The hidden politics of international adoption
When Torry Hansen, a nurse from Shelbyville, Tenn., sent her adopted 7-year-old son back to Russia last month with only a backpack and a note, the case incited international outrage. “I no longer want to parent this child,” Hansen wrote, citing the boy’s severe psychological issues.
The event prompted Russia to call for a suspension of all adoptions of Russian children by Americans — which hasn’t yet come to pass — and led to an increase in discussions about the complexities of transnational adoption. Adoptive parents like Hansen claim adoption agencies are withholding crucial information about a child’s history of abuse or violent behavioral problems.
In 2009, 1,586 children were adopted in the U.S. from Russia, 3,001 from China and 2,277 from Ethiopia. While popular narratives of international adoption often characterize it as “fate” or “a miracle,” social worker and Korean adoptee Jae Ran Kim asserts that so much attention is paid to a child’s pre-adoption traumas, like life in an orphanage, but the trauma of the adoption itself is rarely recognized. “Where is the acknowledgment of the adoptee’s perspective?” she writes on her popular blog, Harlow’s Monkey. “What about the trauma of ripping a child away from the only people this child knew and placing them in a foreign country?”
“Torry Hansen’s case seems so shocking, but it also illuminates who we are in the United States,” Michele Goodwin, Everett Fraser professor of law and a professor of medicine and public health at the University of Minnesota and the author of “Baby Markets: Money and the New Politics of Creating Families,” said in a recent telephone interview. According to Goodwin, the global “baby market” has been enabled by cultural shifts in the U.S. “What has morphed is a part of our culture which allows us to design or create almost anything we want,” she said. “It’s interesting how far Americans are willing to go to match the kind of family they’re trying to create.”
The truth behind sending and receiving
It’s impossible to look at international adoption without also looking at global politics and the economic disparities between sending nations, where children are made available for adoption, and receiving nations, where the adoptive parents reside. The U.S. is the largest of the receiving nations, and its history of international adoption parallels other political factors and motivations.
Henry and Bertha Holt, evangelical Christians who founded Holt International Children’s Services, the linchpin of modern international adoption, spearheaded a highly publicized 1955 “rescue” of Korean orphans after the Korean War, many of them fathered and abandoned by U.S. servicemen. Today, nearly one out of 250 Korean children is adopted into an American family.
In 1975, the U.S.-sponsored Operation Babylift airlifted children orphaned or abandoned by the Vietnam War for adoption in the U.S. After the 1989 assassination of Nicolae Ceausescu and the end of Communist rule in Romania, thousands of Romanian children were adopted by U.S. parents. Global adoption can also be driven by a lack of social services for single mothers in the sending country, or natural disasters like the Haiti earthquake in January, which led to a spike in U.S. adoption of Haitian children.
International adoption rates have plummeted from their peak in 2004, when nearly 23,000 children were adopted from 90 sending countries, to 12,753 children in 2009. One reason for this decrease is that the industry is rife with fraud. In Guatemala, the top sending nation in 2008, rampant corruption which included the kidnapping of children by military organizations halted international adoptions for two years. For some impoverished sending nations, adoption also translates to big money. Poor women in countries including India have been coerced or misled into giving up their children in what amounts to child laundering.
Why not adopt domestically? Statistics published by The Adoption History Project reveal that the number of annual adoptions in the U.S. have dropped sharply from a high of 175,000 in 1970 to about 125,000 in recent years. While greater access to birth control and less social stigma for unmarried mothers may account for fewer domestic adoptions, international adoption rates increased by more than triple the amount between 1992 and 2002. More than 60 percent of international adoptees are girls.
According to Goodwin, some adoptive parents may be reluctant to domestically adopt children of a different race, yet are more open to international transracial adoption. “Americans are willing to spend 50,000 dollars to adopt internationally, while it costs only a few hundred dollars to adopt a black child in foster care,” she said.
Domestic adoptions can also follow the more child-centric open model, in which the birth family and the adoptive family are in contact and may sustain a relationship. Adoptive parents may look for children abroad because international birth mothers are less likely to change their mind about giving up their children, or if they do, less able to do anything about it. John Seabrook, who recently adopted a Haitian baby whose parents are still living, writes in The New Yorker, “In international adoption, a buffer of distance, language, culture, and class exists between the adoptive parents and the birth parents, and, to be honest, that was one of the things I liked about it.”
The myth of ‘happily ever after’
Celebrity adoption stories with parents such as Angelina Jolie tend to be oversimplified: the parents are saviors, the child is rescued and the whole family lives happily together. But as the Torry Hansen case suggests, this is far from always true.
Adoptive parents are often unprepared to deal with the intricacies of raising a child of a different race or culture. Language barriers can hinder adequate communication, Goodwin said, and white parents raising children of color, especially in predominantly white communities, may believe that the myth of color-blindness can somehow deflect the realities of a racist society.
Goodwin also cautioned against adoptive parents not acknowledging their child’s culture and context. “It’s not to say that cultural discomfort couldn’t be overcome, but when parents pretend that there are no differences, it makes it difficult for children to communicate with them,” she said.“Parents need to be conscious of the types of cultural dynamics that continue to exist.”
Some of the most authoritative opinions and analyses about international adoption are coming from adult adoptees. Author Jane Jeong Trenka, who was adopted from Korea at six months and who Seabrook dismisses in his article as “just bitter,” said in an e-mail interview, “The best adoptive parents engage in objective, adult dialogue with us. However, many adoptive parents attempt to dismiss our analyses with simple name-calling, calling us ‘angry’ or people with ‘an axe to grind.’ The losers, of course, are their own children.”
An awareness that international adoption is not mutually exclusive from the economic market is crucial. “I think in many cases, the adoption process on the sending side is more corrupt than adoptive parents ever imagined,” Trenka said. “International adoption is supposed to be exceptional. It is not supposed to be a baby factory that provides supply to meet demand.”
Goodwin suggested that the adoption industry must be held to more stringent ethical standards. “We could benefit from a collective effort from a neutral, coordinated international organization that wants to make sure children are going into healthy homes no matter where these homes are, and that these children are legitimately available for adoption.”