1999 to 2011: The rise and fall of intercountry adoptions

Intercountry adoptions were continuing to rise, largely driven by fewer children who could be adopted domestically resulting in an increased demand of children available for adoption in Australia. This led to prospective parents seeking children who could be adopted overseas (Hilferty and Katz 2018). Further, while the adoption reform movement in Australia had shifted adoption practises from closed to open, intercountry adoptions generally maintained ‘closed’ adoption practises. Academics have suggested it is likely that prospective parents increasingly turned to intercountry adoption following adoption reform, to bypass legislative changes and create further distance between themselves and the birth family (Cuthbert et al. 2010). In Australia, the popularity of intercountry adoptions was reflected in the data – intercountry adoptions surpassed domestic adoptions for the first time in Australia in 1999–00 (301 intercountry compared to 265 domestic).

As intercountry adoption numbers continued to rise, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Human Services conducted an inquiry into intercountry adoption following a review of the AIHW’s Adoptions Australia 2003–04 report (Australian House of Representatives 2005). This inquiry resulted in 27 recommendations to tighten regulations surrounding intercountry adoptions, including improvements in state and territory practices and a more active role for the Commonwealth. The number of intercountry adoptions peaked in 2004–05, both in Australia (434 intercountry compared to 151 domestic) and worldwide (Selman 2012), followed by a global decline of these adoptions.

In 2006, China, one of the largest ‘sending countries’ for intercountry adoption, established new adoption guidelines requiring adoptive parents to be a heterosexual couple who had been married for at least two years, to the exclusion of single parents or same-sex couples (Selman 2009).

Alternative methods to adoption for family formation were also being accessed by prospective parents. In 2006, 45,986 assisted reproductive technology (ART) treatment cycles were reported from fertility centres in Australia to the Australia and New Zealand Assisted Reproduction Database (ANZARD) (AIHW 2008). Global surrogacy gained popularity around the same time intercountry adoptions began to decline (Rotabi and Bromfield 2016). Petersen (2014) identified a range of factors influencing the global decline of intercountry adoptions, including:

  • increased domestic solutions for children needing families
  • activism against intercountry adoption increasing public scrutiny and,
  • media coverage of unethical practises of intercountry adoption.

Domestic adoptions also changed, with more children being adopted through known child adoptions – of the 163 domestic adoptions in 2006–07, there were 104 known child adoptions. In the preceding years, from 2006–07 to 2010–11, adoptions in Australia were declining, dropping 32% from 569 to 386. While domestic adoptions increased slightly over that period by 3.7%, intercountry adoptions dropped 47% from 406 to 217. There was also an increase in the median length of time for processing intercountry adoptions from 3 years and one month in 2007–08 to 4 years and one month in 2010–11. This may have also contributed to the steep decline in intercountry adoptions compared to the slight increase in domestic adoptions.