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DAVID CRARY

AP National Writer

NEW YORK — The number of foreign children adopted by Americans fell by 15 percent last year, reaching the lowest level since 1994 due largely to sharp cutbacks by China and Ethiopia, sources of most adoptees in recent years.

Figures released Tuesday by the State Department for the 2011 fiscal year showed 9,320 adoptions from abroad, down from 11,059 in 2010 and down nearly 60 percent from the all-time peak of 22,884 in 2004.

Once again, China accounted for the most children adopted in the U.S. But its total of 2,589 was down from 3,401 the previous year as China finds itself with fewer abandoned children and more interest in domestic adoptions.

Ethiopia was second, at 1,727 — but that was down from 2,513 in 2010. The main factor was a decision by Ethiopian authorities to slow down the handling of adoption applications to reduce instances of fraud and ease a heavy workload at Ethiopia’s youth ministry.

Following Ethiopia on the list were Russia, which accounted for 970 adoptions, South Korea at 736, Ukraine at 632, the Philippines at 230, India at 228, Colombia at 216, Uganda at 207 and Taiwan at 205.

One reason that the overall adoption numbers have dropped so sharply in recent years is that problems of fraud and corruption prompted the U.S. — as well as other nations — to suspend adoptions from several countries, notably Vietnam, Cambodia, Guatemala and Nepal.

Susan Jacobs, the State Department’s special adviser on children’s issues, said Vietnam and Cambodia have made significant progress in reforms that will enable them to join the Hague Convention on intercountry adoption, a step that would allow adoptions by Americans to resume.

Guatemala accounted for 4,123 adoptions by Americans in 2008, the most of any country that year. But the number sank to only 32 last year as the Central American nation’s fraud-riddled adoption industry was shut down while authorities drafted reforms.

Jacobs said she was encouraged by Guatemala’s progress but indicated it might be a few more years before adoptions from there would resume.

She was less positive about the situation in Nepal. The U.S. suspended adoptions of abandoned children from Nepal last year due to concerns about unreliable and fabricated documents such as birth certificates, and thus far American officials have not been satisfied by steps to remedy the problems.

The last time there were fewer foreign adoptions to the U.S. was in 1994, when there were 8,333, and the downward trend has troubled many supporters of international adoption.

“This trend is not right, and it is not good for children,” said Chuck Johnson, president of the National Council for Adoption. “Given the increasing number of orphaned children worldwide, the continued decline in intercountry adoptions means that children’s most basic needs and rights are being denied.”

Johnson stressed that he and the agencies served by his council are opposed to any level of corruption in international adoption. But he said the total suspensions of adoptions often were an overreaction that resulted in many children being raised in institutions.

Johnson noted that there is significant opposition to international adoption based on cultural concerns or national pride, but he contended that many who hold those views “offer no viable alternative for orphaned, abandoned, and vulnerable children.”

Jacobs, while hopeful that the adoption numbers will begin rising soon, said the U.S. government has no specific goal in mind.

“There’s no best number,” she said. “The question is how many we can do ethically and honestly and transparently.”

The State Department reported that 73 American children were adopted by residents of foreign countries last year — 31 of them went to Canada and 27 to the Netherlands.

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