It took pounds of paperwork, hours of court proceedings, a handful of visits to Ghana and a little tug of war with government bureaucrats before Josh and Lisa Palmer could adopt their son Robert.
For the Layton couple, the three-year process was exhaustive and exhausting.
“I had to prove that my 5-year-old wasn’t a terrorist,” said Josh Palmer. “If there is a checkbox to be had, it was there.”
And yet, it’s about to become more difficult, more expensive and more restrictive for American families to adopt international children — and the hurdles are particularly compounded in Utah, where one of the four agencies accredited to handle foreign adoptions lost its certification in September and shut down.
West Sands Adoption and Counseling, which opened in January 1993 in St. George, “failed to demonstrate that it was financially stable,” according to a violation filed by the Council on Accreditation, which is contracted by the federal government to oversee compliance and licensing at adoption agencies nationwide.
Paul Wadley, former treasurer for West Sands, said the business couldn’t recover after the State Department suspended adoptions from Ethiopia in May (citing that the country was “unresponsive to requests for meetings with U.S. government officials” in an official statement). That cut at least half of West Sands’ business.
Wadley declined to answer other questions, saying “I’m not at liberty to talk about it.”
Problems for West Sands began after the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption was fully implemented in the United States in 2008, said an administrative assistant, who asked not to be named because she was laid off after budget cuts in June 2015. Countries that belong to the treaty agree to stringent standards for service providers, adoptive parents and adoptee eligibility.
It is meant to protect against child abduction and trafficking — but it has also suffocated small agencies. To comply, the adoption process got longer and more thorough, requiring extra documentation and assessments. It could take another year or two to complete each case.
“There was no money really coming in,” said the West Sands assistant.
At least 70 other adoption agencies have shuttered since the new standards started. The Mormon-church-owned LDS Family Services ended its program in 2014, citing the fact that few unwed mothers give up their babies for adoption anymore.
With so many doors closing, the number of international children adopted by Americans has declined steadily. The United States recorded a peak in 2004 — 22,989 — but had just 5,370 last year.
There has not been a corresponding increase in domestic adoptions, which have remained steady around 135,000 annually.
In Utah, the downturn isn’t much different. More than 172 children were adopted from foreign countries in 2004. That dropped to 70 in 2016.
“We have bighearted Americans who want to provide that home, but the government is not assisting as they could be,” said Debbie Price, executive director of Children’s House International Adoptions, which has had a branch in Utah since 1975 and helped the Palmers adopt their son from Ghana in July 2015.
Despite the dwindling numbers, the State Department has added more regulations in the past two years — tied to the Obama and Trump administrations — to require additional oversight of staff working in foreign countries and changes to how agencies can receive insurance coverage.
With “serious concerns” about how that might stretch already limited resources at agencies, the Council on Accreditation, which did not respond to requests for comment, announced it would terminate its services in 14 months unless there’s a “resolution” with the State Department. It is currently the only group that certifies international adoption providers in the United States.
There is fear the council’s exit could mean the end of American families adopting foreign children. Or at least a long-term limbo.
“The Department of State has created a very hostile environment,” said Ryan Hanlon, vice president of research, education and constituent services with the National Council for Adoption.
In a response posted online, the department says that there were “numerous concerns and deficiencies” with the Council on Accreditation and if the group stops operating after 40 years, its “oversight will transfer to another accrediting agency.” A federal spokesman could not be reached for clarification on the nature of those concerns.
The U.S. government did, though, approve an agreement in July for a new accrediting entity based out of Florida. That approval came on the same day the group filed for incorporation.
Jennifer Badham, a Farmington resident, spent slightly more than seven years trying to adopt her son, Justin, from the Philippines. He arrived in the United States in February 2016, but it took until Monday to finalize the process. She can’t imagine what more requirements could have been added.
When Badham and her husband, James, adopted a daughter from the same country in 2004, it took them just 14 months.
“[Now] it’s a lot of paperwork going from one building to another,” she said. “Nothing is really streamlined.”
The couple also faced more application fees during the second adoption: $800 to file, $1,100 for a certificate of citizenship in the United States, the cost to hire an attorney and eight separate bills to submit fingerprints (which expire every 16 months).
The average cost to adopt a child from a foreign country was nearly $30,000 last year, according to data compiled by Ogden-based Wasatch International Adoptions.
“They bleed you for every penny that you can possibly come up with,” Badham said.
UNICEF estimates there are 140 million orphans worldwide. Price, the executive director of Children’s House International Adoptions, worries the higher costs and burdensome regulations threaten to keep those children from finding homes.
With international adoptions, “we’re at the mercy of other countries’ government,” said Price, who adopted her daughter from Romania in 1991.
“At this point, we have to add in our own.”