International Child Welfare: Human Rights of Unparented Children and International Adoption

There are many millions of unparented children growing up in institutions and on the streets worldwide. CAP sees this as violating their most fundamental human right to family. International Adoption (IA) is one of the best available options for providing these children with families. Yet today IA is in crisis, with numbers down precipitously since 2004, after the previous six decades of a steady rise in numbers. IA is needed as much as always – indeed the number of homeless children has grown dramatically. However powerful forces, including UNICEF and our own State Department, have joined with others to close down IA in many countries and to add to the restrictions that make it a limited option for children in other countries.

CAP has been playing a major role fighting this trend, and promoting the human rights of children to grow up with parents, including through IA. It has created and led various advocacy groups committed to policy reform.  It has developed and promoted legislative reform designed to change the position of the U.S. Government so that we recognize the child’s human right to family, and recognize that denying that right by shutting down IA should be condemned as a violation of human rights.  CAP has structured an international human rights systemic litigation program, with the goal of developing international law recognizing the child’s right to family and condemning shutdowns of IA as a violation of that right.  Details on the above are contained in the below links.

CAP has also organized course panels, conferences and special events to educate students and policy-makers about the issues.  In January 2008, we convened a “Workshop” at HLS for representatives of UNICEF, the State Department, and many other high-level policy players. We co-sponsored several conferences on IA with the Center for Adoption Policy.

CAP drafted a Policy Statement on IA and initiated a campaign to secure endorsements in the child and human rights communities.  That Policy Statement was adopted in its essential form by several organizations including the American Bar Association, and endorsed by many leading child and human rights experts and organizations. To read CAP’s International Adoption Policy Statement and Supporting Report and review the endorsing individuals and organizations see the section below, Campaign to Support Child Rights and International Adoption.

CAP partnered with the Center for Adoption Policy to create the “ACT for Adoption” newsletter to mobilize support for IA (see instructions directly below to join).

Bartholet has written many articles on the human rights of unparented children and related IA issues which appear on her publications page.

For more information on all of the above, see the material in the links below.



Campaign to Support Child Rights: International Adoption

International Adoption is in crisis, with the numbers down significantly since 2004.  Yet there continue to be many millions of children in desperate need of nurturing homes, most of whom are now growing up in terribly inadequate institutions or on the street.  The reduction in the number of children finding homes in International Adoption is largely because of opposition by organizations and individuals alleging that they speak for the human rights of children. They call for restrictions on International Adoption that include: temporary and permanent moratoria on such adoption, preferences for in-country foster and institutional care over out-of-country adoption, “holding periods” that require searching for in-country homes for months or years before out-of-country placement is permitted, and the elimination of the private adoption intermediaries that often serve as the lifeblood of International Adoption.

Our Campaign is designed to promote the human rights of children to grow up in nurturing homes. We believe that International Adoption generally serves the interests of children who cannot be raised by their birth parents far better than non-adoption alternatives like foster and institutional care. Help ensure that International Adoption is kept on the table as one of the options for unparented children worldwide.

CAP launched a Campaign to enlist endorsements for the International Adoption Policy Statement and Supporting Report (en Español, Comunicado Sobre Política de Adopción Internacional e Informe de Apoyo) which CAP played the key role in developing.


Join the Campaign to Support Child Rights and International Adoption.

To date, 132 leading child and human rights experts have now endorsed, as well as the following organizations:

  • The American Academy of Adoption Attorneys, May 2008
  • Harvard Law School Child Advocacy Program, May 2008
  • The Center for Adoption Policy, June 2008
  • National Council for Adoption, April 2009 (NCFA Endorsement and Related Article)
  • University of San Diego Children’s Advocacy Institute, May 2009
  • University of San Francisco – School of Law Child Advocacy Clinic, May 2009
  • Both Ends Burning, May 2010

Also the American Bar Association adopted a resolution endorsing an almost-identical policy statement:  See American Bar Association Recommendation on International Adoption and Supporting Report.

Human Rights Litigation on Behalf of Unparented Children

This CAP initiative is designed to help change the framework for understanding issues surrounding the rights of unparented children worldwide, including international adoption (IA) issues, encouraging a focus on children’s most fundamental human right to grow up with nurturing parents.  We have formed an International Human Rights Network to support this initiative. This Network is a broad coalition of organizations in the U.S. that have been involved in working for unparented child rights including in the context of IA. We also formed a smaller Human Rights Leadership Team to spearhead this effort.  We have been supported in this effort by the Paul Weiss law firm which has provided extensive pro bono assistance developing legal theories as to the most promising human rights fora, the International Senior Lawyers Project, and the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice.


