Sunday, July 20, 2014

International Adoption: Pro and Con

I often read the blog "Red Thread Broken" for its first-hand reflections on some of the challenges faced by international adoptees.  As one might gather from the title of the blog, its author, herself an adoptee born in China, is not a fan of international adoption.  Recently, her mother has written a lengthy post about why she, too, opposes international adoption:
Like she has in so many areas, my daughter (the writer of this blog) has brought me to a clearer understanding of the many complicated issues around adoption – how monetary transactions have led to corruption, how first families have sometimes been lied to, deceived, or tricked into relinquishing children, how cultures can be punitive to single mothers, and how demand creates a climate for adoption to become more of a consumer venture. With all of these realities, I can’t, in good faith, be pro-adoption. That doesn’t make me anti-adoption either.
I have been grappling with this issue since RTB first raised it in my mind.  I confess that my first reaction to her objections to international adoption was one of outrage, disbelief and more than a little resentment.  Quite aside from having some first-hand familiarity with the process and WHY so many children are adopted from China, South Korea and other countries to the United States and Europe*, I found it a bit hard to believe that an adoptee could so publicly attack the very process that brought her to her family.  "What do your parents think of this?" I wondered.  Well, now I know.  Need I say that I was also personally offended by the implication that I and other adoptive parents are part of a badly flawed if not outright criminal system?

Nevertheless, I decided to look into this issue a bit more.  About a year ago, CNN did a series on international adoption that I found thoughtful, well-balanced, and thought-provoking.  In "International adoption: Saving orphans or child trafficking?", Kevin Voight begins by interviewing a pair of young adult adoptees who have rather different views on the process.  Srey Powers was adopted from Cambodia in 1999:
Srey Powers' earliest memories in Cambodia are "waking up each morning, climbing trees to forage for fruit and berries with my cousins, and sitting around a fire each night with the one meal provided," the 19-year-old said.
At the orphanage, she met her new American family -- Claudia and Patrick Powers from Long Island, New York.
"From day one, I had a bond with my mother. Our first language was through playing soccer," recalled Powers, who was named most valuable player after leading her high school to the 2010 girls soccer state championship.

In contrast:
"When I was 13, I was sold," said Tarikuwa Lemma, who grew up in Ethiopia.
She and her two sisters were adopted by an Arizona family who were told Lemma's parents died of AIDS.
"I wanted to escape from the people I felt had kidnapped us from our homeland, our culture and our family," said Lemma, who hopped from three different U.S. adoptive homes before becoming independent after turning 18. "My sisters and I had a father, a brother and older sisters, plus a large extended family that cared for us and loved us. We were middle class by Ethiopian standards, not poor."

The unfortunate fact of the matter is that there are vultures and jackals amongst us, filthy beasts who will stoop to corruption, child trafficking and even outright kidnapping to put money in their pockets, who prey on single mothers and poor families in impoverished parts of the world, parents eager to build their families through adoption, and especially innocent children, turning what should be (and often is) a decent and even miraculous process into something not much different than the Middle Passage.  Voight writes:
Brokers who source children for agencies can earn as much as $5,000 per child -- "five times the amount they might expect to earn a year," she said. "The influence of all this U.S. money can be distorting."
I note that this is not limited to "U.S. money."  Mark McDonald writes:
In announcing the rescue of 89 abducted Chinese children on Christmas Eve, a senior police official said baby boys could now be purchased in China’s interior for less than $5,000 — and then resold for three times that amount in the wealthier coastal province.
“Although some are sold to buyers in Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam... most of the boys are purchased domestically by families desperate for a male heir.”

