They have spent thousands of dollars in fees, scaled a mountain of paperwork and waited nearly five years, but Caroline and Jason Lankford have yet to be matched with the Ethiopian child they long to adopt.
They are among thousands of Americans whose hopes of becoming parents through overseas adoption are on hold as the number of eligible children dwindles. Overseas adoptions by Americans have dipped to the lowest level in 35 years, data released on Wednesday showed. The State Department reported that it issued 5,372 visas to children who were adopted abroad or were coming to the United States to be adopted by American parents in 2016, down from 5,648 in 2015 — and a fraction of the 22,884 overseas adoptions in 2004, the peak.
“After all this time, we don’t know when we’ll get our boy or girl,” said Ms. Lankford, of Anchorage, who sought a child from Ethiopia because her husband, Jason, had worked for a time in Africa. “We knew so many kids wanted a home.”
The latest figure is the lowest since 1981, when there were 4,868 overseas adoptions. Reasons for the decline are varied. Some countries are promoting domestic adoptions over foreign ones; several have suspended the process because of corruption. Still others have imposed stringent restrictions after cases of child transfers and abandonment.
Adoptions abroad are governed by the laws of both the United States and the adoptee’s home country, and rules work in both directions. In recent years, the United States has banned adoption from several countries, including Cambodia, Vietnam and Nepal, after evidence was uncovered of baby peddling and document fraud. Guatemala stopped overseas adoptions in 2008 after allegations of malfeasance.
State Department officials predicted that the numbers would never return to the 2004 peak. They attributed the decline in part to efforts by countries like China — some on their own, others with help from United Nations and other organizations — to promote child-welfare programs and domestic adoptions.
“We are trying our best to maintain adoption as a viable option for children who cannot find permanent homes in their countries of birth,” said Trish Maskew, the adoption division’s director at the State Department.
During visits to 30 countries in the last year to discuss adoption, she said, department officials heard an array of concerns involving the failure by some Americans to file required post-placement reports and clandestine custody transfers by parents who resorted to online bulletin boards to place unwanted children, or who returned them to their country of origin.
“We can’t overstate how much damage this does to intercountry adoption,” Ms. Maskew said.
In the aftermath of widely publicized adoption scandals, officials in many countries are concerned about unethical practices by adoption agencies.
In Ethiopia, a busy adoption destination for years, brokers were discovered enticing poor villagers to relinquish a child with promises of continuing payments. Others were told that their child would receive an education and be returned.
“It only takes one person acting in an unethical manner to imperil the continuation of intercountry adoptions for an extended period,” said Susan Jacobs, the department’s special adviser for children’s issues. There were 183 adoptions from Ethiopia in 2016, compared with 335 in 2015 and 716 in 2014, the report said.
Chuck Johnson, chief executive of the National Council for Adoption, a lobbying body, pointed to stricter State Department rules as a reason for the decline.
“Our central authority has chosen to focus on a regulatory role rather than being a proactive advocate for kids,” he said. “The number of orphans continues to grow by the millions. There is no indication that Americans are less interested.”
In 2010, a Michigan couple, Gwen and Aaron Van Manen, completed the adoption of their Ethiopian son, a process that took 18 months. Tariku is now 7 years old. That year, 2,511 Ethiopian children were adopted by Americans.
“It was a very good time to adopt from Ethiopia,” Ms. Van Manen said. “There were families going every week.”
But in 2012, adoptions from Ethiopia began to slow as the authorities there uncovered an array of abuse.
That was the year that the Lankfords of Alaska, who had recently wed, began the process to adopt an Ethiopian child. “We decided that our first child would be adopted,” Ms. Lankford said.
The couple sold T-shirts and used savings to raise about $17,000 for the process, which included the preparation of a dossier, fingerprinting and a home study. They also set up a page on a crowdfunding platform for adoption called AdoptTogether.
Next came nail-biting months without progress. As the wait dragged on, the couple decided to move ahead with plans for biological children.
“The only thing that keeps us going is that we have three little boys,” said Ms. Lankford, 35, who clings to hope that the adoption will go through. “Instead of being our first, the child we adopt will be our youngest.”
Americans lead the world in overseas adoptions. The largest share of children adopted from abroad in 2016, 2,231, were from China, the report said. The Democratic Republic of Congo ranked second, at 359. Ukraine and South Korea were third and fourth.
No children were adopted from Russia, once a major source; it shut out prospective American parents for political reasons three years ago.