Earlier this year, Ambassador Susan Jacobs retired from her post as special advisor for the State Department Office of Children’s Services (OCS), leaving the position she’d held for seven years vacant. While a number of State Department officials have quit or retired early since President Donald Trump has taken office and Rex Tillerson has taken the helm as Secretary of State, Jacobs’ departure had been rumored in the adoption community since last year.
This fall, Minister-Counsel Suzanne Lawrence was named her successor. Just weeks after moving into the position and days into National Adoption Month, Chronicle of Social Change Managing Editor Kim Phagan-Hansel had a chance to visit with Lawrence about her State Department background and her thoughts on her new position at the Office of Children’s Services (OCS).
Lawrence has spent more than 28 years working in various roles at the State Department, including having served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Athens, Greece. Over the years she’s served in a variety of foreign service roles, including as senior advisor to the assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs.
During the 1990s, when intercountry adoptions were in their heyday, Lawrence was spokesperson for the Bureau of Consular Affairs where many times she would handle discussions about intercountry adoption.
At OCS, she’s working on adoptions on a larger scale, overseeing a department of individuals who focus their day-to-day tasks on communicating with various countries about intercountry adoption and helping to ensure that every adoption that does take place meets the standards identified by the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption, more commonly referred to as the Convention.
“She did a great job launching the position,” Lawrence said of Susan Jacobs. “Michelle Bond had reached out to me. She thought that I would be someone who could follow Susan [and] do justice to the portfolio. My two main priorities are really a continuation of Susan’s work.”
Those priorities include encouraging other countries to implement the Convention and addressing any barriers to intercounty adoption. In order to accomplish those goals, it takes a number of State Department officials to communicate with various countries and work through any challenges that may arise. Those working in the Office of Children’s Services regularly communicate with other State Department officials working in other countries about intercountry adoption issues.
“Our work is not in isolation in Washington,” Lawrence said. “I see as our priority encouraging countries to join and implement all the safeguards of the Hague. Our aim has been to work through that bilateral process and make sure this is a safe and transparent process.”
In the past decade, barriers to intercountry adoption have drastically increased as countries have shut down intercountry adoption programs. Intercountry adoptions peaked in 2004 with 22,989 adoptions before freefalling to just 5,370 in 2016. Now with Ethiopia recently stating plans to cease processing new intercountry adoptions cases, those numbers are projected to continue falling. And the State Department is currently working with the more than 150 families that are in various stages of the adoption process from that country.
“We’re in constant communication with members of Congress,” Lawrence said. “We have an almost daily conversation with the Embassy there to parse through their various conversations happening there. We have never been given anything in writing that would tell us what their parameters are in addressing the needs of these children.”
Since this interview, Ethiopia has issued more clarity on the adoption cases that will be allowed to be finalized.
Ethiopia is among a long line of other countries that have at one point sent many children to the United States to be adopted only to later revise its adoption policies to no longer favor intercountry adoptions.
Among the issues that have led to fewer intercountry adoptions are increased domestic adoptions in other countries (especially China and Korea), political discord between the United States and Russia, concerns about unethical practices (Guatemala, Romania, Cambodia) and lack of post-adoption reporting by adoptive families (Kazakhstan).
As the number of intercountry adoptions has declined and some of these issues continue to plague intercountry adoption, dialogue amongst the adoption community has become increasingly challenged, something that Lawrence said she hopes to move beyond.
“You can focus on the areas where people don’t get along, but that doesn’t get you to where you want to be,” Lawrence said. “We want to find areas where we share goals and work together on mutually beneficial relationships.”
However, with the Council on Accreditation’s recent announcement that they will cease accrediting international adoption agencies next year, it’s clear that there are a number of hurdles ahead for intercountry adoption.
One of the biggest factors Lawrence cites as having a profound impact on intercountry adoptions and countries’ willingness to participate in intercountry adoption is the lack of accountability on post-adoption reporting. As part of the adoption process, many countries require adoptive parents to submit an annual post-adoption report.
“Many countries have been concerned about the outstanding post-adoption reports,” Lawrence said. “We hear repeatedly about that as a concern for sending countries.”
Lawrence said her team has worked to help track down parents who haven’t been compliant in submitting reports and has encouraged them to do so, a continuation of Jacobs’ efforts to encourage compliance. In addition, officials have advocated to countries to make the reporting process as simple as possible for parents. Some countries over the years have required that parents submit reports in the country’s language, adding a challenging roadblock for busy families to hurdle.
“We try to impress upon the sending country that it needs to be something the average person can comply with,” Lawrence said.
In the coming months, Lawrence said her team plans to continue working on getting the word out about the need for post-adoption reporting compliance.
“People work day in and day out to keep this an option for many families,” Lawrence said. “They’re committed to keeping this a viable option. People are always looking to make inroads — it’s something we work on each and every day.”