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How Holt International Has Grown and Changed Over 65+ Years

In recent years, Holt International has made a significant shift from serving children primarily through adoption to helping tens of thousands more children every year to remain in the loving care of their birth families. Below, Holt President and CEO Phil Littleton shares how Holt has grown and changed in the years since our founding in 1956.

A mother and daughter pose for a photo.

Looking back, I feel so proud of Holt’s journey as an organization. In 1956, our founders pioneered the modern practice of international adoption — overcoming legal and cultural barriers to unite children born overseas with loving adoptive families in the U.S. They believed that every child deserves to grow up in a home of his or her own. And by adopting children born of a different race and nationality, they redefined the notion of family.

Today, we still share the vision of our founders. We still believe that love transcends barriers of race, religion and nationality. And we still seek a world where every child has a stable, loving home. But as Holt has grown over the years, we have also progressed as an organization — developing a core philosophy around which we have built robust, child-focused programs that directly meet the needs of over 322,000 children annually and in total reach over one million children, families and individuals in 17 locations across the globe.

The vast majority of the children we serve are not on track for adoption. In fact, every year, Holt serves tens of thousands more children through family strengthening programs than we do through adoption. We believe, first and foremost, that whenever possible children should grow up in the loving care of their birth families. Through the years, this fundamental belief has led our organization to become a global leader in family preservation and reunification — providing the tools and resources that empower families to grow stable, self-reliant and equipped to independently care for their children.

We believe, first and foremost, that whenever possible children should grow up in the loving care of their birth families.

A mother sharing a special moment with her child.

Through the years, we have cultivated strong partnerships with local experts, governments and organizations — partnerships that enable us to identify the needs of individual children and families, and empower families to overcome the distinct struggles they face. All of our services are tailored to the unique, individual needs of each child and family, and together with our partners, we seek solutions that are first and foremost in the best interest of the child. We recognize that loss of birth family is one of the most heartbreaking experiences a child can go through, and in most circumstances, a child’s best interest is to remain in the care of his or her family. That is why we strive to keep families together through services that may include anything from educational scholarships, free daycare, vocational training, income-generating projects and interest-free microloans to pre- and post-natal healthcare, support for single mothers, community-based development, health services, emergency food, nutrition training, and family support and resources for children with disabilities and other special needs.

In 2021, nearly 30,500 children were able to remain with their families with support from Holt International and our on-the-ground partners.

Through this broad scope of in-country programs and services, we help parents overcome hardships that might otherwise lead them to place their child in an orphanage; migrate for work and leave their child with an elderly grandparent; or other outcomes that separate their child from the safety and stability of a loving family. And with the support of Holt’s dedicated sponsors and donors, we have experienced great success in this endeavor. In 2021, nearly 30,500 children were able to remain with their families with support from Holt International and our on-the-ground partners.

One key learning from our 65+ years of service is our understanding of the developmental needs of children living outside of family care. From the beginning, Holt has strived to set a high standard of care for children living in orphanages, group homes and foster families. And today, we continue to refine the way that we care for children in country while we work to reunite them with their families or unite them with a loving adoptive family.

Two girls that have been positively impacted by Holt International.

For every child who comes into the care of our partnering orphanages overseas, our local staff and partners thoroughly explore the possibility of reuniting them with their families — and in many cases, provide the resources mothers, fathers, grandparents or other extended “kinship” family members need to provide safe, nurturing, ongoing care for the child. We also create safe and healthy havens of support for single and unwed mothers so they can make an informed decision about whether to parent their child, free from the stigma that is often so strong and enduring that women feel like they don’t have a choice except to relinquish. In some regions, such as Korea and Thailand, 80 or more percent of single mothers ultimately choose to parent their child with the support of Holt services such as job skills training to earn a stable income and counseling to help them cope with the stigma of single motherhood.

This is incredible progress.

The sad and enduring truth, however, is that no matter how much care and support is offered, not every child can remain or reunite with the family to which they were born. This truth is what motivated our founders to seek families for children left homeless in the wake of the Korean War. And today, it is the reason we continue our efforts to find loving adoptive families for children growing up without a family.

In some regions, such as Korea and Thailand, 80 or more percent of single mothers ultimately choose to parent their child with the support of Holt services.

Adoptive parents with their children.

For many children growing up in orphanages or other long-term care environments, the reality is such that adoption is truly the best route to a permanent and loving family.

Holt has long advocated for domestic adoption in the countries where we work. And today, when adoption is the best option for a child, our in-country partners always strive to find a domestic adoptive family first — giving a child the opportunity to grow up in the country and culture of their birth. This priority is fundamental to our philosophy of service and to who we are as an organization.

Over the past 65+ years, our adoption programs have continually expanded and changed in response to the changing needs of the children and families we serve. Today, Holt continues to be the leading agency finding loving adoptive families for children with disabilities or other special needs. In 2021, 95 percent of children who joined Holt adoptive families were either older, part of a sibling group or had at least some minor medical or developmental needs — demonstrating huge progress in efforts to find families for children who often wait the longest in care centers and group homes.

Over the decades, our adoption programs have also evolved in response to insights from adult adoptees, birth families and adoptive parents, adapting to changing legislation overseas and at home, and incorporating new research on child development. These insights have helped us to better understand the needs of adoptees and families both pre- and post-adoption, and provided the groundwork for developing pre- and post-adoption counseling, education, support and resources to help families and children succeed throughout their lives — a topic on which I will elaborate in a coming blog post.

In 2021, 95 percent of children who joined Holt adoptive families were either older, part of a sibling group or had at least some minor medical or developmental needs.

Holt continues to learn and grow in response to changing dynamics and needs among the children, adoptees and families we serve. We don’t have all the answers. But we have come very far in our growth as an organization over 65+ years of pursuing a world where every child has a loving and secure home. And I am proud to lead us into the coming years.

Phil Littleton | President & CEO

children laughing and playing with colorful balloons

Learn more about Holt’s work and history!

At Holt International, we help children thrive in the love and stability of a family. But our services extend far beyond the adoption work we are known for.

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