Caught in the International Adoption Slowdown

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Peter Rad for TIME

Frank and Gabrielle Shimkus in their Pennsylvania home.

On a September day in 2008 Gabrielle Shimkus was driving home when her husband Frank called with the good news. They have a son for us, he told her. Later that day, a picture of the boy—a tiny, two-and-half-month-old orphan in Kyrgyzstan with a severe cleft lip and palate—arrived by e-mail from the adoption agency. “It was scary at first, he was so small, so fragile,” Gabrielle says of those first photos. But the Pennsylvania couple felt an immediate connection and they moved forward with the adoption. More than four years later he’s still stuck in a Kyrgyz orphanage, a casualty of efforts to cleanup the often-corrupt international adoption process.

(MORE: Why Has Moscow Passed a Bill to Ban U.S. Adoption of Russian Orphans?)

As I detail in this week’s issue of TIME, attitudes are changing about international adoption as countries begin to question the practice of sending their children to families in the developed world. In an attempt to curb the so-called black market baby trade, many are suspending foreign adoptions entirely. The result is a steep decline in the number of foreign children adopted by American families – a drop of nearly 60% since 2004.

Caught in the middle are families like the Shimkuses and the boy they have been trying to adopt since 2008. They’re one of 65 families who were put in anguishing limbo when Kyrgyzstan suspended international adoptions. To learn more about the Kyrgyz 65 and the reasons for the adoption dropoff, read my story “The Baby Deficit,” in the new issue. (TIME subscribers can read it online here.)