Tension Between State Department, Accreditor Over Intercountry Adoption

The Council on Accreditation (COA), the lone firm handling accreditation for international adoption agencies, has announced that it will break its contract with State due to recent changes in regulations.

From a statement by the State Department:

On October 6 … the Council on Accreditation (COA), the agency responsible to accrediting intercountry adoption agencies, informed the Department that it would be unable to perform its duties as an accrediting entity (AE) due to “unforeseen circumstances.” Under the terms of COA’s Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the Department, both parties will consult and make an effort to find a solution that will enable COA to continue its duties until the end of the Agreement period, if possible.

If an agreement cannot be reached, the two entities can terminate the contract on a mutually agreed upon date, or it ends after 14 months.

Since 2008, when the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption (The Convention) entered into force in the United States, agencies facilitating adoptions from other Hague countries have been required to be accredited by an accrediting entity, which is currently COA.

The Colorado Department of Human Services also served as an accrediting entity when the Convention was first implemented, but as the number of agencies facilitating intercountry adoptions decreased, CDHS exited the accreditation arena. Since then, COA has been the sole accrediting entity.

Now COA is highlighting challenges to ensuring the agencies are properly accredited due to some changing guidelines from the State Department, which serves as the Central Authority for the Convention, overseeing all Convention adoptions.

The central source of contention appears to be over foreign employees and partners of the adoption agencies. Agencies have long been required to show formal, supervisory agreements with foreign service providers (FSP), the people on the ground in other countries working to finalize adoptions for American families.

Recently, the State Department has instructed COA to require agencies to have other partners, such as a state-run orphanage, enter a supervisory agreement as well, according to Light of Day Stories, a blog on international adoptions.

“Some of them are prohibited by their own government from entering that agreement,” said Chuck Johnson, CEO of the National Council For Adoption (NCFA).

In other cases, he said, the perception is that the agreement flips reality on its head. “Their view is, ‘You aren’t supervising us, we are supervising you.’”

The Council on Accreditation did not comment for this story.

Some in the adoption community have expressed concern that in the event the MOA between the Department and COA terminates, intercountry adoption will be negatively impacted.  However, should COA cease to act as an accrediting entity, responsibility for all accredited agencies or approved persons under COA’s oversight will transfer to another accrediting entity.

In August, shortly before COA publicly announced it was possibly leaving the space, the State Department announced the designation of a new accrediting agency. Intercountry Adoption Accreditation and Maintenance Entity (IAAME) is a newly formed nonprofit that will be operated by the Partnership for Strong Families, which is a lead child welfare services provider for two regions in of Florida.

“We really think these are legitimate concerns and we’ve been expressing that for the better part of a year,” Johnson said. “The COA announcement, from my perspective, cemented what we said would happen.”

The State Department, in its statement on the matter, disputed this notion, and said the updates on foreign workers just reinforce existing regulations.

“It’s our opinion these are not new requirements,” said Suzanne Lawrence, the special advisor for the State Department’s Office of Children’s Issues. “IAAME is coming in knowing what our expectations are.”

Increased scrutiny of foreign partners was included in proposed new rules that the State Department promulgated last year. But the rules were scrapped after receiving vehement opposition from the adoption community, Johnson said.

One of NCFA’s concerns, he said, was that the inclusion of more foreign workers under supervisory agreements might cause accreditation and liability insurance costs to explode for adoption agencies. COA, in its statement about the decision, expressed the same concerns. From its statement to colleagues:

We have serious concerns regarding the impact of these changes in terms of (a) the potential further reduction in the number of children who are afforded the opportunity of finding permanent homes in the United States by virtue of their countries of origin having found the activities underlying those changes to be an infringement of their sovereign rights or unduly burdensome; (b) the sustainability of small ASPs given the anticipated significantly increased accreditation fees and costs; and, (c) the capacity of prospective adoptive parents to pursue intercountry adoptions due to the pass through of these costs.

Johnson estimates the number of agencies working in the space is down about 40 percent from eight years ago since the Convention went into effect, and these changes could bring the number to zero. Since the Convention was implemented, intercountry adoptions have declined from 17,449 in 2008 to just 5,370 in 2016. However, intercountry adoptions had already started to decline prior to the Convention implementation after hitting their peak at 22,989 in 2004.

“I think unless these things are changed, we could be at the end of intercountry adoption,” Johnson said. “If we’re right, and this falls apart, who will take responsibility at that point?”

Lawrence said that the State Department is in favor of intercountry adoption where appropriate and that parties who are interested in seeing intercountry adoption should come together on common goals.

“We need to find the areas where we share goals and work together on a mutually beneficial relationship,” Lawrence said. “You can focus on the areas where people don’t get along, but that doesn’t get you to where you want to be.”

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