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Amy Beeman reads with her 18-month old twin son and daughter, Sam(left) and Lucy(right), at their home in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012.

Even as a teenager, Amy Beeman knew her ideal family would one day include both biological and adopted children. Her father was adopted and she is determined, despite also giving birth to twins, to give a needy child a home.

But the Minnedosa, Man., agency handling Ms. Beeman's Ethiopian adoption, the Canadian Advocate for the Adoption of Children, is fighting to stay afloat financially, leaving Ms. Beeman and 800 prospective families on tenterhooks.

It's an increasingly familiar scenario facing people hoping to adopt internationally. Adoption agencies, their first point of contact, are stretched on a number of fronts – from dealing with increased paperwork and international regulations to bottlenecks for newly popular countries, such as Ethiopia.

That's in addition to staying on top of which countries are open to adoption and from which countries Canada allows international adoptions (also called intercountry adoptions.)

Most provinces have suspended Haitian adoptions due to irregularities after the 2010 earthquake, such as adoptions being arranged without a proper search for birth parents. Also on the no-adoption list are Guatemala, Cambodia and Nepal, for allegations of unethical or illegal practices including payments being made to birth mothers for giving up their babies. Meanwhile, other countries like Ethiopia and China are making it harder to adopt, due to their own domestic policies.

Face of adoption changing

The heyday of international adoption appears to be over.

"Intercountry adoption is changing continually. It's not static. But there are more restrictions in place now," says Cathy Murphy, the acting executive director of the well-regarded non-profit Ottawa agency, the Children's Bridge.

The result is higher fees, fewer adoptions, longer waiting times, older kids.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada reports that in 2010, there were 1,968 international adoptions, down from 2,130 in 2009, and peak of 2,180 in 2003.

The downward trend is more stark in the United States, says Elizabeth Bartholet, a professor at Harvard Law School and faculty director of its child advocacy program. From an all-time high of 22,991 in 2004, international adoptions fell to 9,320 in 2011.

"In seven years it's fallen off by more than half. So that's a pretty stunning falling-off-the-cliff phenomenon. It definitely has affected agencies in Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere that help facilitate international adoption. It's just drying up."

There are about two dozen agencies in Canada, and shutting down can mean hundreds of families left in the cold. A Vancouver agency, Hope Adoption Services, closed in January, also for financial reasons. An Ontario agency, Imagine, shuttered in 2009 after its founder and general manager were charged with breach of trust and fraud. It all leaves prospective parents with a feeling that their access is shrinking."The agency pool is getting smaller and smaller," Ms. Beeman says.

Fee hikes inevitable

And those who survive have no choice but to raise their fees. Three years ago, the Children's Bridge started charging an additional annual administrative fee of $1,200 which kicks in after a year with the agency, over and above their usual fees. On average, it now takes $35,000 to $45,000 to complete an adoption. About a third covers Canadian costs, a third goes to fees in the child's home country and a third to travel.

"At the time, it was not popular with our families; our clients were quite upset by it," says Ms. Murphy. "However, by taking this action, it's allowed us to remain viable during a tough time. I call it a keep-the-lights-on fee."

In CAFAC's case, a slowdown in Ethiopian adoptions after the Ethiopian government vowed to clean up its system has meant files that used to take 18 months to complete can now take five to 10 years – and a lot more administration.

But Manitoba caps the amount of fees that agencies can charge clients (unlike Ontario and others who do not). So even though the province allowed a 50 per cent increase in 2010, from $5,800 to $8,800, the agency has been lobbying the government to raise the limits or it would be forced to close.

On Thursday, the province agreed to open up a fee-consultation process and consider raising the cap once again. CAFAC's retired founders also offered interim financial and personal assistance to keep the agency running.

Ms. Beeman and her husband began working with CAFAC in 2008. After taking a break to create space between the twins and an adopted child, they thought they were close to a match and were devastated by the news that CAFAC was struggling. When she read the latest update from CAFAC to its clients, she was thrilled.

"The idea that we again have the possibility of expanding our already amazing family makes me smile," she says. "I'm just happy the door hasn't been closed for us."

Heartbreaking roller coaster

Ms. Beeman has friends who have skipped from failed agency to failed agency; she was not sure she could stomach that roller coaster if CAFAC failed.