Current Pending Legislation

To stay up-to-date on CAP-supported IA legislation and learn specific steps you can take to support human rights for unparented children, visit This web resource is a collaboration between CAP and a broad coalition of child human rights experts and organizations advocating for a child’s need to grow up in a loving, nurturing family.

The National Council For Adoption (NCFA), a leading adoption advocacy organization, identified CAP’s human rights reporting legislation and the Vulnerable Children and Families Act of 2017, among the top legislative goals they will advocate for in 2018. The article, NCFA’s Legislative and Policy Priorities for 2018, by Erin Bayles, Ryan Hanlon, and Chuck Johnson (Adoption Advocate, No. 115, January 2018) describes each piece of legislation and the reason behind NCFA’s support. The human rights reporting legislation is listed at the end of the article and VCF is listed near the middle. You can also find out more about each piece of legislation below.

Human Rights Reporting on Unparented Children

CAP Faculty Director Elizabeth Bartholet together with a coalition of international adoption (IA) advocates developed and proposed legislation that became S.1177 and H.R.2643. S.1177 was introduced on May 18, 2017, by Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO). H.R.2643 was introduced by Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA) on May 24, 2017, with co-sponsor Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI).

This legislation is designed to change the nature of the Annual Report on Human Rights Violations issued by the U.S. Dept. of State. It requires that the Report include violations involving the deliberate denial of the right of unparented children to family, including by the shutdown of IA. CAP has been supported in this effort by the Arent Fox law firm which has provided extensive pro bono assistance in working with Congress, and the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice.

For a one-page description of the legislation with endorsing organizations click here, and for the supporting report explaining the need for this legislation, click here.

The legislation is endorsed by CAP and other organizations working on behalf of unparented children including: American Academy of Adoption Attorneys (Debra E. Guston, President); America World Adoption (Brian Luwis, CEO); Center for Adoption Policy (Diane Kunz and Ann Reese, Co-Founders & Executive Directors); Coalition for Intercountry Adoption (Kristen Hamilton, Co-Founder); Love Grows Kids (Pete Leppanen, Kelly Dempsey and Chad Turner, Co- Directors); National Council For Adoption (Chuck Johnson, President & CEO); Nourished Hearts (Kim de Blecourt, President); Paulo Barrozo, Associate Professor of Law, Boston College Law School;  Saddleback Church Orphan Care Initiative (Elizabeth Styffe, Director); University of Pennsylvania Field Center for Children’s Research, Policy and Practice (Cassie Statuto Bevan, Child Welfare Fellow).

The following are Op-Eds and other articles by CAP and others expressing support for this legislation and its predecessor:

Vulnerable Children and Families Act (VCF Act)

The Vulnerable Children and Families Act (VCF Act), was reintroduced in the Senate May 18, 2017, by Senators Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) as S.1178.  It was reintroduced in the House by Representatives Kay Granger (R-TX) and Brenda Lawrence (D-MI), as H.R.2532.  CAP, along with several other organizations, worked to help bring this about and has formally endorsed the bill. The VCF Act recognizes that children have a fundamental human right to family.  It would ensure that our government works in partnership with other countries to provide every child the opportunity to grow up in a permanent, safe, nurturing, and loving family. It requires that international adoption to the United States becomes a more viable option for providing families for children in need. It defines the principle of subsidiarity as requiring that preference be given to providing children as early as possible with permanent nurturing parents.

The VCF Act is endorsed by CAP and other organizations working on behalf of unparented children including National Council for Adoption, American Academy of Adoption Attorneys, Saddleback Church, Bethany Christian Services, Nourished Hearts, Center for Adoption Policy, and Gladney Center for Adoption.

This bill is a successor to CHIFF.  For more information about the history of CHIFF, please see the Other Congressional Legislation section below.

Other Congressional Legislation

CAP worked actively to support Children in Families First or CHIFF (introduced in earlier years by Senators Mary Landrieu and Roy Blunt as S.1530 and Representatives Kay Granger and Karen Bass in Congress as H.R.3323). CHIFF was designed to transform U.S. Government policy into a positive force for enabling children to grow up in the families they need, including in international adoption. Harvard and Boston College Law School faculty members signed a Letter of Support for CHIFF Core Principles (the Harvard Law School press release can be viewed here).

