In recent months a significant shake-up has taken place behind the scenes in the world of U.S. intercountry adoptions. The Council on Accreditation (COA), an independent human service accrediting organization authorized by the Department of State to monitor and oversee up to 200 adoption agencies, recently announced it would be “unable to continue to perform its duties”. In its role as the primary Accrediting Entity for the Department, COA has granted Hague Accreditation and Approval for agencies that provide intercountry adoption services to American families since 2006. Most prospective adoptive families were likely unaware such an entity even existed before this news was announced in October. Now it seems many agencies are in a panic over the news, and a general sense of unease pervades the international adoption community. People may be wondering, what will happen when COA steps down? Will this result in delays or even a shutdown? And why the sudden announcement?
To further complicate matters, the explanations behind the announcement seem to be greatly at odds. In his October letter to Adoption Service Providers [agencies], Richard Klarberg, the President and CEO of the Council on Accreditation said, “the Department of State (the Department) is requiring COA to make significant changes in the nature and scope of our work in ways which will fundamentally change our responsibilities and role as an accrediting entity and which are inconsistent with COA’s philosophy and mission.”
The Department of State meanwhile asserted that “Prior [DOS] annual performance reviews made recommendations about COA’s implementation of certain policies and procedures … The discovery, during the debarment process of an adoption service provider in 2016, of issues that had existed prior to the provider’s most recent re-accreditation but did not prevent its re-accreditation, raised additional concerns with COA’s performance. As a result of these and other concerns, the Department undertook a more extensive annual review of COA’s operations in the spring of 2017….in which it identified numerous concerns and deficiencies in the implementation of many of its policies and procedures.”
The Adoption Service Provider alluded to here is European Adoption Consultants, a large and well-known agency that was found by the State Department to be embroiled in fraud and a litany of other ethics issues in their work in Uganda. (See the full list of violations here.) To say that COA missed some red flags in their work of monitoring and overseeing this agency would be an understatement.
The Council on Accreditation complained that the State Department was asking them to make “significant changes” in the “nature and scope” of their work. The State Department responded, “The requirement to ensure that foreign providers providing adoption services are supervised in accordance with 22 CFR 96.46 is not new.”
Clearly there was significant disagreement about the type and level of supervision an Accrediting Entity could or should provide over adoption agencies. This disagreement is primarily focused on how much supervision agencies could or should have over their Foreign Service Providers, (the individuals and organizations that agencies work with in a given country). COA seems to believe it is not possible or at least not financially feasible to have the level of transparency and accountability that the Department of State is insisting agencies be held to. They argue that to do so will substantially increase costs and ultimately lead some smaller agencies to shut down. The State Department disagrees and has recently found a new Accrediting Entity to take on the task. According to the Department of Children’s Issues, “While the goal of the Department’s designation of a second accrediting entity was initially to have two organizations working together to accredit, monitor, and oversee agencies, COA’s withdrawal means the new entity will fully assume these responsibilities.”
“The Intercounty Adoption Accreditation and Maintenance Entity (IAAME) is a newly formed 501(c)(3) organization created for the sole purpose of the accreditation, approval, monitoring and oversight of adoption service providers providing intercounty adoption services.” IAAME was formed out of Partnership for Strong Families (PSF), the lead agency for child welfare services in Florida circuits 3 and 8 and was one of two agencies who responded to the Departments Request for Statements of Interest (RSI) in March 2017. Officials with the Office of Children’s Issues assured us that IAMME has a well-regarded leadership team and they believe they will be fully capable of taking on the role of primary Accrediting Entity for the Department when the time comes. Additionally, they do not anticipate any significant impact on intercountry adoptions when COA transitions out in December 2018. IAMME’s fees related to the accrediting of agencies have not yet been published. The State Department admits they are asking IAMME to do more monitoring and oversight than has been previously done and thus fees are likely to increase to some extent. “There will be fee increases, but they will likely be structured differently in order to ameliorate the impact on agencies. The Department is very aware of the potential impact of fee increases on ASPs that do a small number of adoptions and will work to minimize such impacts.”
The Department also pointed out that COA has previously stated that “despite an increase in December 2015, the current fees do not completely cover its AE work.” And they emphasized that the additional monitoring and oversight is crucial to IAMME’s ability to effectively do their job of overseeing agencies. “Among these capacities is increased focus on standards that, if not observed, put children and families at risk, such as ASP financial solvency and requirements to return funds to families for services not rendered, increased transparency regarding use of foreign supervised providers and funds provided to them, greater accountability for adoption fees, and improved data collection and analysis to identify trends and better track cases at key milestones.”
While some in the adoption community accuse the Department of State of being anti-adoption and say their end goal is to shut down adoptions, these regulations suggest otherwise. The implementation of clear and enforceable standards benefits all parties in the adoption triad and could prevent future shutdowns. As we have seen again and again, programs often shut down when fraud in the system produces scandals that embarrass the countries involved. Even more importantly, fraud and other unethical practices can cause irreparable harm to children and families.
At the end of the day, the primary goal of every person working in international adoption should be the best interests of the children and families involved. Holding agencies to a high standard of transparency and responsibility is fundamental to that goal. While it may seem burdensome for agencies to have to meet the stringent requirements spelled out in the DOS regulations, families should not succumb to the dread and apprehension coming from some corners of the adoption world right now. It is important for prospective adoptive families to understand that their goals and priorities may not always line up with those of adoption agencies. What causes one dread may provide great reassurance for the other. For those who do have concerns, the Department of State encourages prospective adoptive parents to email them at Adoption@state.gov .
What about the worries voiced by COA that the regulations will result in a reduction of adoptions or even the closing of some countries’ programs? What is behind the plummeting numbers of intercountry adoptions over the last several years? Who is responsible? We will turn our attention to those questions in our next post, coming soon.