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Barriers to foreign adoption rise

Orphans at the Tam Binh orphanage in Vietnam.

TEXT OF STORY

Bob Moon: Madonna and Angelina Jolie have made international adoption into something of a glamor sport, but for most Americans the process can be grueling.

Guatemala has heavily curtailed the number of children it will allow to be adopted. Next week Vietnam stops taking applications from Americans all together.

That's not just hurting parents. As Marketplace's Jennifer Collins reports, it's hitting adoption agencies, too.


Jennifer Collins: Jen Cohen has a bag of clothes in her basement.

Jen Cohen: A little pink dress with flowers and sparkles and a lot of very cute little dresses and tutus and things like that...

She's saving it all for her daughter. Cohen is single. She's a pediatrician. She lives in San Francisco and she wants to adopt a child from Vietnam.

Last year, she thought she had found the agency that could make that happen.

Cohen: They had been in business for over 20 years.

But the agency closed down early this year. She scrambled to find a new one and just as she was filing the necessary papers, another snag: Vietnam changed its adoption policy. Starting in September, Americans won't be able to adopt children from the country anymore.

While she waits, Cohen has asked her agency to not show her photos of babies until they become available for her adoption.

Cohen: Because I know once I see that photo, I'm going to be in love and then, you know, all logic goes out the window.

Parents aren't the only ones limbo these days. So are the adoption agencies. Generally, agencies survive on the fees they collect throughout the adoption process. Prospective parents pay between $20,000 and $40,000 per child. But several countries have recently cut off or cut back on the numbers of children that leave their borders, so now that process is much more drawn out.

International adoption advocate Tom Difilipo says many agencies are barely scraping by.

Tom Difilipo: The number of agencies that will be involved in inter-country adoption will be less than 100 in 18 months.

As many as 600 organizations were in business just a few years ago. Back then, an agency could start the adoption process in a new country without ever having to set foot there.

Herbert Newell: People were going international because it was profitable.

Herbert Newell runs Lifeline Adoption Services in Birmingham, Alabama.

Newell: I hate to say profitable about adoption, but that's just the truth. People saw that as a profit wing.

Some people also saw it as an opportunity for fraud or corruption.

Newell says agencies had to put expensive safeguards in the system to prevent abuses. They also started paying more for the upkeep of orphanages and children's programs.

But when a country closes its doors, agencies lose all that they've invested there. It can cost them more than $100,000 to start an adoption program in a new country.

So some agencies are joining forces in order to keep costs down. Newell's organization recently banded together with eight others.

Newell: Instead of being competitive and going out there and cutting each other's throat out in the marketplace, how can we join forces and work together for the common good of the children?

Together, the agencies expect to handle as many as 400 international cases this year. That makes them one of the largest international providers in the U.S. and, they hope, one of the more stable organizations around.

Jen Cohen is hoping things remain stable as waits to collect her daughter. Two weeks ago, her agency surprised her with a photo. She was matched with a healthy baby girl from the Mekong delta.

It'll be at least four months before Cohen can go pick up the baby in the picture and a lot could still go wrong. So for now, she's keeping that bag of clothes in the basement.

Cohen: If this doesn't happen and you know, if everything closes down and the bureaucracy gets heavy before I get a chance to bring a baby home, it'll just kill me to have all this stuff in my house.

And if the adoption doesn't work out, she'll also lose everything she's invested in the process and she'll have to start all over again.

I'm Jennifer Collins for Marketplace.

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