The Vulnerable Children and Families Act (VCF Act), is the successor to CHIFF and was introduced in the Senate in the summer of 2016 and reintroduced in the spring of 2017 as S.1178 and H.R.2532. See above.

Amicus briefs signed by CAP Faculty Director, Elizabeth Bartholet, and Assistant Director, Crisanne Hazen related to international child welfare reform:


Coalition-building Work

International Adoption Strategy Group 

We formed this group some years ago, combining core international adoption advocates with significant evangelical leaders who have been active in addressing the needs of unparented children worldwide. We meet twice a year to develop strategies to change law and policy governing children’s rights to family.  Our members include:

Paulo Barrozo, Associate Professor of Law, Boston College Law School
Cassie Statuto Bevan, Child Welfare Fellow, University of Pennsylvania, Field Center for Children’s Policy, Research & Practice
Kelly Dempsey, Co-Director, Love Grows Kids
Emily Dudak Leiter, Academy of Adoption and Assisted Reproduction Attorneys
Eric Freeby, Academy of Adoption and Assisted Reproduction Attorneys
Mary Ann Glendon, Professor of Law, Harvard Law School
Laurie Goldheim, Academy of Adoption and Assisted Reproduction Attorneys
Kristen Hamilton, Co-Founder, Coalition for Intercountry Adoption
Katie Jay, Academy of Adoption and Assisted Reproduction Attorneys
Chuck Johnson, President & CEO, National Council for Adoption
Jason Kovaks, Director of Ministry Development, ABBA Fund
Diane B. Kunz, Executive Director, Center for Adoption Policy
Peter Leppanen, Co-Director, Love Grows Kids
Brian Luwis, CEO, America World Adoption
Mark McDermott, Academy of Adoption and Assisted Reproduction Attorneys
Jedd Medefind, President, Christian Alliance for Orphans
Martha Osborne, Adoption Advocacy
Ann N. Reese, Executive Director, Center for Adoption Policy
Bill Rosen, Academy of Adoption and Assisted Reproduction Attorneys
Elizabeth Styffe, Director, Saddleback Church Orphan Care Initiative
Snow Wu, CEO, Children of All Nations


Act for Adoption Newsletter

ACT for Adoption is a coalition of persons who support adoption, both domestic and international, as an option for providing good homes for children without parents.  Through our listserv, we mobilize support for adoption policy reform by communicating with key policy-makers, including in the White House, Congress, government agencies, and non-profit organizations, as well as by educating the media and various stakeholders. Those on the ACT for Adoption listserv periodically receive an email from us with updates on important developments and occasional suggestions for action.

We formed ACT in partnership with the Center for Adoption Policy. The ACT for Adoption listserv is run by the Harvard Law School Child Advocacy Program.

To subscribe:

  • Click here to subscribe to ACTforAdoption.
  • An email message from your account will automatically appear, filled out with the relevant information. Simply send that email. Do not add any additional text.
  • You will then be added to our ACT for Adoption listserv.  If you have any problems subscribing, email ACTforAdoption.

To Unsubscribe:

  • Email ACTforAdoption with “Remove from ACTforAdoption listserv” in the subject heading.
  • CAP will send you a confirmation email when we have removed you from the list.


Earlier Work

Russian Shutdown of International Adoption to the U.S.

The European Court granted CAP’s request to file an amicus brief in a case challenging the Russian shutdown of international adoption to the U.S.  CAP filed its brief on April 14, 2014 as Third Party Intervener: European Court of Human Rights, A.H. and Others v. Russia & Other 22 Applications, Application no.6033/13. The Statement of Facts and application cover sheet provide additional information. The decision in the Case of A.H. and Others v. Russia came down from the Court on January 17, 2017.


CAP-Initiated Human Rights Case Before Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Support of International Adoption

CAP brought this case challenging the policies of three Central and South American countries shutting down international adoption as a violation of child human rights.  To learn more, see details about the hearing on this case, including the press release, written testimony, recording of the hearing, and written response to the questions by the commissioners.


Response to Crisis in Haiti

CAP Faculty Director Elizabeth Bartholet and Assistant Prof. of Law at Boston College Law School Paulo Barrozo wrote a piece for NPR’s website: “Amid Disaster, Haitian Orphans Find Homes” (Jan. 21, 2010).

CAP Faculty Director Elizabeth Bartholet appeared on the New York Times’ Room for Debate blog: “Put Children’s Safety First” (Feb. 1, 2010). She also appeared on French television to discuss the adoption situation for the children of Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake (Jan. 21, 2010).