"It's a huge undertaking. Not just financially [she figures they've spent $10,000 already on agency fees] but emotionally. It takes a lot out of you," she says. "With how long it takes you almost need to decide when you're 23 that you want to adopt internationally, so you'll start working on it and when you're 32 you'll have a child."

The Hague Convention of 1993 was a defining moment in international adoption. Countries that sign the agreement must comply with strict international standards, such as ensuring that birth parents have truly given their consent and have not been paid, and that efforts have been made to find the child a permanent home in his or her country of origin. Canada ratified the agreement in 1996. In some cases, sending countries close adoptions when they sign the agreement and work to tidy up their system.

Prof. Bartholet, an adoptive mother herself, says U.S. officials have told her that the goal is now "not a single ethical violation," which she finds too strict.

"In my view there's nothing human beings do in large scale that has not a single ethical violation. We don't shut down the stock market because of Bernie Madoff. We send him to jail.

"We should, of course, enforce the law and send people to jail who kidnap babies or pay birth mothers, but we should not imprison the children as a way of solving the problem."

Some children left behind

In some cases, children may languish in orphanages, but in others, stricter rules may prevent children from being separated from their parents in the first place.

Unicef Canada's president and CEO, David Morley, says that despite what can be grinding bureaucracy, the Hague Convention rules are "the best we've come up with to deal with this incredibly important and emotional issue around caring for the weakest most vulnerable people in the world."

It's not just the international community playing policeman; countries can pull up the drawbridge at any moment, motivated by nationalism, perception and their own changing demographics – or the taint of scandal.

In one high-profile case in 2010, a U.S. woman put her seven-year-old adopted son on a plane, unaccompanied, back to his birth country, Russia. As a result, the Russian foreign minister called for a freeze on such adoptions. At present, the country still allows international adoptions, but there is now a mandatory six-month search for adoptive parents within Russia before a child can be adopted internationally.

"The net effect, usually, is kids gets older," says Prof. Bartholet.

In recent years, China, too, has raised the standards for parents who hope to adopt. No single moms, same-sex couples, obese parents, or those with alcoholic parents or cancer in the family need apply.

"China, today, wants to look good and strong: 'We don't need you to take care of our kids any more. We can take care of our own,'" says Prof. Bartholet.

The Children's Bridge has stopped processing Chinese adoptions, except for Canadians who were born in China or who will adopt older children with medical needs, and pass China's requirements, says Ms. Murphy.

Ethiopia is following a similar trend. In 2010, Canadians adopted 113 Ethiopian children, down from a high of 187 in 2008. Before its troubles, CAFAC had closed its waiting list for Ethiopian adoptions.

Calgary father Evan Dewald and his wife have adopted two Ethiopian children with the help of CAFAC, most recently a 2½-year-old boy in January ("He's such a fun little guy. He's trying to find his sense of serenity with us.") He has been helping circulate a petition urging Manitoba to help CAFAC, hoping that he wasn't to be among the last to adopt from the African nation.

"There's so much emotion tied up in wanting to be parents," he says. "And there are thousands of kids that need homes. I saw them there."

Domestic adoption opening up

Yet, as international adoption gets tougher, domestic public adoptions are poised to gain traction – especially of older children in foster care, who were once overlooked for the promise of a foreign baby.

Ontario's Ministry of Children and Youth Services says the province increased adoptions by 21 per cent since 2008, and the province is enacting plans to reduce the number of hurdles to adoption of children in its care.

Those who have thrown their hat in the international ring are trying not to lose hope. At the same time, Ms. Murphy, who herself has adopted from China, says she's trying to alter her clients' expectations.

"Many people, myself included, do IVF before they come to adoption. So by the time you get to adoption you have many families who are very frustrated" she says. "To hear that, 'Wait a minute, your dream's still not going to really happen as you'd planned it,' that's a hard message to hear."

Those hoping to quickly adopt an infant, generally a girl, are unlikely to succeed.

"That just doesn't exist any more," she says. "If you're open to parenting a child around the age of 3, with a minor correctable medical need, you can be home with a child in a year. It really comes down to what are you comfortable with, how much are you willing to adjust that dream?"