Lara, I’m sorry. I don’t have that figure myself, but I know that the Office of Children’s – the Office of Children’s Issues has that information, but I do not have it at the moment.
QUESTION: Okay. Can I just ask that it be sent to me?
MS BERNIER-TOTH: Yeah, I would note that it fluctuates because, again, some cases are resolved and then they are no longer on our list, but it is a fluctuating case.
OPERATOR: And as a reminder, if there are any questions on the phone lines, please press 1 then 0 at this time.
MS ORTAGUS: All right. It looks like we have John Hudson.
QUESTION: Hey. I was just wondering, obviously the Russian adoption issue was something that had come up several times over the years, and it seemed like the Russians had tied its sort of closed adoption policy to the Magnitsky Act. Do you still get the sense that Moscow links those two policies? And just as a general update, does – was Russia – are they still significantly limiting American adoptions, or have – has there been a sort of positive trend in recent years on that front?
MS BERNIER-TOTH: So again – and Scott can weigh in as well – I mean, obviously Russia banned all adoptions to the United States. There were some pipeline cases early on but those have been closed. There have been no new adoptions since they banned adoptions in – and I forget – I’m sorry, I forget which year that was. But there have been no adoptions from Russia since then.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Up next, also from Washington Post, Carol Morello. Carol? Okay.
OPERATOR: I think she may have disconnected inadvertently.
MS ORTAGUS: Oh, okay. All right. Well, let’s see, we’ve got Rosiland Jordan next.
QUESTION: Hi, can you guys hear me?
MS BERNIER-TOTH: Sure can.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks so much for doing the call. I was curious about whether countries that had been perhaps less interested in allowing international adoption have actually been more encouraging of the process. And if so, what assistance has the U.S. Government been providing to make that process easier? I’m thinking of some countries in sub-Saharan Africa, not in East Africa but in other parts of the continent.
MS BERNIER-TOTH: So we are – we are in touch and we do monitor sort of where countries are in terms of their – looking at their adoption systems and where – one of my roles as the special advisor is to work with foreign governments to identify what resources, what capabilities they might need to develop a good, robust, ethical, transparent system, and then to help plug them into those resources wherever they might exist. It might be judicial training; it might be other resources. That’s something that I’m eager to get out and start doing. I obviously, since I started this job, have not been able to do very much international travel, but it’s something that we work through our post as well to see sort of what do countries need, what can they do, and how can we help them in that effort.
MS ORTAGUS: Great, thanks. I don’t think we have anyone else in the line. Ruben, do we have anyone that’s coming in?
OPERATOR: Once again (inaudible) questions, please press 1 then 0.
MR HARUTUNIAN: John Hudson’s back.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Go ahead, John.
QUESTION: Hey. I just wanted just a small follow-up, which is: Is Russia still linking Magnitsky and child adoptions as a way to unlock that? Or are there even any discussions ongoing about that?
MS BERNIER–TOTH: Again, I started this job just in the beginning of the year, so have not had a chance to get into that. But yes, you’re right that Russia linked Magnitsky to the decision to – or the laws they passed banning adoptions to the United States. But we have not had much opportunity to raise the issue since then.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS BERNIER–TOTH: Or at least recently, shall I say.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. If we have anybody else, it’s sort of speak now or forever hold your peace. If not, we will go ahead and end the call. So again, 1-0 if you have a question, and if not, we’ll go ahead and end it.
MR HARUTUNIAN: Morgan, Rosiland Jordan has a question.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay, great.
QUESTION: Yeah, on the flipside you had mentioned the need for other governments to be ethical. Are you looking at the performance and standards of U.S.-based adoption agencies? I know that there have been some that have engaged in less than ethical practices, leading potential parents along, taking their money, not helping them if there are any legal snags in trying to complete adoptions. What is the U.S. Government doing to make certain that agencies based here are also doing their work ethically and in the best interest of the child?
MS BERNIER–TOTH: Well, as you’re probably aware, we have an accrediting entity, IAAME, which oversees the accreditation of adoption service providers and monitors their performance. When there are complaints, those are looked into. If it comes to further steps, we will take those. I will say that I believe that many adoption service providers are providing very good service to their families. But again, yes, there’s a need for oversight. And I would say that in our conversations with the adoption service provider community, the vast majority welcome those regulations because they want people to know that they’re operating in an ethical and transparent manner, but that those who are not, there will be steps taken to address that.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. I think we added Tracy Wilkinson to the queue.
QUESTION: Yes, hi. Thanks. You mentioned Ukraine, there being an uptick in adoptions in Ukraine. And I just – I was just curious why you think that might be. Did they improve their procedures, or is there maybe a spillover from Russia? Any thoughts about why Ukraine? Thanks.
MS BERNIER–TOTH: I do not know that – the answer to that. I can take that back and see if my colleagues have thoughts on the matter.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay everybody, I think, unless we get something through right now, I think that we have exhausted the questions. So Ruben, nothing else in the queue, right?
MR HARUTUNIAN: There’s one reporter, Kristina Anderson, AWPSU.
MS ORTAGUS: Oh, okay. Go ahead, Kristina.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. I’m wondering if you’re also looking at the partners overseas and other – whether they are fully disclosing any sort of medical issues with the children. I know there have been some problems in the past where children have been adopted, the parents get involved and their hearts are fully invested, and – and they get the child home and discover that there are considerable issues to deal with, sometimes with significant impact on the family budget. So I was just wondering if that’s part of the work that’s done overseas as well. Thank you.
MS BERNIER-TOTH: That is part of what we do in terms of monitoring trends, and – we see problems like that cropping up as a systemic thing, that is something that we would raise with the foreign government. I will – Scott, do you want to add anything to that?
MR RENNER: Yes, thank you, Michelle. First, that’s something we address in partnership with the adoption service providers. They work with foreign service providers overseas with whom they have a relationship. So we work with them, and as we mentioned earlier, the vast majority are wonderful partners and work closely with us. If we see that they – any allegation that they were involved in something like that, of course we would investigate, working with IAAME, our oversight board. But they’re very good on that as well, to help us not only spot individual cases but individual problem areas.
And separately, as part of the visa process when the Foreign Service officer, consular officer overseas reviews the case for visa issuance, it gets a second look. And if they see things in the file that don’t make sense or the child in front of them doesn’t seem to match the medical records they’re seeing, they can also raise. So there’s – cases can still get through, but there’s different places along the way that we’re looking out for that.
MS ORTAGUS: Great. Ruben, anyone left?
MR HARUTUNIAN: No, that’s it.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Thanks everybody for dialing in. Have a very happy hump day, and thank you to our two guest speakers. Thank you for dialing in.
MS BERNIER-TOTH: Thank you all. Bye.
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