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Baby rescue or baby factory?

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.”

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  • Morena

    Very interesting article. For celebs, adopting kids from overseas seems to be the new black. Look at Sandra Bullock who used her adoption of a black baby to deflect the scandel surrounding her marriage.

  • Jenn

    One comment about the cost it takes to adopt a black child from the foster system vs. international adoption – while I agree that there is a weird racial (possibly racist) disconnect there, another point to consider is that the foster system’s primary goal is reunification with the birth family. There are a lot of stories out there (all anecdotal, I don’t have any data at my fingertips) of parents who foster a child, plan to move ahead with adoption, and then have the child re-placed with their biological parents or another relative. I think, as the parent in the article above said about the international adoption they went through, it’s just easier for some people to “know” that no one is going to come and take their kid away. Regardless of whether or not that is a factual assumption, I don’t have any info on at all, anecdotal or not.

  • Maddy

    There are so many children here in the US that need love and care, especially with the number of careless teenagers who have babies and dump them is on the rise. Plus there is the possibilty to make sure that the people adopting actually connect with the child first. While international adoption might give an opportunity to children of other countries that they might not have otherwise had, when the intention behind it is, “Hey look at what a great person I am to have ‘saved’ this child from ‘where ever’”the child is being cheated so much by a parent whose love of the child is measured by the praise they receive in having taken them in. I am ashamed for that woman who sent a little 7 yr old baby alone back to his native country just because it was no longer convenient for her to raise him. A person who could do such a thing to an innocent child, make them feel even more abandoned than they probably already felt, does not even deserve to be called human.

  • John

    Sandra Bullock adopted a kid from New Orleans

  • TraumaNation

    The rush to judge adoptive parents betrays an ignorance of their motivations and the obstacles they have to overcome. If they adopt domestically, they face the uncertainties Seabrook describes. If they adopt internationally, they face the consequences Trenka describes in their own children, especially as those children grow up.

    When I discuss the Tennessee case, someone inevitably presumes that Ms. Hansen was “inconvenienced.” She wasn’t — she was severely traumatized herself. Her actions were wrong, but as someone who has raised three kids diagnosed with PTSD I believe I understand how desperate she had become. She didn’t adopt a child to gain praise, or prestige, or public status — she wanted to have a family. What she got was a nightmare, and her actions should be judged on that basis.

  • LG

    Healthy, newborn African-American infants are available (I have seen placements happen in as little as a few days), and their adoptions generally the cost is 10-15K less than “white” babies, yet people fly across the globe to transracially adopt children of color internationally — often from non-Hague countries where the ethics of the adoption are questionable. It makes no sense what-so-ever. America has its priorities completely messed up.

  • koreanwarbaby

    Several good comments, may I add only this- In each ‘story’ we read about in the papers or see on the news we get ONLY the perspective of the reporting done and only what they give. Left out of many “news” articles is certain facts, such as the Russian boy (certainly not a baby-please) was in a Single Parent ‘family’ with ten year old biological son. Now there are thousands of Single parents who are doing what they have to do to get by, with help from their parents or just on their own.

    But I question allowing a Single parent to adopt a child WITH an older son, and what probably happened with issues of jealousy, or acceptance, or whatever. We are left with bits and pieces and ‘fill in the blanks’.

    It is not ALL or NOTHING, to claim “Myth of Happily ever after” is to disregard the facts of life: Is anything ever happily ever after? Don’t we all face issues of life, whether we were in a biological family that faces death, divorce, financial ruin, etc. etc.?

    We do (sometimes, some people) rush to judgments based on what is presented by the media. We need to give the benefit of the doubt and search for the total picture. Issues in This Thing of Ours-Adoption are complex and across the Spectrum of life.

  • dchriss76

    Its a good thing also like Angelina Jolie and Brat Pitt..