Nevertheless, foreign adoption is ripe for - and, apparently, rife with - corruption.  McDonald notes:
Child-welfare advocates working in China say some kidnappings are the result of the increasing prices paid for adoptions by foreigners. Abducted kids often end up in orphanages, even though they aren’t orphans at all. Paperwork is forged. Identities are erased. The orphanage takes its cut. 
It was revealed in 2005 that government officials and orphanage employees in Hunan Province “had sold at least 100 children to other orphanages, which provided them to foreign adoptive parents,” as John Leland reported in The Times.
“For some, it raised a nightmarish question: What if my child had been taken forcibly from her parents?” [emphasis original - JR]

So, it appears that the process is (shall we say?) questionable.  But what to do?  It is beyond the bounds of credibility to suppose that ALL adoptees are the victims of kidnapping and child trafficking.  Indeed, unless we believe that the photos were faked, there is evidence of people - heartbroken people - leaving children at "baby hatches".  Other children in orphanages are clearly sick and / or handicapped: were they kidnapped, too? (We link to some of these orphanages in our sidebar; there are many "before and after" photo essays that show desperately ill - dying - children saved by these institutions and subsequently adopted, usually by American families)

And what is the alternative?  RTB writes:
Adoption looks at the problem upside down.** When we turn to adoption as the solution to these problem, we ignore the discussion on how to avoid the problems in the first place. The short-term solution for the child may be adoption, but it then becomes our responsibility to facilitate long term solutions to prevent family separation that lie in community building, working to eradicate the negative social stigma of single motherhood, and even advocating more education for women and drug prevention programs. I fundamentally believe that most people want to be good parents, but services to aid them are lacking. My desire isn’t to end all adoption. My desire is to have a clean adoption system where money isn’t abused and programs exist to help first families, so it is 100% clear that the children being adopted don’t have living family who want to raise them.

This is commendable... and, frankly, naive.  The HOPE is that, among other things:
  • People all around the world will have access to affordable, first-class (read: Western) medical care such that even children born with life-threatening illnesses or handicaps will not be a disastrous financial burden to them
  • People all around the world will take on Western attitudes towards birth control such that they don't have children that they can't care for
  • People all around the world will have the resources, including Western-style social welfare systems - to care for as many children as they happen to have
  • People all around the world will take on Western views of children such that they will value girls as much as boys and not see children as cheap agricultural labor
  • People all around the world will adopt Western attitudes towards inheritance such that land and other property can be "kept in the family" even if bequeathed to female children
  • People all around the world will adopt Western values regarding single motherhood such that an unmarried woman with a child will not wear the proverbial Scarlet Letter and hence have no reason to see a child as an irredeemable badge of shame
  • People around the world will gladly take on younger relatives (perhaps rather distant ones) rather than give them up for foreign adoption

As RTB's mother writes:
What if we, the potential adoptive parents, sacrificed adopting a child and donated the same amount of money that an adoption entails to support agencies that work towards improving the lives of families in third world countries so they can keep and raise their children in healthy environments? And why do some agencies, businesses, and churches give grants to help people adopt? Again, that money could be better used to support services in home countries.
I don't want to jeer at somebody who genuinely has the best interest of children at heart, but are we to believe that the same vultures, the same corrupt officials who traffic in children and help jackals erase identities to turn children into commodities, will take these hypothetical donations and give them solely to deserving families?  I say no.

Meantime, there are millions of children around the world who have families who cannot care for them, families who simply don't want them, or no families at all.  What shall we do with them?  Orphanages?  Foster care?  I've written very recently about notorious cases in Mexico and even here in the United States where children are blatantly victimized by those institutions, either because government agencies were late in responding to allegations of abuse or because they managed to "lose" children - THOUSANDS OF THEM - entrusted to their care.  It also seems to me that, in the case of foster care, even the most honest system still shuffles children from place to place, home to home, never giving them a family to call their own.

What shall we do?

Again, I don't want to give the impression that I'm jeering at RTB and other people like her who have real problems - and there clearly ARE real problems - with international adoption.  They have the best interests of children and "first families" at heart.  However, I think that there's great danger of taking this too far, in stigmatizing international adoption and making it sound like a crime.  Further, until all the various economic, social and cultural problems that lead to children being without a loving first family are solved, it seems to me that adoption is the best solution.


(*) I direct the interested reader to documentary "The Zhang Empresses" on YouTube! for a look at Chinese girls adopted to Sweden.

(**) RTB and other adoptees often remark that the the "story" of international is always told from the parents' perspective.  I would like to direct the interested reader to the on-line magazine A Gazillion Voices, which is run by and for the international adoptee community so that their story can be told.

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