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BY LAUREL MORALES — Eight-year-old Kaya Van Hoesen has been anxiously awaiting the arrival of her new sister.
"This is my room," Van Hoesen said. "I sleep up here on the top bunk. She’ll be sleeping on the bottom bunk. I’m pretty excited to have her here."
Her mom and dad, Erika Mazza and Todd Van Hoesen, have also been excited to meet the 5-year-old girl they’re adopting from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
"Every day we get excited," Mazza said.
The couple has been planning and saving for this since before they were married 10 years ago. They both have worked with children and have known they wanted to help one of the many who need a good home. Some estimate there are up to 200 million orphaned or abandoned children in the world. But each country’s adoption policies are unique.
It’s become more difficult to adopt a child from overseas. The number of international adoptions has dropped to its lowest level in almost a decade. In 2004 there were 23,000 children were adopted from other countries. Last year American families adopted 8,600 foreign-born children.
The reasons for the decline are varied. But many families hoping to adopt are now going outside the international law regime that governs adoptions. And the federal government says they need to be careful.
Mazza and Van Hoesen settled on the DRC first because of the great need there.
"If we could take a child out of a horrible situation that’s probably exactly where it felt right to us," Mazza said.
"We’ve always felt we would help any child in need. But there was kind of need we had to try to help in an area more in need than some others. It’s hard to say one child needs a family more than others because they all need a nice stable home. Just knowing how long the DRC has been in conflict it was kind of an easy decision," Van Hoesen said.
They also chose the DRC because it was fairly new to international adoption and so there was less red tape.
But the U.S. State Department says that means the family needs to take extra precautions, like understanding the DRC’s changing policies and fees.
Elizabeth Finan, a State Department spokeswoman, said the fall in numbers of international adoptions doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with the practice. There is no right number of intercountry adoptions.
"The numbers don’t tell the whole story," Finan said.
Russia, one of the top countries to send children to the U.S., has recently banned intercountry adoptions. Political analysts say this is to get back at the United States for barring Russian citizens accused of violating human rights from traveling to the U.S.
South Korea has pulled back because it’s working to strengthen its own adoption program to keep more children in its home country.
China for a long time was allowing many girls to be adopted because of its one-child policy. That’s not the case anymore and there are now more intercountry adoption restrictions there.
"We’re always working closely with our colleagues both in the U.S. government and in other countries to make sure the adoption process is ethical and transparent and also protect the interests of adopted children of U.S families and birth parents," Finan said.
Cases of kidnapping, baby selling and corruption in some countries have led to much stricter regulations in recent years. The Hague Adoption Convention of 1993 established some of those ground rules. Proponents believed at that time it would result in more orphaned children finding new homes through intercountry adoption. But that hasn’t been the case.
Several countries have shut down to address issues within their adoption programs. Some are working to comply with the new Hague Convention-compliant system.
That may take a while, says Adam Pertman, who directs the policy think tank Donaldson Adoption Institute.
"So the global solution has turned into 'if there’s a problem we gotta shut it off' rather than 'if there’s a problem let’s fix that problem,'" Pertman said.
That leaves many families like the Van Hoesens working with a country outside the Hague Convention. Todd Van Hoesen said it’s hard to understand when there are so many children in need of good homes.
"Unfortunately people are trying to profit from it," Van Hoesen said. "The governments are locking down and trying to make sure things are being done properly. And unfortunately at times it takes them to shut the process down completely and revamp it and re-look at it because people are trying to take advantage of loopholes."
But they’re hopeful they won’t have to wait much longer. If all goes well, the process will take a couple more months.
"Todd related it to I’m about 7.5 months pregnant on paper," Mazza said.
"For me it’s not going to be real," Van Hoesen said. "I’ll be super, very excited when we’re actually there in court and we meet her. Right now it’s easier for me that we’re thousands of miles apart to just stay more rational."
Right now the Van Hoesens are in a 30-day appeal period, when a relative in the DRC can come claim the little girl they’ve started calling Sissy.
Many children in war-torn countries like the DRC are dropped off at orphanages with the hope their child will get a chance at a better life. Some families don’t understand the permanence of adoption. Van Hoesen said nothing is certain, and that remains true for many hoping to adopt.