  • Follow-Up

    So, all the kleenex has been used up by now for Miss Torry Hansen and the 7 yr old boy that the unmarried, unemployed, Registered Nurse, examined and adopted in Russia and brought back to “mother him” in her compound in Shelbyville TENNESSEE. When she determined that he didn’t fit her needs, she airmailed him back, alone, to Russia… for a driver she hired on the internet, to retrieve from the airport. Wonder what the little boy referred to as Torry’s “bio” boy aged around 7 -9 thought of his new “brother” being shipped off alone and leaving his toys and “stuff” behind… never to have contact with him again, but the little “bio” boy wouldn’t know much about anything would he. Never been to school, never been registered for home schooling, and the Shelbyville School Officials don’t knock on Miss Torry’s door to ask… sort of like those efficient police in California who are probably still searching for JC… Miss Torry must have some Pretty Powerful People supporting her to get the US State Dept to advise in a TV interview, that because RUSSIA closed the door on Americans adopting their orphans because of Miss Torry… whom RUSSIA considers as a CHILD ABUSER, he was rushing to Russia to stop them from closing the door. When interviewer asked what explanation was given by Torry, the POLITICIAN said the State Dept overseeing foreign adoptions (him) HAD NOT and DID NOT INTEND to talk with her, because IT WASN’T NECESSARY. WHOOPIE MR. POLITICIAN, WHOSE ARSE ARE YOU COVERING? Well, Miss Torry got herself lawyered up and refused to talk to the local Law and slipped outta town under cover of night, leaving “animals” at her compound that the local Law went in to feed and water… Must have been horses or pastured animals because if they had been a cat or goldfish, no one would know she left them behind… Torry must know a lot of folks everywhere since she grew up close to the Oregon border… her dad had a LOGGING business up around there… SOOOO anyway, there is now a big interest from Portland to TENNESSEE it seems, in little 7 yr old boys. Oh, btw, Miss Torry had been turned down by a different US adoption agency when she applied to get A THIRD little boy… around 7-ish…BEFORE SHE RETURNED the Russian. Well, months have passed since we were all concerned about Miss Torry and where she was hiding after she slipped out of Shelbyville… and it now appears that for many of those same months, another babe in Portland was looking around for someone to kill her husband… WONDER IF SHE WAS ALSO HUNTING SOMEONE TO TAKE THE 7 YR OLD KYRON OFF HER HANDS DURING THOSE MONTHS… I dunno, Portlanders keep saying they believe Kyron is still alive… so, SOMEONE must have him enjoying his company. Who just Who… with all the crap going on in our country, nothing seems “STABLE” even marriages of prominent POLITICIANS in Tennessee seem to ship wives off to castles in california, close to the waters edge (that is supposed to flood california ya know)… while the Big Wheel stays in the old Tennessee homestead. Gee, these things are all so complicated aren’t they. Even the Portland Police cry on camera and promise Buddy Kyron that they will find him (before they decided to reduce the search). Any exBlackWater or any Seals out there that can do some spywork? Geesh, Russians seem to do it in the USA for 10 years todate that we just found out… could OUR guys do some short term spywork to FIND KYRON??? Just askin’.

  • Von

    LG believes America has it’s priorities messed up and it certainly has a messed up adoption in ustry with no ethics and a strange mora code.

  • Gypsy

    Why wasn’t Torry been held to the same criminal codes as any other parent…yes, the same as bio parents. If a natural mother had done this…she would have been charged with a crime. Child abandonment, child neglect and child endangerment. I raised 3 children to adulthood…2 of them were no walk in the park. Still they were MY children, and as a ‘parent’ I had the responsibility and obligation to do whatever was necessary to help them as minors in their times of difficulty. The word ‘desperate’ never even entered my parent head. These were my children, I loved them unconditionally and did whatever was humanly possible to help them. I did not buy 2 airplane tickets and ship them off to God Knows Where!!
    “She got a nightmare”!!!!!! Good God person…this was a traumatized child, who needed the love and guidance of the ‘mother’ that adopted him, who promised to love him ‘as if her own’ and to do all in her power as a parent…with all obligations and responsibility of being a parent. You are making excuses for this ADULT WOMAN and how coarse and unfeeling of you to call a very young boy a ‘nightmare’. Shame on you!

  • Susan

    I would love to see an article examining the market forces driving domestic infant adoption. It seems many people prefer international or domestic infant adoption over adopting from foster care, but domestic infant adoption may be just as problematic an industry as international adoption. With so many families wanting young babies to adopt, my reading strongly indicates that this demand is driving too many lawyers and agencies to increase the “supply” of infants through manipulation and coercion. Some of these tactics are blatant, others are more subtle, playing on sometimes sincerely held social beliefs that being young or relatively less well-off makes a woman unfit as a parent, or encouraging her to believe that a middle-class family is inherently superior and can guarantee a happy life for her child. Fortunately, people are starting to wake up to the problems that exist in international adoption, but we as a society seem less willing to explore these issues in the case of domestic infant adoption.